Europe’s cheapest major city: Sofia, Bulgaria – Unexpectedly posh
We've all heard that you “get what you pay for” and it's true in most cases, but in travel there are outstanding bargains and severely overpriced destinations. If you are the sort of traveler who likes to get the most for your travel funds, you might be interested in our European Backpacker Index, which ranks 47 cities by price for the same common items. The cheapest cities are 4 to 5 times cheaper than the most expensive cities, and in many cases they are more interesting and more fun at the same time.
I'm currently touring most of the cheapest cities on the list to research things more thoroughly, so I was especially happy to spend 5 days in the absolute cheapest, Sofia, Bulgaria. The bottom line: Sofia is a lovely city with European amenities and great nightlife mixed with prices so low that you'd have to go to Southeast Asia to beat them.
The general vibe in Sofia
One of the first of many pleasant surprises when arriving in Sofia by bus (from Edirne, Turkey) is that it's extremely mellow for a city of 1.2 million people. In many other cities of its size there is an ordeal every time you need to cross a street, but Sofia seems to have only a few busy ring roads, and the heart of the city has minimal car traffic. This is particularly nice because the city center is filled with outdoor cafes, patio restaurants, and bars in its many green parks.
Typical of European cities, Sofia has one main central street that is off limits to traffic (although it still looks drivable), and it's lined on both sides with bars and posh sidewalk restaurants. In spite of the upscale look, prices are very cheap by European standards at all of them, as their customers are almost all Bulgarians who (unfortunately) have relatively low salaries.
The language barrier (or lack thereof)
Another very pleasant surprise is that fluent English is commonly spoken by most younger residents of Sofia, as well as most people at hotels and restaurants and such. Unlike Russia or Ukraine, were English is still quite rare, Bulgaria seems to have “small country/obscure language syndrome” where they don't expect foreigners to learn their language, so English is their obvious way to connect with the world.
In other words, while it's always nice to learn to say hello or thank you in the local language, you can pretty much just walk around speaking English to most people you'll meet and you'll almost always find that the other person knows at least some English, if they aren't actually fluent. Even the movies and TV shows in Bulgaria are mostly subtitled rather than dubbed, which seems to be another key in fluency shared with the Netherlands and Scandinavia, unlike Germany or France or Spain.
Things to do
Admittedly, Sofia isn't filled with must-see checklist attractions, so a visit is more about learning about the city's long history and appreciating what it is today rather than completing a life goal. The global explosion in free walking tours has put a great one here so I recommend you start your first morning just as I did with the Free Sofia Walking Tour.
It starts in the center of the city and winds through (what they say is) the city's 6,000-year history, including Roman ruins that are visible in one of the metro stations. The tour highlight is near the end when you learn about and walk around the stunning Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
Of course there are many art and history museums in Sofia that you can spend time in if they interest you, all with admission prices that are very low.
A party city for cheapskates
If there were cheap flights from the UK to Sofia, this would probably join Prague and Krakow as a place where Brits come away for a long weekend of cheap boozing. So the fact that airfares are still a bit over US$200 from London (rather than £9) means that it's mostly an interesting mix of tourists passing through the region, but mostly locals.
Within a few blocks you can find anything from an Irish-style pub to a posh outdoor lounge to a banging techno club, and you can get a drink for under US$2 in almost all of them. Seriously, this is one of the few places where you can get a pint of beer or a glass of decent wine or a mixed drink for around US$1.50, even in the nicer restaurants and bars. I got a .5-liter carafe of a local white wine for US$3 in a patio cafe (served by a beautiful Bulgarian waitress).
If you are the type who likes to get started with a drink or two in your hotel, you can get .5L cans of beer for US$0.60 or a bottle of wine for under US$2, or a bottle of vodka for around US$4 from one of the hundreds of little alcohol shops all over town.
Dining options aplenty
Yet another interesting thing about Sofia is that it appears to be very well suited for tourists, even though tourist numbers are small. There is a wide variety of international restaurants through the city, with Italian being among the more common.
Bulgaria doesn't seem to have a distinctive national cuisine that shows up on most menus, but there are many Bulgarian restaurants and many local dishes on offer at larger places, including the noteworthy Happy Bar and Grill in the city center.
Those on the run can get McDonald's, Burger King, or KFC at rather reasonable prices, but cheaper still are the many pizza shops that sell huge slices or cheesy hot dog sandwiches for between US$0.60 and US$0.90 each. In other words, if you were somehow down to your last US$5, you could still eat decently for two days if you had to.
Hotels are cheap too, of course
At this point, Sofia isn't jammed with hotels in its city center like most European cities, but there are plenty of choices at very reasonable prices. I stayed in a very nice 3-star hotel between the bus station and the city center for US$36, including a buffet breakfast, but you can find 2-star hotels at a bit over US$20 if you look around.
You get great value at all price points, whether it's a bed in a hostel for under US$10 per night, or a 4-star room in the heart of the city for only US$70 per night. Prices of similar beds and rooms are triple in most of Europe, so Sofia is a great place for a little splurge.