Cathedrals to Markets
Start: Alexander Nevski Cathedral.
Finish: Zhenski Pazar.
Time: With one or two stops you're looking at around 4 hours.
The best time to do the tour is on a Saturday or Sunday, when the churches are at their most atmospheric, and the City Park is filled with quirky Bulgarians and buzzing cafes. Note that Monday sees most of the museums closed.
1. Alexander Nevski Cathedral & Icon Museum
It makes sense to start at the gold-domed Alexander Nevski Cathedral, iconic emblem of the capital, and largest in the Balkans. Built in memory of the Russian soldiers who died during the 1877 to 1878 war that helped Bulgaria lift the Ottoman "Yoke of Oppression," it was designed by a Russian architect and named after the patron saint of the Russian "Tsar Liberator." The sheer scale of the richly decorated interior -- said to hold 7,000 people -- deserves a visit, particularly during one of the services. Don't miss the crypt, which houses the Icon Museum. Charting the history of Bulgarian iconography from the end of the 4th century to the end of the 19th-century National Revival period, this selection of beautiful paintings -- far superior to anything to in the rest of the National Gallery's collection -- is an absolute must-see. Also on the A. Nevski Square (to the right with the cathedral behind you) burns the Eternal Flame of the Unknown Soldier, lit in 1981 in memory of all those who lost their lives in war. Just beyond this is the entrance to:
2. Church of St. (Sveta) Sofia
Established in the 5th century, St. Sofia (daily 9am-6pm) is the city's oldest Eastern Orthodox church, and gave the city its name during the 15th century. Recently restored, it has undergone various incarnations (including as a mosque during Ottoman rule, abandoned after two earthquakes toppled the minaret and cost the then-imam two sons), but a few remnants of its ancient past remain. Look for the fragment of original Roman mosaic flooring in the right-hand aisle. The simple red brick interior -- austere by Orthodox standards -- is beautiful, and the church has become a popular venue for weddings. From here you can stroll around the stalls set up on the square, or proceed directly south down Rakovski Street then turn west into Tsar Osvoboditel, turning your back on the statue of the Russian tsar Alexander II on horseback, and head along its yellow bricks to the:
3. Russian Church of St. Nicholas
Hastily built from 1912 to 1914, apparently to serve the needs of a neurotic Russian diplomat who felt that Bulgarian Orthodox traditions bordered on the heretic, the Russian Church (Tsar Osvoboditel 3; daily 8am-6:30pm) is not as grand as Alexander Nevski, but the small interior is huge on atmosphere, with weekends seeing plenty of devoted worshippers milling around to bow or kiss the various icons. A path to the left leads to the crypt, where Sofians deposit their prayers in the box next to the marble sarcophagus of Archbishop Serafim, head of the Russian church in Bulgaria in the early 20th century. Continue along Tsar Osvoboditel. The grand yellow building on the right is the former Royal Palace, built in 1873 for the governor during the Ottoman occupation, and today housing the:
4. Ethnographic Museum and National Art Gallery
The National Art Gallery (Tues-Sun 10am-6pm) is a disappointment, with mediocre art and very unfriendly staff -- hardly worth the 3lev ($2.45/£1.50) admission; certainly not if Plovdiv, where most of Bulgaria's best artists seem to have originated or congregated, is part of your itinerary. But in the east wing you'll find the Ethnographic Museum (same hours and admission), which has a wonderful display of folk arts and crafts, and explanations on traditional rites. It's a little haphazard, and at times displays look a little like a high-school project, but this is a worthwhile half-hour, particularly if you want to do a little souvenir shopping. Opposite the palace is the City Garden, overlooked by the beautiful baroque Ivan Vazov National Theatre. Take a walk in the gardens and stop at one of the cafe-bars, or keep heading down Tsar Osvoboditel to the:
5. Archaeological Museum
Housed in what used to be the 15th-century "Bujuk" ("Big") mosque, this is a lovely, light, and airy space with well-displayed exhibits, and it's small enough to tour in 20 minutes. The collection comprises Thracian (don't miss the 400 B.C. gold burial mask upstairs), Greek, Roman, and medieval Bulgarian artifacts. Though not nearly as impressive as the National History Museum, this is a must if you don't have the time to catch a cab to Boyana. Opposite the entrance is the Presidency, administrative quarters of the president (and where the Changing of the Guard occurs daily on the hour). Head around to the left into a courtyard where, shadowed by the Sheraton, you'll see the:
6. Rotunda St. George
Built by the Romans in the 4th century, the rotunda (daily 8am-5pm) became a church in the 6th century. The 12th- to 14th-century frescoes inside the central dome are worth a glance, but in comparison to Sofia's churches, the UNESCO-protected building feels pretty soulless.
7. St. Nedelya Church
This 19th-century church was largely destroyed by a bomb in 1925 -- intended to blow up Tsar Boris III. His life was spared by an accident of timing, but 200 of his subjects were not that fortunate. Like the Russian church, Sveta Nedelya is hugely popular, and as a result one of the most atmospheric churches in Bulgaria during services. From here head north, crossing the "Largo" (use the underpass) to emerge on the other side at TZUM, Sofia's Communist-era shopping mall, which is surrounded by roads and a half submerged 14th-century church. The indifference of its location dates back to Ottoman times, when grounds around churches were excavated to symbolically "lower" them. Also surrounded by busy roads is the:
8. Statue of Sofia
Erected in 2001, the 24m-high (78-ft.) statue created by Georgi Chapkanov and Stanislav Konstantinov holds the symbols of fame and wisdom in her hands; her head bears the crown of Tjuhe, Goddess of Fate. Walk north along Maria Luiza Boulevard, and on the right you will see the:
9. Banya Bashi Mosque
Built in 1576, its minarets still call the city's small Muslim population to prayer. Women should bring a head covering to enter and all visitors must wear modest clothing and leave their shoes outside. The mosque is named after the city's Baths, currently being restored. In front of the Baths is a large paved area with a tapped spring where locals fill bottles with fresh mineral water. Note that the water flowing from the fourth tap is piping hot. Opposite is the Halite, built in 1909 as the city's food market and useful if you feel like a snack. From here you can either stroll along Pirotska Street, Sofia's only pedestrianized shopping street, or head 2 blocks down Ekzarch Josif Street to:
10. Sofia Synagogue
Built between 1905 and 1909, this beautiful synagogue is the largest in the Balkans. It once served a community of some 25,000 descendants of the Sephardic community who, expelled by Catholic rulers in Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497, found refuge in Bulgaria under the decidedly more tolerant Islamic rulers. Today the community has dwindled to a handful, as most chose to leave for Israel during the Communist era. The vast majority of Bulgaria's Jews survived World War II despite the fact that the country sided with Hitler. Under immense pressure from local civic leaders, Tsar Boris III refused to deport Bulgarian Jews, fobbing off Nazi demands by forcing the Jews to disperse within the countryside. Many Bulgarians believe this cost him his life -- he died mysteriously in 1943, and rumor has it that he was poisoned by the Nazis. Having stepped inside to admire the massive Viennese chandelier (weighing in at 1,700 kilograms/3,750 lb.), saunter to the:
11. Zhenski Pazar
This multicultural street (A2, A3 Stefan Stambalov St.), known as "Women's Market," is a world away from the nearby City Garden and its metropolitan pavement cafes. Here heavyset women in headscarves peruse large piles of colorful fruits and vegetables, bargain for Troyan ceramics (the cheapest prices you'll find anywhere), or pick up domestic essentials from the tiny shops and Turkish stalls that line the fresh produce market. It's a great place to wander and pick up a bag of sweet cherries or a freshly baked banitsa (traditional Bulgarian pastry), but do watch your valuables.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.