Planning a Trip
By Plane -- Sofia International Airport lies 10km (6 1/4 miles) east of the city center -- to find out times and details of flights from 47 cities across Europe and Middle East on any specific day, take a look at www.sofia-airport.bg, or call tel. 02/937 2211/12/13. You can arrange a 10€ ($13) pickup from Surprise Tours by sending an e-mail or text message with your flight details to Svetlio to tel. 088/7485174 or firstname.lastname@example.org a few days in advance. Alternatively, exchange a small amount of money (exchange bureau facilities are located in the area before border control in Arrivals Hall, but rates are not great) and head for the OK Supertrans counters in the Arrivals Hall to book one of their cabs for around 5€ to 7€ ($6.35-$8.90). If you're on a really tight budget, 1lev (81¢/50p), plus an additional .50lev (40¢/25p) for every suitcase, buys you a ticket on bus no. 84, departing daily every 10 to 15 minutes (5am-11pm) and will drop you at Eagle Bridge on bulevard Vasil Levski, near Sofia University (a 10-min. walk from the central square, pl Sveta Nedelya). Minibus no. 30 will take you a little closer, to bulevard Maria Luisa, but drivers may not speak English, and once there you'll probably be stymied by the Cyrillic road signs, so it's best to fork out for a taxi or transfer.
By Bus -- The new Central Bus Station (tel. 02/813-3202; www.centralbusstation-sofia.com) is located next to the train station, but it is much more sophisticated -- we're talking clean toilets, self-help computer terminals, and an information desk at the entrance staffed with efficient English-speakers. Group (or Grup), Biomet, and ETAP are recommended operators but are by no means the only reputable companies; for more information on timetables for buses arriving from abroad and onward internal travel, call tel. 090021000. Given that you'll be burdened with luggage, it's a rather long (at least 1.5km/1 mile) walk to where most of the recommended hotels are. Use the taxi booking office at the main exit or catch tram no. 1 or 7 from the platform at the subterranean underpass opposite the train station forecourt (.70lev/57¢/28p), can be purchased from the driver); these will drop you off at ploshtad Sveta Nedelya, the central city node (look out for the winged figure of Sofia and the Sheraton on your right), and walk east or west from there.
By Train -- Arriving at the grim Central Railway Station on Maria Luiza Boulevard (tel. 02/931 1111 or 02/932 3333; www.bdz.bg for train schedule information) is not the best introduction to the city. The station is a huge, impersonal, and run-down space offering the usual: coin-operated left luggage lockers, money exchange kiosks, ATMs, dodgy fast food/bar outlets, and ubiquitous station pickpockets.
Surrounding inner-city "old" Sofia is a large sprawling sea of run-down tenements, Communist-era high-rise buildings, and green suburban areas that lap right up to the foothills of distant Mt. Vitosha. Other than two major sites of interest, both located in the hillside suburb of Boyana, there is no real reason to venture beyond the central city, where everything is within easy walking distance. Both the central rail and train stations are located just over 1km (1/2 mile) north of ploshtad Sveta Nedelya, the traffic-choked central city "square" (it's more of an oval). The nodus that connects Bulevard Knyaginya Maria Luiza, a busy, bustling road, is intimidating for pedestrians. Narrower and slightly more laid-back Bulevard Vitosha is the city's most renowned shopping street. Together these are the main north-south arteries of the city, effectively carving the central city in two. To the east lies the "golden brick road" -- historic Tsar Osvoboditel, which is lined with government buildings, including the former Royal Palace, opposite which lies the City Garden, the real heart of the city. In fact, the majority of city's sites and most of the best hotels and restaurants lie east of Bulevard Maria Luiza. You may be tempted to stick to this side of Sofia, but it's worth crossing bustling Maria Luiza, if only to find yourself in the Zhenski Pazar ("ladies market"), where women pick out the best fruit and vegetables while catching up on the day's gossip. This is the closest Sofia ever gets to Bulgaria's rural roots.
Lost? Just Count the Blocks... -- Thank heavens for Sveti Kirov, creator of www.map-guide.bg, a series of free maps that include the Map&Guide Sofia (also Bulgaria, Plovdiv, Varna, Nessebar, Bourgas, Sunny Beach, and Golden Sands). Not only are the top attractions very clearly marked as three-dimensional drawings on the map, but every street is named and the street numbers are indicated on every block, as are the tram lines (with tram numbers that run on them). So with a little concentration, even those with no sense of direction will not get lost. Maps are distributed by advertisers featured; track down the full list by looking at the website, or just head for the Sheraton or Radisson. Reception staff are usually happy to hand over a copy even if you're not staying there.
On Foot -- The best way to get around the city center is on foot. You can walk to every site and restaurant with the exception of the Boyana church and the National History Museum. Make sure you have sensible shoes -- many of the streets are cobbled; still more are potholed.
By Taxi -- All registered taxis are yellow and must operate by meter. You can hail a taxi from the street or call; make sure the meter is on or ask the price upfront (best to have established with your concierge or host what the going rate should be), as taxi drivers are notorious for charging foreigners many times the going rate. Taxi drivers also tend to be quite aggressive, so try not to get into an argument -- just take down the license and registration details surreptitiously and ask your embassy to report the driver to tel. 0800 18018 or 02/988 5239 (the latter used to report any criminal activity). According to reliable sources, the best (read: honest) taxi service is offered by just three taxi companies: 91119, 92180, and 92121. These are the taxis' phone numbers and how you identify them. Others will charge 10 to 20 times more than the standard fare. Tip: Never, ever take a taxi from the Sheraton if you want to avoid exorbitant overcharges. Instead, walk a block in either direction along Maria Luiza/Vitosha to taxis parked at the curb. Also, drivers and even dispatchers often speak only Bulgarian, so it's best to get your concierge or host to assist and have your destination written in Cyrillic.
By Tram or Bus -- Traveling by tram, bus, and metro is incredibly cheap -- a single ticket (interchangeable for all three) is 1lev (81¢/41p); a day pass is 3lev ($2.43/£1.50). Tickets are purchased from news dealers or booths near stops; remember to validate the ticket once on board or you could be fined 5lev ($4.05/£2.50) by a plainclothes official skulking on board. All public transport operates daily between 5:30am and 11pm. However, the difficulty of traveling by bus or tram (the metro line currently services only the western suburbs, of no interest to tourists) is knowing where to get off. Unless you have a helpful Bulgarian on board, you may overshoot your stop. Stick to a combination of walking and taxis unless you know your landmarks.
The National Information and Publicity Centre, on ploshtad Sveta Nedelya (tel. 02/987 9778; www.bulgariatravel.org; Mon-Fri 9am-5pm), has plenty of brochures but staff is not trained or well traveled, so help is pretty substandard. Zig Zag, 20V Stamboliyski Blvd. (entrance on Lavele St.; tel. 02/980 5102; www.zigzagbg.com; Mon-Fri 9am-6:30pm), is an independent agency that specializes in good-quality B&B and guesthouse bookings (in Sofia as well as in certain rural destinations) as well as car rental (from 35€/$44 per day). They also offer very good-value themed trips, including monasteries and mountain village hikes focusing on rare fauna and flora; adventure tours in the mountains; or just a walking tour of Sofia. For personal advice on an itinerary, contact Nevyana at email@example.com.
If you're looking for up-to-date city listings and general information about Sofia, there are three excellent in-depth booklets distributed free through Zig Zag and a number of hotels: Sofia in Your Pocket (www.inyourpocket.com), The Insider's Guide (www.insidesofia.com), and Sofia City Guide (www.sofiacityguide.com). If you want to know what's on during your stay, take a look at www.programata.bg. Plenty of tour operators offer guided day trips (from 8:30 or 9am-6pm) to the country's top attractions (all remarkably close to the city). FairPlay International JSC (tel. 02/943 4574; www.fpitravel.com) comes highly recommended by concierges; day trips include 3-hour or full-day Sofia tours, Rila Monastery, Koprivishtitsa, Melnik, Plovdiv, and Veliko Tarnovo.