From Kalambaka, I took a bus to Thessaloniki, one of the major cities in Greece. It was pretty straightforward. Again I just had to take a bus to Trikala. From there, I just had to wait for 15 minutes before we boarded the bus to Thessaloniki. I just spent one night in the city. On hindsight, i should’ve have spent at least another night so i could explore the city, which is the second largest in Greece. But I wasn’t having a good time at the hostel I stayed at, the vibes were just wrong so I decided to head over to the central bus station and purchase a ticket to Bulgaria a day earlier than I planned. The bus route from Thessaloniki to Sofia is the most popular one, with multiple buses running each day. In Thessaloniki, most of the travelers you’ll meet came from the Balkans or are about to head there like me. Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria, thus it’s an ideal first stop in the country. The bus ride only lasts for about 5 hours. It could be longer depending on the number of buses queued at the border. There are a number of bus companies to choose from. I’d recommend Union Ivkoni because they offer the cheapest rates. The average price for a one way ticket to Sofia is about 25-30 euros, but there are certain times during the day when rates can go as low as 15. Also, this company has the most extensive bus network in Bulgaria. All the Bulgarians I’ve met were recommending this bus line because it has a reputation of being the most reliable. Since there are so many buses heading to Sofia, there’s no need to buy a ticket way in advance. I bought mine 30 minutes before departure and there were still a lot of empty seats on the bus. In case the earliest bus is full, there’s no need to worry because there’s one bus leaving almost every hour. If you prefer to buy tickets online, you can purchase them on busradar… I only use this app to check bus schedules so i don’t know if it’s reliable when it comes to purchasing tickets online. It doesn’t show all buses too, just those buses from major bus companies. Of course purchasing tickets on the official websites of these bus companies would be more reliable, but the websites of bus companies based in Bulgaria are all in Bulgarian. So unless you know the language, don’t even bother. As I’ve said there’s no need to buy tickets in advance. I’d only recommend it if there’s only one or two buses departing each day on a given route and you absolutely have to leave that day. And even then, buying tickets in person a day or two before would be a safer bet.
I arrived in Sofia at around 6 PM. The sun was still up yet it wasn’t too hot anymore so I just decided to walk. It took me 40 minutes to walk from the central bus station to the hostel lol. That’s quite a long walk, and normally I’d prefer to stay someplace near the bus station. As soon as i checked in though, I knew I made a wise decision. I rarely mention where I stay anymore, but when the place is extra special it deserves special mention. I booked three nights at Hostel Mostel in Sofia. If you use any hostel booking app, you wont miss it. It’s the number one rated hostel in Sofia on all those apps cause it has tons of positive reviews. Also, if you set a price filter, it’s gonna come out on top or near the top cause it’s one of the cheapest hostels in the city. I know, it seems too good to be true. Maybe backpackers are just giving the hostel a pass cause it’s so cheap? Nope. It really is that good. The hostel is a renovated old building and it looks great. Comfy bunk beds, each bed has individual lockers and electric sockets, and there’s free breakfast AND dinner everyday! Honestly, it’s such a great deal, I don’t really know how they are making money. They also do tours to other places in Bulgaria, and they don’t charge much. They do tours to the Rila Monastery, the 7 Rila Lakes and to the Belogradchik fortress at least twice a week each. On occasion, they do tours to farther attractions in Bulgaria. When I was looking for places to visit in Bulgaria I wanted to check out the 7 Lakes and the fortress, but i had trouble figuring out how to get to those places. I asked one of my friends from Bulgaria and he said I had to join a tour group or arrange a private transport. It would be hard to get to those places via public transport. So imagine my surprise and delight when I found out that the hostel held their own tour to those places. I decided to skip the Belogradchik Fortress though because everyone i asked who has done the tour didn’t like it. I had just been to Meteora so I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing another monastery. I joined the 7 Rila Lakes tour on my second day though and it was totally worth it.
Okay, so what the hostel was offering wasn’t really a tour. They just offered a round trip transfer from Sofia to Panichiste. Travel time is about 2 hours more or less— more likely less. You’ll understand what I mean once you see how fast most Bulgarians drive lol. To get to the lakes, you take a lift from Panichiste. A return trip would set you back 18 Levs. A one way ticket costs 10 levs— you can easily walk downhill so that’s a good option if you’re short on cash. Just take a lift up and hike on your way down. Now someone might approach you offering a ride via a 4 x 4 vehicle. You pay the same price, and it’s supposed to take you uphill faster. It’s not for everyone. it’s a really bumpy ride, you’d feel as if your brain was put inside a blender. Now I didn’t really mind that. In fact we all had fun on that ride. And it’s true it takes you uphill faster, but only to a certain point. What they won’t tell you is the road ends way before the lift ends. So yeah we were way ahead of the others who took the lift. But eventually they caught up to us. They had to wait for 15 minutes before we got to where the lift ends. So if you’re too lazy to hike all the way up, take the lift instead because you’ll still end up hiking more if you ride that 4 x 4 vehicle. If you’re really short on cash of course you can hike all the way up and down. But take note that the driver would head back to Sofia after about 5 hours. If you need to do a lot of stops while hiking, you may not able to make it to the top and back down again in 5 hours.
At the end of the lift you’ll see a chalet. If you need to use the toilet, there’s one inside. I mistakenly thought that there would be a restaurant or store inside where i could buy water and snacks but there was none. Good thing my companions shared theirs or else I would have starved haha. When we got back there was a guy selling soup, bread, and coffee but he ran out of food and drinks to sell after a short while— you’d think he’d cook a lot of soup and make lots of coffee to take advantage of the fact that he was the only one selling food there. So if you’re planning on doing this hike, bring a bottle of water and prepare a packed lunch or at least bring some snacks. There’s no place to buy food and drinks once you’re already up there.
It’s a relatively easy hike. Anything would be easy for me I guess after doing the Acatenango hike, but even if i hadn’t done that I’d find this hike easy because there are very few steep inclines here. The slope is gradual, well except maybe for the first few minutes. And the weather was cool which helps a lot. If it was hot i would’ve grown tired quickly. To see all the seven lakes, it’s pretty straightforward. Just walk along the path and you’ll see five of them. You just need to make a slight detour to see the other two. The paths are clearly demarcated except for a couple of open areas. It’s hard to get lost. You can walk at a leisurely pace admiring the views. Seeing all those lakes as you turn around in one viewing area was amazing. You can choose to swim too if you want. I found the water too cold but one of my companions was brave enough to take a dip. heh.
I spent my second day in Sofia walking around the city. Good thing the hostel was centrally located. I just had to walk to see all the attractions. Like most cities in Europe, a lot of free walking tours are offered. If you’re into ancient civilizations as I am, other places in Bulgaria have much more to offer. Still, Sofia has some pretty interesting sites. Find your way to the Serdika II Metro Station and you’re going to see a lot of Roman ruins for free! A number of artifacts are also displayed on the train platforms. It’s pretty cool how they were able to mix such ruins with the modern metro station. it’s like the past and present were merged into one. These ruins were actually discovered by accident when they were building the Metro station. It was named after the ancient city of Serdica because the station lies on the ruins of that city.
Perhaps the most prominent landmark in the city is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and with good reason. It really is an architectural marvel. It might look familiar since it is usually prominently featured in any travel article about Sofia. There are a lot of other buildings with interesting architecture as well. Just stroll through the city and you’re going to see a lot. The Old Central Baths building deserves special mention. You won’t miss it, it’s probably the most unique building in Sofia. Also check out the statue of Saint Sofia. Nothing like taking a picture in Sofia with Saint Sofia in the background heh.
If you don’t want to go far for your hiking fix, the Vitosha Mountain is basically in the backyard of Sofia. I wasn’t able to do this— looking back, I kinda wished I did. But I already did a hike the day before and I wasn’t in the mood to do another one so soon. Three of my room mates did this hike though so I know how to get to the mountain. After spending one day in Bulgaria, you’d realize that getting around isn’t exactly easy because of the language barrier. A lot of young people are fluent in English, but almost all of the older folks know very limited English. Many don’t even know a word of English at all. So if you have no time to learn the language, the simplest way to get to Vitosha Mountain is to take the metro from the nearest station and get off at Vitosha Station. From this station, just transfer to bus 64 and get off at Boyana Church. Going to the mountain this way is very simple, you wouldn’t need to ask anyone for directions. The church is a famous attraction so you can ask any local to inform you if the stop is by the church. Any local would understand the word Boyana. From the church you can just follow the trail to the top of the mountain. If you don’t think you can hike all the way up, one of the hostel staff told me you can take a lift to Aleko Chalet and just walk the rest of the way up. You have to take a different bus though. Ask any staff member of the hotel or hostel about the route of bus 122 or 123. The final stop of both buses is at the start of the lift to the chalet. It’s hard to figure out the routes of these buses on your own because all websites showing these bus routes are in Bulgarian, and I found Google Maps to be unreliable in Sofia when it came to directions using public transport. So your best bet if you choose to take buses is to ask the person manning the front desk of your hostel/ hotel.
And of course I had to check out the nightlife! The hostel I stayed at conducts pub crawls every night so I signed up one night. They don’t charge a fee for it, you just pay for whatever you drink at the bars. And man, you will surely get drunk in Sofia if you don’t pace yourself because drinks are so cheap! A bottle of beer on the average costs 5 levs (1 lev is approximately 1/2 euro). In some bars, they sell bottles of beer for only 3 levs each. In one bar, they were selling any shot of a drink for only 2 levs! And yeah I immediately got drunk after downing multiple shots in succession. But that’s what you get when a lot of your room mates are college students from elsewhere in Europe and were just in Sofia for the weekend lol. And it’s not just alcohol, everything in Sofia is cheap. You can get a big ass slice of pizza for only 1 lev! If you came from elsewhere in Europe, you’ll be surprised at how everything is so cheap in Sofia. And since it’s the capital of the country, it should be even cheaper elsewhere!
Sofia is a great first stop in Bulgaria if you plan on exploring the country. You get to learn a bit of history, it’s a modern city and the English language is quite prevalent so you won’t get much of a culture shock, plus staying here won’t cost much even if you stay for more than a couple of days. Other places in the country may have more to offer in terms of attractions and history, but the capital has enough attractions of its own that makes it worth a visit.