SIGHTS in Sofia:
Built on a necropolis, abused as a gladiators' arena, extended as a mosque and finally restored to a church: The history of St. Sofia is just as long as it is fascinating. The classic Byzantine masterwork from the 6th century is the oldest Orthodox church in Sofia and was then built on the highest elevation of the settlement. In the course of several bouts of destruction and rebuilding efforts the church has changed, but retains its basic structure: Even today the three-nave basilica shines in the classic Byzantine look. Unfortunately, most of the frescoes have suffered severely over the years, however, you can still admire many icons and three impressive altars. And since you are already there: Just pay a quick visit to the grave of Bulgaria's national poet, Ivan Vazov, on the Eastern side of the church. That's the gentleman with the book in his hand.
Lesson number one: Patriotism. That starts with this monument, hits the centre of the heart and doesn't get passed the history and personality of this man. To most Bulgarians, Vasil Levski is sacrosanct. He was the brain and ideologue behind the Bulgarian national freedom movement and lived from 1837 to 1873. In his 36 years he endeared himself to the Bulgarian people by fighting the Ottomans. His name is more than a word - it stands for dreams, hopes, potential and freedom. If you talk to locals ask about the local hero. You'll be surprised how people, in particular the younger generation, can still get excited about good old Vasil. The monument to the freedom fighter is located at an ominous spot: It's exactly where Vasil Levski was hanged by the Ottomans, on February 19th, 1873.
The National Theatre is a jewel in the centre of Sofia, and the locals are rightfully proud of it. Even the Austrians can take some credit for its glory. The architects Helmer & Fellner, professionals for theatre buildings, were hired from Vienna. The opening took place in 1907, and only later the theatre was named after the great Bulgarian writer Ivan Vazov. Just as many other great theatres this one wasn't spared the bad fate - in 1923 a fire broke out, and World War II destroyed large parts of the house. Yet it was rebuilt over again, grander than before. Today it provides space for about 1,000 spectators. Not only are the performances great, the façade is a feast for the eyes. It's 40 metres high and is supported by six marble columns ornamented with Apollo and the Muses.
SHOPPING in Sofia:
If you take a walk through the shopping malls in Sofia you may doubt that Bulgaria once had anything to do with communism. Here capitalism reigns, and the Bulgarians who own the necessary capital enjoy every bit of it. The City Centre Sofia at the Arsenalski Boulevard is an impressive mall that extends over six floors. Included in the entertainment programme are bars, restaurants and an imposing IMAX cinema. Fashion lovers can buy French fashion at SInequanon and Turkish glass ware such as vases, drinking glasses and bowls. Highlights are the Nolita Shop, with unique fashion for unique women, and the Ra-Re Store, which not only offers clothes but also history and way of life along with it. Morover, there are Kookai, Energie, Fornarina, Stefanel, Missoni and other international brands. Kenvelo is a kind of Czech H&M and a Mecca for Bulgarian youth.
If you're interested in Bulgarian fashion you might want to take a look in the Daka Style Shop. The focus is on stylish business fashion for women. The quality is good and the selection quite interesting. If you look around for a bit you'll find a few cool pieces that are classy and elegant at the same time. Blouses, suits, but also shirts and dresses, and all sorts of accessories, for example bags and scarves. For the quirky Daka Style offers a special feature: It also produces uniforms, which will certainly draw some attention. The clothes for chambermaids, Spa-employees and receptionists are nice and ideal for daily use. The brand has been around for ten years, and is now so popular that there are three shops.
The Vitosha Boulevard is Sofia's ritziest avenue, and comes in 32nd worldwide when it comes to the most expensive shopping streets. It's still worth a stroll - after all, you don't need to buy everything you see. That would be quite expensive, indeed, because the brand portfolio of the posh street is no different from the Parisian Champs-Élysées or the Via Montenapoleone in Milan. Versace, Bulgari, D&G, Escada, Max Mara, Van Laak, Ermenegildo Zegna, Moreschi, Marella, Armani, Ferré, Boss, Baldinini and, of course, also the slightly more modest colleagues such as Sisley, Bennetton, Hilfiger, Lacoste, Pepe und Levi's. Once you've had enough of this glamour world, check out the side streets. You will find many nice boutiques with an ample choice.
STAY in Sofia:
The Sheraton is one of the best hotels in town and deserves every single one of its five stars. It's located at a prominent spot, in the centre of the city. Even travellers with limited time on their hands get a chance to explore the city and plunge into city life. The motto? Luxury of the finest kind. It starts in the hotel lobby, which welcomes you with sophisticated stucco, columns reaching to the ceiling and marble floors. It goes on with spacious rooms with ceilings so high that the chandeliers almost seem to get lost. Not enough? Enjoy the comprehensive programme in the fitness centre, the sauna or the beauty parlour. If you don't want to go outside after a tiring day, you don't have to get bored: You can lose your money in the casino or invest it in an elegant evening in the Stardust Restaurant or the Lobby Bar Pliska. The terrace is particularly beautiful; from there you'll have a great view of the city centre - and this is really an unforgettable experience, especially at night. Doubles start at 125,- euros.
To sleep here introduces a flowery dimension to your stay in Sofia. The first eye-catcher is the mosaics in the entry-hall, which show giant flowers and petals. Kitsch? Certainly. Yet it's administered at the right doses. The hotel doesn't differ a lot from better-known places in town when it comes to luxury. But it does when it comes to size: Small and very nice, this is the motto. The hotel is located in the middle of the city, close to the Vitosha shopping street. The neighbourhood has just as much style as your room. Everything is said and done in a flowery way here, whether at the desk or on the big, cosy bed. When you are hungry you don't even need to go far, in order to gather the best aromas around you: The hotel restaurant Le Bouquet serves wonderful seafood with great wine. All non-smokers, who suffer from chronic coughing during their time in Bulgaria, will find a reprieve for their ailing lungs: The hotel is entirely smoke-free, from the roof down to the basement. Doubles start at about 110,- euros.
The Casa Boyana is located in an idyllic neighbourhood, only a stone's throw away from the city centre. The eponym of the boutique hotel is the Church of Boyana, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that you'll find just around the corner. The distance to the city has two advantages: Absolute calm and a great view onto the city and the Vithosha mountain range. With only 14 rooms and 2 junior suites, the hotel is among the smallest, thus offering a perfect service: You are a VIP 24/7, luxury is with you everywhere. If you feel like Italian cuisine, you should definitely dine in the hotel restaurant. After that you will lose your extra pounds with ease in the fitness room. Aside from sauna, solarium, as well as a whirlpool in the bathroom you'll have a wellness bonus of a different kind: Throughout your stay you have access to free fruit and mineral water. Doubles start at 105,- euros a night.
EAT in Sofia:
The motto is many's favourite place, and after a long workday it's the perfect place to loosen the tie for a bit. The first motto is: Reserve beforehand. After that there is nothing that will come between you and a relatively relaxed evening. Not even the not-so-easy Bulgarian language, because the staff speaks English and happily explains the cryptic menu to you. The trendsetters of the city meet here for an international dinner: tuna risotto, goat cheese in honey, creative pasta dishes and much more - at a reasonable price. The food and the atmosphere are in a constant battle with one another: Which of the two lures more guests? Obvious candidates, aside from the delicacies on your plate, the wonderful garden, the cosy sofas and the design furnishing. And after you have finished all the food, it's still much too early to rush off - now the beautiful restaurant turns into a stylish cocktail bar.
While sitting here you keep wondering how to describe the interior design: Just sparing or already Spartan? While still wondering you realize that, despite rather plain chairs and tables, it's far too cosy for the latter. Moreover, anybody steady enough will find some quirky and nice details that a Spartan wouldn't have thought of, for example to plaster a wall with crazy signs. Or to paint the formerly dark wood panelling olive-green, turning it into a retro eye-catcher. The trendy in Sofia like the place and flock to it. They like the combination of good cuisine and reasonable prices, including Italian pizza, American onion rings and Bulgarian herdsmen salad. By the way, waiting for the waiter isn't a nuisance here: The menu is designed like a newspaper and tells you all sorts of interesting stories about the drinks and dishes.
Bulgaria ranges among the oldest states in Europe. The gastronomic landscape of the capital is, however, anything but dusty. The Brasserie in the centre of Sofia serves as the best example for this claim. From the outside the restaurant behind the Slaveikov Square looks like its surrounding concrete buildings - apart from the padded bench standing at the wall. Inside you might spontaneously feel like being on a ship: the main entrance is long and narrow with wood panelling, and small tables on each side. Some might possibly think of allotment-garden cottages now, but the wooden walls in the brasserie are way to chic. Continuing straight on the room will open more and more - up to a glass wall in front of the small patio. In between there's a brick wall. That might not turn the venue into a hot spot but the stones still look pretty good. Just like the psychedelic green wall and the display that evoke 70s feelings. The perfect match: lounge and house music. Some might say that the tables and chairs resemble garden furniture. But that doesn't matter - they even add to the cult status of the Brasserie.