Bulgaria is one of the oldest countries in Europe, but it’s also one of the most affordable to visit! You can have a great family vacation in Sofia, well within your budget. Here are 10 of the best things to do in Sofia with kids.
HAVE NO TIME TO READ? SAVE IT FOR LATER!
If this is your first time visiting Bugaria, check out our 20 top things to do in the country.
Where is Sofia located?
Sofia is a city on the west side of central Bulgaria, surrounded by mountains. In my experience, people often confuse Bulgaria and Bolivia. Bulgaria is in fact, an Eastern European country, and not in South America! Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria, and therefore has been more modernized than much of the country.
Best Time to Visit Sofia
Compared to Canadian winters, the weather in Sofia is relatively mild year-round. During the coldest months, the low is only about -5C (23F.) If you are from a warmer climate you will want to visit between March and the end of November.
Having been to Sofia several times, I can say that there is no best time to visit. Many destinations are best visited during the shoulder season, but Bulgaria is still not that touristy, so summer crowds are not bad. (And I hate crowds!) My favorite time to visit is fall. I love misty early mornings in Sofia! For the best chance of sunshine, visit in September, when Sofia has an average of 23 sunny days.
Getting around Sofia
Public transportation isn’t great in Sofia. There is a metro which is very cheap, but the service area is limited. Taxis are very affordable and regulated. Just make sure that your driver is using the meter (they do charge more for luggage.) This is the easiest way to get around Sofia. If you are like me and hate taking pushy airport taxis specifically, the airport has a metro station right outside, and you can actually take that directly to the city center.
There are also a number of hotels near the airport that offer a free shuttle. If you arrive late at night, it is a good option to stay at one of those, and have the hotel call a taxi in the morning.
If you are staying in the city center, I would NOT recommend renting a car. The streets are narrow, often one-way, and conveniently missing signage sometimes. In addition to that, parking in the center is paid for and often only payable via a Bulgarian mobile phone. If you are leaving the city, renting a car is a great idea! Bulgaria is an easy country to drive in and the rental car companies are relaxed and affordable. We like Top Rent-a-Car. They will meet you in the airport arrivals hall 24/7. Just let them know your flight information ahead of time.
A Note About Bulgaria
The language Barrier
If you have mainly spent time in Western European cities like Vienna, or visited popular destinations, this may be your first experience where the language barrier is significant. We had traveled to many places before Bulgaria and it was our first little culture shock. We didn’t realize how much we relied on people knowing at least a little English until they didn’t. Sofia will be better than other parts of the country, and most restaurants and hotel staff will speak a little. Prepare yourself with a translation app so that you can read signs and menus if you need to.
With the details out of the way, let’s jump into the 10 best things to see and do in Sofia!
Top Things to do in Sofia
Spend time at Vitosha Boulevard
If there is one thing that Bulgaria does well, it is having beautiful pedestrian areas in every major city! Vitosha is a fantastic pedestrian area in the heart of Sofia. It is 7 or 8 blocks of wide cobbled boulevard. It reminds me a bit of Lisbon, another pedestrian-friendly city. Vitosha is a great spot to do some people-watching, get a morning espresso, or browse for souvenirs. Vitosha is also the area we always stay in when we visit Sofia. It is not expensive to stay right by the pedestrian area, and we love going for morning and evening walks!
Where To Stay Near Vitosha
Every time we have stayed in Sofia we have stayed with Marrinella Apartments. (Not sponsored) We really like how many spacious and updated apartments they have, only a short walk from Vitosha. You can usually book through Booking.com, but if not, you can book through their website: flatsinsofia.com. We have stayed in a few different ones and they have all been excellent! If you have kids, just put in a special request for a lower floor or an apartment with a lift.
I LOVE staying in a typical Bulgarian Soviet era apartment building. The heavy iron doors at the entrances, the concrete steps, I love all of it! The more authentic experience the better, in our book!
Where to Eat on Vitosha
Another great reason to stay near Vitosha is for access to so many great restaurants! Shtastlivetsa Vitoshka is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant off Vitosha that specializes in Bulgarian and European cuisine. The decor makes you feel like you dropped into Alice in Wonderland. The food is good, and like everywhere in Bulgaria, reasonably priced. The atmosphere is one of a kind.
A word about Bulgarian restaurants – or the service industry in general: Bulgarian people are notoriously stoic, so don’t expect bubbly North American service anywhere. If you don’t, you will have a nicer time.
At the very north end of Vitosha Boulevard, you can see the mountains in the distance. It makes for a great spot to take instagrammable photos that are oh-so European. Sunset is a particularly good time to get some shots.
If you are visiting in December, there is also a Christmas market in the City Garden, a couple blocks from the north end of Vitosha. It’s very picturesque with all the little white lights, as are the lit up grounds of the National Art Gallery across the street. In the summer the garden is a nice stroll too.
Visit the National Palace of Culture
The National Palace of Culture is conveniently located at the south end of Vitosha. The grounds out front are expansive with attractive walkways and fountains leading up to the “Palace.” An impressive example of brutalist architecture, the National Palace is actually a concert hall and convention centre. The views at night of the building and grounds lit up are very nice. Sofia is a very safe city, so you don’t need to be nervous about visiting at night.
Behind the National Palace of Culture is another nice park with benches, trees, and walkways. It’s a great place to let the kids run around at the end of the day.
Check out Paradise Mall in Sofia
I have heard mixed feelings about Paradise Mall. Some people think “it’s just a mall” and other people are very impressed by the size and the decor. It probably depends on where you are from. At any rate, it’s another free thing to do in the city! With four shopping levels, seasonal decor, and an impressive glass ceiling, we enjoyed ourselves. We got lunch in the food court and walked around for the afternoon. If you like shopping on vacation, then you will love Paradise Mall! We are not big shoppers, but at Christmas it was very fun with tall decorated trees and other themed surprises.
Parking can be a pain and is only free for a time period, so take a taxi to the mall.
Visit Sofia Zoo
The Sofia zoo is the largest and oldest zoo in Southeastern Europe. It is open 365 days a year, so you don’t need to plan your visit! The entrance fee is ridiculously cheap. Just 4 leva (Roughly $2.40 USD) for adults and 2 leva (~ $1.20 for kids.) Children under two are free. Take the whole family for just over $7! Their website tells me that they have 312 different species of animals.
Like a lot of things in Bulgaria, the zoo does not have a history of being very well maintained. However, strides have been made recently to update the enclosures and give the animals better living conditions. I know many people fall on the side of not supporting it, which I totally understand. If you do visit and want to help the zoo, maybe consider purchasing an extra ticket or two. A lot of people have suggested that they would rather pay more to put money back into the zoo.
Marvel at Rila Monastery
High in the hills about an hour and 45 minutes from Sofia, sits the peaceful Rila Monastery. Originally founded in the 10th century, it was destroyed and rebuilt many times over the years. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, most of the present building was constructed in the mid 1800’s. Entrance to the monastery complex and church is free of charge. The museum is 7 leva per adult and 1 leva for students, however there is a family discount where parents are a mere 3 leva and kids are 1 leva.
The Monastery is beautiful, in amongst the trees and mountains. The walls and ceilings are rich with ornate religious scenes both painted, and in wood.
If you are interested in a preview, you can watch a virtual tour here.
How to get to Rila Monastery
There is only one public bus to Rila Monastery from Sofia, and it leaves in the morning. If you are comfortable renting a car and driving, that is probably a better option. You could also book a day tour from Sofia.
If you do end up doing a self-drive, you can actually stay up at the monastery in a hotel next door – Hotel Tzarev Vrah. The rooms are basic and there is only the hotel restaurant for food, so plan accordingly. The views from the balconies are supposed to be breathtaking!
Visit Alexander Nevsky and The Yellow Brick Road
If you were to Google search Sofia, Bulgaria, you would undoubtedly see many images of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It is probably the most elaborate building in Sofia and is in stark contrast to the many simple apartment blocks that make up the city. It is a little further from the pedestrian area, but still only about 15 minutes on foot (20 minutes with kids.)
“The Nevsky” is a multi-domed basilica with ornate interior that can seat 5,000. Completed in 1912, it is among the largest Christian churches in the world. Outside the Nevsky, you can find Sofia’s semi-famous yellow brick road. Supposedly a gift from Hungary in the late 1800’s, this has to be one of the only places that you can actually “follow the yellow brick road.”
In a park next to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, is a flea market. A mix of antiques and kitschy souvenirs, it’s a fun place to hunt for treasures.
Don’t miss the Roman Ruins
I mentioned earlier that Bulgaria is one of the oldest countries in Europe. It is actually home to a surprising number of Roman ruins. Sofia has its very own! The ancient city of Serdica lies right beneath the city center. The easiest to find, and largest site, is in and near the Serdica II metro station.
Here you can find the remains of 8 streets, a church, and other buildings. It’s pretty amazing against the urban backdrop of modern day Sofia!
Check out Sofia’s Street Art – Murals and Graffiti
Sofia is home to the best street art that we’ve seen! Not only the best, but there is lots of it! If you walk from Vitosha Boulevard to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, you will no doubt see some amazing murals on the way. The neighborhood between the Nevsky, and the ruins at Serdica II metro station, is also a graffiti hot spot. (North of bul. Kniaz Aleksandar Dondukov)
You can also take a “by donation” graffiti walking tour. The tour is run in English by Sofia’s urban artists and what you pay for the tour goes back into the art scene. Personally, I liked wandering around and taking pictures on our time, but the tour does give you access to some secret spots that the public can’t enter, or wouldn’t know about.
Take a Unique Tour
One of the things that we like best about Bulgaria, is the Soviet feel. For other European nations, it is probably too real, but for us from North America it is a completely foreign concept. If you want the full experience, Sofia has it!
Sofia Retro Tour is a chance for you to rest your feet after all of the walking experiences. It is a one-hour tour delivered in a retro Zhiguli car, by a guide in a themed uniform. Be transported back into 1970’s socialist Bulgaria and cruise past all the old monuments.
They also offer a 2-hour tour to the Bells Monument and the Socialist Museum. “The Bells” is a 1979 monument featuring bells from countries all over the world. The most popular reason to visit is that it contains bells from countries that no longer exist!
This small local tour company has all five star reviews on Trip Advisor, Viator, and Facebook, so you will not be disappointed!
Try Some Rakia
Okay, so this one isn’t exactly for the kids. If you are a first-timer to Bulgaria and happen upon a friendly local, they will undoubtedly encourage you to try Rakia (Rakija)! A type of fruit brandy, and Bulgaria’s national drink, it is widely available at restaurants. However, why try Rakia at any old restaurant when you can have the full Bulgarian experience?
Raketa Rakia Bar is an Eastern Bloc-themed restaurant in central Sofia, close to a number of other sites on this list. Despite having a “bar” in the name, this place gets rave reviews from families! While the food is also highly rated, the atmosphere is the big selling feature. Decorated with knick-knacks of the Socialist era gone-by, this is one of the few places where you can expect great service in Sofia.
I didn’t want to recommend too many tours on this list, but Sofia has a lot of great options. The free Sofia walking tour comes highly recommended and would be a great way to familiarize yourself with a lot of the areas on this list.
Also free, is the Balkan Bites Food Tour! Visit four food venues and three markets on this tour that includes samples. It’s pretty amazing that this one is free!
That completes this list of 10 amazing and fun things to do in Sofia! I hope you will consider making beautiful Bulgaria your next destination!
Written by Celeste Klassen from klassenitup, a family travel and lifestyle Blogger based in Edmonton, Canada. She is a proud Mom to a little girl who was adopted from Bulgaria. Her favorite place to travel is the Balkans. Check out Celeste on Pinterest | Instagram