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Bulgaria Travel & Holiday Tips

Sofia & Western Bulgaria


Dating back to the fourth century BC, the ancient capital of Sofia has a wealth of different architectural styles including Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Bulgarian and Turkish. The city boasts many theatres and museums (including those of archaeology and ethnography), opera houses and art galleries (including the National Art Gallery housed in the former Royal Palace), as well as universities, open-air markets, parks (over 300 of them, including the Borisova Park) and sports stadiums. Visitors should see the extraordinary Alexander Nevski Memorial Church (which dominates the city with its gold-leaf dome), built to celebrate Bulgaria’s liberation from the Turks in the Russo-Turkish war at the end of the last century. The crypt hosts an exhibition of beautiful icons and the choir is excellent and well worth hearing. Other churches in Sofia include St Sophia, which is Byzantine and dates from the sixth century; Rotunda of St George, which dates back to the fifth century and contains 14th-century frescoes; St Petka Samardziiska, which is 14th century, and St Nedelya. There is an archaeological museum housed in the nine cupolas of the Bouyouk Mosque (the largest in Sofia). The Banya Bashi Mosque is also worth a visit. An example of modern architecture is the Alexander Batenberg Square, which contains the Government Buildings and some Roman remains nearby (discovered when an underpass was being constructed), together with a reconstruction of the city as it was in Roman times. Other attractions include the Turkish baths and the markets at Hali (covered market), Georgi Kirkov and Kristal Square (flea market and antique shops).


Rila Monastery is 121km (75 miles) from Sofia, perched high up on the side of a mountain in the middle of thick pine forests. Rila has a fascinating collection of murals, woodcarvings, old weapons and coins; and manuals and Bibles written on parchment. The monastery itself is notable for its delicate and unusual architectural features. Originally founded in the 10th century by the hermit and holy man, Ivan Rilski, the monastery acted as a repository and sanctuary for Bulgarian culture during the 500-year Turkish occupation from 1396. Fire has destroyed most of the early architecture and the present buildings date from the 19th century, with the exception of the 14th-century Khrelio’s Tower. There is good accommodation in the monastery and a nearby hotel. Rila is an excellent starting place for climbs and hikes in the surrounding countryside.

Other Places

The mountain of Vitosha on the outskirts of Sofia is a National Park with chairlifts and cable cars to help with the ascent as it is approximately 1800m (6000ft) high. Here, the medieval church of Boyana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, can be seen, with its beautiful and ancient frescoes painted around the year 1200 and thought to be some of the oldest in Bulgaria.

South of Sofia is Blagoevgrad, home of the Pirin State Ensemble (the world-renowned folkloric group), and Sandanski, an ancient spa town and birthplace of the Roman gladiator, Spartacus. Further south still, travellers can visit two of Bulgaria’s museum towns: Melnik is known for its wine cellars, 18th to 19th century architecture and its proximity to Rozhen Monastery with its beautifully carved altar, stained-glass windows, murals and icons; and the museum town of Bansko, at the foot of Pirin Mountain, contains the Holy Trinity Church with its carved ceilings and murals, and its monastery-like houses with high stone walls.

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