Stop the press, travellers of the world. I come with a breaking news announcement today. After years of excavation in the holiday fields (and numerous failed attempts,) on a holy weekend in 2017 in the hugely underrated country of Bulgaria, I finally unearthed a treasure – and her name was Sofia.
This one goes out to all those of you, who have ever parted with 6 Francs for a bottle of water in Switzerland (been there), wasted 40 Euros on rubbery tapas from an overpriced restaurant on Las Ramblas, Barcelona (done that) or lost £200 on a shoebox sized musty European hotel room (that one’s happened to me a few times.)
And the buck doesn’t stop at Europe either. Hop into a new window now, do a quick Google search for New York City hotels and no further explanation needed. NYC is my favourite city – I’ve been thrice in 8 years and it would have been double that had it not been for those pesky hotel prices, (although click here for my review on a great NYC hotel option.) I wouldn’t say I fall under the umbrella of budget traveller (my stays in the Seychelles and Oman are examples of that) but I do resent eye-watering accommodation prices, stomach-turning tube fares and the fact that it can be cheaper to spend 10 days in Asia than 5 days in Italy?!
What if I were to tell you, though, that I had found a city, where you could stay in 5* hotels at 3* prices and sip cocktails on a beer budget, a country largely untouched by mass tourism, filled with ancient ruins and a growing, innovative foodie scene? This was the trip I made on Easter Weekend last year, booked at 10 days notice and proving to be one of the most delightful European cities I have visited. A travel tip I wrote about why it is such an excellent value destination was even published in the national press later in the year and today, I will fill in all the blanks in the hope it may inspire some of you to visit.
A Bargain Break in Bulgaria
Airlines and hotels invariably hike up fares during school and public holidays and as we were flying out on Good Friday, returning on Easter Monday, we assumed Bulgaria would be no different.
Sofia took us by surprise however, when our early research showed that the weekend fares seemed even cheaper than the weekdays, which suited us just fine. As a reasonably compact city, whether you choose a hotel slap bang in the centre or just on the periphery of the main central hub of attractions, it is likely that you will still be in close walking distance of most sights.
Since this capital has yet to win over tourist hearts the way that Prague or Budapest have done for example, hotel availability was surprisingly ample when we went, even at the last minute. Many of the best-rated hotels still had rooms for grabs and as big fans of the Design Hotels (we stayed at Design Hotels in Porto and Ponta Delgada,) we chose Sense Hotel in Sofia, which was within walking distance of all the attractions we wanted to see in the city.
Airlines and Travel Time
There is little point in me boasting about a great value city break if you have to sell a kidney or hire a rocket to actually reach it. Thankfully, for Europe-based travellers heading to Bulgaria, this is not the case. With a London – Sofia flight time of just over 3 hours, the duration is even shorter than ever-popular British holidaymaker destinations, Greece and Cyprus and the route is served well by several airlines, including budget airlines.
Even at short notice, we grabbed flights at an absolute steal at times that allowed us to make the most of the 4 days we had and that proved to be one of our lowest air fares of 2017. Whether time is money or money is money, you can’t go too wrong with Bulgaria if you’re on the hunt for a bargain break in Europe.
Free City Walking Tours
Free tours are popular in many European cities and we have joined them ourselves during visits to Ljubljana, Bucharest and Berlin but it was only in Sofia, where I came across so many free tours in one city and with such diverse options. Enjoy bike rides? There’s a free cycling tour. More artistic than active? No problemo, the free street art and graffiti tour has your name all over it. Alternatively, perhaps like me, you use holidays as an excuse to eat your body weight in scrumptious, local bites, justifying each morsel with all the steps you are clocking up as you walk?
If you’re nodding along in agreement, I am delighted to tell you that Sofia has a free food tour. Yes, you read those last three words correctly. We have joined plenty of food tours in our time together from underground eats in Morocco to up-and-coming Slovenian cuisine and even a dedicated coffee and dessert tour in Budapest. But a free food tour with free food at each stop? That was a first in Sofia, when we joined the Balkan Bites Food Tour.
Run by a group of passionate Bulgarian foodies, we were treated to small bites of specialty local dishes, introduced to independent restaurants and businesses and rounded off the walk with a taste of local wines, even joining in on a traditional Bulgarian folk dance at a rustic drinking hole in the city.
The tours are not a substitute for a meal so come with realistic expectations of portion sizes, especially considering guests aren’t paying for the tours but those who embark on the walk learn so much about the history of Bulgarian cuisine from humorous, enthusiastic guides, worthy of a decent tip. As for the restaurants we were introduced to, we enjoyed them so much that we returned to two of them later on in our trip so I would recommend doing the food tour early on during your stay in Sofia.
Affordable Food & Drink
Once you do park yourself at a restaurant in Sofia, you will soon learn that portion sizes are far from measly (at least compared to UK standards. 🙂 At a couple of the restaurants we visited, we could quite easily have shared a main course and still been full and almost everywhere we went, two courses each proved too much food so it is more than workable to fill your bellies without much of a dent at all on the bank balance.
Lurking inside professional kitchens across Sofia are a cohort of edgy, talented chefs worthy of international acclaim but the world of Michelin stars and extortionate tasting menus hasn’t engulfed this city yet. This makes Sofia an absolute goldmine for palate-conscious foodies to seek out enticing flavours with ultra-light wallets. I was planning to include a few of my Sofia foodie highlights here but the more I looked back on the trip, the more realised there were too many to include so they will get their own dedicated blog post in due course.
Every holiday meal tastes better with a round of pre-dinner rooftop cocktails but in cities like me, the odds of walking into a luxury hotel on a Saturday night with no booking, getting a seat and ordering a cocktail that costs less than two figures is slim to non-existent. (If you know a London rooftop bar, where this isn’t the case, do share!)
In Sofia, though, there were no such worries and fortunately for us, said rooftop bar happened to be in our own hotel, allowing us to lounge there both by day at night. Aside from the cocktails, I was impressed by the range of mocktails they had on offer at Sense Hotel. We non drinkers often draw the short straw (mind the pun) and I found myself torn between the spicy, fruity and floral concoctions being flipped and tipped around by the mixologists but with prices so tempting, there was really no reason to even choose!
Free Sights and Attractions
A city break only needs to be as costly as you wish it to be. You can pay to enter ten museums in a weekend or you can pay to enter none. In Sofia, however, there are plenty of attractions to be enjoyed without needing to spend a cent and in my opinion, the ultimate charm in this city is to be found simply from ambling through the streets, glowing under the reflection from the gilded churches, stumbling upon quirky fashion boutiques and listening to the entrancing swishing of sprawling fountains in the sunshine.
Many of the most spectacular monuments and landmarks in the city such as the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral can be seen (at least externally) without an entrance fee and given that it isn’t a city stuffed full of sights, even a 4 day break allows time to escape the capital for a day to venture into some of Bulgaria’s other regions.
What are your tips for great value city break destinations?