OK, so Sofia hasn’t exactly had the highest variety of weird places ever. In fact, there’s really been very little to write about. Out of curiosity, we have gone on several guided tours to see a different side of Sofia. My wife Laura went on a couple of the tours and wrote about them as well.
The Free Sofia tour
Laura went on this tour and called the “Cliff’s Notes version of Sofia,” and I’d tend to agree based on everything I’ve read. It’s listed first here mainly because it’s considered a fine introduction to the city, but isn’t particularly in-depth. There’s going to be some overlap with the places, but the stories are a bit different. Think of each tour as a piece to the puzzle — this tour gives you the borders / edges to work with. Their website shows about 25 guides, so the exact style of tour may vary according to the personality of the guide you get.
If you only have time for one tour of Sofia, this gives a broad overview of the city. If you’re looking for details or in-depth knowledge, you might want to try one of the other tours instead.
The Free Sofia Tour is run at 11am and 6pm every day of the week, and a third tour starts at 10am from May to October. Tours start at the Palace of Justice (a major landmark that’s a short walk from Serdika station), and last about 2 hours. More info at https://freesofiatour.com.
Balkan Bites food tour
Offering a bunch of tastings (not full meals) means you’re able to take a tour like this in while still sticking to your diet or New Year’s resolution of choice. Our tour guide, Simona, took us through the foodie-friendly history of the area in an almost TL;DR format — yogurt, garlic, wine, and pastries all being big things in Bulgarian food.
Our 1st stop was Supastar for a taste of tarator, essentially a soup of yogurt with cucumbers. The tour guide was quick to explain this was one of the more controversial dishes they had to offer on the tour. There’s even a fun story about how Bulgaria delivers a homegrown bacterium to Japan, and how it possibly contributes to the long lifespan of Japanese people…
2nd stop was for some banitsa in a shop located in an underpass. We live within walking distance of this people and have passed by this shop several times before, but never thought to go in. Great stuff.
After a quick stop by an outdoor art project, we took in a place set up as a traditional Bulgarian restaurant. A thimble-sized bit of wine and some appetizers involving cheese and yogurt on bread were both good, but it was the ambiance of the place I enjoyed. (After the tour, my wife and a few other tourists actually came back here for the full meal we were all ready for — easily one of the best meals I’ve had in awhile.)
The last place, a vegetarian restaurant, offered up homemade bread along with a tomato and pepper spread. A second spread was made of walnut, peppers, and olives — not my personal favorite, but several people on the tour seemed to like it.
Overall, it’s a fine tour, and it’s upfront about the fact you’re only getting tastings, not full meals. You will want to have a lunch beforehand or budget some time afterwards for an early dinner. Like other ‘free’ tours around the world, there’s no upfront fee, and you can pay what you like at the end of the tour. There was very little guidance offered as to what a ‘good’ price was, however, and most people seemed to offer 10-20 lev to the tour guide.
The Balkan Bites tour starts at 2pm every day, lasts about two hours, and starts at the Crystal Park by the big head statue of Stefan Stambolov. Reservations recommended (make them at balkanbites.bg), but not required.
The Sofia Graffiti Tour
A nice trip through the center of town’s street art, which still feels a bit on the early side compared to other cities. The tour makes the best of what’s available, and our tour featured some nice art, along with some explanations of the history. There isn’t always a ton of detail, however, and a few of the sights can be spotted while randomly meandering around town. Expect to spend 2 to 2 1/2 hours walking through a fair portion of downtown Sofia and enjoying the art.
The Sofia Graffiti Tour starts from the statue of Sofia, which is directly above Serdika metro station, and is about as centrally located as you can get. Like other ‘free’ tours, pay what you want at the end. Tours start at 3pm on Monday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Reservations not necessary, but you can make them at sofiagraffititour.com if you want.
The Sofia Alternative Tour – AKA the treasure map tour
I’ve actually already written about this tour in full, but in short, this tour is one you do on your own, in teams, or with your traveling partners. It’s much more flexible, and the first part can be done almost anytime during the day. Your guide is only present during the second part, where they’ll explain the clues you might have missed.
I loved the concept, but felt the execution was lacking in a couple of places. Anything that grants you the freedom to enjoy a tour on your schedule is a great plus, and the map / tour takes you down some different paths of Sofia the other tours don’t. My issues were with the clues, the logical gaps, and the notion of explaining a thing / place well after you’ve visited it. Still, these are fairly minor quibbles for a tour with little overlap to other tours in this list.
More info at https://freesofiatour.com/blog/sofia-alternative-tour. Start at Gifted (GPS: 42.693980, 23.319650), just off of the main walking street, Vitosha Boulevard.
The New Sofia Pub Crawl – free beer and shots!
Now that i have your attention…! This is perhaps the most variable of the tours on this list (in other words, exactly where you’ll go will change based on the the crowd), but on a random rainy Wednesday in January, the crowd was a single-digit number. At least one stop, I was told, wouldn’t have allowed the group in if there were more than 15 people. Summertime weekends can apparently get 50-60 people, with the most ever being around 120 people. They’ll split up groups, so naturally, your mileage may vary.
The first stop for most tours is the bar in the park you meet at, where a local bottled beer is on the house. It’s a great place to settle in and get to know some of your fellow pub crawlers. Next for us was a old candelit barn (above), complete with a speakeasy feel, with a shot of rakia on the house. We were lucky — Wednesdays featured a jazz piano and bass that really contributed to the whole speakeasy vibe. The local hoppy beer (Divo Pivo at 6 lev) comes recommended, as is the homemade raspberry wine at the next place, a 120-year-old house where each room has a different theme. Another stop was familiar from the Graffiti Tour, and your choice of beer or wine was again on the house.
Depending on your tolerance (and willingness to mix beer, wine, and shots of hard liquors), you’ll probably have had enough by the time you reach the final destination. Up until this point, the best short description I had was ‘surprisingly classy’. The final place, essentially a basement club with bass loud enough to feel, was your chance to get dancing. If you hadn’t already had enough, a tequila shot had your name on it.
Bring some water and maybe some aspirin. This thing ‘officially’ ends a bit after midnight, and can go all night if you want to dance. The last place is in a reasonably central area, but the public transportation will have stopped running by the time this finished. That’s my only real complaint here (well, that and the understandable variability of the tours).
The pub crawl costs 20 lev, and starts at 9pm at the Crystal Park by the big head statue of Stefan Stambolov. More info at thenewsofiapubcrawl.com.
The 365: Communist Tour
Written by Laura, my wife:
There are a number of Communist tours in Sofia and you should be able to find one that suits your tastes. As I prefer walking to driving tours and enjoy value for money, this tour looked like the best option for me. You do learn a lot of interesting facts from Bulgaria’s socialist period, and I especially enjoyed hearing about the lives of ordinary citizens under Communism and also the aspects of that period that people liked (and that many still miss). From an informational point of view, this was a great tour. The only real issue I had was that the tour started at 4 PM on a rainy winter day when Sofia gets dark around 4:30-5:00, and the weather made for a miserable experience. Naturally, the company can’t help that it rains sometimes, but they might consider moving the winter tours to an earlier starting time so the tour can finish during daylight hours.
As it stands, I would heartily recommend this tour to anyone curious about Communism or about Bulgaria’s history who is in the city in summer and would suggest that perhaps another Communism tour in cars or with an earlier starting time might be a better choice during the winter.
Tours run everyday but Tuesday and Wednesday at 4pm, and run 3 to 3 1/2 hours. Learn more at http://tours.freesofiatour.com/communist-tour/#1.
The Bohemian Tour
Written by Laura, my wife:
The Bohemian tour was actually my favorite of the tours I’ve done in Sofia. The tour covers the years of the Bulgarian monarchy, which means the period from Ottoman liberation in 1878 until the Second World War. You’ll walk around for a couple of hours and hear a collection of interesting stories about various buildings in the capital, from why there’s a weird, tiny balcony on the side of the national bank to why people don’t sit on the benches next to the Russian church to the story of the snowball fight in front of the national theatre that landed several university students in jail. I do think it best to do this in conjunction with another tour such as the Free Sofia Tour so that you get both the overall picture and a few more interesting, quirky details. The tour is usually led by Viktor, a young man who is extraordinarily passionate about his subject and has clearly done the necessary research. I really got the feeling that he was leading the tour because he genuinely loves to talk about his city and is excited to share what he knows about it.
Tours start every Saturday at 4pm and last about 2 hours. Learn more at https://www.thefeelofsofia.com/thebohemian-sofia-tour.
The Communist Trabant Tour
Also called the Trabant Tour, this is a chance to ride in a Communist-era car. We haven’t (yet) tried this tour as of publication, but I’ll update if/when I do. It’s mentioned in the interest of completion.
Tours are free, no reservations required. Tours start every Saturday and Sunday at 10am at the Starbucks by the National Palace of Culture (GPS: 42.686145, 23.321449) More info at http://sofiacommunisttour.com/trabant-tour/.
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