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Sofia - The Capital of Bulgaria

Click here to view a map of Sofia area together with Borovets

Sofia, Bulgaria's capital city is situated in the Central-Western part of Bulgaria. According to the official data the population of Sofia is about 1.5 million people but it is estimated that it exceeds 2 million. Sofia is the centre of important international routes from Western Europe to Istanbul via Belgrade, from Greece and Macedonia to the CIS. There are daily connections to a number of Balkan and European cities.

Sofia has the largest expatriate community, with foreign companies, diplomatic missions and head quarters of large Bulgarian companies jostling for space. Hence, like most major cities, it has the highest property prices in Bulgaria. Added to this it is the only region in the country with a large population increase in recent years as people have migrated from the smaller towns and cities to find work in the capital.

Atmosphere

Sofia's recent history was formed by Bulgaria's close ties with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This is reflected in the city's architecture and monuments, many of which includes references to both the Russian liberation from the Turks in the 1870's and also the 'liberation' from Nazi Germany in 1944. Whilst the city lacks some of the grandeur of former eastern bloc capitals such as Budapest and Prague, the downtown area boasts many noteworthy buildings, and atmospheric streets though is somewhat spoilt by the city's ever increasing traffic. The Municipality made the bold step last year banning private vehicles from the main shopping street, Vitosha Boulevard which has made the central area significantly more pleasant.

The central mosque, along side orthodox churches give an exciting feeling that one has moved further east. The crowning glory of Sofia is the majestic presence of Vitosha Mountain which sits astride the central area. There are no other capitals in Europe which provide such a view.

As the economy improved from the mid 1990's and investment from both domestic and foreign investors has created a dynamic and booming capital city. Sofia is now moving from being an Eastern-European capital city to becoming more Western European. The city is one of the oldest in Europe, and has a rich history and tradition. It is riddled with beautiful architecture and stunning churches. Thus, the city is an interesting mixture of old and new. In the summer, you will enjoy the city's numerous parks, and the people who fill them in droves. It is very pleasant to walk Sofia's leafy streets, or to watch others do so as you sit in a relaxing cafe.

History

This is one of the oldest cities not only in Bulgaria, but also throughout Europe. “Sofia” is its fifth name – after Serdica, Ulpia Serdica, Sredetz, and Triaditza. There is data on Serdica’s existence 5,000 years ago, and the earliest written data for residents on the lands of Serdica date back to the middle of the first millennium BC. “Serdica” (the emphasis being on the last syllable) is the oldest name of the town known. The name originates from “Serdi” – one of the 22 Thracian tribes forming the numerous Thracian people.

Located in the fertile Sofia valley, in the very centre of the Balkan Peninsula, on the strategic crossroads between East and West, the town was an attractive centre for many tribes, nations, travellers and conquerors. This was why it repeatedly experienced periods of upheaval and decay, but always managed to revive anew from the ashes. Serdica reached its peak under Emperor Constantine the Great (306 – 337 AD). In the 6th and 7th centuries Slavonic tribes started settling in the Balkans and on the Sofia plain. In 809 AD the Bulgarian Khan Krum besieged and overtook Serdica. Ever since then the town linked its fate for good with the Bulgarian state. In the late 9th century the town assumed the Slavonic name of Sredetz meaning “in the middle” (of the Balkan Peninsula and the Bulgaria's lands at the time).

At the end of 14th century AD the town of Sredetz assumed the name Sofia. This name was linked with the biggest at that time and most beautiful St Sophia Church. During the Ottoman rule the town was the capital of the Rumelian Region encompassing almost all the territory of the Balkan Peninsula. Preserved from that age now are the St Petka Samardjiiska Church (in the subway in front of TSUM by the Sheraton Hotel) and the St Spas (Ascension) Church (within the architectural ensemble of Bulbank Headquarters).

An important fact of Sofia’s history was its proclamation as capital of Bulgaria after the liberation from Turks with a Decree by the first Bulgarian prince Alexander Battenberg on April 3, 1879. Within a decade the city's outlook changed from Oriental to European. Today many streets, buildings, parks, and even whole neighbourhoods preserve the architectural style from the turn of the century.

Places of interest

Alexander Nevski Memorial Church completed in 1912 in honour of the Russian casualties of the 1877-78 War of Liberation from Ottoman Rule. This gold-domed cathedral is the finest piece of architecture on the Balkans. Craftsmen and artists from 6 countries worked on the five-aisle church in the course of 30 years and created real masterpieces of icons, frescoes, murals and huge chandeliers. The interior decoration, made of Italian marble. Egyptian alabaster, Brazilian onyx, gold, mosaics embodies the spirit of the finest Eastern Orthodox traditions. A superb collection of icons - the best in Bulgaria - can also be seen in the Crypt.

Rotunda of St George - A 4th century brick building in the courtyard behind the Sheraton Hotel adorned with finely preserved early medieval frescoes. There are also remains of a 2nd century street and other Byzantine ruins. St Sofia Church is a 4th-6th century basilica built during the reign of Justinian. It has survived intact with 1600-year-old mosaic details and towards the end of the 14th century gave the city its name. 

The church of St Nedelya (Opposite the Sheraton Hotel) is built in medieval times and known as the Church of the Blessed Sveti Kral. The current building was reconstructed after 1925 when it was almost completely destroyed by a bomb explosion in an attempt to assinate King Boris II.

The St Nikolai Russian Church built in 1912 by Russian workmen preserves the style of Moscow decorative arts, painting and architecture. The high dome is surrounded by four smaller domes. The roof of the church and above the door is covered with green majolica tiles which harmonise perfectly with the gold-plated domes. The external decoration of the Russian church is a joy to behold with its exquisite and rich colours. The frescoes were painted in the style of the Novgorod icon school.

The Banya Bashi Mosque is a typical monument of Homan architecture which adds colour to Sofia city centre. It was built in 1576 by the famous Turkish architect who also built the Sultan Selim mosque in the town of Edrine in Turkey. Loudspeakers on the tall minaret call worshippers to prayer.

The Synagogue The Sofia Synagogue designed by the architect Grunanger in 1910 has been recently refurbished and now is a sight not to be missed. It was opened for worship in 1909. The building is in Spanish-Moorish style, with a onion-shaped dome lit by the biggest chandelier on the Balkans.

The National Palace of Culture The biggest Congress Centre in the Balkans. It is located in the centre of the city and faces the Vitosha Mountain.  

Vassil Levski monument. Vassil Levski was the principal architect of the campaign to free Bulgaria from the oppression of the Turkish Empire. The monument marks the spot where he was hanged by the Turks in 1873.

The Ivan Vazov National Theatre in the city park is a model of Baroque architecture. Along the facade of this majestic building, six columns with beautiful capitals support a large triangular pediment, decorated with mythological high reliefs. To the sides two towers rise up, topped by sculptures of the Goddess Nike.

A suburb at the foot of Vitosha Mountain notable for the Boyana Church built in the 11th century. Frescoes are claimed to be among the oldest and most interesting examples of East European Medieval art. Like Rila Monastery, the BOYANA CHURCH has been listed by UNESCO as a part of the world's cultural heritage.

Dragalevtsy monastery in the foot of Vitosha Mountain was founded during the reign of King Ivan Alexander in 14th century. Some of the frescoes date back to the 15th century. 

Vitosha mountain has become very much a part of Sofia owing to its accessibility by means of the cabin lifts. Cherni Vrah, the highest point, gives wonderful views over the whole region. The winter ski-resort Aleko lies at 1,868 m altitude and the ski season lasts from December until late spring. The beautiful scenery makes the whole area attractive throughout the year. It is possible to take a 20 minute taxi ride from the centre of Sofia to the start of the ski lift. The ride to the top of Vitosha takes about another 20 minutes and so you literally be skiing within an hour of leaving the centre.

Property prices

The property market in Sofia is the most unique and complex in the country due to the great demand for space, be it residential, retail, or office. Generally the most popular areas are in the centre where aprtments will be from 1,000 euro sqm to 2,000. Areas such as Lozenets, the Doctors Garden retain thier position as the most popular for ex-pats living and working in the capital. The suburbs of Simeonova and Boyana provide the excluse residential suburbs on the edge of Sofia. Several major residential development have been completed or or underway offereing apartments to western standards though often in gated communities more reminiscent of the US than of European capital.

Average house prices according to the National Institute for Statistics are currently around 1340 euro sq m for the centra area. However, given such a great variation of housing stock this should taken as a benchmark from which there will be considerable variation. Rents are also high in Sofia and anyone considering a purely investment property would find Sofia as good as anywhere to buy-to-let.

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