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Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria is a city full of surprises (including how light it is on your wallet). With several budget airlines now flying there on a daily basis (including Ryanair), now is the perfect time to visit and scratch the surface of this cities fascinating culture. With an incredible history that stretches back to 7,000 BC (!), ruin-rich Sofia is one of Europe’s oldest, and Bulgaria’s largest city.
Here is our Sofia, Bulgaria travel guide to the best cheap and free things to do in the city:
Free Sofia city walking tour
On our first morning, we orientated ourselves by joining a free walking tour around the city (freesofiatour.com). This 2 hour tour starts at the Palace of Justice (Sudebna Palata) and runs daily at 11am and 6pm (plus an extra tour at 10am during the summer months).
Not only does this tour make your budget go further (after all, the best things in life are free!), it also allows you to meet like-minded travellers from other countries (perfect for lone sightseers). These tours are very popular, so much so that when we attended, they laid on two guides and split the group sizes. The best part for me was the history being brought to life, something you wouldn’t get from just reading a tour book.
You see a lot in 2 hours (over 20 points of interest are featured including the central mineral baths and the famous Statue of Sofia) so I’d recommend doing this tour on your first day, and then revisiting those sites that take your interest later on, so you can see them in more detail.
This tour is free although a tip at the end will always be appreciated by the guide – they also talk you through several other paid for tours during the free walking tour, which ends at the iconic St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
After finishing the walking tour we had a look inside the huge and impressive Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral. Designed in the Neo-Byzantine style, the domed building took approximately 40 years to build and was finally completed in 1912. Entry is free, but you need to pay an extra 10 lev (£5) for a photography permit and 30 lev (£14) for a video permit. Outside is a large craft market selling lots of cheap Bulgarian souvenirs.
This large pedestrianised boulevard is the main shopping street in Bulgaria and is also great for enjoying an inexpensive beer or coffee whilst watching the world go by. It is named after Vitosha mountain which you can see in the distance.
This is Bulgaria’s biggest and oldest theatre (built in 1907) and one of the most ornate buildings in Sofia. The small park in front is a favourite hang-out spot for both locals and tourists. Head on down and soak up the atmosphere at one of the open air cafes.
National Palace of Culture (NDK)
This building is one of Sofia’s most recognisable modern landmarks – a huge complex housing a convention centre, concert halls, exhibition spaces, offices, cafes, restaurants and nightclubs. Events held here range from classical music concerts to film festivals to art exhibitions and fashion shows. The building is surrounded by a beautiful park where locals and tourists chill out by the fountains.
Tsar Shishman street
This street is filled with cool bars, restaurants, boutique shops and great for street art spotting. It is well worth visiting to see a hipster side of Sofia.
Sofia on a budget – cheap eats
Bulgaria isn’t renowned for it’s cuisine, but there are plenty of tasty and hearty food options to be sampled in the city (think lots of cheese, pastry, grilled meats etc.). Salads are also pretty popular and Shopska Salata is the national dish, commonly found in many restaurants. It is made using tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, roasted peppers, parsley and sirene (white brine cheese).
You can enjoy an introduction to Bulgarian cuisine (without spending any money!) by taking a free 2 hour food tour with Balkan Bites. They take you to a few different family owned restaurants where you get to taste free samplers of food from their menu. Advance online reservations are recommended as the tour spots fill up quickly, and they run every day at 2pm.
Here are some places we ate at whilst on a budget in Sofia:
Central Sofia Market Hall
Central Sofia Market Hall is a great spot for some cheap lunch like the locals do. Try some Bulgarian specialties including feta (sirene) and banitsa (pie of filo pastry, eggs and cheese – delicious!).
For an inexpensive and quick bite to eat, head to Supa Star. This small soup cafe comes highly recommended in many blog posts, so we went and checked it out for a light lunch. It was extremely busy with locals and tourists when we visited, with queues out of the door.
They have a great selection of soup flavours (the price for one bowl of soup with bread is around 2.50 Euros), but also have salads, sandwiches and desserts available. You’ll find Supa Star located on the rather trendy Tsar Shishman street.
8 Tsar Ivan Shishman, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1000
Happy Bar and Grill
This cheap and cheerful chain restaurant found throughout Bulgaria. The menu is a mix of traditional Bulgarian cuisine and some international dishes (and includes a massive salad menu). The interior is very American diner (as is the cheerful service), and the menu has pictures on which is kind of helpful too haha!
Extra time in Sofia?
If you have seen everything there is to see in Sofia city centre but you still have a day or two left, then maybe consider a hike in Vitosha Mountain. You can take the bus from the city to the base of the mountain and do a walk by yourself or join a free hiking tour.
Alternatively, jump on the bus and head out of town to visit the stunning Rila Monastery. We didn’t have time to do this any of these unfortunately but when I next return I will make them the top of my ‘things to do’ list.
Here are some tours you might be interested in if you want to take some day trips from Sofia:
How to get to Sofia
We visited the city one weekend in October, so the flights were much cheaper than the peak time summer months, but the weather was still warm and pleasant. Our flights cost £20 return during a Ryanair sale, flying from London Stansted to Sofia Airport (we flew out 4.30pm on a Friday, and returned 11pm on Sunday).
Travelling into Sofia city is super easy, you can jump on a metro at the airport which takes you all the way to the city centre in approx 20 minutes. The fare is cheap at 1.6lev (70p or 0.80 Euros), and you purchase your ticket from the machine in the station before boarding the train.
Getting around Sofia
We mostly got around by foot as Sofia city centre is quite compact, but the metro system is cheap and easy to get around. Single tickets are a bargain at 0.80 euros each – cheap! It is also worth using just to admire some of the beautiful designs on the platforms!
Budget accommodation in Sofia
Hostels are super cheap in Sofia – hooray! Here are some highly rated budget accommodation suggestions from Hostelworld:
We decided to not stay in a hostel and booked 2 nights at a cheap-ish hotel – Hotel Budapest – costing £75 in total (85 Euros). The hotel is located near the main train station and is about a 5 minute walk to both ‘Lavov Most’ and ‘Central Train Station’ metro stations. If you want to explore by foot, you can walk from the hotel to the top end of Vitosha boulevard in 20 minutes. It is a rather basic room layout but is comfortable and the rate includes breakfast (hot and cold items).
Watch our things to do in Sofia on a budget YouTube video!
Things to do in Sofia on a budget – Good to know
Currency: Bulgarian Lev
Languages spoken: Bulgarian
Other Europe blog posts
- Things to do in Kiev, Ukraine – the ultimate guide
- Things to do in Berlin, Germany
- Things to do in Madrid, Spain
- Things to do in Budapest, Hungary
- Things to do in Vienna, Austria
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