Sofia is surely one of Europe’s most underrated city destinations, but more and more people seem to be catching onto the fact that Bulgaria as a whole is both fascinating and great value. The city itself is 6000 years old, and the mix of ancient churches, mosques, Roman ruins and soviet architecture gives it an exotic feel.
It’s also known for having a wild nightlife that can be found any time of day, any day of the week. The only problem is finding it. Many of the best bars and clubs in Sofia are hidden away down dark alleys or in basements, so having a great night on the town is notoriously difficult for first time visitors.
Sofia is also gaining a reputation for its thriving alternative scene, with a growing number of places offering something arty, creative and a little bit different. Here are some of the best local recommendations we gathered.
Stepping inside ‘the Apartment’ feels like walking into a civilised house party where everyone is lounging around on comfy sofas listening to great music. Housed on one whole floor of an elegant early 20th century mansion, it is one of the oldest alternative venues in Sofia and has been going since 2004. Wander through each of the contrastingly decorated rooms to find a cosy corner and then head to the kitchen to ask what home made drinks are on offer that day. The rasberry and strawberry wines are particularly good. They also host DJ and acoustic nights, and occasionally show movies. Drinks and snacks are about 4-6 lv.
Apartamenta: Neofit Rilski Str, 68, Sofia – 10 a.m. until 2 a.m.
This one is a bit easier to find, being visible from the street and something of a Sofia institution. Named after the establishment’s previous role as a purveyer of herbal remedies, those needing a modern day liquid cure will find a wide variety here. The place is filled with a welcoming mix of Bulgarians, expats and tourists of all ages and tastes, which is reflected in the music. A beer costs about 3 lv.
Bilvoka Pub: Tsar Ivan Shishman Street 22, Sofia – 10 a.m. until 2 a.m.
The Archive Cafe
If you want a drink with a view then head to the Archives State Agency tower block, right in the centre of the city. It might seem daunting at first as you have to pass security, but just let them know you want to go to the cafe, as it is fully open to the public. The place still functions as a kind of canteen for staff and doesn’t seem to have changed much in 30 years, which is great news for the prices too. Take the elevator to the 7th floor, order a cheap beer and relax on the balcony as the sun sets over the city. A beer costs about 1.50 lv.
Moskovska 5, Sofia – 8.30 p.m. until 22.30 p.m.
This one would probably win the competition for hardest bar to find in Sofia. Manoeuvre down a dark alley, taking care on the uneven cobbles and you will find a battered old wooden door on which you must knock to enter. Step inside and you will find a cavernous two story chamber, lit entirely with candles and looking like a scene straight out of the middle ages. Apparently in communist times this place was a hideaway for the intelligentsia, who would have to knock and use a password to get in. The only problem nowadays it’s so popular you can never find a seat. Drinks start from around 3 lv.
Hambara: Ul. 6-ti septemvri 22, Sofia – 9 p.m. until late
Tucked away just behind the former Royal Palace, you can enjoy a drink knowing you are basically in a Tsar’s backyard. This place is packed on warm summer evenings, with twinkling lights drapped around the greenery, but don’t worry about the bar queues because it’s open 24 hours. Sofia enjoys outdoor weather well into October, and when the weather gets colder, they even provide blankets to snuggle under. A cocktail costs about 8 lv.
Tobacco Bar: Ul. Moskovska 6, Sofia – 24 hours
Located in the popular hostal, the bar here is a mix of drinking den and art gallery, and very much open to non-guests. It’s an alternative space for young Bulgarian and international artists to showcase their work, but they also have music, theatre and dance performaces. The party often moves here late at night, and it is a great place to meet locals and travellers alike.
Art Hostel: Ul. Angel Kanchev 21, Sofia – 10 a.m. until late
A kind of epicenter for all things alternative in Sofia, this massive seven storey communist era building is now home to art studios, exhibition areas and music rehearsal spaces. It even houses Sofia’s only indoor skatepark. Visitors are welcome to wander around the building and meet the eclectic range of artists and volunteers who are working to unify the urban cultures of Sofia under one roof. There are sometimes concerts and festivals, and in the skate park you can even leave your mark with the spray cans behind the bar.
Culture Lab: Stochna gara, ul. Vladaiska reka 204, Sofia