People told me Sofia is delightful, and they were right. People told me Sofia is pretty damn cheap, but they were wrong. Maybe it was because I spent several months hitchhiking through the lesser-known areas of the Balkan where money generally refuses to fly out of your wallet (because everything is just so fantastically inexpensive), maybe it’s because Sofia’s economy is truly catching up with its metropolitan allure. Don’t be mistaken, as a Europe-rookie you might think of Eastern Europe as some Stalinist, impoverished trench of urbanization, its withered walls falling apart almost as fast as communism did… but bloody hell, are you wrong!
Sofia doesn’t mess around: majestic buildings towering over wide avenues… neat upscale restaurants alternating with top-notch art galleries. A lot of places where you can drain your monthly travel funds within mere days if you don’t closely watch your wallet… but also a city where conscious budget-saving opportunities are there for the taking if you only plan it consciously. Luckily you’re reading a blog named Budget Bucket List that can guide you in the right (or left) direction. Let me tell you how I spent a midweek in Sofia for about 5-10 bucks a day, incl. everything.
How people manage to spend extreme sums of money on sightseeing remains a mystery to me. Don’t they know that 95% of all museums worldwide (okay – a percentage I pulled right out of my ass, but let’s just say “most of ‘em”) have free days every month, usually simultaneously?! Obviously Sofia is no exception. Let me give you an overview*:
Sofia City Art Gallery: Always free.
National Academy of Art: Always free.
National Palace of Culture: Always free (events are ticketed).
National Museum of History: Free last Monday of each month.
Earth and Man Museum: Free last Monday of each month.
National Gallery of Foreign Art: Free last Monday of each month.
National Polytechnic Museum: Free last Monday of each month.
Archaeological Museum: Free last Sunday of each month.
National Museum of Military History: Free last Wednesday of each month.
Presidential Palace: Change of guards every half hour (not technical a museum, but still worth a stop for some free Kodak-moments).
… are there more? Yes, but aren’t you museum’ed out by now? Culture shot fixed!
* Accurate per 2019 – double-check on the given links as it might change over-time.
In short: Plan your visit during the last week of the month. Also, during the Night of the Museums which usually takes place in the weekend closest to the 18th of May, and on Sofia Day (September 17th) all museums ditch their entrance fees. If that doesn’t fit your schedule, take that old student card (mine is expired for 11 years now, but still works) or pensioners card to claim around 50% discount on average. Or fake a blog, as journalists generally get free entry as well ;)
If you’re really not the museum-kind-of-guy/gal, there are many other ways to get a hunch of what Sofia is about. For free, of course. Sure, a simple stroll around the city will stuff you with impressions, but to get a bit of background-info and deeper understanding some form of tour is recommended. Personally I was lucky enough to have met some knowledgeable locals who were more than keen to guide me around, but in any other case I’m an enthusiastic user of Geoaching: a worldwide GPS scavenger hunt locals use to show their favourite (often lesser known) spots in town by hiding tiny physical boxes at remarkable locations (you’d be surprised that there’s probably one around you within a 100-meter radius right now, no matter where you are reading this). Another option many backpackers turn to are the ‘Free Walking Tours’… but do realize, they’re never actually free, you’ll be repeatedly reminded of (and guilt-tripped into) paying basically as much a ‘normal’ tour would cost.
If you travel, make sure you do it well. Be inclusive. A city is never just a city, our ancestors settled down there for a reason. Accessibility, water supply, natural resources… elements that might not be as crucial in our current well-connected world as they used to be, but still represent engaging options for us explorers. It’s hard to overlook Sofia’s highest point imposingly rising above the bustling cityscape: Mount Vitosha, a skiing base in winter, a hiking retreat in all other seasons.
More hikes can be planned out here.
Plan your venture well, as the high amount of available trails are generally longer (and steeper!) than they seem after a simple glance on the map. Also - speaking from experience - take clothing for all weather conditions, as 2290m is pretty damn high. I in fact found myself in the middle of a severe snowstorm up there, while my hike started in conditions common in summer. That said, the wide trails make it close to impossible to get lost, and even drink water points are installed rather frequently along the way. There’s no entrance fee, but obviously cable car rides come at a cost (Simeonovo-Aleko Cable Car – reached by bus 122/123 & Dragalevtsi Chair Lift – reached by bus 93)… but I assume that’s not your pick as an adventurous (budget-sensitive) backpacker anyway. Tighten up those boots, stretch the muscles and head straight up: hard yakka, high rewards!
How to get there? Take tram 5 from behind the Palace of Justice until the very last stop (Kniazhevo), from where hiking trails immediately take off. You can also take bus 67 and get out at the last stop in order to hike from Simeonovo to Aleka. Take bus 64, 93 or 98 from the Vitosha Bus Station to start hiking from the Dragalevtsi neighbourhood, or bus 64 to kick off at Boyana. If you don’t want to hike at all but don’t want to miss out on the views either: Bus 66 goes up in weekends and national holidays from the Sofia Zoo Bus Station.
It’s a funny statement, as if you’re the tiniest bit familiar with my stories, you know I generally don’t spend a dime on accommodation at all. I combine travelling with precious cultural exchanges via the Couchsurfing network (which just happens to be entirely money-free – you pay in time and energy), with some animal love via various housesitting websites, or I just plunge my tent down wherever I see fit. So yes, you can do that. In fact, I think you should. There are plenty of kick-ass Couchsurf profiles based in Sofia, websites such as Trusted Housesitters quite frequently display Bulgarian listings and wild camping is technically prohibited, but generally accepted as long as you don’t go out of line and build campfires and shit.
But this time I was really trending towards a hostel context. And as it turns out, landlords like playing games here. I don’t know if it’s because they want to drive each other out of business, or they last minute want to cram their hostel to full capacity, but by any means we’re the ones profiting: click around a bit on Booking.com for your travel dates and (like me) you might find something for 3-fucking-50 a night, including breakfast! (while their actual rates were quadruple).
However, just free breakfast won’t get you through the day. And I was as happy about my low-budget-accommodation deal as I was shocked when scanning through restaurant-menu’s. 10 euro’s might not sound a lot to you Westerners, but it is considering I paid about 50 cents to 1 euro a meal in countries such as Serbia and Kosovo. Local grocery shopping doesn’t help much either, as even the permanent farmers market, Tsentralni Hali, seems to cater primarily to wealthy hipsters and organic-fetishists. [The cheapest supermarket, Lidl, has prices comparable to Western Europe – which still leaves the option for cheap rice/pasta-meals in a self-catering situation].
So what’s left, besides self-catering and beg-packing (please don’t go there)? Going green, my friend. Yes, I’m a veggo so I smell your suspicions. But don’t worry, I refuse to go all Jehovah's Witness on you (or anyone with regards to anything *holds democratic-free-the-people-fist up in the air*) unless it really favours you with regards to this blog topic: cheap-skating in Sofia. Just throwing it in here that anything-dead-animal turns out to be Western European pricey over here, while the vegetable prices almost seem purely symbolic. Do with that info what you want.
And now we’re at it, the plant-based eateries are therefore considerably more low-budget than the mainstream ones… healthy food options for rock-bottom-price-tags:
For sightseeing within Sofia you really don’t need to take any public transport. In fact, you might miss out on those charming little details that give this prestigious capital its majestic appeal. Take it in, slowly, while strolling around in admiration. However, for certain natural attractions (like Mount Vitosha) alternative transport might be useful. And no, I’m not talking those embarrassing double-decker sightseeing buses… You can do better than that, you’re a big boy/girl now, travelling the world. Fortunately, Sofia’s got it all: Buses, trolleys, trams and metro’s, take your pick! Your ticket has to be bought at one of them ticket machines (in metro stations or in buses behind the driver) or in kiosks, costing 1,60 lev for one go or 4 lev for a day-card (€0,80-2). And if you’re gonna spend quite some time here: an electronic 10-journey card costs 12 lev.* Be aware that you actually need a new ticket after every change, as your ticket must be punched inside of the vehicle to validate it and every single one of them has a different hole-pattern… Something I learned the hard way, as my pennypinching-ass thought to outsmart the system by recycling the same ticket, until I got busted (however, my I’m-just-a-dumb-tourist-theatre-skills still outsmarted their system – so make sure to get that act down).
* prices per 2019, take some inflation over time into account.
I never recommend hitchhiking within city centres, as most traffic streams simply go elsewhere in town… but if you want to get back into Sofia, it’s a fantastic way to get around. Bulgaria is a very safe country and hitchhiking is rather common. If I - a solo female traveller with both thumbs intact - can do it, so can you.
So there you go. You’re sleeping in Sofia for €0-4 a night, the maximum you can possibly spend on public transport is €2 a day, which leaves some budget to even go out for dinner if you don’t feel like self-catering… Sofia is a city that facilitates the art of splurging, but everything in life is a choice. Make yours.
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Enjoy a great private day trip to the ancient town of Plovdiv - learn about its rich history and try a traditional Bulgarian lunch!