When we originally planned out our trip around Eastern Europe, we had included Sofia, Bulgaria in our plans. After we were on the road, we realized that our proposed loop from Greece up to Slovakia and back down to Istanbul was not realistic unless we rushed through all of the cities. After we started looking for buses from Athens, Greece to Kotor, Montenegro, we realized that Sofia, Bulgaria could be back on the table.
Getting to Sofia
If you look at a map of Eastern Europe, it looks like getting from Athens to Kotor would be quick and easy. This is not the case since Albania does not have much public transportation infrastructure. In fact, everything that I read online told me not to even attempt trying to go overland through Albania – even experienced travelers told their horror stories of trying to find buses to get where they needed to go.
Since going through Albania was out, we looked at other options. Flying was off the table since flights came in at $400 each, not a price that we were willing to pay. This left us with options transiting through Serbia or Bulgaria. We didn’t know much about Serbia and decided to go through Bulgaria so we could see Sofia.
There was a direct bus from Athens to Sofia through Tourist Service. Yes, that is the actual name of the company. We were happy that we were able to book our bus tickets online which saved us from having to go to the office to purchase them. It was somewhat expensive at $72 for a 12 hour bus ride but we decided it was much cheaper than flying and would be worth it.
Our options for timing were to take a 7am bus which arrived in Sofia at 7pm or take a 7pm night bus which would arrive in Sofia at 7am. While we took a lot of night buses in South America, we decided against it here and were glad that we did. The buses in Eastern Europe have much less leg room and the seats are much less comfortable. Plus, with a goal to see the city, we wanted to arrive in the evening so we could sleep and have the next day to sightsee. Had we taken a night bus we would have had to figure out what to do with our luggage and would have been sightseeing while extremely tired and un-showered.
When looking for a place to stay, I looked at hotels near the bus station. Our goal was to be able to walk from the bus station to our hotel and back. This way we wouldn’t have to worry about taxis or public transportation.
When I saw the Favorit Hotel, I knew that was the right place for us. The reviews were good and breakfast was included in the rate. Even though it was minimally over budget, we decided to go for it.
The first thing that we noticed when we walked into the room was just how clean everything was. The view from our balcony left a lot to be desired as it was the view that you envision from a former Soviet country – a little overcast and filled with high rises that have seen better days.
As we have come to learn is common in Eastern Europe, our bed consisted of 2 twin blankets for a full size bed. We absolutely hate these as it is not nearly as comfortable as having 1 large blanket.
Similar to the bedroom, the bathroom was extremely clean.
When I noticed that we had a bathtub I was pretty excited. I had no plans to take a bath but realized just how long it had been since we had anything larger than a stand up shower. The water pressure was great and we had plenty of hot water, something that we always appreciate.
In the morning when we went down to the restaurant to have our breakfast we were relatively impressed with the spread. After we were told that we could order a hot entree as well we we were floored. Not sure of how the French Toast would be, I opted to get the omelette. When it arrived, I was shocked of the size – it must have been a 3 egg omelette!
English speaking staff
The Bulgarian language is very confusing and reminded us a lot of Russian. We were fortunate that our hotel had great staff who spoke English very well.
Not only did they do everything to make sure that our stay was good, they helped us with our bus tickets as well. The front desk agent wrote down the information for our bus in Bulgarian so we could easily purchase our bus tickets. We appreciated this greatly when the woman at the bus station spoke zero English but was able to book our tickets based on the sheet of paper we handed her.
When we checked in we received a coupon for 10% off our dinner at the on-site restaurant. We normally don’t dine at hotels but we were both tired from the long bus ride. The hotel accepted credit cards (which saved us from having to take out Bulgarian Lev) and the menu seemed decent so we decided to give it a try.
The meal was reasonably priced, pretty good and similar to the rest of the hotel extremely clean. We laughed at just how clean things were when the staff wore white gloves as they placed silverware on the table.
For us, the location could not have been better – we were only a 5 minute walk from the bus station. It was a 10 minute walk to the central part of town, something which did not bother us. The neighborhood that we were staying in was a little random and definitely not as polished as the touristy downtown area.
When we walked to our hotel we joked that we should have stayed at Hotel Cheap, a hotel that was located just down the street from our hotel. I’m not sure how the rooms would have been but it was advertised for only 25E or $28 per night.
Sightseeing in Sofia
We were pretty fortunate that the weather was decent when we were in Sofia. The early forecasts predicted a mix of snow and rain, but we did not have anything but beautiful, albeit cold weather. We do not have the appropriate clothing for very cold weather as the majority of our trip was in warm or hot climates, so we layered as much as we could and kept moving to keep warm in our fall weight jackets.
Even though we only had a few hours, we were surprised at just how many things we were able to see before we had to catch our afternoon bus to Nis, Serbia. As we have come to expect, there were a number of churches, but were surprised by how many interesting buildings we saw around the city as well.
Below is not everything that we saw when we were there, only the highlights of our sightseeing.
Cathedral Saint Alexandar Nevski
Arguably the most iconic site in Sofia is the Cathedral Saint Alexandar Nevski. This cathedral was modeled after the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, which is ironic to me since it was a completely different religion. We found this design familiar as we saw the same design duplicated in Cairo, Egypt.
The outside of the building was pretty impressive and very well maintained. While the inside was beautiful as well, we did not take any photos as to do so we would have needed to purchase an expensive photo pass – something that would have required us taking out Bulgarian Lev.
Church St. George Rotunda
I would consider Church St. George Rotunda to be more of a ruin site than a church. It was interesting to see the ruins as well as the preserved extremely small church as well. When we went to look inside we realized that there was a mass going on so we quickly left as to not interrupt the churchgoers.
Former Communist Party House
It is surprising to think that Bulgaria was a communist country until 1990. It was interesting to see the former Communist party house as the building was pretty ornate for a communist country. We found it interesting that the red star, the symbol of communism, was removed from the spire of the building. The star is now displayed at the Museum of Socialist Art.
Russian Church (Temple Sveti Nikolay)
As much as I liked the Cathedral Saint Alexandar Nevski, I think that I liked the Russian Church more. The church was extremely small but the design was very interesting. It was also located next to a small park which made it feel more special than many of the other buildings that we saw which were surrounded by concrete.
Even though we only had a short amount of time in the city we were able to see the highlights pretty easily. I wish that we were able to visit when the weather was warmer as it was quite cold to be outside. Plus, I imagine that the city would be much more beautiful if there was more greenery.
While it would have been nice to have a few more hours in Sofia, we were excited to move on to the Adriatic Sea where we had our fingers crossed the weather would be warmer.