This week, I have been staying in Sofia Bulgaria to explore the city and learn about Bulgarian History. I used eDreams to get the cheapest flight from the UK. One of the best things I did was the free walking tour Sofia.
There is a free 2 hour walking tour in Sofia that starts at the palace on Vitosha and it is run by Free Sofia Tour. It is well worth doing, as you will learn a lot about Sofia’s history, culture and buildings. Here is my review of our free walking tour Sofia with Anna on Thursday.
Free walking tour Sofia – Meet at the Palace on Vitosha
For the free walking tour Sofia, you meet outside the palace on Vitosha, next to the big lions (you will see them!) Look for the crowd of people and the guide’s holding ‘Free Sofia Tour‘ boards. All of the guides are very friendly and will come and introduce themselves to you.
If there is a big group, there may be more than one guide, and they will split you into smaller groups by the ‘Moses’ technique, a bit like the parting of the Red Sea!
A Brief History of Bulgaria
At the Lions, you will get an initial explanation of the complex history of Bulgaria. The city of Sofia 6000 years old. The Romans settled in 1st Century and the 7th century was the settlement of the ancient Bulgarians.
Bulgaria was then conquered by the Byzantine Empire. The second conquest of the Bulgarians was followed by the conquest of the Ottoman empire who ruled for 5 Centuries (1396–1878).
In the 19th Century, the city of Sofia was being constructed as the capital of the Bulgarian state. However, it was then taken over by the communists until the Berlin Wall came down.
There was then a peaceful transition to democracy and Bulgaria joined EU in 2007.
Bulgarian history is, of course, much more complex, but our guide Anna gave us an excellent summary in just 10 minutes!
The Palace of Justice
Palace of justice (meeting point) is actually now the Bulgarian courts. In the 90’s for a short time it was the national history museum.
The Lion is national animal, but there have never been any lions in the national area! If you look at the lions outside the palace, one lion is modelled incorrectly – crossing his feet! The one on the right has the correct posture!
Church Saint Sunday of Sofia
On the tour, you will walk round towards Church Saint Sunday. This was originally built in wood.
It is a Bulgarian Orthodox Christian Church. Every Orthodox Country has it’s own church (e.g. Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox) and each has a slightly different style. Bulgarian orthodox churches tend to be shorter and simpler on the outside and elaborate inside.
There is a story behind this Church. In 1925, Bulgaria was still a monarchy, but an illegal communist party was trying to take over! The Dome of this Church was rigged with explosives in attempt to assassinate the Tsar. However, the Tsar wasn’t in the Church at the time it exploded. He was late!!!!
You will walk round to see the statue of Saint Sofia – the beautiful, but contradictory figure! Saint Sofia is beautiful and carrying Pagan symbols from Roman goddesses – slightly offensive to the Christians!
Lenin was up there originally!
Serdika Roman Ruins in Sofia
As they dug deeper to lay the second metro line in Sofia, they uncovered the Roman Ruins of Serdika. There’s no old town on the surface of Sofia – you have to go beneath rather than in!
Underneath the metro link, they discovered the remains of a Roman wall and Church, which is why the second metro line took so long to build (20 years!) because of the excavations!
Religion in Sofia Bulgaria – The Square of Tolerance
A Mosque, a Catholic Church, an Orthodox Church and a Synagogue are all within a few minutes walk of each other in central Sofia, and this is the so called Square of Tolerance.
Under the Ottoman Empire, citizens who weren’t Muslim were taxed more heavily than those who were. But people were allowed to follow the religion they wanted as long as they constructed their own temples.
Only one mosque left in Sofia. Baniya Bashi mosque. Mosque with a bath. It’s fully functional but doesn’t call to prayer because of city sound guidelines.
I loved hearing the Urban myths from Anna, our free Sofia tour guide. One story was that it was decided Sofia should have European looking skyline. But, they couldn’t destroy the minarets because of foreign journalism, so they left explosives on minarets and waited for a thunderstorm! This is urban myth!
It is more likely that most of the mosques fell into disrepair and were converted.
The Jewish Population of Bulgaria
The Sofia Synagogue was built in 1909 (look for the large black dome). It is the biggest in the Balkans and the biggest Sephardic in the world. There are still 8000 Jewish people in Bulgaria and at least half live in Sofia.
During WW2, Bulgaria was on the side of the axis. Axes power armies sent message to the Bulgarian Tsar saying that they wanted to go to Greece – with or without Bulgaria’s permission. Of course, it was a better move to give permission, so the Bulgarians joined the axes powers and signed contracts. The Bulgarian Tsar wanted to save Jewish Population of Bulgaria because the public found out what was happening on concentration camps due to a leak of information.
Now, the Bulgarian Tsar couldn’t simply say no to Hitler, or lie to him on the whereabouts of the Bulgarian Jews. Instead, the Tsar continually delayed sending them to Hitler – he kept saying he was sending the Jewish people and successfully prolonged the until the end of the war.
Many of Bulgaria’s Jews then emigrated to Israel when the state of Israel was created.
Presidents Palace in Sofia
After you have visited the Square of Tolerance, you will have the chance to wash your hands in the water of the Mosque Bath House, before progressing on to the Presidents Palace.
The guards at the Presidents Palace are similar to what you might see at Buckingham palace in that they cannot move until break/changeover. Don’t prod fem or make them laugh, of course! Admire the stunning 19th Century Uniforms. If you are lucky, you will catch the changing of the guards ceremony.
You will also see where the modern buildings surround and contrast with St George’s Rotunda. This is an early Christian red brick Rotunda that is seen to be Sofia’s oldest building and is situated within ancient Roman ruins of Serdika. The brick walls of the Rotunda are 1.4m thick!
Free walking tour Sofia – The Rain came Down!
At this point, the heavens opened and it started chucking buckets! I didn’t have an umbrella, but the friendly guide and fellow travellers were happy to share theirs! Some people left the tour at this point, as the rain really was heavy.
This is not typical weather of this time of year, but Bulgarian weather is changeable. so be prepared.
What was amazing was the way that everyone kept their spirits up, and the guides were still in such a positive mood, I wanted to finish the tour! So we visited a few more monuments and historical sites before ending up at the stunning Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
The beautiful Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is the finale of the Free Sofia Waking Tour, and rightly so! The stunning gold domes are evidence of more of a Russian influence, as most Bulgarian Orthodox Church as plainer on the exterior. It is named after Alexander Nevski himself, who was a Russian Tsar who saved Russia from invading Swedish troops in 1240.
It is currently the largest Orthodox Cathedral in Eastern Europe, although Belgrade are currently attempting to build one bigger!
Contrary to popular belief, the Alexander Nevski Cathedral is not the most important Church in Sofia, the Sofia Church opposite is, because this Church is the one that gave Sofia it’s name.
Free Walking Tour Sofia ends here!
At the end of the free walking tour Sofia, you have the chance to donate to support the free Sofia tours. You can also ask for discount vouchers for some of the other paid tours on offer, including the Communist Tour and the Cultural Tour!
At the end of the tour, I highly recommend that you have something to eat and drink at La Cattedrale and then pay to enter the Alexander Nevsky Crypt museum (6lv), where you will see some stunning Orthodox icons from all over Bulgaria. Photos are allowed in the Crypt museum, but no flash.
Have you ever been on the free walking tour Sofia? Would you like to go? If you are interested, please comment below. You can also follow @freesofiatour on Twitter.
Where to Stay in Sofia
If you are on a budget and solo travelling, I highly recommend the Art Hostel. It’s a great location and there’s a really cool bar where you can meet other travellers.
Should you have a more generous budget, consider the Metropolitan Hotel or the Novotel. There are also extensive options on Air BnB, which include apartments and homestays so that you can live like a local.
You may also like to read about my visit to the Rila Monastery and How Cheap is Sofia.