Sofia, Bulgaria: Cathedral and Museum of Socialist Art
Bulgaria’s long heritage — ancient Greek, Roman, Slav, Ottoman, and communist — gives the appealing capital of Sofia a rich mix of architecture, including the vast Orthodox cathedral, synagogues, mosques, and communist statues (now in the Museum of Socialist Art).
Complete Video Script
Sofia may be the capital of one of the poorest countries in the European Union, but you wouldn’t know it strolling its vibrant boulevards.
With a million people, Sofia is delightfully livable. It has an airy, open street plan, fine old architecture, lush parks, and a relaxed pace of life. The city is named for “holy wisdom,” represented by this statue of Sveta Sofia. She proudly tops a column marking the center of town.
Because of its strategic position, Bulgaria sits on layers of history. From ancient Greeks and Romans to fearsome Slavic warriors, from Ottoman pashas to Cold War communists, each left its mark.
In this town, anywhere you dig, you find ancient ruins — bits of Roman Sofia. Preserving its rich heritage is a priority, and the city’s infrastructure is built around its archeological treasures. Every day commuters walk by reminders of Sofia’s distant past.
Bulgaria's complicated history has made it a melting pot. And with its ethnic diversity came different religions. Here in Sofia, within a few steps, you’ve got mosques, churches, and a synagogue.
Most Bulgarians — like Russians and Greeks — are Orthodox Christians, and the Orthodox tradition stretches from here far to the East.
And this mosque survives from five centuries of Ottoman rule. Today, one in every 10 Bulgarian citizens is Muslim, whose ancestors came from Turkey.
A block away is one of Europe's largest synagogues. Bulgaria was one of the only countries in Nazi territory that refused to turn its Jewish population over to Hitler. None of Bulgaria’s 49,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps.
I'm joined by my Bulgarian friend and fellow tour guide, Stefan Bozadzhiev, who's my teacher for all things Bulgarian — including some fun little insights.
Rick: How many springs in Sofia like this?
Stefan: We have more than 40, and this is just one of them.
Rick: And the people, why do they like this so much?
Stefan: Because they’ll have eternal life if they drink it!
Rick: So this is healthy water, then.
Stefan: Very healthy. Try it!
Rick: It’s warm…
Rick: …it’s mineraly…
Stefan: Yes, a little bit sulfur, probably.
Rick: I’m feeling better already.
Stefan: And I see it in your eyes!
Sofia prides itself on its mineral springs, which attracted the first settlers here in ancient times. And to this day, these perpetually flowing water taps are appreciated by the locals.
And the city even has an actual yellow-brick road. These bricks were a gift from Austria's Emperor Franz Josef — who, after what must have been a muddy visit in 1907, wanted to encourage Sofia to pave its streets.
The bricks lead to Sofia's cathedral — one of the largest Orthodox churches in Christendom. It's the only national church I can think of that's named for a sainted military hero of a different country: Alexander Nevsky, of Russia.
The Bulgarians feel a Slavic kinship with Russia — which, in 1878, helped liberate them from centuries of Ottoman rule. This church was built to honor the Russian soldiers who died to free Bulgaria from the so-called “Turkish yoke.”
Russian architects designed the church with a mix of Russian and Neo-Byzantine styles. Its cascading gold and copper domes are striking from every angle.
Inside, you're immersed in the glow of Orthodox tradition. Walls glitter with gold and silver icons, all from the early 20th century. Worshippers show their devotion with the help of sacred images.
The elaborate marble iconostasis separates parishioners from the main altar. It’s lined with saints, including the church’s namesake, Alexander Nevsky.
The faithful light candles to help power their prayers: lower-level candelabras are for the deceased; higher-level ones represent prayers for the living.
Sofia has lots of sprawling parks, offering apartment dwellers a green and inviting space to hang out. And many of the parks come with heavy reminders of a tough 20th century.
After World War II, Bulgaria ended up in the Soviet Bloc. Even though Bulgaria was famously docile under Russian rule, life under communism wasn’t easy here. And today, while enthusiastically part of the EU, Bulgaria still wrestles with its communist legacy.
Although the communists are gone, their architectural heritage still looms large. At Sofia’s main intersection, today's parliament offices fill the Stalinist-style former Communist Party Headquarters.
All over Bulgaria, controversy swirls around crumbling communist-era monuments — like this one. Should they be allowed to stand, or should they be torn down?
Many have already been removed and are displayed here at Sofia’s Museum of Socialist Art. In this garden of communist propaganda, Lenin, who once topped the main pillar in the center of town, still faces the storm. The red star, which for 50 years capped the city’s grandest edifice, no longer inspires. And Georgi Dimitrov, the “Bulgarian Lenin,” is simply ignored. Today, these statues seem to preach their outdated ideology only to each other.