What do we need to know to survive (and thrive) in Sofia?.
The very first thing you'll need to figure out upon arriving in Sofia is how to get around.
Unquestionably, the most convenient way to do so would be by a TAXI cab. Be aware that there are many competing taxi services in town, and pricing may differ among them.
Based on first-hand experience, you can place your trust in “OK Taxi” (dial *8294) Yellow! (dial 0291119). These are among Sofia's most-reputable services. Though you'll certainly encounter other upstanding companies out there as well.
We also recommend installing the Yellow! App or the TAXIme App. Order a car from your smartphone. That way you'll be able to get an estimate for the cost of the trip prior to hopping into the cab. In all cases, you'll need to make certain that the meter is running, particularly on longer journeys and trips to/from the airport. Do not let your driver decide to 'eyeball' the cost of the ride.
Public transportation in metropolitan Sofia is currently at a very high level, with networks growing larger almost by the day.
You can use any combination of the subway (metro) lines, buses and trams/trolleys to get around rapidly, for next-to-nothing! The city is also criss-crossed by numerous “marshrutka” lines (a microbus/minivan which follows a single fixed course - they'll pick you up and drop you off at any point along their route, at a cost of 1 Lev per journey).
All modes of public transportation operate until midnight. An adult monthly pass will set you back 50 leva (discounted fares are available for students and pensioners - 21/26 leva respectively). Your card is valid for all means of transportation, with the exception of marshrutkas and night busses.
There are countless ways to enjoy a cup of coffee. However, in Bulgaria, by presumption, there is just one type - if you order 'just a coffee' at any establishment, you'll most-likely receive a "long coffee". You might recognize it as an Espresso Lungo or Americano. It is essentially a less-concentrated espresso shot, served invariably with several packets of sugar.
Regardless of which part of Sofia you find yourself in, you'll never be more than a few meters away from a great cup of coffee! The city is in the midst of a third wave coffee renaissance of sorts, with high-quality coffee houses and roasters bespeckling the city center.
We here in the office usually grab a daily cup at Cafe MEMENTO, right around the corner. You can be sure that everyone you ask will gladly refer you to their preferred spot…
It's essentially impossible to go hungry in the city center, with dining establishments galore. Aside from, of course, traditional Bulgarian fare, you'll most-commonly find Mediterranean/Middle-Eastern restaurants, a plethora of street food options (bakeries/grills/delis/food trucks), your run-of-the-mill fast food selection (kebabs/burgers/pizza/noodles) and, though somewhat scarcer, even vegan/vegetarian options!
Prices for sit-down dining are roughly 1/2 as much as those in neighboring Greece, and about 1/3 of Italy's, with serving sizes typically in the 250-300g range, and many restaurants will customarily offer a house salad. Additionally, without much effort you should be able to find midday weekday/business lunch meal deals - denoted as the “obedno” menu. This will usually comprise a fixed three-course meal, priced well below the sum of its components. Case in point: at the «Back Around» restaurant on Vitosha Blvd. #14, right in the city center, you can fill up on a lunch menu consisting of a salad, main course and dessert for a mere 16 Leva.
Bulgaria is on-track to adopt Europe's common currency, the Euro (€), in 2024. Even today the pan-European tender is accepted as payment for big-ticket items, such as cars and real estate. For your day-to-day needs, however, you'll certainly need to get yourself a fistful of Bulgarian Lev (BGN) the national currency, whose value is pegged to the Euro at a rate of 1.95583:1 (locals tend to round up to 2:1, for quick mental math conversions). Unlike other currencies, the Lev doesn't have its own unique, recognizable Unicode symbol - merely the abbreviation in Cyrillic - лв.
Where can you exchange money?
You can exchange money at all banks - the convenience factor is definitely there, with branches on virtually every corner. However, this would definitely not be the most prudent of alternatives: banks will usually take a commission (~5 Leva,) unless you've got an account with them.
What you should pay close attention to?
If you opt for one of the many currency exchange offices instead, pay close attention to the rates they offer - although the Lev has got a fixed value relative to the Euro, quite often the buy/sell prices will diverge significantly from that number.
What would we suggest?
In our experience, the change bureau at the intersection of Vitosha Blvd. and Gladstone St. is the fastest, and best-value choice the city center. It's got all denominations of coins and bills. Also, their rates are as close to parity as possible.
If your home bank is covered by SEPA, the most cost-effective conversion strategy might actually be to withdraw in BGN from your own account at participating ATMs. Double-check with your bank to make sure there aren't any hidden transaction/conversion costs!
Banks in Bulgaria operate from 9:00 to 17:00, Monday through Friday, with the notable exception of those branches situated inside of malls, some of which will stay open until 22:00, and even on weekends.
Opening a bank account is relatively easy and straightforward. Actually, you can do so at most any branch, as long as you remember to bring a valid ID. You'll have the option of setting up an account in either BGN or EUR.
You will need Leva, the currency of Bulgaria. You can exchange to all banks, while the offices which are in every corner are definitely not the most prudent alternative: at banks they hold a commission of around 5 Leva unless you have an account there, then it is less. In many exchange offices, although the price is locked at 1 EUR = 1.95583 BGN, you will find great differences. We believe that the exchange office at the intersection of Vitosha and Gladston street is the best and the fastest in the city, it has all the coins and everything is very “close” to the parity.
There are (up to) three options available to you when it comes to heating up your Sofia apartment in the winter: A. your classic metal radiators on which you can regulate the temperature manually, B. by way of natural gas (either individual or shared service), or C. by way of geothermal power, also known as "TEC" (hot water circulating underneath the city streets is used to heat homes).
In all three instances, the cost to the consumer will be about the same. Also, each variant comes with its respective set of advantages and disadvantages to consider.
Avoid, if at all possible, heating up your living space using only an air conditioner.
As a reference point: in order to keep a home the size of 60 m² warm through the winter, you'd need to set aside about 45 €/month to cover the bill.
Whether renting or buying a home, the biggest decision you'll have to make when starting the search is whether you're looking for a furnished or an unfurnished property. In most cases, a furnished apartment or house will come equipped with your standard large appliances, and just the basics in terms of furniture - wardrobes/closets, beds and a dining set, at the very least. In rare instances, you might even move into a ready-to-live-in apartment with a fully-stocked kitchen. Your security deposit, the equivalent of a month's rent, is there to cover any damage to your furniture and appliances.
Within the city center, rent for a one-bedroom apartment may vary anywhere between 400€ and 750€, depending on the size and location. In downtown Sofia, most residential buildings tend to be on the older side - don't count on having an elevator, or even the standard bathtub/shower cabin setup you might be accustomed to. Pets can, and often are a dealbreaker for landlords - make sure you address this subject prior to signing a rental agreement.
Rental contracts are signed on an annual basis. Upon signing an agreement, you'll need to pay first month's rent, as well as a security deposit (or 'guarantee,') equivalent to one month's rent; in certain cases your deposit might be double that value - if you're moving into a fully-furnished or recently-renovated home, for example.
CAUTION: Your security deposit is not meant to cover rent for the final month of the contract, but to pay for any and all damage incurred. Rental agreements are renewed automatically at the end of one year, presuming that both parties agree, and neither seeks to modify the terms of the contract.
Regrettably, parking in Sofia is not free of charge.
You'll often hear locals referring to the "zones" - in the very heart of the city, all parking spots are considered the Blue Zone. However, in the more peripheral parts of downtown, they're part of the Green Zone. Color-coded street signs will alert you which of the two you're in.
In case of the former, parking will cost you 2 Leva per hour, for a maximum of two hours, and in the latter, the hourly cost is 1 Lev, for up to four hours.
You can for parking in one of two ways: A. by sending an SMS containing your car's license plate number (using either Cyrillic or Latin characters) to the parking authority - the numbers, respectively, are 1302 for the Blue Zone and 1303 for the Green Zone, or B. by purchasing parking vouchers directly from the parking attendants/controllers when you first pull into an empty spot - you'll recognize them by their fluorescent yellow vests.