1. Don’t… go to ‘chalga’ night clubs.
What started as a music genre somehow turned into tipsy people bellydancing, throwing napkins and cheering on half-naked female singers. Why some chalga fans spend their hard-earned levs for napkins to throw in the air is a mystery.
The current national record is nearly 1000 euro spent on napkins for one night, compared to the average salary in the capital which is 500 euro per month. Chalga promotes superficial looks and behavior — women must have big or silicon boobs and lips and wear lots of makeup and scarce clothing to attract rich macho men. Bulgaria is one of the poorest European countries, but this painful truth is completely ignored in the world of chalga. In its videoclips, everybody owns a mansion, drives a luxurious sports car and drinks expensive champagne.
Chalga’s lyrics are all about love — sleeping around to avenge a broken heart, playing hard to get or being in love with a bad guy. It’s a good thing foreigners can’t understand these lyrics. Kitsch and falseness, however, speak an international language. The majority of Bulgarians are ashamed of the chalga subculture and prefer not to advertise it abroad.
Basically, if you go to a club entrance and hear percussions — run.
Do… visit one of the hipster bars.
Sofia is an amazing nightlife destination and parties often last until after sunrise. Locals live for the whole week, not just for the weekends, making the city’s evening scene alive even on Mondays. Recently, Sofia has gained the reputation of a hipster-friendly town, offering plenty of creative and artistic places to hang out. Warm the party up with some raspberry wine or homemade sangria at A:part:mental — an artistic apartment turned cafeteria and home cinema. Try some authentic cocktails at One More Bar, just like Gerard Butler did recently. Parties often end up at the Art Hostel’s Bar, where you can meet and engage in deep conversations with inspiring individuals traveling on a budget.
Hipster bars and organic, homemade cafes are trending in Sofia. Expect creative interior, great service, delicious food and juicy drinks in such places. But the best thing is that they are inexpensive for tourists.
Bonus tip: if you visit Sofia during the summer, make sure to check out one of the open air concerts at Boris’ Garden.
2. Don’t… rely on road signs to help you find your way.
You will need astronaut vision to read the small grey-on-blue Latin print on most road signs in Sofia, if there is a Latin translation at all. This can be especially frustrating when driving a car — your eyes will either have to develop zooming skills or you’ll need a GPS to tell you which freaking street you are on. Hard to read street names like ‘Karnigradska’ or ‘Uzundzhovska’ also aren’t there to make your life easier. And don’t expect all road signs to be placed adequately on all corners. Sometimes, you will have to walk or drive to the middle of the street to find its name lurking behind a tree, pole, or under a balcony.
Relying on strangers for guidance is also not an option. We, Sofia’s citizens, are nationally famous for giving wrong directions. It is not something we do intentionally, but it happens. On the positive side, getting lost while traveling can be a great way to explore a place.
Do… meet a local to show you around.
Hospitality is highly valued in our culture and foreign guests are treated like kings, as long as they don’t behave as such. Bulgarians are very warm and patriotic people, so expect your local friend to put a lot of effort into show you Sofia’s finest things. If you don’t know any locals or want to meet like-minded travelers, you can attend one of the Couchsurfing meetings held every Tuesday in town.
Make your trip plans flexible, as locals are very impulsive and you might suddenly end up attending a private party, hiking Vitosha mountain or enjoying a folklore performance.
3. Don’t… expect to do too much sightseeing.
If you only visit Sofia for sightseeing and picture safaris, you will be done in less than two hours and wonder where to go for the rest of your stay. Not that there aren’t any beautiful sights, but they are pretty much in one spot — Sofia’s very centre. The city is six thousand years old and as such it is an architectural mash of Thracian, Roman and Ottoman remains, picturesque religious temples, Renaissance houses that are either restored or falling apart, communist blocks and trendy buildings. Unfortunately, the communist buildings dominate the landscape with their ugly greyness and unnecessary grandeur. Broken sidewalks and potholes are another issue unpleasant to your eyes, feet or car.
Do… immerse in Sofia’s culture and history.
Sofia is not the type of city you only experience with your eyes. Open up your heart for its vibrant life and hear its tales from the past. Everyone moves at a slower, stress-free pace here. The locals you meet will most certainly invite you to enter their lives by sharing their friends, culture, food, and stories with you.
Originally a Thracian settlement, this city has been conquered by the Roman and the Byzantine empire, ruled by the Ottoman empire, bombed during World War II, and occupied by the Soviet Union. But what is most important is that the capital has survived and is now thriving.
4. Don’t… buy bottled water.
You can save nature some plastics by trying not to buy bottled water while in Sofia – a lot of these bottles will go to landfill instead of getting recycled. Besides, why should you buy something you can get for free?
Do… take an empty bottle and fill it at the hot springs.
Visit Sofia’s Central Baths with a few empty bottles in hand. Hot mineral water is spouting from the ground and is perfectly good for drinking. You will have to compete with locals who are aiming to fill their water supplies for a week, but the wait is not so long. The water has a soft sulfur taste, a mineral that is great for your health, hair, skin, and nails.
5. Don’t… even try to drive a car here.
‘Driving rules? What driving rules? Speed limits… really? Move, bitch!’ — is the attitude of too many Bulgarian drivers. Driving in Sofia requires the zen mind of a Buddhist monk, the focused attention of a rocket scientist, and the skills of a professional race car driver. You will have to look in all four directions for cheeky drivers, down for potholes, and up for whatever might decide to jump or fall on your car. On top of that, there are traffic jams and huge competition for parking space in the city centre.
Do… use public transportation or walk instead.
Using Sofia’s subway will give you a curse-free experience of the city and you can even take a train from the airport to the city centre. The great thing about it is that it talks to you in English and you will be able to read all of its signs. (It sounds obvious for the metro to be bilingual, but it actually wasn’t like this until recently, so enjoy.) The city centre is not so big and you can walk from one end to the other in less than 30 minutes. Night walks can be very romantic and beautiful as all sights get lit up.