Ana Blagova was born in Sofia and, aside from two short stints in Berlin and Istanbul, has spent her entire life there. Nowadays she spends her time running a small non-profit dedicated to promoting art in urban spaces and sharing her insider insight with the world as a Spotted By Locals contributor. Bulgaria’s capital city has been attracting more visitors each year, a trend Ana welcomes. As she says: “The more people, the more fun.” Here are some of Ana’s favorite things about her hometown.
Sofia is My City
When someone comes to visit me, the first place I take them is on a tour through several crucial parks in the city center. Hanging out for a drink in one of the parks is not only the best way to get an overall feel for the city — which is relatively walkable — it’s also a great way to meet a random sample of Sofia characters, the capital’s true capital. We like to spend time outside for as long as the weather permits and the fact that you can always run into friends is one of Sofia’s charms.
My city’s best museum is the National Museum of Archaeology because of its exhibit on Thracians – one of the oldest and most mysterious tribes in Europe — who inhabited parts of Bulgaria in ancient times. This museum probably contains the most content specific to Bulgaria if you’re looking to learn more about our culture.
The flea market under St. Paraskeva church and + tova are the places to buy authentic, local souvenirs – I am talking about smart new Bulgarian designs and the bizarre remains of old Sofia homes, which can truly make for unique takeaways. If you’re looking for traditional souvenirs related to Bulgarian folklore you can find them in the National Ethnographic Museum‘s gift shop.
You can see my city best from Vitosha, the nearby mountain, which rises as high as 2,300 meters (about 7,500 feet).
Locals know to skip Vitosha Boulevard, a street full of expensive shops and bars, and check out the small streets around St. Sedmochislenitsi Church – like Ivan Shishman and the “Small Five Corners” – instead.
Late spring is the best time to visit my city because people are crawling out of their winter hideaways to take advantage of the season of parks and open-air events. We’ve developed an “outside” culture, which I quite enjoy.
The best place to spend time outdoors in my city, not counting the mountain, is Borisova garden – a large park in heart of the city where families and young people gather to read, picnic, and play sports or music during the day. In the evening, the park in front of the National Theatre and the “Kristal” park become lively with young people. It’s really the best way to start the night.
My city really knows how to celebrate the 8th of December; we have a specific holiday dedicated to the students, which makes for pretty big parties around town, especially in the students’ district.
You can tell if someone is from my city if they say “let’s get a beer and sit in the park.”
For a fancy night out, I stop by Kristal garden or the Art Hostel Bar and gather intelligence about what’s going on later. It’s usually a tour of a few bars and clubs, which, in the best of cases, concludes with a house party.
Just outside my city, you can visit the Boyana Church, a UNESCO World Heritage site with unique medieval frescoes demonstrating perspective, realism, and individuality that are quite remarkable for the 13th century.
My city is known for being a drab post-socialist capital, but it’s really a cozy, lively place where the locals are friendly, welcoming, and enthusiastic.
The best outdoor market in my city is also the cheapest and the oldest: Lady’s market. Here you can find everything from vegetables to underwear to hardware. If somehow you didn’t make it to Istanbul (most Sofia visitors are en route to this old capital), you can get all your Istanbul souvenirs here; Turkish and Arabic immigrant shops flourish in this historic neighborhood. Sadly, the area is currently undergoing reconstruction in an attempt to become “less Oriental.”
My city’s biggest sports event is… hmmm, I don’t know about that, but certainly football is the sport. Any major championship will be loudly screened at open-air bars around town. The games of the national volleyball team and the occasional tennis championship hosted here also stir a lot of emotion.
When I’m feeling cash-strapped, I hang out in the park with friends. When I’m not, I still do that – I think one of the best parts about Sofia is that you don’t need too much money to enjoy it.
To escape the crowds, I bicycle all over, hunting for bizarre urban sights and ordinary Sofia – be it pre-fab neighborhoods or villages where cows still graze.
The dish that represents my city best is shopska salad, of course – tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and onions with white cheese — which was named after the slightly stubborn and silly inhabitants of the Sofia region, as folklore would have it. And the two-liter bottle of beer should be my city’s signature drink.
One of my favorite buildings in Sofia is really behind a building. On the backside of the National Art Gallery (formerly the royal palace), you can enjoy the rear of this key 19th-century building (there is a nice café there), observe the cathedral and the basilica on your left, and at the same time get a clear view of the factory chimneys of the industrial zone in the distance through a small side street.
In the spring you should rent a bike and explore Sofia through its parks. There is actually a bike tour that does just that.
In the summer you should take long walks and enjoy Sofia as it never is: quiet and empty. This is when a big percentage of the seven million people who inhabit the capital go on holiday.
In the fall you should watch the leaves fall in Borisova garden or in the park behind the National Art Gallery and get ready for the coming winter by attending film festivals.
In the winter you should do something sporty on Vitosha.
If there’s one thing you should know about getting around my city, it’s to walk; it will get you anywhere in the center faster and in a more pleasant way than any form of transportation. If you are biking, be careful; it’s still a bit of an extreme sport here.
In 140 characters or less, the world should heart my city because it’s small enough to make you feel cozy and surrounded by friends, yet big enough to surprise you. It finds a way to get under your skin.