Where should you stay in Sofia? Find out why Sofia Hotel Balkan won my heart (and pocketbook!)
"Good grief. What WAS I thinking?" This panicked thought must have flitted through my head a hundred times as I made my way from Istanbul and into Bulgaria by bus. It was my first time visiting Eastern Europe, my first time visiting a country where I didn't recognize the alphabet, and my first significant solo trip in nearly a decade. I suddenly realized how long it had been since I had undertaken a serious adventure by myself and, despite my travel plans being executed with nary a hitch, I couldn't help by repeatedly ask myself what had I gotten myself into, again and again.
But, as with all previous big adventures, I came to fall in love with Bulgaria. It felt like I had made a new friend, a destination I'd happily return to again and again. So when it came time to spend my last few nights in Sofia, I was glad I had booked myself into a special hotel for one final travel treat. Here's a behind the scenes look at my time at the Sofia Hotel Balkan.
Bragging and bargains
It's surely not polite to brag about celebrity encounters but I'm certain I came THIS CLOSE to having a few at Sofia Hotel Balkan. The building is part of the Presidential Palace complex - complete with ceremonial guards at the Palace's main entrance. I think this is a strong enough connection for me to assume that I was hanging out with the country's most influential people, albeit very much at arms' length. While the hotel was only built in 1956, movers and shakers have been congregating on this spot for 7,000 years and it was once the site of a Roman fortress.
Something else that's not polite? Bragging about money. But I'm going to do some serious bragging here! I spent just 60 Euros a night for my room at Sofia Hotel Balkan. 60 Euros! To put the price into perspective, we've spent much more than that on private hostel rooms and EasyHotel cells in other European capitals. To be in the absolute heart of the city, in one of its most beautiful and highly rated 4 star hotels and to spend just 60 Euros a night, well, it felt like an absolute steal.
To be fair, you can easily find perfectly comfortable accommodations in Sofia for far less than 60 Euros, which is exactly what I did when I stayed at Hostel Mostel for my first two nights. But if you have a bit of wiggle room in your budget, I highly recommend you consider a splurge here. This was officially the nicest hotel I've ever stayed in while in Europe - and it was half the price of the micro-room we packed ourselves into while in Paris. THIS is value travel at its best.
There's no secret to share about my 60 Euro fare. I just got lucky when, for a lark, I decided to see how much a posh hotels would cost. Of course, the rooms are not 60 Euros all the time, but I found this fare for a weekend visit, when rates are typically higher, and I'm certain there's more bargains out there for others to discover.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter how much you spend or save on a hotel - it matters how well you sleep. And everything was in place to get a great sleep here. There was a king sized bed and a real one at that -not just two twin mattresses on the same platform. Earlier in this trip I was bunking down on narrow hostel beds and, prior to that, sharing basic doubles with Ryan in Turkey. So to have a king bed all to myself felt like an amazing luxury!
While the room was small by North American standards, there was room for everything I could want, including a fold out suitcase stand (ALWAYS so happy to see these!), a small desk, and a stylish armchair and table perfect for eating (see more on that below!) and watching the sites of the city pass by. The decor and finishings felt so plush and luxurious that I had no objections at all to missing out on some extra sightseeing in order to catch up on some work for a day.
There are a couple of small things that could stand to be improved. The Wi-Fi was less than ideal and eventually I had to send Ryan a series of screenshot messages asking him how to work around their system - not fun!
My room had a beautiful view of the city center, overlooking one of the busiest roadways and pedestrian routes of central Sofia and the balcony doors shut securely at night to block out all the sound - all contributing to a good sleep. Things were similarly quiet along the corridors and hallways of the hotel - but almost eerily so!
It seems a bit curious to complain about a lack of noise but there were times when things just felt a bit sterile. The staff were very friendly and welcoming but the hotel did have a more serious, formal atmosphere, which might not be to everyone's liking.
A beautiful bathroom
I love, love, love a beautiful bathroom and, when there's a deep bathtub, I'm in absolute hotel heaven. I honestly think I'd trade most hotel amenities for an awesome bathtub. And the Sofia Hotel Balkan did not disappoint. Not only was there a deep soaking tub, there were so many other wonderful touches as well. Like the bathtub facets and taps - so elegant and pretty!
It's difficult to tell from the photos, but the tiles in the tub surround were absolutely stunning. They had an iridescent metalic sheen and appeared as different colors from different angles. Combined with an abundance of plush towels (why do so many hotels insist on skimping on towels?), a bathrobe, and a nice selection of toiletries, I had the perfect environment for rest and relaxation after long days of adventure).
Obviously not every hotel is set up to have deep bathtubs or special tiles but there's one thing this property had that every hotel could copy - fresh flowers! A single long stemmed carnation at the corner of the bath room vanity made my stay. It felt like the hotel room was my home away from home and it was such a sweet, cozy touch. And the bathroom wasn't the only place where fresh flowers made an appearance!
Some in-room treats
Room service usually counts as a big, big splurge in my travel books but I was so happy with the low price I paid for the room that it didn't take much for me to give into temptation and treat myself. And low and behold, another red carnation was on the room service tray! It was such a charming touch and made my meal even nicer. (Of course, I plucked it from the bud vase and added it to the bathroom collection!)
Meals like chicken in a morel-peppercorn sauce with roasted potatoes were filling and delicious and I was thrilled to have a giant basket of freshly baked buns as a complimentary addition to my meal. There were 5 or 6 buns in there! I know, it sounds like it doesn't take much to make me happy - and it doesn't! This small act of generosity made me one satisfied guest.
Little touches go a long way in my books. One thing I love about SPG hotels (including this one) is that complimentary bottled water is placed in the room each day. Whenever I see a mini-bar with basic bottled water being sold at an extravagant price, I just know that hotel will be stingy on so many other services. But when it's offered as a complimentary touch, you have an excellent indication on how the rest of your trip will go. A bottle of water, a carnation, and a few extra bread rolls cost a hotel precious little but they make a guest feel a million bucks. And that feeling is at the heart of why I enjoyed my stay here so much.
A fond farewell
It was hard to pull myself away from Sofia and head home via Istanbul. But one thing did make my early morning departure much more pleasant than usual. The metro entrance is right beside the hotel, saving me time, and the tickets cost just one Lev, thus saving me a lot of money to get back to the airport. This was officially the cheapest, easiest airport ride I've ever had and choosing a hotel with such a prime location had paid off -literally - one last time.
There are few cities with such an easy charm and old fashioned elegance as Sofia and to enjoy a few nights of pampering at such a choice price point was an amazing travel experience. I hope you have the chance to experience it for yourself too!
Have you been to Sofia? What did you like about it?
Planning a trip to Bulgaria? Here's some helpful hints:
5 Reasons Why Sofia's A Budget Travel Dream
Lessons Every Hostel Could Learn from Hostel Old Plovdiv