On a budget in Bulgaria? You'll love Sofia!
I didn't know what to expect in Bulgaria - and neither did my budget. I knew Eastern Europe was a relatively inexpensive destination, but cheap prices don't always indicate great value. I was also worried that, while some things would be inexpensive, other things would be grossly inflated.
But shortly after my arrival in Sofia, all my worries were put to rest. This was a city filled with great deals and fantastic travel value! In fact, I think Sofia offers some of the best value of any destination I've visited. You can live large for very little and your money goes much further here than in most other European cities. Here's why I love it so much.
Nifty street food
Move aside ice cream and hot dogs - it's corn niblets' turn to shine! I've seen roasted corn, popcorn, and boiled corn on the cob sold around the world but never corn niblets. Starting at just 1.5 lev (about $1 Canadian) you get a little paper cup filled with scalding hot corn niblets, topped with a variety of sauces. The sauces included ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and something that looked like ranch dressing, and there were lots of spices too.
Curiously, there was no butter (could it be that THIS is where Bulgarians draw the line when it comes to fatty dairy products?) I just had mine topped with salt. For about a dollar, it made for an oddly tasty snack. (You can find my favourite vendor, above, in Sofia's City Garden, the main park in the city center).
If walking around town clutching a cup of corn swimming in salad dressing isn't your thing, take heart. Food in Sofia is reasonably priced and, even in "touristy" areas, I never suffered from sticker shock. Finding a hearty meal for under 10 lev is easy.
Plenty of free tours
Every day, rain or shine, holiday or not, you can join in a free tour of Sofia with the 365 Association at 11am or 6pm. Just show up by the lions at the Palace of Justice and join in the fun. My tour lasted just over 2 hours, covered all the main attractions, and included lots of history and culture. It was a great introduction to the city and to Bulgarians themselves - the guides were friendly, welcoming, and helpful.
Other organizations also offer free cycling tours and free hiking tours (with a small surcharge to pay for transportation). Of course, free doesn't really mean FREE - if you enjoy your experience a donation is appreciated, sometimes even expected. But it does mean that budget travelers have flexibility and it makes for a very affordable travel activity.
It's walkable and beautiful
Sofia is a beautiful, compact, immensely walkable city (though do pay attention to uneven cobblestones and broken paving tiles). Everywhere you look, the city's 6,000 plus years of history are on display for all to see, free of charge.
There are fantastic ruins, houses of worship from many faiths, lovely public parks, and fun spectacles, like the hourly changing of the guard at the Presidential Palace. It's entirely possible to spend a day (or two!) walking the city and seeing completely free sites- but, as always, we encourage making donations where possible.
Sleep like a princess, pay like a pauper
My value travel philosophy doesn't often let me book the most famous hotel in any given city but all that changed in Sofia. The Hotel Balkan (A Sherwood property) is at the geographic heart of the city and is actually attached to the Presidential Palace. You couldn't ask for a more perfect location or a more elegant hotel. If this was in Paris or London or Rome, I'm sure the price point would be over 600 Euros a night. But in Sofia my costs were just 10% of that!
So how did I afford it? I was simply fortunate enough to find a 'weekend saver' deal for 60 Euros a night. I'll be the first to admit that I was lucky to find such great sale. But even at regular prices, plush hotels in Sofia are very affordable compared to their Western European counterparts. That competitive pricing also applies to the more modest hotels and the hostels as well, making Sofia a bargain for travelers on any budget.
A secret airport bargain
It's the little things that can make or break any travel budget and one of the most commonly forgotten expenses is getting to and from the airport. Here in Ottawa, a taxi ride between the airport and our home costs $50! And in many destinations around the world, public transportation isn't much better. Destinations like Stockholm and Sydney levy huge surcharges for their airport routes - not exactly what a value traveler likes to see.
But in Sofia, taking the metro to the airport costs the same as any other metro ride -just 1 lev. This makes it the least expensive airport ride I've ever taken!
Bonus! Did I mention the awesome locals?
I'm not sure what's the proper term for a resident of Sofia. A Sofia-ite? A Sofian? No matter how you say it, there's no denying that these are awesome people. Residents of Sofia seem utterly unflappable - they scoot over broken cobblestones in high heels, they help each other out with baby strollers, they treat stray animals with kindness.
They're also lively - playing music in the park, hanging out in cafes, and sharing bottles of local beer. And they have a fantastic sense of humor, a dry wit that's not always evident but comes out after a few of those beers. You can't put a price on making new friends when you travel and that's something that adds value - and is invaluable - to all travelers.
We'd love to hear from you! What city has surprised you the most?
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