My first 20 minutes in Sofia were spent sitting on the floor outside the airport wondering how I was going to get to my hostel. Uber, unfortunately, hasn’t quite crossed the borders to Bulgaria yet so any dreams I had of wordlessly making it to Hostel Mostel with the help of a nice, anonymous Uber driver were quickly shattered.
Instead, I Googled what the deal was with the taxis (likely to rip tourists off) before settling for the bus, which conveniently turned up approximately 30 seconds after I locked my phone. With a pained expression the cashier swapped my 10 lev note (£4.49) for a one-day travel card (£1.81) after inquiring whether I had anything smaller.
40 minutes later I somehow made it to my hostel after following the website’s horrific instructions (get off the bus when you see Starbucks on your left and a park on your right and walk for 10-15 minutes) to a warm welcome at Hostel Mostel.
I’ve stayed in more hostels than I could count over the last two years but this was definitely one of my favourites. An eight dorm bed with charging point, privacy curtains and en-suite shower set me back a whole £7 a night – with breakfast and dinner included. The hostel was small but comfy, with traditionally decorated rooms, multiple bathrooms and a great social area.
The joy of experiencing sunshine after the horror that was London’s weather overcame my exhaustion from getting up at 4am to catch my flight so I decided to go and explore. First, up to the Yuzhen parks and fountains where I wished more than anything for it to be socially acceptable to jump in.
After realising that it was actually about 27c and my body hadn’t yet adapted to being warm, I threw caution to the wind and waited for a tram to take me…somewhere. All buses, trams and metro journeys were included in the cost of my £1.81 travelcard so after pretending to navigate the tram timetable I gave up and simply got on the next one that passed.
My previous attempts at learning Bulgarian (admittedly short-lived) had got me nowhere so my knowledge of the transport system was learned purely by guesswork and some optimism.
Accidentally, I ended up exactly where I’d been intending to go – Slaveykov Square. One of Sofia’s most popular areas, it features a small outdoors market selling everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to flowers, clothes and wooden trinkets. From there I walked on through small, winding streets to learn that Sofia seemingly has an obsession with shoe shops.
One of my favourite things about the city was the vast array of architecture. Huge, communist-era buildings stood tall next to neoclassical works of art in brightly coloured hues. Bulgaria’s varied history means almost anything goes in the city and it’s easy to pick apart when each piece was built based on its design. Even the small city centre has no favourites when it comes to colour scheme or style.
I headed back to the hostel after a few hours of wandering round for my free pasta dinner and free pub crawl. I tend to always travel solo and find that walking tours and alcohol are my best ways of making new friends. I’d missed the walking tour earlier that day so the pub crawl seemed to be the direction to head in. First up, a trip to the local supermarket with some people in my hostel room, where I spent £2.24 on a bottle of (admittedly horrible) red wine and £4.49 on a bottle of Rakia – the country’s traditional spirit.
Entry to the bars was free so I splashed out on £3 mojitos before somehow, inexplicably, ending up at a techno club outside the city centre with some new Turkish friends. A 20 minute taxi ride was £1 each.
Total day one: £15.54
Despite only getting to bed around 6am I dragged myself out to the daily walking tour at midday. The tour was organised by a company called Free Sofia Tours and lasted for around two hours. These tours are free with the intention of tourists paying what they feel at the end. It works similarly to Uber – people tip well unless their guide has been absolutely horrendous. I usually give between £5 and £10 depending on how good/informative the tour is and also (more importantly) how much I have in my purse at the time.
Within that time exploring, I saw everything from the incredible national theatre, the ancient Roman ruins around Serdica metro station, the public mineral baths and more churches than I could count. Most are free to enter although some, like the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral will try and charge you €5 for pictures.
Inside the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral [Photo: Georgie Darling/Yahoo Style UK]I spent the rest of my second day wandering back around some of the highlights of the trip but in more detail. The walking tour is a great way of learning your way around the city but is essentially a whistle-stop tour. Luckily, Sofia was small enough so I had time to wander back to my favourite places.
I visited the church of St George, which was built in the 4th century, the mosque and the Russian church of St Nikolay. After more hours of walking (and my exhaustion catching up with me) I headed to Vitosha Boulevard – the main shopping street – for dinner. Normally I’d avoid the central areas for food because they’re typically overpriced but Sofia was such a cheap city anyway I knew it would be worthwhile. And it was – one of the nicest meals of my life of chicken, sundried tomatoes, capers, posh potatoes and garlic lemon butter sauce set me back a whole £7, with drink included.
I spent that evening chilling in the hostel before heading to a couple more bars with new friends, drinking (six) £1.30 ciders.
Total day two: £23.50
On my third and final day I attempted to do a local food tour before learning it was fully booked. Disappointed, myself and a few others decided to put together our own one. After getting lost (very easily when you can’t read Cyrillic alphabet and have relied heavily on Citymapper for the last 12 months in London) we found our way to Lavanda – the Instagramable cafe of dreams. My lunch of Bulgaria meatballs, limitless fancy breadsticks and a drink cost me £5.
One thing I would have loved to have done during my trip was to take a visit up Vitosha mountain. It’s impossible to miss the imposing peaks from the city centre and also fairly easy to get up to the top by public transport. Instead, I spent a few hours relaxing at the foot of the mountain in the parks, people watching and dreading having to head back to the airport to fly home.
Rather than fuss around with bus timetables and risk missing my flight, I split a taxi back to the airport with someone I met in the hostel. The staff booked it for us, saving us the hassle of being ripped off with an un-metered car, meaning we finished the 25 minute journey paying only £2.50.
Total day three: £7.50
One day travel card (Metro, bus, tram): £1.81
Single metro ticket: 45p
20 minute taxi to the airport: £5-7
Beer or cider: £1.30
Two course meal with drink: £8
Hostel bed in an 8 bed dorm: £7