Sofia Introduction Walking Tour (Self Guided), Sofia

"Ever growing, never aging" This is the motto of Sofia, capital city of Bulgaria. Under different names, the area of Sofia has had a 7,000 year history. Organized settlements around the area's hot water springs existed as early as the third millennium BC. A Thracian state union there was raided by Philip II of Macedon in 339 BC.

The Celtic Serdi provided the name "Serdica" to the city. In 29 BC the city was attacked by the Roman general Crassus and Serdica became a Roman city. Serdica has always been a magnet for conquerors. It was for many things, the location, the baths, but the city looked good to the Huns, Visigoths, Avars, Slavs, Byzantines, and Ottomans.

In 809 Serdica became part of the Bulgarian Empire, changing its name to Sredets. In 1018 the Byzantines stepped in until 1194, when the Bulgarian Empire made a comeback. From the 12th to the 14th century, the place was a thriving center of trade and crafts. It was known for its goldsmithing, thanks to the the wealth of mineral resources in the neighboring mountains. The city changed its name to Sofia in 1376 after the Church of St Sophia.

The Ottomans ended all that in 1385. Bulgarian rule was not restored until 1878 with the Russo-Turkish War. With liberation, Sofia became the capital of modern Bulgaria.

Sofia's architecture shows a combination of many styles. In spite of the ravages of the 20th century, a respectable number of ancient Roman, Byzantine and medieval buildings are still standing and preserved in the city center.

Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral has the largest collection of icons in Europe. Boyana Church holds perfectly preserved Byzantine frescoes. Byzantine Saint George Rotunda survives from Roman times. The Neo-Classicist National Theatre is a local favorite.

Pirotska Street and Vitosha Boulevard are the most popular streets with world famous designer brands and local goods. Modern boutiques adorn malls built within the last ten years. The antiques bazaar thrives in front of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The Women's Market by Lions Bridge is the oldest market of the city.

Ever growing, never aging indeed. Sofia offers everything for the traders, the pilgrims, and the ever curious tourists.
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Sofia Introduction Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Sofia Introduction Walking Tour
Guide Location: Bulgaria » Sofia (See other walking tours in Sofia)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 13
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.6 Km or 1.6 Miles
Author: stacey
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
  • Saint Sofia Church
  • Russian Church
  • Prince Alexander of Battenberg Square
  • National Archaeological Museum
  • Church of Saint George
  • Banya Bashi Mosque
  • Central Sofia Market Hall
  • Sofia Synagogue
  • Pirotska Street
  • Church of St Petka of the Saddlers
  • St. Nedelya Church
  • Vitosha Boulevard
1
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

1) Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (must see)

The prophet Isaiah claimed the Lord appoints the princes, "...because they are sacred and I direct them." The second Peskovian Chronicle of 1280 or thereabouts declares Alexander Nevsky had "...the face of Joseph,... the power of Samson and... the wisdom of Solomon." And if that were not enough, "...he...was never defeated."

Prince, politician, warrior and saint, he was a hard act to follow. He earned the name Nevsky by defeating invading Swedes at the battle of the river Neva in 1240. He was 19 at the time. He died in 1263. He was declared a saint of the Orthodox Church in 1547.

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral of Sophia was started in 1882. The Cathedral was dedicated to the memory of Russian soldiers who died in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. Their sacrifice brought about the end of Ottoman rule. Only a saint with Nevsky's resume would merit a Cathedral of this size.

Alexander N. Pomerantsev, a Russian eclecticist architect, designed the Cathedral, a neo-Byzantine cross-domed basilica. There are several domes and numerous window arches. The topmost dome is gold. Yes, gold. The cathedral is believed to be one of the largest church buildings in the world.

The golden dome is 148 feet high. The nave roof span is 92 feet. There are 12 bells weighing 23 tons. The interior covers an area of 34,000 square feet and can hold 10,000 people. The cavernous interior holds two royal thrones and a sumptuous-looking pulpit. There is a mosaic mural of Tsar Ferdinand and Queen Eleanor.

There is a museum within the crypt with the largest collection of icons in Europe. By the altar is a case of relics of Alexander Nevsky, featuring a rib.

The Cathedral sits in the midst of enormous Alexander Nevsky Square. Nearby are St. Sofia Church, the monument of the Unknown Soldier, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the National Gallery of Foreign Art, the Bulgarian Parliament and a small flea market.
2
Saint Sofia Church

2) Saint Sofia Church (must see)

Saint Sofia Church was built during the reign of Byzantine emperor Justinian I in the 6th century. It was contemporaneous with the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople. Like the Hagia Sofia, the Cathedral became a mosque during Ottoman rule. Unlike the Hagia Sofia, it later returned to being a church.

Saint Sofia is the second oldest church in the capital. In the 14th century it donated its name "Sofia" to the city, which heretofore went by the name "Sredets." The present basilica, with its cross design and three towers, one with a cupola-dome, is the fifth church to be built over the bones of a 2nd century Roman theatre and four churches.

When the basilica became a mosque in the 16th century, the interior 12th century frescoes were demolished and minarets were added. In the 19th century the mosque was hit by two earthquakes. One minaret was destroyed and the mosque was left abandoned. Restoration had to wait until 1900, after the Ottomans had left.

The basilica has three altars. The floors are busy with early Christian mosaics having complex ornate animal and floral designs. Besides the ruins of earlier structures, the church also sits in the midst of a necropolis. Tombs and ancient remains have been unearthed under and around the church.

Saint Sofia's benevolent powers are credited with protecting the church by fending off invasions, plagues and other disasters. This has undoubtedly helped preserve the basilica's elegant austere lines from an earlier age. Church icons depict Sofia as a woman representing Wisdom. She stands above the female figures of Faith, Hope and Love.
3
Russian Church

3) Russian Church (must see)

The last days of the Ottoman Empire in Bulgaria saw the destruction of the Saray Mosque in Sofia in 1882. Bulgaria had been liberated from Ottoman control by Russia in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. It so happened that the empty lot for the mosque was next door to the Russian Embassy. Just the place for an official Russian church.

The church was named for St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker, the patron saint of Tsar Nicholas II. Russian architect Mikhail Preobrazhenski designed the church in a Russian Revivalist style. Similar to Muscovite churches of the 17th century, the church was built by Alexander Smirnov, who was working on the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral next door.

The multicolored tiles on the exterior were done by G. Kislichev. The interior murals were painted by the same artists who did the murals for Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. There are five golden domes. The carillon was donated by Tsar Nicholas II of unhappy memory. Building began in 1907. Consecration came in 1914, in time for the Russian Revolution.

The church actually remained open during the Communist regime in Bulgaria, 1944-1989. Attendance and services continued under the watchful eyes of the commissars. The Russian church was not interfered with.

The crypt of the church harbors the remains of Saint Archbishop Seraphim Sobolev. He was the operator and moving spirit of Russian Orthodox churches in Bulgaria from 1921 until his death in 1950. He has been canonized a saint and has been credited with several miracles. Visitors customarily leave notes at this grave, asking for his intervention.

The church has two entrances. The south entrance, on Tsar the Liberator (Tsar Osvoboditel) Boulevard, has the face of Saint Nicholas above it. The north entrance faces a nearby park. Above it is the likeness of Alexander Nevsky. Guided tours should be arranged in advance.
4
Prince Alexander of Battenberg Square

4) Prince Alexander of Battenberg Square

Alexander of Battenberg was the first Prince of the Principality of Bulgaria. He became the Prince in 1879. The Bulgarian Grand National Assembly voted him in. At that time Bulgaria was an autonomous Principality of the fast fading Ottoman Empire. He was not sufficiently subservient to Russian interests. He was forced to abdicate in 1886.

During the Communist era in Bulgaria (1944-1989), the square was called September 9th Square for the coup d'etat of 1944. Before the Communist coup the square had been known as Tsar's Square. The Tsar's royal palace was situated there. The palace is today the National Art Gallery. The square also became the home of the Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum.

Georgi was the first Communist leader of Bulgaria. He died in 1949. He got top billing at the Mausoleum. Vasil Kolarov was number two. He died in 1950. He got a niche in the east wall. There were plots and attempts to blow up the Mausoleum from the very start. Finally the post-Communist UDF government exploded the building after four attempts.

The square is the most favorable venue in Sofia for outdoor events and concerts. Military parades were held often in the Communist era. The only popular such parade today is the Bulgarian Armed Forces Day Parade, held on May 6th each year.
5
National Archaeological Museum

5) National Archaeological Museum (must see)

The largest and oldest Ottoman mosque in the city of Sofia, Koca Mahmut Pasha Camii, was the creation of Grand vizier Veli Mahmud Pasha. Mahmud was a child of the Byzantine Angelos family of Thessaloniki. He was captured by Ottomans when he was a boy and raised as a Muslim. Because of his service in the siege of Belgrade in 1456, he was made Vizier which is a high official in Ottoman empire.

Mahmud pasha died in 1474. The mosque was completed in 1494. In 1880 the mosque, like Mahmud, was captured but unlike other mosques, it did not become a church. It became a library and then a museum. The National Museum was established in the old mosque in 1893. Its first director was Czech Archeologist and scholar, Vaclav Dobrusky.

The museum still uses the ancient stone building of the mosque in spite of unfavorable conditions of humidity in the summer. New halls were added on to the museum during the years. There are five exhibition halls: Central, Prehistory, Middle Ages, Treasure, and a special hall for temporary exhibitions. All managed by the Bulgarian Academy of Science.

In the lower floor of the north wing the Prehistory hall holds items from 1,600,000 BC to 1,600 BC. The Treasury Vault hold rare and precious items from the Bronze Age to late Antiquity. The Main Hall has diverse collections of ancient Greece and Rome. The Medieval Section is on the second floor of the main building.

Opening Hours: 10 am - 5 pm daily
6
Church of Saint George

6) Church of Saint George (must see)

In a courtyard between the Sheraton Hotel and the Office of the President is a red brick rotunda from the 4th century. It was built as a Roman bath inside Serdica, the ancient capital of Dacia. The bath became an early Christian church and it now is a part of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

The building is domed and cylindrical on a square base. Inside are magnificent frescoes of the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries. Layers of frescoes dating back to the 10th century have been uncovered. Portraits of 22 prophets, each six feet tall, line the dome. These treasures were painted over during the Ottoman era and discovered in the 20th century.

The dome is 45 feet above the floor. There are five layers of frescoes. The oldest is Roman-Byzantine with floral designs. Next is medieval Bulgarian with 10th century angels. Third is a frieze with prophets and scenes of the Assumption, Ascension, and more. Fourth holds a 14th century portrait of a bishop. Last of all is a scene of Islamic ornament.

On special occasions the church is a venue for military ceremonies and concerts featuring classical and religious music.
7
Banya Bashi Mosque

7) Banya Bashi Mosque

The Square of Tolerance in Sofia is not an open square. Two Christian churches a synagogue and a mosque are at different points of a large rectangle filled with other buildings. The concept of Tolerance in Bulgaria dates from 11 AD, when the Emperor Galerius gave up persecutions and issued his Edict of Toleration.

The Edict applied to all of Sofia (it was called Serdica back then) and the Empire. The Mosque in the rectangle is Banya Bashi Mosque. Banya Bashi means, literally, "many baths." The mosque was built over ancient thermal baths. Until the liberation of Bulgaria in 1878, the square in front of Banya Bashi Mosque was the center of Sofia. There were mineral baths, a fountain and markets.

The mosque was designed by Koca Mimar Sinan. The mosque was ordered by the Kadi of Sofia, Kadi Seyfullah Effendi in memory of his deceased wife. The construction was finished in 1566. The mosque has four domes with a single minaret in the center. The main entrance is an arcade supported by three stone pillars. The domes are covered in lead.

The main room is a cube with a dome strengthened by half-arches. Inside, the dome becomes the sky, with the Lord overhead. The interior of the mosque is covered with floral and geometrical motifs and Islamic calligraphy. There is a sense of endless space. The mosque can accommodate about 700 devotees. Friday services are especially lively.
8
Central Sofia Market Hall

8) Central Sofia Market Hall

The official name in English is Central Sofia Hall, but it is popularly known as "The Market Hall." It is a covered market in the center of town on Marie Louise Boulevard. It was designed by Bulgarian architect Naum Torbov and it opened in 1911. Until 1950 the city rented out 170 shops in the Hall. The market was closed in 1988 for alterations.

The market was modernized and it opened again at Easter time in 2000. The Central Sofia Market Hall employs more than 1,000 people. There are three floors of shops for foodstuffs, fast food, clothing, jewelry, and accessories. The building as designed by Torbov remains. It is regarded as his best work.

The style of construction is Neo-Renaissance with Neo-Byzantine and Neo-Baroque elements. On the facade, above the main entrance, is the coat of arms of Sofia installed by artist Haralampi Tachev. The clock tower has three clock dials. There are four entrances, but not all are in use. There is a parking area in front of the hall.
9
Sofia Synagogue

9) Sofia Synagogue

The Sofia Synagogue serves the spiritual needs of Sofia's Sephardic Jews. It is the largest synagogue in Southeastern Europe and is one of the two operating synagogues in Bulgaria. Designed by the Austrian architect Friedrich Grunanger, it opened in the presence of Tsar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria in 1909.

It was similar to the Moorish Leopoldstadter Temple of Vienna. It was built on a lot previously occupied by another synagogue. It was intended as a part of the reorganization of the Bulgarian Jewish community. The synagogue is next to the Central Market Hall. It can hold 1,300 persons. The main chandelier weighs nearly two tons.

The attendance at services is never large enough to fill the space available. Although the Synagogue is located in "Tolerance Square", Bulgaria's reputation for tolerance has not been as as sterling as it might have been. Most of the country's Jews opted to move to Israel.

The style of the building is Moorish Revival with influences of the artists school of the Vienna Secession. The facade shows Venetian elements. The synagogue has an octagonal dome. The interior has columns of Carrara marble, Venetian mosaics, and ornate woodcarvings.

As of 1992 the Synagogue hosts the Jewish Museum of History. The history includes the fate of Jews in Bulgaria, the Holocaust and Rescue. There is also a gift shop.
10
Pirotska Street

10) Pirotska Street

The first pedestrianized street in Sofia, Pirotska Street always has something more to offer. Start with a local bakery, munch on a banitza, a Bulgarian cheese pastry, and take a stroll. Halite, the Central Market Hall, is at the start of the stroll. It has many small shops upstairs, and food stalls on the ground floor.

The whole street is jammed with shops and anything is available. Goods are much less expensive than the more high-end shopping streets. It's crowded and exciting. Pirotska is in the city's hub. There are over 100 stores, restaurants, cafes and various other entertainments. The area is easily accessible by tram, metro or trolley bus.

Pirotska Street is the "other" street where walking is king. Most shops are geared to local and regional manufactures and goods. It offers a pleasant alternative to the big-time chain outlets. It's fun to wander and see something different.
11
Church of St Petka of the Saddlers

11) Church of St Petka of the Saddlers

In the center of the city of Sofia, half-buried at a TZUM subway stop, there is a little church. It has but one nave in a cylindrical vault and a hemispherical apse. The walls are of brick and stone and three feet thick. This is the church of Saint Petka of the Saddlers.

Saint Petka or Parascheva of the Balkans was an ascetic woman of the 11th century. She was born on the shores of the Sea of Marmara. She led an austere life and died in Constantinople at the age of 27. There are two other saints with her name. There is Saint Paraschevi of Rome, a 2nd century martyr, and Saint Paraskevi of Iconium.

There is confusion about these three saints and some pre-Christian slavic deities. However the little church of Saint Petka in Sofia is dedicated to Saint Petka of the Balkans.

The church is labeled "of the Saddlers" because in the Middle Ages, Saint Petka was the patron saint of saddlemakers who lived nearby. The church was small since by Ottoman law at that time, no church could be higher than an ordinary house.

The most impressive feature of the church are the murals inside. They show mainly Biblical scenes painted at different times. There are murals from the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries.

Vasil Levski, the great revolutionary hero of Bulgaria, is believed to have been buried in the crypt of Saint Petka's. No clear evidence of this has been found, but the legend persists. Church hours are Monday to Sunday from 7:30 am to 7:30 pm.
12
St. Nedelya Church

12) St. Nedelya Church (must see)

The name Sveta Nedelya is "Holy Sunday." Stephan Gerlach, a German traveler in the 16th century, noted that the church had several names meaning "Sunday." One name was Greek, "Kyriaki." It means "Sunday", but it is derived from "Kyrios", meaning "Lord." There is a martyr named Saint Kyriaki. In Bulgarian, "Sveta Nedelya." And so it goes.

Sveta Nedelya is believed to have been built in the 10th century. Its foundation was of stone but the remainder of the building was wood. In the 18th century Sveta Nedelya became a bishop's residence and the final resting place for the remains of Serbian King Stefan Milutin, which had been on the move since 1460.

The old church was demolished in 1856 to make room for the Cathedral which was to follow. The new building was damaged by an earthquake in 1858. It was finally finished in 1863. In May 1867 it was inaugurated with the help of 20,000 people. A new belfry was added in 1879 to accommodate the carillon donated by Prince Alexander M. Dondukov-Korsakov.

In 1925 the church was blown up by Communist terrorists. By 1933 the church was fully restored. The restoration kept the same size and had a central dome 93 feet high. The floor was renovated and the north colonnade reglazed by 1994. The facade received a cleaning in 2000.
13
Vitosha Boulevard

13) Vitosha Boulevard (must see)

Vitosha Boulevard is named for Mount Vitosha, a natural emblem of Sofia. It is the main commercial and shopping street of Sofia. It reaches from Saint Nedelya Square to the Southern Park. All along the way are high-end stores, restaurants and bars. The magic word is posh. Posh on the boulevard and neighboring streets. Let us name the names.

On the Boulevard can be found: Versace, Escada, Bulgarian, D&G, La Perla, Lacoste, Van Laak, Moreschi, Marella, Gianfranco Ferre, Armani, Tommy Hilfiger, Boss and Baldini, to mention only a few. A 2007 Cushman & Wakefield study found that Vitosha Boulevard is the world's 22nd most expensive street to shop. Even Goodwill would have delicious stuff.

Before the liberation in 1878, the street was lined with one story houses. It changed into a big time trade street between the world wars. The new word was "massive." The most distinguished buildings on the Boulevard are: The National Palace of Culture, The Palace of the Courts, The house of poet Peyo Yavarov, and the "Pharmacy", a favorite watering hole.

In 2007 another renovation was announced, aimed at restoring some of the style of Sofia in the 1930s. Benches, historical street lights, and Art Nouveau kiosks were installed. Green areas were created. Then came fountains, al fresco bars and a clock tower at Saint Nedelya's showing times in several world capitals.

In 2015 another renovation included the creation of a totally pedestrianized zone between Patriarch Evtimiy Boulevard and Alabin Street.

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