Military Museum, Sofia
The National Military History Museum (to give it its official full name) covers Bulgaria
's military history from way back to almost the present day. The older bits may be less interesting to dark tourists, but the 20th century sections have some highly noteworthy items. A particular attraction to those into these things is the extensive collection of large military hardware in the open-air part, including Soviet
-era fighter jets, tanks, and large missiles.
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
What there is to see:
When I visited this museum (in April 2011) it was part of a larger package (see the sponsored page
for "Communism Tours
") and involved a guided tour through the museum's exhibition halls. Such guidance would not strictly speaking have been necessary, though:
Labels and most explanatory text panels in the museum are bilingual in Bulgarian and English (of more or less OK translation quality) so that you can extract as much information as you want on an independent visit. Without a guide setting the pace you also have more flexibility as to where you want to linger longer or which bits to swing past more quickly. I would have preferred that. That said, however, the guide was very good – highly competent in English, pleasant and obviously knowledgeable too, and here and there clearly adding extra information not covered by the text panels/labels. She even allowed me to take photos. So I'm not complaining. It's just that I think many dark tourists, tending towards being independently minded, might prefer to go round the museum on their own.
The museum's halls are spread over two wings and 4 floors (3 if you discount the floor for temporary exhibitions) in the main building. The permanent exhibition is organized chronologically, beginning in the 19th century with Bulgarian independence and the run-up to it, i.e. the struggle to overcome centuries of Ottoman rule.
Unless you're really into Bulgarian history, all these early parts are a bit tedious, and the exposition style rather old-fashioned and stuffy too. Lots of oil paintings and artefacts such as uniforms, weapons, medals, etc. – but in one corner a section about Vasil Levskiis is more interesting. He was a kind of national hero of Bulgaria thanks to his revolutionary legacy and martyrdom … he was captured and executed by the Turks. One artefact stood out for me, namely his shackles labelled "Vassil Levski's personal belongings" (sic!).
It carries on with the Russo-Turkish war that brought Bulgaria independence, on into the Balkan wars of the early 20th century, where artefacts become noticeably more "modern", and, inevitably, into World War One
and its aftermath. A life-size diorama display of a trench stands out here, complete with war noises from speakers and eerie blue light. Noteworthy are the gas masks – including one for a dog! Perhaps less engrossing for the dark tourist is all the Tsar worship in this part of the museum (including his tiny WW1 uniform ... must have been quite a petite tsar).
section is a little bit disappointing, but has some images of bombed Sofia and the dismantling of a German Reich's Eagle with swastika at the end of the war – but the exhibition otherwise doesn't exactly linger on Bulgaria
's taking the side of the fascists back then.
More interesting is the comparatively small post-WWII section labelled 1946 to 2005. Here the communist
era of alignment with the Soviet Unio
n and the Eastern Bloc
is illustrated through a few notable exhibits such as insignia and helmets from allied Warsaw Pact
countries, including a GDR
flag and NVA helmet.
Another national hero, Georgi Ivanov, Bulgaria's first man in space – though only by the grace of the Soviet Union's space programme, of course – gets a section of his own, with a portrait, models, and artefacts such as cosmonauts' food packages.
Also in this "modern" section are displays relating to Bulgaria's joining NATO
, which is clearly cause for celebration here. Much more so than the Todor Zhivkov years or Bulgarian military participation in the crushing of the Prague Spring
, for instance.
Instead, the remainder of the museum focuses on the glory of uniforms (yawn!), handguns (some Ottoman era ones are at least pretty) and medals (consistently mistranslated here as "orders", as in German 'Orden', which can indeed mean both).
Amongst the medals/decorations a few stand out for their intricate design, making them look more like pieces of jewellery. But most are as exciting as you can expect (i.e. not very much at all), even the section of medals given to Bulgarian Heads of State. I must admit, though, that I was quite surprised to find a "Bundesverdienstkreuz" ('Cross of Merit') from (West-)Germany
here. Todor Zhivkov himself is watching from an oil painting portrait on a wall nearby looking rather smug…
In the central staircase, note the coloured images in the windows: rarely do you get pictures of marching Nazis
, the fall of the Berlin Wall
, WW1 trench warfare and a large NATO round table meeting all juxtaposed together in one composition!
The open-air exhibition in the expansive courtyard of the museum is likely to be the prime attraction for many visitors (at least the male ones). Aircraft enthusiasts can marvel at such prime Soviet-era jet fighters such as MiG-23s, various versions of the famous MiG-21, and a more rarely seen SU-22, as well as numerous less spectacular planes. Amongst the helicopters is a Mil-Mi-24 attack gunship, with its bug-eyed-insect-like nose looking rather menacing. Tank and artillery buffs are also catered for ... but not being one of that target group I can't comment on the merits of the collection – to me all tanks look more or less the same.
From a particular dark perspective, the two large missiles with their mobile launchers near the museum entrance stand out – in significance as well as literally. One is a relatively modern SS-23 – which was controversial in relation to the late 1980s INF Treaty negotiations. The other is an older but bigger Scud-D ballistic missile, which was widely in service in the Warsaw Pact
and beyond. Infamously, Iraq
used their versions of the Scud missiles against Israel
in the Gulf War of 1991. Other missiles are surface-to-air varieties, together with their dramatic radar guidance systems, and there are searchlights and a few rather more obscure objects to see too. Some of the exhibits look a bit grubby and worn, but the range of the hardware is indeed impressive.
Somewhat disturbingly, I found a number of instances of graffiti combining the names of Stalin
with little hearts (in the "I love X" manner), including one drawn in the dust on the cone of a MiG-21! Are they meant to be ironic? Are they just thoughtless doodles? Or were they left by genuine die-hard fans of Stalin? Who knows …
In sum, then, the museum may not be for everyone – especially the endless displays of uniforms, flags and medals will only appeal to dyed-in-the-wool military history buffs (which I am not). Similarly, the range of big gear, especially the missiles and planes, will appeal more to those with an aeronautics streak (which I do possess), but even for the not-so-military-minded dark tourists there are the odd bits and pieces in the collection that are of particular interest even if the majority of the exhibits are not. Whether it's worth coming here for this, everyone will have to judge on that basis. I found it on balance one of the best elements of my short stay in Sofia
... though in my personal view the grotesquely shoddy 1300 Years of Bulgaria Monument ruin
still remains the absolute "highlight" overall!
To the east of Sofia
's city centre, at 92 ulica Cherkovna, some 1.5 miles (2.5 km) east of the Palace of Culture or from the former Party House on Nazavisimost square.
Access and costs: a bit outside the city centre requiring a long walk or transport; cheap.
Details: the museum is some way off the central tourist track, but not entirely outside walking distance, if you don't mind using your legs a bit more. From e.g. Alexander Nevski Cathedral it's a good mile (1.7 km) first down along boulevard Tsar Osvoboditel, past the Soviet Army Monument, and then down boulevard Tsarigradsko Shose. Just behind the Mound of Brotherhood turn left into boulevard Mihai Eminesku and carry on straight for three blocks to the corner of Cherkovna Street, where the Museum entrance is located.
If you need to take public transport you could brave the bus/trolleybus system (e.g. first bus line 9 or 72, then 120 to get straight to the door – or cut the walking distance by getting a trolleybus down boulevard Tsarigradsko Shose and walk the last bit as described) – or simply take a taxi.
Opening times: Wednesday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (last admission 5 p.m.), closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Admission: 2 Lev (ca. 1 EUR)
Time required: between one and two hours, depending on whether you take a guided tour and to what degree you are interested in older military history, uniforms and medals and/or how long you might take viewing the large military hardware outside. (I could have done without the former altogether but would have liked to spend more time amongst the missiles and planes for photography, but had to get back to join my wife and my guide …)
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Sofia
– closest to the museum are two of the city's grandest socialist memorials: the Mound of Brotherhood is just a couple of blocks away to the south-west in Borisova Gradina Park. To the north of that, the Soviet Army Monument is the greatest example of such OTT statuary in the whole of Sofia.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Sofia
- Sofia Military Museum 01 - entrance
- Sofia Military Museum 02 - main buildings and missiles
- Sofia Military Museum 03 - inside
- Sofia Military Museum 04 - Vasil Levski section
- Sofia Military Museum 05 - personal shackles
- Sofia Military Museum 06 - not so exciting
- Sofia Military Museum 07 - into the 20th century
- Sofia Military Museum 08 - WW1 trench diorama
- Sofia Military Museum 09 - WW1 gas mask for dogs
- Sofia Military Museum 10 - WWII bombing of Sofia
- Sofia Military Museum 11 - Warsaw Pact allies
- Sofia Military Museum 12 - Georgi Ivanov
- Sofia Military Museum 13 - now proud NATO member
- Sofia Military Museum 14 - jewellery-like medal
- Sofia Military Museum 15 - pretty pendants
- Sofia Military Museum 16 - West German Cross of Merit
- Sofia Military Museum 17 - smug Zhivkov glinting from the gloom
- Sofia Military Museum 18 - MiG-23
- Sofia Military Museum 19 - Su-22
- Sofia Military Museum 20 - MiL-Mi-24
- Sofia Military Museum 21 - bug-nosed
- Sofia Military Museum 22 - tanks galore
- Sofia Military Museum 23 - more tanks and artillery
- Sofia Military Museum 24 - Scud missile
- Sofia Military Museum 25 - SS-23 missile
- Sofia Military Museum 26 - SAMs pointing up
- Sofia Military Museum 27 - James-Bond-like gear
- Sofia Military Museum 28 - radar and stuff
- Sofia Military Museum 29 - mysterious object
- Sofia Military Museum 30 - junk corner in the back
- Sofia Military Museum 31 - Stalin still loved
- Sofia Military Museum 32 - lion outside museum building entrance