Sofia reigns as Bulgaria’s capital and largest city. Like the city of Plovdiv, Sofia’s coveted position on the main route from Western Europe to Asia made it the site of many conflicts. During Roman rule it acted as the administrative center of the region; under Byzantine rule it continued to thrive as a wellspring of culture and commerce; and during Ottoman rule it blossomed into a hub marked by meticulous space planning. A scan of the modern cityscape reveals a perplexing hodgepodge of architecture, aesthetically at odds with each other, but offering a distinct visual history of the city. Its buildings and monuments follow a clear timeline from medieval Bulgar fortifications to Neoclassicism and Neo-Baroque masterpieces to the stark gray slabs erected during Bulgaria’s 20th-century Communist regime.

The earliest Thracian settlers of Sofia christened it Serdica, and well-kept remnants of the city from this era of its first name can still been seen today at the Eastern Gate and Serdica Amphitheatre. A Roman street and drainage system can be seen at the site of the St. George Rotunda, the city’s oldest building which shelters a collection of restored frescoes within its red brick exterior. The Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, completed in 1912, and neighboring Saint Sofia Basilica, built roughly 1,400 years earlier, are two of the most recognizable structures in the city. Russian architect Alexander Pomerantsev designed the former to include a gold-plated dome and distinct bell tower. A stroll along the popular pedestrian area Vitosha Boulevard is brightened with bustling boutiques, cafes, and bars. Amidst all of its intriguing manmade structures, Sofia boasts abundant parks and green areas, breaking up the stone and concrete with a touch of nature.

Beyond the sites of the city, Mount Vitosha is a playground for skiers, hikers, and outdoor explorers eager to navigate its trail networks, caves, and slopes. A cable car or chair lift ride up the mountain nets the intrepid visitor a breathtaking view of Sofia and the alpine forests of Vitosha Nature Park. Sofia is typically a visitor’s first stop in Bulgaria, and makes for a pleasant introduction to the lovely country.