Sofia - a white patch no longer
Admittedly, even for many travel pros Sofia still feels a bit like a no-man’s-land – barely more than a white patch on the tourist map. But that is set to change now that the Bulgarian capital is visibly flourishing and bearing in mind that it has always been rich in historical attractions. Our tour suggestions tell you what to look out for as you explore perhaps one of the oldest cities in Europe
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Traces of Ottoman rule
St. George’s Rotunda:
A first human settlement may have been located here on the site of the present-day city of Sofia as long as 8000 years ago. Official records tell us that a Thracian tribe settled here in the 7th century B.C. and that the oldest building in the city has been standing since the 4th century A.D. That building is Saint George’s Rotunda, which was originally a Roman building with a hypocaust heating system but was later put to a variety of uses and at one point served as a mosque.
St. George’s Church: Nezavisimost Square, located in the rear courtyard of the Sheraton Hotel and the official seat of Bulgaria’s state president
Banya Basho Mosque:
Built ca. 1576 under Ottoman rule, this brick building topped by a minaret that can be seen for miles around is one of Europe’s oldest mosques. It takes its name from the Turkish bathhouse that originally stood next door - Banya Basho literally means “many baths.” Since the fall of the Socialist regime, prayer and preaching have resumed in the building, which, outside of prayer times, is also open to non-Muslim visitors. Appropriate clothing is, however, a must, and women are required to wear a headscarf, which they can borrow at the entrance if they do not have one to hand.
Banya Bashi Mosque: Knyaginya Maria Luiza Bulevard
Boris’ Garden (Bulgarian: Borisova gradina) extends over 445 hectares and is even bigger than the English Garden in Munich. Indeed, it is one of the largest inner-city parks in the world. When the park was first created in 1884, fewer than 20,000 people lived in Sofia, the newly declared capital of a Bulgaria freshly liberated from Ottoman rule. Back then, the park was on the edge of a small town; today it lies at the heart of a city of millions. While the northern section of Boris’ Garden was designed by leading European landscape architects, the remaining area more closely resembles a forest. One popular spot within the park is Ariana Lake, which is ideal for boating.
Boris Gardens: southeast of the city center
The capital city of independent Bulgaria today
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral:
The imposing, Neo-Byzantine Alexander Nevsky Cathedral recalls Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia - and like that great cathedral, it is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, accommodating up to 5000 people in its altogether five naves. This monumental sacred building was erected in 1904 as a tribute to the 200,000 Russian soldiers who fell in the 1877/78 Russo-Turkish War. It was only due to their sacrifice that Bulgaria was able to regain its independence after 500 years of foreign domination. Today, the Nevsky Cathedral is the emblem both of Sofia and the whole of Bulgaria.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral: Alexander Nevsky Square
TZUM is where Sofia’s wealthy upper class shops for all the luxury articles of every kind. When the seven-story "Central Department Store" was built back in 1955/56, the intention was to supply the needs of the capital city’s ever-growing populace. After the demise of Bulgarian Socialism, the previously state-run TZUM was privatized, modernized and converted into an up-market mall with a colorful array of luxury boutiques.
TZUM: 2, Knyaginya Maria Luiza Bulevard, Tel. +359-2/926 06 14. Opening times: Mon-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 11am-7pm www.tzum.bg/en
The peaks of Vitosha Mountain rise majestically behind Sofia, providing a dramatic backdrop to the city’s skyline. The mountain is popular with day trippers from the capital, not least because it is close by: The walk from the tallest summit, the 2290-meter-high Cherni Wrach, into the city center takes no more than around seven hours. Depending on the time of year, the mountain offers excellent opportunities for hiking, climbing, mountain biking - and even for winter sports.
Pictures: getty images, Corbis (2), Coureau/Schwelle/laif (3), mauritius-images