Free in Sofia: Three Walking Tours and a Bike Tour

One of the most exciting things we discovered as we entered Europe, was an awareness of tourism in a different way than you might find in other parts of the world. In nearly every major city we visited in Europe (and for sure in some of the ones we didn’t visit), there was a multitude of tours. And even some free ones! Now, if you know anything about us, you’ll know that we appreciate free. We don’t mind leaving a tip for a free tour, but we aren’t keen on being charged up-front for something of questionable quality.

So we were excited about tours. I’ll admit it. Maybe we even went a little tour-crazy in Sofia. (Maybe I was able to explain some of the sights to the tour-guide about on our last tour we took…so what?)

Regardless, this is a good demonstration of the types of (free) tours you can expect to find (and enjoy!) in Europe.

There are several kinds of tours you can find in any city. First, there’s always a hop-on-hop-off bus tour, which we have never taken yet (though if you are mobility-impaired, or speak a language other than English, Spanish, or the local language, it might be a good, though not cheap option). Second, there are always a few free tour options: the free walking tour that’s often offered through an organization (check out Free Sofia Tours, Free mostly-Western Europe Walking Tours and Free mostly-Eastern Europe Walking Tours), any available bike or out-of-city hiking tours (in Sofia, check out Sofia Green Tours), and of course, the “friends and family” tour option, if you know anyone living in the city. As you can guess by the title of this post, we took advantage of all of the free options in Sofia!

Our first tour was with a then friend-of-a-friend (who we now consider a full-fledged friend), Teddi. We met her after she finished work, and she took us on a tour of some of the major sights of the city, and gave us a little history on things. Later, we met up with our other friend who we know from our book-selling days with Southwestern, Evelina, for a traditional Bulgarian dinner!

Teddi (behind Charlotte) and Evelina (behind Earl) took us to see lots of interesting places in Sofia!

Here were some of our appetizers:

Shopska salad — Bulgaria claims it’s the inspiration for the Greek salad

Tarator — a yogurt, cucumber, and dill soup — a refreshing way to start a meal

Another evening, we took a stroll with the girls, and ended up having a drink at a bar set up in a church yard. The following day, when we walked by there during the day, there was no evidence of the bar having been there, and people were coming to worship and pray at the church!

One of the advantages of the family-and-friend tour option, is that they can take you to all kinds of interesting spots and events that locals visit and enjoy too — it can help you feel more like you are a part of life in that city, versus just observing it through the descriptions and major sights a trained tour guide would show you. On the downside, if your friend or family member isn’t that interested in history or major sights, you might not get as much out of the tour as you would have hoped. However, if you are lucky, like we were, your friends will know quite a bit, and be able to point out a lot of interesting, historical, and architectural highlights of the city. Thanks Teddi and Eva!

Our second tour was a regular walking tour of the city, through Free Sofia Tours.

We met at an easy-to-find public place, were introduced our tour guide for the day, Rossita, and were off on our walk around the city. It was a hot day, so we stopped for water several times, and stood in the shade as much as possible, but we found time time flew by, as the tour was of great quality, and we were given just the right amount of information in an easy-to-digest and fun way.

Lion (the symbol of Bulgaria) in front of a war memorial outside of Hagia Sofia Church (yes, this is called Hagia Sofia like the one in Istanbul, though they look very different!)

Saint Nedelya Church, where 150 people died and another 500 were injured, in 1925 during a political attack staged to coincide with an important funeral

Rossita stopped inside the being-constructed subway station to tell us about the multitude of Roman ruins under Sofia

The change of the guards outside the parliament buildings

The Saint George Rotunda is considered the oldest building in Sofia, and dates back to the Romans during the 4th century

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is the largest church in Sofia, and considered a major landmark. It’s simply gorgeous — I couldn’t stop taking photos of it!

We ended up visiting quite a few sights, finishing the tour in time for a late lunch. Then we back-tracked ourselves, to look more closely at some of the sights that interested us. The walking tour was great because it gave us a good background on a lot of major sights (and some minor ones) around the city, and so that we appreciated what things were, and could take advantage of visiting them further ourselves. The downside of a group walking tour is that often you can’t go inside of any of the major sights (it’s frowned upon if the group is too large), and of course, your tour is only as good as your guide is. Still, we found that because we did free tours, the quality was often better than we expected, since the guides were all relying on earning tips at the end — it ensured they worked to give you their best attention, information, and presentation. Also, we found that since we’re the kind of people that often have more questions or want more information, we could walk beside the tour guide and get those questions answered between stops.

Here’s one of the places we visited later on our own, the Hagia Sofia Church:

Our third tour was through Sofia Green Tours. We ended up taking both their hiking tour and their free bike tour (though I’ll tell you about the bike tour later).

The hiking tour was actually a really fun way to get out of the city. We had originally thought that we might be able to do this on our own, without a tour guide (you know, save a couple bucks) but when we got to the mountain, and saw that there were trails leading all over the place, we realized we would have never found the waterfall on our own!

Here’s the group we went hiking with:

Some of the photos from our trek, just outside Sofia:

We really enjoyed our hike, meeting several others our own age, both tourist and locals were on the hike, and of course, our knowledgeable guide, Christian, was funny too.

After visiting the waterfall, seeing the city skyline, and stopping at a pond to chase frogs, we headed to the Boyana Church. The Boyana Church is a medieval Bulgarian Orthodox Church that has sections that date from the 10th-11th century, and is one of the most complete and well-preserved monuments of Eastern European medieval art. We were able to go in and see some of the incredible frescoes, though sadly, no photography was allowed. Here though, is a photo of the outside of the church.

We really enjoyed our hike out of the city. In our enthusiasm to be in Europe and do all the tours and see all the sights, we had tired ourselves out a little with seeing Sofia, and needed a break for the day. The Boyana hike was exactly what we needed — a breath of mountain and waterfall, cooler air under the trees, and for the grand finale, a beautiful medieval church — what could be better?! We felt a bit bad for our guide, as he provided an excellent tour, but don’t think he was particularly well-tipped on his day out with us, and it was a whole day, as we met at 11am, and didn’t return until about 4:30pm.

On our last day in Sofia, we decided to… you guessed it, take part in another tour! This was was also through Sofia Green Tour, only this time it was a free bike tour around the city for 30 minutes. It was fun to be moving faster, and see all the buildings from a slightly different perspective. If Earl’s knee had been feeling better, we would have probably joined one of the longer bike tours, and seen even more of the city. Still, this was a good intro to biking for us, as it had been years since we’d been on two wheels!

And lucky for us, we had the tour to ourselves, as we were the only ones who showed up for the short bike tour that morning!

So, having participated in a grand total of three walking tours and one bike tour during our 4 1/2 days in Sofia, we feel like we have a pretty good read of the free tour situation there. We ended up really enjoying all our tours, and were pretty excited about heading to our next city, where we could take advantage of more free tours! Follow our next adventure in Serbia!

What are your thoughts on the best way to see a European city if you have limited time? Comment below!

1 comment to Free in Sofia: Three Walking Tours and a Bike Tour

  • kitty

    mmmmm, yummy looking salad

    So if you take a straight edge and you line things up you might find that these legs ( the guards’) are lining up very well. All at the same level. WOW!

    The great thing about travelling with more people is that you can have others take your picture and you get more distance ones rather than the close-up (extended arm) :)

    And another way to see a city would be by boat. You are somewhat limited though to places like Venice, Amsterdam and Giethoorn, But, hey, who is complaining. These are beautiful places to visit

    Looking forward to your next entry

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