It's been a lot of fun to watch the transformation of Sofia over the last couple of decades. The city has emerged from its communist past and is gently defining its new personality as a modern European capital. You will find an eclectic mixture of Slavic, Western European, Ottoman, Soviet, and simply nouveau rich elements that will range from magnificent to amusing. Some people may consider the absence of "must see" sights of global significance to be a draw back. To me, that's an advantage. It means that you don't need a checklist and there is no wrong way to spend a day or two in the city. Below is just one suggestion, based on my Stay, See, Savor, Shop framework.
I have two tried and true options for staying in Sofia:
The Radisson Blue Grand Hotel has possibly the best location in the city and you can easily get lucky and get a room with a view of the beautiful National Assembly and the Alexander Nevski Cathedral. I have been staying at the Radisson for years and it never disappoints. You can book just a room and get breakfast at one of the nearby cafes or bakeries but it is worth noting the breakfast buffet at the Radisson is worth experiencing at least once.
The Sofia Residence Hotel is a more recent favorite of mine. I stayed there several times last year and love the spacious rooms, wonderful location in a mostly residential neighborhood with fantastic cafes and restaurants. It’s also budget friendly.
Sofia is an immensely walk-able city. My favorite walk, which I always do within 24 hours of arriving, follows this route - the churches I have included are significant both for their cultural and historical role and their architecture: Sofia University - Doctor's Garden - The Russian Church St. Nicholas - The National Art Gallery - The St. George Rotunda - Sveta Nedelia Church - The National Theatre
Sofia Free Walking Tour - it is an excellent way to get some highlights when short on time. And you always get great tips from the guides and other travelers.
Boyana Church - it's a nice destination that takes you a bit outside of the city. The church is a Unesco World Heritage site and was originally built in the 10th century and expanded over several main stages later. It is on the outskirts of Sofia so it's most easily reached by taxi.
You can find more suggestions in Sofia Through Walks, Food, and Art
In recent years, great restaurants and cafes have been multiplying fast. Bulgarians like to eat, sitting for a meal with friends and family is an important component of social life, and dinners often last for hours, accompanied by animated conversations and laughter. Here are some of my favorite stops in Sofia:
Two of my favorite coffee shops:
Lime at 40, Graf Ignatiev Street makes a fantastic Turkish coffee with cardamom and serves it in a nice, contemporary setting that attracts a fun crowd.
Sun Moon is a coffee and bakery with two central locations that makes very whimsical all vegetarian treats, often using exotic grains. Everything I’ve tried there has been delectable.
Four suggestions for time-tested restaurants open for lunch and dinner:
You can find an extended list of my favorite Sofia restaurants in A Round Up of My Favorite Sofia Eateries and a Great Wine Shop to Boot
The Club of the Architects - open for both lunch and dinner; excellent menu, careful preparation, great service and a wonderful setting, especially the outdoor garden, which is open until late fall.
Rakia Bar Raketa - a fantastic place for lunch or dinner with sublime people watching. A formidable list of rakias - Bulgaria’s national liquor, which I describe as a really strong brandy, most often made from grapes or plums. Great choice of very filling salads and many other gastronomical delights.
Spaghetti Kitchen - don’t be fooled by the name, although the Italian theme is heavy, the menu goes beyond pasta and the space is frequented by a lively crowd.
Made in Blue - my newest favorite from this year. An eclectic menu, often with Mediterranean and Middle-Estern elements. Fun decor, fun crowd.
It's pretty much scientifically proven that having a souvenir from your travels can extend the pleasure of a travel experience well beyond the end day of a trip. A piece of art or jewelry from a foreign destination can be a reminder and a conversation starter for years to come. A few suggestions for Sofia:
Magazin №10 at 10, Ivan Shishman Street - the name means Store Number 10 and it features the cool products of a local fashion designer.
Testa Gallery - great jewelry and some ceramics and paintings made by local artists. I never leave Sofia without visiting.
Elephant Book Store at 31, Tsar Shishman St - a tremendously fun English book store with great cards and whimsical small items. The staff is fresh and upbeat, which adds to the visit.
Scarperia Sofia - at 24A, Aksakov St - a small shoe shop with a lovely selection of locally manufactured shoes.