Sofia was founded three thousand years ago, by an ancient Thracian tribe, the ‘Serdi’, and was indeed known as Serdica until the beginning of the ninth century. Dramatically ringed by the Balkan Mountains to the north and the Vitosha Mountains to the south, the capital stands on an open plain 550m (1804ft) above sea level in western Bulgaria. Owing to its altitude, the summers are moderately hot and the winters cold and snowy, making spring and autumn the best times in which to visit. The town centre is dominated by neo-classical Stalinist architecture and is surrounded by a sprawling periphery of bleak, Socialist-era block housing – a formidable greeting for the first-time visitor. However, a peek through the side streets and century-old commercial quarter reveals the true magic of Sofia – a very European city of tree-lined boulevards and balconied buildings by 19th-century Russian and Viennese architects. Standing among a cluster of ancient and neo-Byzantine Orthodox churches, one functioning mosque is virtually all that remains of 500 years of Ottoman domination. However, it is in street life where the character of the city is to be found. Locals meet for coffee at open-air cafés, vast bazaars offer an array of pickles and farm produce, gypsies sell flowers on street corners, while shoppers queue to board the city’s rattling trams and folk musicians serenade the metro users.
From the earliest times, Sofia’s main attraction has been its thermal springs, which are still in public use today as a water source. Its strategic location on military and trade routes made it an important administrative centre in Roman times, reaching its grandeur as an early centre of Christianity during the reign of Constantine in the fourth century. Two significant Byzantine churches remain. In 1382, the Turks conquered the city but when they were ousted in 1878 Sofia became the capital and its grand boulevards were constructed, cutting through the grid-plan quarters that had grown up around the oriental nucleus. Ottoman-imposed mosques were torn down, as the Orthodox Church was reinstated.
During World War II, Bulgaria became part of the Axis and Sofia was heavily bombed in British and American raids – 3000 buildings were destroyed and 9000 damaged, which accounts for its newness today. When the war ended in 1944, Russian soldiers took the capital and Bulgaria became part of the Eastern Bloc. Under Communism, Sofia underwent a period of rapid industrialisation – new factories and high-rise apartment blocks grew up to form extended suburbs and the city’s population escalated as thousands migrated from rural areas. The regime officially came to an end in 1989 although it remains the most obvious legacy in contemporary urban culture and architecture. Despite these impositions, Sofia retains and is reclaiming its sense of European elegance and identity.
Politically and economically however Bulgaria continues to suffer from the vacuum left by Communism. The 1990s saw chaotic political instability, soaring unemployment, hyperinflation and rampant corruption. During privatisation measures, former Communist party members and their families managed to hold onto power and economic influence and still dominate the city’s government and trade, which has not helped its social development or aspirations. In mid 2001, King Simeon Saxe-Coburg II, previously exiled in Spain, was elected Prime Minister on an anti-corruption platform but results have yet to be felt.
Today, visitors to Sofia will find a typical Balkan mix of Orthodox and Muslim cultures.
To help you navigate your way around the capital city of Bulgaria we have provided three very useful Links below: