A Tale of Two Capitals: Bucharest and Sofia

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Sometimes while traveling, you visit a city that is so beautiful, so charming, or so alive with culture and atmosphere that you can't help being fascinated by it. It's the sort of city that makes you daydream about uprooting your life back home and moving halfway around the world; the type of city that you can't stop telling people about.

It's the kind of city that you fall instantly in love with.

Well, neither Bucharest, Romania nor Sofia, Bulgaria are that kind of city.

Bucharest, Romania

Neither one of these former-East Bloc capitals is likely to win any beauty contests. They probably have no prayer of getting that Miss Congeniality award, either.

In fact, upon first glance, Bucharest and Sofia are downright ugly cities.

Bucharest, Romania
A street in Bucharest.

Crumbling Communist-era buildings tower over shadowy streets. Gaudy palaces and cathedrals glint in the harsh summer sunlight. And the grey-beige color scheme? Let's not even go there.

In short, these are not the cities that you are likely to fall instantly in love with.

Sofia, Bulgaria
Even this guard in Sofia seems less than enthused.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that you should completely write Bucharest and Sofia off.

Instead, you just have to give them a little time to show you their true colors.

Bucharest and Sofia are kind of like strong wine or cheese — they're an acquired taste that not many people like immediately after the first try. But, underneath that initial unpleasantness, there are interesting flavors and notes to discover and enjoy.

Visiting Bucharest, Romania

Bucharest was an assault on the senses — mostly my senses dealing with heat and humidity. We arrived in Romania's capital in the late morning, and the city was already BOILING. It only got worse after lunch, and I was drenched in sweat by the time we made it to the Palace of the Parliament — Nicolae Ceausescu's gaudy palace that was never finished in his lifetime.

Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest, Romania
Ugliest building ever? Possibly.

I was already disliking Bucharest, and wasn't sure it could be redeemed.

But then I took a stroll through shady Cismigiu Gardens, where people were renting canoes and paddle boats and kids were bouncing around on a new playground. And then I took a walk around the city's revived Old Town, with its never-ending string of cute cafes and bustling evening atmosphere.

Bucharest, Romania

And by the time I'd met up with a friend for dinner at a nice (and cheap) restaurant that evening, I was starting to regret judging Bucharest too hastily.

Bucharest, Romania

The next morning, during a 3-hour walking tour of Bucharest with Walkabout Free Tours, our young local guide succeeded in convincing me that Bucharest did indeed deserve a second chance. Yes, the Palace of the Parliament is ugly. And yes, traces of Romania's communist days are still painfully present. But there's more to Bucharest than just Revolution Square.

Bucharest, Romania

Like the revitalized Old Town.

Bucharest, Romania

Or a beautiful monastery in the middle of the city.

Bucharest, Romania

Or a modern transport system waiting and ready to serve tourists.

Bucharest, Romania

And yes, there's Revolution Square, too, as well as the history related to it. I can't claim to be an expert on the fall of communism in Romania (and, in fact, many say it hasn't truly fallen at all), but I will say that I learned a lot as our guide shared his recollections and opinions of the events of 1989 with us.

I left Bucharest understanding how one could grow to love it — or at least like it quite a bit.

Bucharest, Romania
It's not ALL ugly.

Visiting Sofia, Bulgaria

After my experience in Bucharest, I went into Sofia with less reservations. Yes, this was another post-communist capital in an even poorer country. But, if Bucharest taught me anything, it's that you really can't judge a city by its exterior, or by its past.

And Sofia turned out to be better than I was expecting.

Sofia, Bulgaria

Yes, it was still ridiculously hot. And no, Sofia isn't a particularly wow-inducing or pretty city, either. But with free walking tours, a lot of Roman history, and some delicious food, I found myself warming to Sofia nonetheless.

I loved the gorgeous Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and its impressive collection of religious icons.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria

The Archaeological Museum was fascinating, too, detailing Bulgaria's long and rich history.

Sofia, Bulgaria

And who doesn't love a pretty theater in the middle of a big, green park?

Sofia, Bulgaria

It's easy to understand how these cities have developed their drab stereotypes. And, to some extent, the stereotypes ARE true.

But, just like with any destination, a stereotype is just that — a stereotype, and not necessarily the complete truth.

Thankfully, I got a glimpse behind the grey exteriors of Bucharest and Sofia.

And you know what? They aren't half bad.

Have you visited any post-communist capitals? If so, what were your impressions? If not, would you want to visit?



*Note: I visited both of these cities as part of a complimentary 18-day “Explore Eastern Europe” tour with Intrepid Travel. But all opinions, as always, are entirely my own.


"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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51 Comments on “A Tale of Two Capitals: Bucharest and Sofia

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  1. I have read the article twice, but I cannot help feeling a bit puzzled. What did the author expect? Disneyland-like, in-your-face, around-Europe-in-5-days “attractiveness”?

    How does the architectural beauty of Cleveland compared to these cities?

      It doesn’t matter how cities in the US do or do not compare. (And, I mean, no one comes to Cleveland expecting to find beauty either.) The point is that, in some cities, you have to dig a little deeper to find the beauty and the aspects that make a city interesting and special.

      Reza, I think you completely missed the point of the article.
      Im an avid traveller and whilst I always keep an open mind in every new city i visit, that doesn’t preclude me from forming an honest impression of the places i visit and occasionally that includes terms like ‘drab’, ‘unspectacular’, ‘forgettable’.
      That’s simply the way things are sometimes.

      However what the writer does say (the point of the article), is that one should look beyond initial impressions and seek the beauty or at least the good that may be hidden and Bucharest and Sophia are no exceptions.

    Thanks for your tale of two capitals. If your were to write off one of them from your travel list, which on would you still go?

      That’s tough, because there are interesting things to see in both cities! The Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest is fascinating, while I also loved Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the Archaeological Museum in Sofia!

    Hey Amanda,

    I love how you describe places, it feels like I’m walking the streets with you!

    Sounds like you picked the wrong season for visiting Eastern Europe, though, especially the capital cities. You should come in spring or early autumn, that’s when they’re most beautiful and the vibe is incredible.

    Love reading your blog, even when it’s about places I’ve visited, it’s always interesting to hear another traveller’s unbiased perspective. As for Sofia, I was born and raised here, so it’s definitely a pleasure to hear that you had a positive experience 🙂

    Thanks for the great post and happy travels!


      Yes, mid-summer really wasn’t the best time to visit – especially since I’m not one of those people who loves the heat!

    I lived in Vilnius for 10 months and been to other Baltic capitals Riga and Tallinn. Their old towns are very beautiful. Residential areas are ugly as in other post-communist cities. I have also been to Warsaw, Budapest, Ljubljana and now I am living in Prague for the last two years. If you want to learn more about World War 2, go to Warsaw but it is not a lovely city/ Budapest and Ljubljana are worth to see. Prague is the star among all of them. The beauty of the architecture, great public transportation, cafes, restaurants and safety of the city are all pluses. And also it is my home now 🙂 I’m thinking to visit Bucharest or Sofia at the end of March. While searching on the net I came across to your blog. I know I should not expect so much beauty from a post communist city but at least I want to feel safe, find my way easily, see some history and able to eat nice food. I feel like Bucharest will be a better choice for me. Do not wan to deal with Cyrillic alphabet. Actually I learnt to read it before going to Russia a few years ago but forgot it already and not eager to learn again these days.

      I’ve been to all the cities you’ve mentioned – and actually Warsaw and Budapest are two of my favorites!! Bucharest would probably be a good choice for you – there are plenty of ugly parts, yes, but also some nicer parts and interesting things to see.

    I never been in Sofia (i’ve been in Bulgaria only to Balcik, Varna, Nessebar – so, only Black Sea coast). So I have no personal impression about Sofia! But I heard good things about the cultural and party life around the Uni campus. I know also about some good music festivals and, yes, about the mountains around :)) Bucharest, on the other hand, I know quite good. I’d say u r right! Is not a city that would be seducing u from the first blink! In fact, despite some political and administrative declarations, Bucharest doesn’t seem to care much about tourism. It’s touristical infrastructure is minimal! But, hey, this could be a good aspect, too! We don’t travel in order to find tourists like us everywhere, we travel to find other people, other culture & stuff. And Bucharest could look unfriendly with travelers, only until that point when u r really walking through. Not only the recentely renovated Old Center, but also, behind the gray blocks there are a lot of old, green streets, with beautiful houses and places to hang out. In fact, people in Bucharest are in love with more “secret” places, chill music, underground culture as it seems like from a touristical point of view. Not so far from Parliament u have Antim Monastery (pushed back by the blocks) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antim_Monastery . 10 min away u can find the Patriarchy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dealul_Mitropoliei . Cotroceni area is close also (u have there the Botanical Garden). There also many big and beautiful parks in Bucharest, where u can try for free a ride on the bike, and where are a lot of places for kids. Well, true, all of this are not quite visible for a tourist walking around, without help, for several days. But this ar for facts, the beauty of Bucharest. It’s life style mostly, verry dinamic and more complex every year. I supose someone should look after this kind of details, in Bucharest or Sofia. :))) PS sorry for my English!

    Well, I sure hope they get it renovated soon, it looks like the ones that got the redo, before they did. Sadly there’s still plenty of work to be done still. Also, I checked out this thread of Sofia’s projects that are under construction or planned, and boy was I wowed. A lot of modernism this city is seeing. Also the hills on the outskirts help give it a sweet look. I am quite envious at them now :)) That language and cyrilic crappy alphabet kills Sofia for me though, I would visit once though.

      Yes, definitely a lot happening in Sofia! You should check it out someday if you get the chance.

      Been to Sofia several times. I’ve not been to Bucharest but it sounds pretty similar. Stray dogs are a problem in Sofia too, as is ordinance left over from the communist era, but not maintained. A couple of years ago they had to close the airport as a nearby ordinance depot blew up. No-one injured, luckily, but the infrastructure still leaves a lot to be desired. By the way, an hour spent learning the cyrillic alphabet before you go – there are plenty of free online courses – is well worth while, especially if you plan on having a car or just not getting lost.

        Yes, I definitely second the tip to take some time to learn the cyrillic alphabet!

    Also, I have to add, the very first picture of this article is of a street found in Old Town Bucharest back in 2005-2006, before renovations had even started. The very first street today is bustling with cafes, pubs, terraces and people + music.

      Actually, that photo was taken by me personally last summer (July 2012). So, no, it’s not from years ago. The area may be undergoing renovations, but this street was not as of last year.

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