Considered one of Europe’s most affordable cities, Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, is also receiving well deserved accolades for its emerging food scene. Markets, food tours, trendy restaurants, independent bakeries and cafes are all contributing to local specialities and freshly made offerings catering to all types of food lovers. Eating your way around Sofia in a day is quite a challenge, but here’s is a good start to the city’s flavors and sights.
Start out by drinking coffee in Vitosha Boulevard where you can devise your plan for the day while taking in the early tourists and chic shoppers. This pedestrian-only, fashionable shopping street stretches from Cathedral Church Sveta Nedelya to The National Palace of Culture and Park with inspiring views of Vitosha Mountain not far away, making it a perfect spot for a coffee break any time of the day. The streets here are waking up to vibrant diversity as Sofia sheds its former Communist skin and transforms itself into a lively and stylish urban destination for travelers.
Bulgarians take coffee seriously, a trait inherited largely from the Ottoman days. But while you won’t find Turkish coffee prepared in any of the al fresco cafes, bars or gelato shops, you’ll easily find a comfortable café to drink some delicious coffee. Young students and working Sofians huddle on cosy sofas, catching up on gossip and exchanging news, and it’s easy to join them for some people watching. Bulgarians generally like their coffee without milk so be aware that ordering a simple kafe here, will mean espresso, and you can choose to have it long or short, with single or double shots.
Landmarks and Food Markets
The center of Sofia is relatively small which makes it easy to absorb many of the city’s famous landmarks. Within a short walk you’ll pass Sveta Nedelya Cathedral, the looming 69 feet high (21 meters) Monument of St. Sofia, and the Banya Bashi Mosque. Behind the Mosque is Sofia’s Central Baths, a beautiful Neo Byzantine and Viennese-influenced building where locals gather on the weekends, laden with large, empty water bottles to fill with natural mineral water. Sofians swear by the purity of the water and applaud it for promoting longevity and good health. Clutching my own bottle to fill from the sprouting taps, I’m pleased to discover that the sulfuric taste isn’t too strong for my palette.
My detour for water isn’t far from the next pit-stop: the well-preserved Tsentralni Hali, a grandiose Neo-Renaissance building with Neo-Baroque and Neo-Byzantine elements, complete with a small clock tower and is known for its relief of Sofia’s coat of arms on the facade. Behind the doors and under an enormous roof made of glass and steel of this architectural beauty lies the city’s busy Central Market Hall.
The Market’s street-level floor is mostly dedicated to food stalls and snack bars so I join a queue to pick up banitsa, a filo pastry with cheese filling, a popular breakfast bite favored by Bulgarians. Food kiosks are bursting with local delicacies, from cheeses and cured meats to diverse breads, pastries and cakes. Their feta-type cheese, sirene, made from sheep, goat or cow milk, is a long-established ingredient for salads, hot oven dishes or eaten on its own with paprika. After trying a few, I opt for a creamy goat’s sirene to take home with me.
You’ll also find souvenir possibilities, including rose and wine products, Himalayan salt, and traditional crafts. On the lower floor, bizarrely sandwiched in a corner between a second hand clothes shop and a cafeteria, are some modest walled relics of Serdica, Sofia’s Roman counterpart.
One bazaar soon merges into another and the nearby Woman’s Market (Zhenski Pazar), so named because women only once handled the trade here. Nowadays this local, open-air market has a wealth of seasonal produce, neatly stacked in rows or laid out on blankets, direct from the seller’s garden. There are jars of pickled vegetables and small bags of signature Bulgarian spices: paprika (smoked, hot or sweet), sharena sol (a colourful salt mix), and chubritsa (a savory herb). Home grown and ground, these herbs and spices have been used in Bulgarian cuisine for centuries to enhance the flavors of Bulgarian stews and meat and vegetable dishes.
Lining the sides of the market, small shops and kiosks sell a vast range of foodstuffs: dried fruit, seeds and nuts, honey, olives, cheeses, meats, herbs for tea, coffee beans and Turkish-inspired products like homemade halva, a traditional sweet. Knowing that the peppers and mushrooms have been hung and dried, walnuts cracked, and cabbage juice brewed by the professional hands of a baba (old lady) who’s been doing it all her life, makes it all the more tempting to pick up authentic snacks to go or for presents to take home. In both markets, prices are usually marked so there’s little risk of being over-charged tourist rates and a maximum chance of finding fabulous food bargains.
Take a Food Tour
Bulgarian cuisine is primarily Slavic-based, but Greek, Middle Eastern and Turkish dishes also influence it. So it’s no surprise that there’s a diverse selection of culinary dishes to inspire your taste buds. Popular specialities include flavor-packed grilled meats and slowly prepared stews made in a lidded clay pot called a gyuveche. Soups, like the time-honoured bean soup (bob) or cold cucumber soup (tarator) are also typical and, if you’re a vegetarian, you’ll find plenty of stuffed peppers, seasonal salads, and bean-based dishes to whet your appetite.
If I wasn’t skipping lunch, I’d probably choose Made in Home, a unique little restaurant with a good selection of locally-sourced, home-cooked food served in a vintage setting. The menu here changes according to seasonal availability. I’m not sure whether I’d order the Black Sea mussels or wild mushroom risotto.
Instead, I opt for the free Balkan Bites food tour. Meeting up at the Park Crystal every day, this tour explores the history and origins of popular dishes in Bulgaria combined with background information on some of Sofia’s landmarks. It’s a great way to get acquainted with the city in the company of a local.
Our tour first takes us to Supa Star, a popular fast food soup café where we try the tarator, made from yogurt, cucumber, walnuts, dill, and seasonings. This colorfully simplistic eatery is jam-packed with young Sofians and, although they serve up to six different soups a day, they often sell out quickly. We’re enlightened by the history of tarator and the importance of yogurt in Bulgaria for its probiotic rewards and as a source of national pride.
Ordinarily, the tour stops next at Sun Moon Bakery, where you’re welcomed by the aromas and tastes of freshly made pastries, sweets and bread baked on site using flour freshly milled every day by the owners. The bread is served with two traditional dips: lutenitsa, a combination of spices, roasted peppers, tomatoes, and sometimes aubergine (eggplant). Once you’ve tried it you’re unlikely to go back to normal ketchup ever again! The second dip, kyopolou, is a Bulgarian and Turkish relish made from eggplant, roasted peppers and garlic. Both are available to buy from their shop.
Today, however, we’re taken to a local bakery where we try a sample of Tikvenik, another filo pastry favorite, that’s filled with roasted pumpkin, cinnamon, and walnuts. Sweet and moist, it is only disturbed by the sweet, thick tang of boza, a fermented drink made from wheat, which neither looks, smells, or tastes nice. We all politely take a sip and, although it isn’t to our foreign tastes, it’s a long-established Bulgarian habit to eat banitsa (the cheese-filled filo pastry) with boza.
Today’s guide, Emo, is both animated and informative, and answers all of our questions with pride and passion. Emo tell us stories as we walk behind graffitied street walls and historic monuments. We even have time to stop for photos in an outdoor book market before heading to our final destination.
Hadjidraganovite Izbi, is a traditional restaurant in an old wine cellar with distinctive Bulgarian artifacts for decoration. We try a typical soft cheese appetiser made from drained yogurt (katuk) and creamy sirene mixed with garlic and pepper. The tour and our food samples come to an end as we cheer (nastrave) one another with a glass of Perlin, a local spiced wine. Although the tour is free, our group generously tips Emo. It’s certainly well-deserved.
After the food tour, I’m not wanting to walk too far, so I take refuge at the Tobacco Garden Bar. Situated on the grounds of the former Royal Palace’s Garden in a building that now houses the National Art Gallery, the bar’s outdoor green space combines drinking and works of art. Inside, sophisticated décor with a Parisian feel greets you, making it an ideal setting for pre-dinner cocktails and taking a break from the city bustle.
My last food hit of the day is at Raketa Rakia Restaurant, a small detour from the center, on the edge of Park Zaimov. The restaurant offers a contemporary atmosphere with socialist memorabilia adorning the walls and décor. The restaurant is popular so you’d be wise to book in advance if you want to eat here.
Menus choices include modern twists on past traditions. For meat lovers, the variety ranges from cured sausages, venison slices or meatballs with grandmother’s potatoes, to beans and cabbage salad and hot peppers. Vegetarians have fewer choices, but should try the vintage buffalo cheese or parsley-balls. Since I ate quite a bit throughout the day, the parmesan and smoked fish salad proved spot-on for a lighter alternative.
I thought the food and wine menus are extensive, it’s the endless list of rakia, a fiery fruit brandy, that amazes me. Rakia is often distilled at home from many types of fruit and is traditionally accompanied with salads at a Bulgarian table. In addition to the common grape rakia, try a quince or fig variety. Be aware, however, most rakias are at least 40% proof. My worry is not the expense of the bill, but whether I’m able to walk out of here after sampling a small selection of Balkan rakias!—Story and photos by Dianne Thomas, RFT Contributor