The capital city of Bulgaria
and as such almost inevitably a starting point for tours of this country. But the city itself also has a number of things to offer the dark tourist, including a quirky old-fashioned military museum and a few gigantic memorials ranging from prime socialist realism
glory to a crumbling piece of junk so unimaginably crappy that it's just hilarious.
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
What there is to see: Quite a few things, though no really major dark sites. Still, one place warrants a separate entry of its own, the rest is covered in the text below.
- Military Museum
Apart from this, sites associated with the former communist regime will be of prime importance to most dark tourists. The largest of these is the former Party House, the communist
party's central committee HQ. This is the closest Sofia ever got to a proper Stalinist-style pile, with its tall needle on top, which used to be crowned, Kremlin
-style, by a massive red star, which was removed in 1990, however, and these days only flies a Bulgarian national flag. It's located on the corner facing Pl Nezavisimost in the centre. Another goner is the huge Lenin
statue that used to stand on the column at the opposite, western end of the square; these days his place is occupied by a kitschy gold-faced statue of a female "St Sofia" figure brandishing a laurel wreath and an owl on her arms!
Speaking of lost attractions, the single most significant of Sofia's lost places is the Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum
. Dimitrov was Bulgaria's first communist leader and after his mysterious death in 1949 the big man had been laid to rest in a grand mausoleum, where for decades he was lying embalmed, on display in the manner of Lenin in his mausoleum
on Red Square
. As early as 1990, shortly after the fall of communism, Dimitrov's body was removed, cremated and buried; and in 1999 the mausoleum building too was demolished, with much fanfare and against severe resistance (at least it took them several attempts, and after they had repeatedly failed to blow it up with explosives, they simply bulldozed it bit by bit). Big mistake, from a dark tourism perspective. It could have joined the ranks of the Big Four
. Well, chance squandered. Now there's just an empty space on Ploshtad Knyaz Aleksandar Batenberg (Prince Alexander Battenberg Square) just a couple of hundred yards from the front of the Party House.
What is still in place, however, is the grandest of the grand communist-era monuments in Sofia, the Soviet Army Monument
about half a mile further south-east down Bulevar Tsar Osvoboditel. It's a prime example of celebratory socialist realism
monument style. The main element is a 34 m high pedestal on top of which a triumphant Red Army soldier holds a rifle aloft while leading a couple of grateful Bulgarians on into communist paradise. At the head of the plaza in front of this there's more delightful statuary: two groups of cheering Soviets being greeted flamboyantly by overly grateful Bulgarians offering up their toddlers and/or fruit and medals to the brave newly-arrived liberators. Given all this subservient symbolism it's not surprising that this monument, too, came under threat after the fall of communism and the Eastern Bloc
(and with it the alignment to the Soviet Union
). Indeed, the City Council had passed plans to demolish it, but a combination of protests by the old guard and a lack of money to carry the job out saved the monument. These days, the empty plaza is used by skateboarders and the atmosphere is markedly less than reverential ... except on special days when members of the socialist old guard come to celebrate old glories here.
There are still more examples of socialist realism Soviet monuments, such as the Mound of Brotherhood ('Bratska Mogila') in Borisova Gradina park, another three quarters of a mile south-east of the Soviet Army Monument; or the Friendship Bridge ('Most na druzhbata') at the north-western corner of the same park, near the National Stadium, at the bottom of Graf Ignatiev street.
There is now also a Museum of Socialist Art
(on ul. Lachezar Stanev 7), which opened in late 2011. It consists of a large open-air sculpture park part with numerous socialist statues/busts, as well as the big red star that used to sit atop the communist party HQ, and an indoor gallery with socialist realist
paintings and such like. It's open Tusday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., admission is 6 BGN (ca. 3 EUR).
Size-wise the gargantuan Palace of Culture
, known locally as NDK, is the most monumental legacy of the olden days. This enormous pile at the southern end of Bulgaria Square was opened in 1981 (like the shoddy, now demolished 1300 Years of Bulgaria Monument
). It is the biggest such culture and convention centre in the Balkans and South-Eastern Europe – and as such it has a safe future. The squat octagonal beast is certainly no beauty from the outside, but inside there are a few remarkable features. The light fixtures, for instance, still ooze buckets of that stuffy socialist design atmosphere that would have made the likes of Erich Honecker
happy (see Palace of the Republic
). Some of the bas reliefs on the walls are also strikingly wacky.
Not far from the Palace of Culture, just 180 yards or so to the north-east of its main front entrance where the park meats ulica Frityof Nansen, you can spot a segment of the Berlin Wall
, which forms part of a memorial ensemble celebrating freedom and the demise of communism
. It was a gift from Berlin
and erected in 2006. Ironically, it's been defiled with swastika graffiti in a couple of places, including the wall segment itself ... the obvious attempt to wash it off has not been altogether successful. Is it just a sign of complete thoughtlessness or are there really people in Bulgaria
who think that repression Nazi
style is better than repression socialist style? I don't get it.
At the top of Vitosha boulevard, the massive Sveta Nedelya church is also worth a closer look for dark tourism reasons: on one side of the outer façade spot the plaque and wreath commemorating the site of an early left-wing terrorist attack: communist activists tried to bomb the royal family to kingdom come as they attended a funeral. The explosion caused massive destruction and killed a hundred people – but as is so often the case, the actual targets, the royals themselves, got away unscathed.
Of marginal interest to the dark tourist may also be the Monument to the Unknown Soldier outside the 6th century St Sofia Church (dwarfed by the massive Alexander Nevski Cathedral next to it). As usual it comes complete with an eternal flame.
In a park opposite, towards the south-west halfway to the Russian Church, vendors set up their stalls full of antiques and other stuff. While much of their wares consist of icons (replicas or fakes, by the look of it) or general touristy track, a few also have dark-ish items for sale, including old medals from socialist days, and even old Nazi era insignia and stamps. It's a bit dodgy, but some trophy hunters may find this a good hunting ground.
One more morally sound point of interest may be the sculpture of a dove made from old machine guns (like a small version of Podgorica
's "Bird of Peace") to be found set back from the street Georgi Sava Rakovski next to a NATO
Stroll the streets of central Sofia and you may come across interesting murals from the bygone days (like on the same street as the "199" theatre); moreover there are even a few canteens and cafes where time has largely passed by without leaving too much of a trace of change.
Buildings that formerly housed communist organs of repression have lost their menacing aura these days, but you might want to spare thought for their victims when passing by e.g. the building now housing the Ministry of the Interior on 6 September Street.
Otherwise, Sofia is characterized by an intriguing balance of the old, very old, and the modern. The little traces of the communist era that remain are getting harder to spot in between the grand old architecture of churches, theatres, government buildings and other major sights, while the signs of the times of current post-communist unbridled capitalism are omnipresent.
Sometimes it can lead to funny juxtapositions, such as the advert for a fast food chain on top of a particularly drab residential building reading "Be Happy"! This does indeed seem to be the sullen order of the day in Bulgaria … together with 'forget your past!' (cf. Buzluzhda
), that is …
In the centre of the inland western quarter of Bulgaria
, only some 35 miles (55 km) from the border with Serbia to the west, 60 miles (95 km) to the Macedonian
border to the south, 80 miles (130 km) to the Danube on the border with Romania
to the north and a whole 250 miles (400 km) from the Black Sea coast to the east.
Access and costs: quite easy to get to, not expensive.
: Most visitors will probably fly into Sofia's international airport, which has plenty of connections to other European capitals, including ones operated by budget airlines, so quite good bargains can be had if you book ahead. A good alternative to flying, if you have the time, is going by train – it's quite easy, comfortable and not expensive either, even in a 1/2/3-berth sleeper. Sofia is conveniently connected to Central Europe by such trains to Vienna
. These days international buses provide yet another cheap, but far less comfortable alternative. Going by car to Sofia is not recommended, unless you don't mind very long hours driving and some crazy fellow drivers on the roads. Within Sofia a car is more of a burden than useful anyway.
Getting around Sofia is quite OK on foot, as long as your accommodation isn't too far out of the relatively compact centre. Otherwise there are trams and comparatively cheap taxis. And the metro system is currently undergoing major expansion works.
Accommodation-wise there is the wide range you would expect of a capital city, and while rates may not always be the super bargains as is often the case in parts of the countryside, there's still no need to pay through the nose. Shop around. Plenty good budget or mid-range options are about.
Eating out can be cheap and cheerful if you stick to local fare, but more upmarket foreign cuisine restaurants can charge you nearly Central European prices. For more on food & drink
see under Bulgaria
Time required: a full day or two may do for just the dark sites within Sofia alone – but you may want to have more time here if you want to use it as a base for day excursions too, and explore some of the not-so-dark attractions of the city.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Further out from the city centre, Sofia, like so many larger cities in the former Eastern Bloc
is characterized by large-scale prefab housing areas. Some are quite neglected and as such kind-of dark tourism "attractions" too. If you don't want to venture into such neighbourhoods on your own, then take one of the "Communism Tours
" within Sofia offered by specialist operator "nvision travel" – see the sponsored page here
For more destinations outside Sofia see under Bulgaria
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Sofia has plenty of non-dark sights as well, and it would be foolish and disrespectful not to have a look at some of these too when in the city for a couple of days.
The most obvious prime sight in Sofia is the grand neo-Byzantine Alexander Nevski Cathedral with its gleaming golden domes. Inside it's typically orthodox gloom and incense. Similarly the even more popular (with the locals at least) Sv Nedelya church at the northern end of Vitosha boulevard.
More outstanding architecture, recently spruced up, cleaned and repainted, includes the National Theatre on Alexander Battenberg Square or the Parliament just south of the Alexander Nevski Cathedral.
Those into really old rubble will delight at the Roman remains outside the nearly as ancient St George church, originally begun as early as the 4th century (!). The ensemble is a bit hidden away in a courtyard behind the Sheraton hotel and the Presidential Office building. Note the uniformed guards outside the latter with their funny feathered hats!
Sofia also has one remaining mosque, just to the north past Nezavisimost Square off Maria Luiza Boulevard. Not far from this, Ekzarh Yosif street the Sofia synagogue enjoys a peaceful neighbourhood with the mosque and all the churches around it.
Fanciers of ancient history will be well catered for at the Archaeological Museum and the History Museum. Yet more churches and galleries complement Sofia's mainstream tourist portfolio – altogether too much to be covered here in any detail.
Sofia's main ambling, shopping, open-air café, see-and-be-seen strip is the central Vitosha boulevard slicing through the city centre north to south from Sv Nedelya church to Bulgaria Square (with the Palace of Culture). Walking south you can (weather permitting) see the eponymous Vitosha mountain in the background, which remains snow-covered well into the year.
- Sofia 01 - view over the city
- Sofia 02 - former party HQ sans red star
- Sofia 03 - where the Dimitrov mausoleum used to stand
- Sofia 04 - Soviet Army Monument
- Sofia 05 - cheery Soviets and grateful Bulgarians
- Sofia 06 - the gigantic Palace of Culture
- Sofia 07 - inside Palace of Culture
- Sofia 08 - Palace of Culture light fixtures
- Sofia 09 - Palace of Culture bizarre relief
- Sofia 10 - Berlin Wall segment and memorial
- Sofia 11 - Sveta Nedelya church
- Sofia 12 - site of an early terrorist attack
- Sofia 13 - tomb of the unknown soldier
- Sofia 14 - park with antique market
- Sofia 15 - dodgy antiques
- Sofia 15b - sculpture made from old machine guns
- Sofia 16 - wall mural
- Sofia 17 - old cafe
- Sofia 18 - Ministry of the Interior
- Sofia 19 - UN presence
- Sofia 20 - mosque and metro building site
- Sofia 21 - split personality
- Sofia 22 - parliament
- Sofia 23 - Vitosha boulevard with veteran tram
- Sofia 24 - Alexander Nevski cathedral
- Sofia 25 - National Theatre
- Sofia 26 - so cliched - Russian church
- Sofia 27 - drab prefab suburb
- Sofia 28 - inside old prefab