First of all, let me state that a visit to Sofia, Bulgaria was not in my bucket list. However, an opportunity to visit the city and country arose recently. A close relative working for an MNC had been posted to that city on a year long contract and had been urging my wife and me to visit him. He has been provided with a good upmarket two bedroom apartment in the diplomatic enclave and quite close to his place of work.
We took up the opportunity and spent a month in Sofia from late October to mid November 2014. We were pleasantly surprised to find Sofia a lovely city to visit.
Why was Sofia a lovely city to visit?
There are a number of reasons. We found the city to be relatively clean and orderly. Although there were some dull, grubby and boring buildings and housing blocks that reflected the past Soviet influence, there were also many new modern buildings. Sofia also boasts a few shopping malls. We visited the Mall of Sophia, an ultra modern mall that is located somewhere close to the city centre. It could easily rival the malls in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Melbourne, Sydney or Hong Kong. All the well known international brands are there.
Good Understanding of the English Language
The young people of Sofia and even those in Plovdiv, the second biggest city of Bulgaria are able to speak conversational English fairly well. Their understanding is pretty good and we managed to communicate fairly easily with restaurant, supermarket and metro / subway workers. The people we met or interacted with were courteous, often friendly and more than helpful when we asked for directions. This is in stark contrast to many other top cities in the world where the people have no time for you! We did not detect any overt signs of racism in this country.
While crossing the roads and streets, we decided to be cautious because we had heard that some drivers did not quite respect traffic rules. However, this was not our experience. When we indicated that we were waiting to cross the street in every case during the month we were in the city, the drivers patiently waited and signalled us to do so. This was simply an amazing level of courtesy and kindness to visitors. There were hardly any Asians seen in Sofia during our time there. We did notice two small groups of Chinese tourists in the city of Plovdiv.
Another observation was that throughout our month long stay we did not experience any traffic jams in either Sofia or Plovdiv. The traffic was fairly light by comparison to Kuala Lumpur’s infamous traffic jams not just during peak hours but also late at night!
Attractions in Sofia
We took a half day tour of the city which was superbly arranged by Ocean Travel and Tours in Sofia. We were assigned an English speaking guide and had a competent and careful chauffeur with an E class Mercedes during the tour. The city of Sofia is ringed by the beautiful and enchanting Vitosha Mountains. The place to be for shopping and dining is the bustling centre of Vitosha Boulevard. We also had an opportunity to witness the changing of the guard outside the Presidential Palace. The city also boasts of a beautiful Ivan Vazov National Theatre and an impressive National Assembly of Bulgaria building. The Metro or subway system in Sofia is really good, cheap and efficient. The carriages were clean and the metro stations too were clean, well kept, properly signposted and well lit unlike the system in many of the bigger cities of the world.
Dining Options in Sofia
There are many dining options in Sofia. We found the following restaurants to be well worth a visit. They are Raffy Cafe & Gelato and Happy Bar & Café both along Vitosha Boulevard and Brick Restaurant in the diplomatic enclave. Of the three, the Brick Restaurant stood out for its level of speedy and efficient service and great food as reasonable prices. The other two are pretty good and here too the service was fast. Both Raffy and Happy seem to have other outlets in different areas. In fact, in some cases, we managed to dine at these restaurants on two or more occasions. My reviews of these restaurants appear in Tripadvisor.
Sights to see in Plovdiv
As for the ancient city of Plovdiv, a good two hours drive from Sofia, we enjoyed taking an hour and a half long walking tour of Plovdiv Old Town. It was over a cobbled walkway with car access limited to only the residents. The unique nineteenth century houses were reflective of a time well in the distant past. We spent some time exploring the famous and interesting Bachkovo Monastery. We managed to buy some curios here too. The outstanding feature as far as I am concerned is the ancient Stadium of Philipopolis right smack in the heart of the city. The Roman ruins, including a Roman Amphitheatre still in use today is amazing! The city has done well to showcase the ruins in a tasteful manner and it certainly gives visitors an excellent view of its rich past.
Do keep Sofia and Plovdiv in mind if you are looking for something different, especially in an Eastern European country. Bulgaria will surprise and enchant you in many ways.