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I know. It’s terrible. Please forgive me now for what I’m about to say! I’ve never felt this way before about any town! Sure, there were a few cities I just didn’t care for that I had had high expectations about, for example, Aachen, Germany. Then there were cities like Stuttgart, Germany that I just overall didn’t like. But never before have I absolutely hated a city and wanted to leave ASAP as I did with Sofia, Bulgaria.
Originally titled “I’m Sorry…but I HATED Sofia, Bulgaria” but I received too much hate mail to keep the controversial title. At the time of writing this post, I felt nothing but pure anger from our experience in Sofia. Now that time has passed, I’ve changed the title because it’s rare that I actually HATE anything and it is such a strong word. Perhaps one day we will return and give Sofia a second chance. Read all the way through, but in case you don’t feel like hearing me out, just hear this, I am in NO WAY telling anyone they should NOT visit!! But I am certainly NOT going to lie and tell people it’s amazing when it was anything but for us. We were truly saddened by our entire experience. Thank you for your understanding.
I’m also not gonna lie, I wanted to go to the capital mostly to see their big and glorious Alexsandur Nevski Memorial Church. I do love me a beautiful piece of architecture and I’ll go anywhere for a pretty building. So, when I discovered that we would be driving through the Balkans for our two week honeymoon, it seemed like a no brainer to add the city to our itinerary.
I did my due diligence and researched like crazy, bought travel guides and knew what I was getting myself into. I knew that having once been a communist country, the quality of buildings would be poor and in that typical 70’s style cement architecture that was so cheap and fashionable back then. I knew that buildings would like be hanging on for dear life, but I wasn’t expecting it to be soooo bad. I had figured the country would have started rebuilding and renovating by now. And sure, they have, but clearly not fast enough and money is being funneled into the pockets of corrupt politicians, clearly visible by the parking lot directly in front of the Alexsandur Nevski Memorial Church and Parliament buildings.
I try not to go anywhere with unrealistic expectations, but sometimes it can’t be helped and my imagination runs wild with picture perfect alleys, amazing architecture and Instagram-worthy spots. Every blog post I found about Sofia only raved about how amazing the city was, great places to see and eat and never once mentioned any negative things about the city. Once there, I realized that all these posts had built up this image in my head that the city would be amazing, full of history and everything a traveler could ask for. But, for me, Sofia lacked anything I could fall in love with and I started to wonder if other people REALLY loved the city or if there was something wrong with me. Maybe I just didn’t get Sofia.
Mind you, I should mention, we had a terrible experience with our hotel the night before, were forced to stay there as I couldn’t find an affordable last minute change of hotel, woke up with bug bites which left us very bitter. This was supposed to be one our honeymoon, not an overnight stay from hell. This bitterness most likely rolled over into our sightseeing experience which affected the way we took it all in, but from a local’s perspective, there are many things to do in Sofia which just shows me that Sofia isn’t as bad as we experienced.
Nonetheless, crappy hotel aside, we tried to make the most out of our stay, but quickly decided to cancel the second night in Sofia and instead made a beeline for an overnight stay in Plovidv, which had originally been planned as a quick stop by day trip. Turned out to be a blessing in disguise!
What I didn’t like about Sofia
1. Sketchy Buildings
We had dinner reservations for an authentic Bulgarian experience which included live singing and dancing at Chevermeto which I was not willing to skip. However, upon arrival, I immediately wasn’t sure it would be safe, as it looked incredibly sketchy, but it was next to the Palace of Culture and the parking lot was full of expensive looking cars. It had to be safe, right?
So, we gave it a go. Turned out to be the best part of our entire 20 hours in Sofia.
The singing was rather dull as they just stood there in the corner, in what felt like stage fright. However, the dancing was amazing, full of partner dances, costume changes and encouraging the diners to join in the dancing. Turns out, folk dancing is still VERY MUCH a part of Bulgarian tradition and the audience was mostly locals who happily joined in the dance several times. Would I recommend it? Definitely!
2. No Parking Garages
The next day, we had planned to do a full day of sightseeing in Sofia, but having checked out of our disgusting hotel, all of our belongings were in the car. As we couldn’t find a real parking garage, as these seem to be non-existent there, we found a sketchy dirt parking lot with a loud Bulgarian yelling at us the price as if yelling would make us understand better. Nonetheless, we parked as we saw they at least had surveillance cameras and there were other nice cars in the lot and quickly did a 3-4 hour walk through the “city” on our own because it took us so long to find a parking lot and we missed out on the free walking tour.
3. The Desperate Need of TLC of Many Buildings
I found it quite sad to see the Alexsandur Nevski Memorial Church up close and see the slow decay of the building. The frescoes on the inside were incredibly dark with years of water stains running down it’s ceiling and walls.
Just a few feet away was the Church of Sveta Sofia and it took us as quite a surprise that the floors on the inside were covered in puddles of water, and slightly smelled like urine. On the INSIDE! We found this incredibly sad as this site is Sofia’s oldest surviving church dating back to the 6th century!
The Rotunda of Sveti Georgi had a plaque commemorating the EU’s help in preserving this pre-Christian Church, but it was clear that either after the renovation the country let the church crumble again, or if the renovation was poorly completed.
It just seemed to me there was no pride in the city’s history and architecture. And I can understand that during the Communist Era, religion was abandoned and unimportant, so the church was likely left to sit. But it’s been over 20 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain. You’d think by now the church would have received a little bit of TLC.
The only buildings that seemed to be in perfect working order, mind you they’re a few hundred years newer than the fore mentioned sites, were the former Communist Central Headquarters and the Presidency building.
4. The Amount of Graffiti
I understand that every major city is plagued by completely random, pointless and ugly graffiti. It just can’t be helped. But, Sofia has a graffiti epidemic that I felt was taking over the city. Everywhere we went, there was a ton of graffiti degrading the beauty of the city.
5. The Condition of Streets & Sidewalks
Never in my life have I walked through a town that had more danger zones than in Sofia. So many of the sidewalks, around memorials and even the streets were lined with crumbling paths. Stones were missing everywhere and I was afraid one of us would break an ankle tripping over a hole in the ground.
6. Lack of a “City Center”
Yes, while we were in the city center, this statement makes no sense. But, we felt that either we missed, couldn’t find or there was no “heart” of the city center. Where were the rows of cafes, restaurants, shops? Where did people hang out? This is the most important part of any city and town, and yet all we could find were large former Communist buildings and apartments. Perhaps we overlooked it in our desire to quickly leave, but nonetheless, we were saddened by this.
7. No Breakfast Before 12pm
What? It’s the most important meal of the day! We had attempted to eat a lousy breakfast at our crummy hotel, only to sit down at the tables which were covered in stains and crumbs. Instead, we left our plates on the table and left, hoping to find somewhere to sit down for breakfast in town. Nope. Remember, I said we couldn’t find cafes and restaurants. We did find a couple which were open, and when asked if they had breakfast retorted “No breakfast” or “No food until 12pm”. What? WHY? Do Bulgarians not eat breakfast? So, we ended up at a small cafe almost an hour after looking for food. Went to order the breakfast they had pictured on the wall… nope, they don’t have that. Then WHY THE HECK do you have the picture on the wall with the company logo?!? I give up.
I hate to be a Debbie Downer and I don’t like “City-Bashing”, but I felt I needed to write about all these reasons why we didn’t love Sofia. I still feel like we missed out on something great in Sofia because of our overall experience at the hotel. We were supposed to stay in Sofia for 2 full days and I had a list of sites I wanted to visit, of which we only saw half. I had planned to do a free walking food tour and a Communism tour, but that was abandoned when we realized in the few short hours we were there, how much we really didn’t like the city and how much we desperately just wanted to leave and go to Plovdiv.
Of course, there were a few things that were very beautiful and not falling into ruins, but it wasn’t enough to make me want to stay longer and explore more. And when I flip through my tour guide book, or look at other travel posts about Sofia, I can see that there are some beautiful buildings like the Mineral Baths, the Sofia Synagogue, and the National Theater which we missed.
Not every trip can be picture perfect and the most epic trip of a lifetime. There are bound to be ups and downs on any given trip. Sofia just happened to be a “trip fail”. Perhaps, in a few years, we could give it another go and maybe some of my complaints will have improved. Perhaps next time, to get a true feeling of the town, we would be better suited to have a local show us around to show us what they love so much about their city.
Another travel blogger, Ada from Everlasting Voyage had a completely different experience in Sofia, of which I was quite jealous. She stated that she danced with locals, went on the free food tour and felt incredibly comfortable there. I was quite astounded at the stark contrasts between our visits, only a few short weeks shy of one another.
I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from visiting the capital of Bulgaria, but I also don’t want to lie to you and say how amazing it was. I think it’s important to share every experience, good or bad, in order to get a true sense of a place before visiting, to know what you’re getting yourself into.
I’m sorry, but Sofia just didn’t do it for me. And this feeling of not liking a city really bothers me because I fall in love with practically every city!
Looking for more practical information on Balkan Travel? Grab a copy the following travel guides which we found incredibly useful on our trip and has something for everyone from outdoor activities to historical sites!