Sofia is not somewhere that automatically springs to mind, when thinking about a city break. However, it was my destination of choice following my few days in the Bulgarian mountains, where I spent my time
snowboarding falling over!
As I only had a short time staying in the city, I was reccommended and took up the offer of doing a free city tour, by my hotel; the Park Inn by Radisson, and I am glad I did.
I have often said, that grabbing a map, and taking to the streets by foot is the best way to see a new city, and it is even better when you are getting a guide for free.
Free walking tours have been a popular feature for travellers in various cities, all over the World, and are quite simple. You show up to a main location, meet a guide and various other likeminded travellers, then take to the streets, and get an informative tour of the key sights in the city.
The Free Sofia Tour is the first project run by the 365 association, and is staffed by volunteers. The Free Sofia Tour happens twice daily, at 11am and 6pm and meets at the Palace of Justice.
I arrived at just gone 11am, and even on a crisp winter day, there was already a large gathering. In all, we had a group of 25 of us.
Our guide Daniel – a Sofia native, was energetic and friendly, and took his time going around everyone and introducing himself, and the tour, as well as gaining an insight into us, and where we were from. We then took to the streets to explore.
What do you see on the Free Sofia Tour?
Sofia has a number of museums and interesting places you can go into and explore at a deeper level. However, you won’t get that on this tour – more of an overview, and a lot of information about the history. Which is great, and it gives you the opportunity of going back to a certain place if you have time.
We covered a lot of ground in a few hours. There are at least 35 stops, if not more – here are but a few of them.
Coat of Arms of Sofia
The coat of arms of Sofia is significant and and can be found in various places in the city. It consists of a shield divided into four. One quadrant includes the image of the Church of St. Sophia which gave the name to the city. At lower left is a golden baldachin and a statue of Apollo Medicus representing the mineral springs around the city, while the lower right quarter is reserved for Vitosha, the mountain at the foot of which Sofia is located.
At lower left is a golden baldachin and a statue of Apollo Medicus representing the mineral springs around the city, while the lower right quarter is reserved for Vitosha, the mountain at the foot of which Sofia is located.
In the middle is another, smaller shield, with a lion rampant, a traditional Bulgarian symbol. A crown of walls and towers tops the larger shield, an element typically reserved for city coat of arms. At the bottom is the city motto, “Расте, но не старее” — Raste, no ne staree (“Ever Growing, Never Aging”).
Statue of Saint Sofia
The Statue of St Sophia was erected in 2001 and towers above one of the busiest streets in Sofia. Although it was met with some controvesy from locals, as they felt it was too erotic and pagan to be known as a saint.
The statue is 8 metres in height and made from bronze and cooper. Adorned with the symbols of power (crown), fame (wreath) and wisdom (owl), the crown is also a reference to the Goddess of Fate – Tjuhe, inspired by the old emblem of Sofia dating back to 1900*
Central Mineral Bathhouse
A former mineral bath, and now the Museum of Sofia. This brightly coloured building used to house public baths, which were separated for both men and woman, who would come to bathe themselves. The bathhouse is set in the middle of a beautiful public park.
Outside there is a mineral water spring, which is said to be a naural healer. You can drink from the fountain, which is warm (though doesn’t taste that amazing!)
Sveta Petka Church
This is a cute little church, which was built in the 14th century during Ottoman rule, which explains why it is below ground level and very simple in its exterior. Apart from a small skylight, which is now blocked, there is no natural daylight inside.
Although malls and shopping centres may not seem much to most. The central department store in Sofia, was the first department store in the country. Built in 1956, it is seen as a symobol of prosperity and pride, although not many shop there now – they mainly frequent as a means for reminiscing.
National Assembly of the Republic of Bulgaria
Our group outside the National Assembly (Parliament)
The slogan on the facade above the entrance “Obedinenieto Pravi Silata”, loosely translated means ‘United we are strong’, which seems wishful for any parliament. This is the scene of regular public protests and back in 1997 the building was actually stormed and damaged, leading to the eventual downfall of the ruling (Socialist) party.Built in three stages between 1884 – 1928, it was built by Bulgarian Architect, Konstantin Ivanovich who had been living and working in Vienna.
Rotunda of St George
Found just behind the Parliament building is this 4th century red bricked church. It is Sofia’s oldest perserved building and sits within the Roman part of the city.
Should you wish to attend – there are 3 daily services on offer.
Banya Bashi Mosque
Named after the mineral baths, this is the only functional Mosque in the city. It has the capacity for 700 people, and outside of times of prayer, you can have a look inside.
Ending the tour
At the end of the tour, we got to ask Daniel any other questions if we had any. He reccommended great places to eat for lunch, or directed us to the nearest metro station, as well as gave us discount cards for museums in the city.
Although known as a free tour – the 365 association is a charity, and it is often nice to donate to the assocaition, so they can continue to build upon their projects.