Partying Like a Tsar in Sofia, the Nightlife Capital of Bulgaria
Ah, Thursday night — the only truly social night of the week. It’s the night when babysitters are booked, friends convene, and drinks are imbibed. There are no family obligations to fulfill, no amateurish weekend crowds to elbow through — and the possibilities are endless. The night starts after work and ends whenever you want. In any city. All over the world. This week, we’re presenting the perfect Thursday night in Sofia, Bulgaria.
“Serdica is my Rome,” claimed the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, referring to the city that would later become the capital of Bulgaria under the name of Sofia. Like the Romans, Bulgarians love to party. Friday and Saturday are the big nights, but Thursday’s popularity is growing fast — so much so, that young people have begun calling it “Little Friday.”
Sofia center at night. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Start your night early with a tour of the catacombs under St. Sofia Church after which the city was named. The basilica was built in the sixth century on top of the ruins of several earlier churches and a second century Roman theater. The walkways of this cavernous complex are made of transparent material that gives you the feeling of walking on top of the ruins themselves. You can peak into the catacombs and admire the frescos and mosaics. In a couple of places, you’ll find small windows in the ceiling where you can glimpse the cupola of the St. Sofia Church (or spy on the churchgoers above you). Ideally, there will be a service happening during your visit. What better way to walk through catacombs than with the sounds of Slavonic hymns echoing above you?
The spectacular Alexander Nevski Cathedral. (Photo: Daniela Petrova)
Emerge from the catacombs in time to hear the bells of Alexander Nevski Cathedral toll at 5 p.m. It is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox Cathedrals in the world and is located right behind St. Sofia Church. Walk around the square to take in the impressive golden domes from all angles before going inside to admire the walls and cupolas covered in frescos. You can visit the crypt below to view the icons or arrange for a tour of the bell towers. Back outside, wander through the flea market across the street where you can load up on World War II and Communist-era memorabilia. And if you haven’t had enough of Eastern Orthodox images, stroll through the icons market right next to it.
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The bill arrives at Dada Cultural bar. (Photo: Daniela Petrova)
Take a break from all that history and stop by the Dada Cultural bar for a coffee or a cocktail. As the name suggests, it is a place that celebrates avant-garde art. The interior is a piece of art itself. The ceiling is a colorful collage of posters. Old records and music scores by Beethoven are scattered under the glass tabletops. The bill comes in a folder adorned in a striking collage of images. Make sure to check the bar’s Facebook page for scheduled events, as it often features music and readings.
The National Theater reflected on a cafe table. (Photo: Daniela Petrova)
In the summer, you might opt for an outdoor place instead. Sofia is packed with garden restaurants, bars, and sidewalk cafes. A short walk from Alexander Nevski Cathedral, you’ll find the National Theater. Take a seat in one of the outdoor cafes out front and enjoy the setting light on the theater’s glamorous red façade. More often than not, there will be an old man playing the accordion near the fountains behind you or a small band performing old folk tunes.
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The al fresco Skara Bar at the Sfumato Theater (Photo: Skara Bar)
Time for a little snack. Bulgarians love grilled meat and one of their specialties is kebabche — grilled minced meat, usually a mixture of pork and beef. For the best grilled fare in town, pop into Skara Bar, which has three Sofia locations. In the summer, try the garden restaurant located on the ground floor of the Sfumato Theater. Order the mixed plate for a taste of different types of grilled meat or the grilled cheeses with Bulgarian spices. But leave room for dinner.
The Berlin-inspired Checkpoint Charly. (Photo: Checkpoint Charly)
Checkpoint Charly is a restaurant worth exploring for the historical ambience alone. As the name suggests, the interior is inspired by the famed Berlin Wall crossing point. Without an actual wall, the restaurant is divided visually into two parts. The Eastern part features exposed brick walls and hardback wooden chairs. The Western part has a piano, tablecloths, and soft-back chairs. The food (on both sides) is excellent.
For a more upscale choice head to Moskovska 15, located in one of the oldest buildings in Sofia — the Clock House — right behind what used to be the tsar’s palace. The menu changes every week and will be sure to inspire even the pickiest of foodies. The wine list is pretty extensive, too, with choices from all corners of the world. But make sure to try some of the Bulgarian wines; you might be surprised. In the summer, you might opt to leave the elegant interior for the specious, artfully-lit garden. Dining there, it’s easy to forget you’re in the center of a big city.
Interior of Rakia Bar Raketa. (Photo: Nikolay G./Tripadvisor)
When in Bulgaria, drink like a Bulgarian. The local specialty is rakia, a strong fruit brandy, often home-made. The best place in Sofia to try it is Rakia Bar Raketa, a trendy place where rakia rules. The modern décor is reminiscent of Communist times, with walls adorned in Soviet-era posters and artifacts, including TV sets and radios. You can find an extraordinary variety of rakia here, including a bottle made specifically for this bar. You can’t have rakia without meze. Try the shopska salad, a Bulgarian upgrade to the Greek salad.
If you’re feeling adventurous and want a more intimate experience, head to Sam Doidoh, a real hole-in-the-wall that feels like you’re trespassing in someone’s living room. The pub’s name is scribbled in chalk by the entrance and the décor inside is basic, with sausages hanging from the ceiling.
The scene at Tequila. (Photo: Tequila)
Bulgarians love to dance and Sofia has a plethora of clubs that stay open until dawn, leaving plenty of time for club-hopping. Once upon a time… Biblioteka is a trendy pop club that hosts many of Bulgaria’s best DJs. It’s housed in the National Library Building, and it’s interior is inspired by comic books. The bar is a glass box stuffed with the torn pages of comics. The walls are painted with comic book characters, and so are the toilet seats in the bathrooms.
If you prefer house music, check out Bedroom or Tequila, while hip-hop lovers should head to Mixtape. There are also clubs that play chalga music, a blend of Bulgarian folk and pop. Live shows usually feature busty female singers dressed in skimpy outfits. Many Bulgarians would never set foot in a place like that — too tacky — but you might want to poke your head in just for a laugh.
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