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Sofia is one of Europe's oldest cities. Remnants have been found of a Thracian tribe, the Serdi, who already had a settlement here 7000 years ago. Sofia became more important when the Romans occupied the city in 29 BC and turned it into an administrative capital. Sofia was also part of the Ottoman Empire for almost five hundred years. Despite heavy bombardments during World War II and the building boom during the communist period, the city has many historic buildings and interesting museums.
Remains of the Roman settlement can be found near the St George Rotunda (Rotonda Sveti Georgi) from the fourth century. This Early Christian circular church is the city's oldest building and is located behind the Sheraton Hotel. Inside you can admire three layers of frescoes; the oldest dating back to the tenth century. These frescoes were only uncovered at a late stage as they had been painted over during the Ottoman period and for a long time no one remembered they existed. In the Church of St Petka you can also see beautiful murals of biblical scenes, although they are not as old as the ones in the St George Rotunda.
The St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built at the beginning of the twentieth century to honor the Russian soldiers who lost their lives during the war against the Ottoman Empire. It is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. The crypt houses a museum with a huge collection of icons from the ninth to the nineteenth century.
In communist times, the Ploshtad Sveta Nedelya Square was called the Lenin Square with a portrait of the founder of Soviet communism. After the fall of communism, the statue was torn down and replaced by a bronze statue of patron saint Nedelya, a Christian martyr who was decapitated around the year 300. On the square you'll find the St Nedelya Church, a beautiful example of neo-Byzantine architecture. The Serbian King Milutin is buried in this church.
Sofia's former grand mosque houses the National Archeological Museum. It holds a special collection of objects dating back to the time of the Thracians, the Greeks en the Romans. Masterpieces include thirteen strangely shaped solid gold ship models that were probably used by the Thracians during religious ceremonies. In the garden you'll find marble statues from the Roman times.
Under the Ottoman rule, Sofia had no less than seventy mosques. Nowadays there is only one functioning mosque left, the Banya Bashi Dzhamiya. The building was designed by Mimar Sinan, who also built the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul. 'Banya Bashi' means 'many baths' and nearby you'll find Sofia's Central Baths (Tsentralnata Banya). The Romans already used the thermal springs, but the current building dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century. The baths are beautifully adorned with majolica pottery. It is no longer used as a public bathhouse, but you can still feel and taste the water on the square outside.
The Russians have left their mark in the form of the St Nicholas Church. The Russian Orthodox style is clearly recognizable by the five onion-shaped domes. The crypt houses the remains of Sofia's former Archbishop Seraphim. He was not officially canonized, but many people believe he can perform miracles. The 'mail box' next to the tomb is therefore stuffed with handwritten requests every single day.
About eight kilometers southwest of the center lies the 900-year-old Boyana Church. This small medieval church is mainly known for its beautiful frescoes from the thirteenth century and it is therefore listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nearby you'll find the National Historical Museum, which gives a good chronological overview of Bulgaria's history, from prehistory until World War II. The museum is renowned for its Thracian art collection.
Both the Boyana Church and the Historical Museum lie at the foot of the Vitosja, a mountain massif with its highest Black Peak at 2290 meters. It's been a protected area since 1934 and the oldest nature park in the Balkans and you can make beautiful walks here. In the southwest of the park lies the Duhlata Cave and in winter the highest parts of the mountain massif are a ski area.
Finding a parking space on the streets in Sofia's center may not be easy. In the blue zones you can park your car by buying a ticket at one of the parking meters and leaving it behind your windshield. It is easier to park your rental car in one of Sofia's parking garages.
Sofia Airport is located 10 kilometers east of the city center towards the eastern outskirts of town and you can easily reach it by rental car. The easiest route is via the Botevgradska Shose Freeway. The exit for the airport is clearly signposted in English.