Sofia, Bulgaria: Start of the Balkan Tour
January 1, 1970
by Omer Sevinc
Backpacking the Balkans began in Istanbul, where my partner and I currently live. We had contemplated wether to take a train or a bus to Sofia and eventually decided on taking a train. The Turkish websites for train are very bad and outdated. We had arrived at the train station and we had a shuttle to take us a 4 hour bus ride to the Turkish-Bulgaria border. While on the bus I was the only person who was of Turkish background and the bus driver and host had approached me and said they have a surprise for me at the border, later on the bus ride I had found out that they wanted me to buy them bottles of alcohol at the border. A little shocked and disappointed that the surprise was really for them, I had agreed. We got to the train station at around 2:30 am and after going into the customs office and through the x-ray machine I made my way over to the hole in a wall to get two bottles of Jim Beam for our bus drivers. When I had got there, there was a group of older Bulgarian men and a female who were making a large purchase of cigarettes. The guy at the counter asked if I could get them cigarettes and expecting a little tip I accepted. The gift I received were two bottles of water and cakes. Pathetic. Trying to get back to the bus to give the driver his goods, the Turkish border police asked where I was going and I played dumb. The bus driver told the police that it was their drinks, a little scared at this point, I handed the bag to the driver and the police simply told him next time tell us before you do that. As he said that I walked away and boarded the train at 3 am with my girlfriend Alexa.
There are two different trolleys of the train, both look like they are over 100 years old, one was 1st class and the other 2nd. There was not much difference in the quality or seating, and as the train was quite empty we sat anywhere we liked, despite our tickets issued. The train was very slow and stopped so frequently that it took us a total of 16 hours to get from Istanbul to Sofia, especially because we waited at the border until 5 am for the train to move. Keep in mind that there is no food or drinks sold on the train so pack any snacks for this long journey. The washroom was basically a seat with a hole in it almost able to see the tracks beneath, packing some toilet paper and hand sanitizer would be crucial for this train ride. After experiencing this terrible train ride and then taking a bus back from Bulgaria to Turkey on the way back the whole way I would recommend not bothering with the train at all and take the bus the whole way, it may be a little more costly but worth it in the end for saving time and adding comfort to your trip. Two tickets from Istanbul to Sofia costed us 130 Turkish Lira, roughly 20 Euro each. Pay a little more and take a bus, preferably Metro bus company as they have wifi, constant hot drinks, water, snacks and entertainment consoles on the back of every seat.
Where to Stay in Sofia
We got off of the train and walked down to the metro, our hostel, 10 Coins Hostel was only 4 stops away at Han Kubrat. The price for a single ride on the metro is 1 Bulgarian Lev, roughly 0.50 Euro. We chose to stay at a hostel in a private room and shared bathroom a little out of the heart of the city as there was proper transportation with the metro. The metro operates from 5 am until midnight and the trains came quite often. If you are on a budget and don’t mind travelling 10 minutes to get to the heart of Sofia, I would recommend choosing a hostel close to a metro stop not too far from the city square. Purchasing a day card for about 4 BGN is probably a good choice as you will need to use it at least two times and probably more. When we found our hostel it was about a two minute walk from the metro, although it was a less developed part of the city and maybe not the safest if travelling alone. We paid 25 Euro for a two nights stay at 10 Coins Hostel, the name of the hotel derives from the concept that they only charge 10 coins for a night stay, 10 euro coins. We stayed in a private room with paper thin walls and a squeaky bed, but it did the job and was clean.
Free Walking Tour – Free Sofia Tour
Sofia offers a free walking tour every day of the year at 11 am and 6 pm which lasts about two hours. The walking tour begins at the Palace of Justice and ends at the National Parliament. The tour covers the main tourist sites in the central part of the city, including, among others, Saint Nedelya Church, Banya Bashi Mosque, Sofia Synagogue, Central Mineral Baths, Ancient Serdika Open Museum, Archeological Museum, Rotunda of St. George, National Theatre “Ivan Vazov”, Prince Alexander of Battenberg Square, the Russian Church, Hagya Sophia Church, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, National Library and Sofia University.
The walking tour was an amazing choice to do on our first day in Sofia, even though it was free, the tour guides are students and young people who do this on their own time and they do accept tips which almost everyone from our 10 person tour had gave as it was worth it and very informative, also a great way to meet other travellers in the city. There is no need for a reservation, you just show up rain or shine every single day of the year and you get a very informative tour of the city.
Free Food Tour – Balkan Bites
One of only 3 free food tours in the world, the Balkan Bites was our choice of a tour on our second day in Sofia. Yes, you read this right, FREE FOOD. There is no charge, it is a mix of a cultural tour as well as a food tour. The point of the tour is give samples of some of the authentic food and drinks in Sofia, Bulgaria. There were three restaurants that we had visited, and we were lucky as it was Easter Sunday, therefor festivities and food was at an all time peak. The Balkan Bites tour is everyday at 2 pm and it lasts approximately two hours, the meeting point of the tour is at Park Crystal in front of the big head statue of Stefan Stambolov. For anyone who is a vegetarian there is also options for you on the free food tour as well. The reason these tours are organized is because it is a form of advertising, they give you a sample and hope you will return for a meal on your visit to sofia and it worked.
Top 10 Things to do in Sofia, Bulgaria
- Free Sofia Walking Tour
- Free Food Tour
- The Seven Rila Lakes
- Communist Tour
- Central Market Hall
- National Art Gallery
- Amphitheatre of Serdica
- Pub Crawl
- Culture Tour
- Sofia University Botanic Garden
Tips for Sofia
- Most people speak English, or enough of it to help you out. Try to be respectful and learn a couple of kind words in Bulgarian
- Enjoy not just the touristic attractions but also the nature of the country
- It is relatively safe in the city besides pick pockets in high tourist season, keep your belongings secure and always be aware
- It is really cheap, from eating out at a restaurant to transportation on metro, bus or taxi. Make the most of the currency
- Internet is very fast compared to other countries in the balkans. If you need to do some work online, you won’t have any trouble here
- Try the street pizza, you will not regret it. I have never seen so much cheese on a slice of pizza
- Travel here in the spring or fall as it will be most cost efficient
Our first stop of our 7 country tour of the Balkans was an amazing experience. Bulgaria, which is not usually on anyones bucket list is a cultural haven and has a lot to offer in history, architecture, culture and food. Even though the weather was a little rainy that didn’t stop us from experiencing Bulgaria’s capital of Sofia to the highest potential. The walking tour allowed us to see what we would like to have focused on in the city and the food tour allowed us to choose which restaurant to eat at to get the most out of our foodie lifestyle.