Sofia, capital of Bulgaria, is a fascinating city. It's as run-down as you would expect from a country that suffered under Communist rule, and it continues to be short on civic pride due to the high levels of corruption, a poor judicial system, and Oliver Twist-like bands of street thieves. But step away from the traffic-choked boulevards and drab gray concrete towers and into the cobbled streets east of the central square, and you'll find the hard edges of the city softened by untended but verdant parks and towering trees filled with the unexpected sound of birdsong.
One of the most recent capitals of Europe (it was declared the country's administrative center in 1879), Sofia has little to show for its 2,000-year-old origins: Aside from the 4th-century Rotunda of Sveti Georgi, Sofia's oldest structure, most of the city's historic buildings date no earlier than the 18th and 19th century. Even then there is a lack of great architectural beauty, and the corresponding absence of a major tourist draw. But Sofia's attraction does not lie in checking off a list of must-see sites. Rather, Sofia's charm lies in wandering its streets at will or stopping to drink the occasional espresso at an open-air bar/cafe in and around the city's parks. While Sofia traditionally has been regarded as nothing more than a gateway to Bulgaria's beautiful hinterland, itineraries increasingly are featuring 2-night stays in this city, which is gradually evolving into a sexy south-European destination, a testament to the veracity of the city's motto: "Grows but never ages."