Johnny's Guide to Sofia, Bulgaria for Digital Nomads
I never thought I would have ended up in Bulgaria but here I am. I've heard more than a few people talk about how Sofia is a potential place for digital nomads as it's cheap, has fast internet and is outside of the Schengen area which makes it one of the best choices to be able to stay in anywhere Europe for the entire year without needing to get a special visa, which i'll explain more in this post.
Sofia has mountains, lakes and even skiing close by as well as being just a 50 minute flight to the Black Sea. There you have a place actually called Sunny Beach as well the better known city of Burgas and quieter resort towns up the same coast. On paper Sofia is a fantastic place for digital nomads and expats but in reality there are a few things that may make it a hard place to live. Keep reading for my full guide to Sofia, Bulgaria for digital nomads and full time travelers, it's full of pros, cons and reasons to visit or not, but I can tell you now, Sofia is an incredible value.
Unlimited Visa Stays in Europe
The biggest benefit of basing yourself in Sofia or Bulgaria in general is the fact that it's not part of the Schengen area. So if you're American, Canadian, Australian or from a non-EU country, in general we can only stay in most of Europe for 90 days every 180 days. This means that if we stayed in Portugal, Germany or anywhere else in Western Europe from May - July we would have to leave the area until November making us miss the 2nd half of summer and not return until winter which sucks.
Having Bulgaria as an option lets us stay for an additional 3 months in Europe, then if we wanted to, go straight back to a country in the Schengen zone. You could also go to the UK but Sofia is 1/3 of the price to live in which makes it a huge plus for digital nomads.
So there you have it, if you want to stay in Europe for longer than three months at a time, Sofia is a great choice. However, I just recently learned that Poland actually ignores the Schengen rules for Americans and since it's a better country overall as mentioned in the guide above, I don't have a big reason to spend more time in Bulgaria aside from coming here here on vacation as there are a ton of cool things to do and it is super cheap.
|The blue represents the Schengen areas in Europe|
How to Get to Sofia
I flew here from Warsaw, Poland on LOT airlines and it was a super easy trip at only two hours but it wasn't the cheapest at $253 one way. The other option would have been for me to take a train to Budapest, spend a few days there then take a night train to Sofia which would have been a little cheaper but would have taken 15 hours in total.
My suggestion is that if you want to see Vienna and Budapest anyways make your way down there as it'll be an easier, cheaper way to get to Sofia. You can also save some money and fly with Easyjet or Ryan Air from London.
Once you land at the airport, walk straight out past the touts trying to get you to overpay for taxis and go to the OK Taxi's outside to the right of the terminal. It's a bit confusing as it's written in Bulgarian letters but look for the yellow cabs with the sign that says O.K. Cyneptpahc. The cost of the taxi to the city center should be 15 levs which is $8US or less. The driver however had zero change, not even $5 worth which is either just terrible customer service or a scam to try to get more tips. If your driver doesn't have change, don't be afraid to make the driver wait and walk into your hostel/hotel to get it instead of overpaying and encouraging them to do the same with the next set of tourists.
|Use these guys or double check what you're paying per km|
Where to Stay in Sofia
The nice thing about Sofia is the city center is pretty small and walkable. The only problem is that the coworking spaces are 25 minutes outside of the city making them a bit difficult to get to. There aren't city bikes for rent like they have in Poland and they have banned Uber which shows the backwards thinking of the Bulgarian government.
You'll want to stay as close to the Ivan Vazov National Theatre as possible as it is on the main shopping and restaurant street in Sofia as well as being surrounded by 4 parks which is where most people spend their summer days. I stayed in a private room at Hostel Mostel which I can easily say was the best value I've ever gotten as the room was only $22 a night and included breakfast, dinner and beer. The only downside is that the private rooms are 10 minute walk (half mile) away from the actually hostel itself which is a pain in the butt to walk back and forth from if you want to drop off your laptop, go to your room quickly, checkout, or anything.
You can also get an AirBnB for around $33 a night which will give you a lot more comfort for not that much more money.
|Town center in Sofia, Bulgaria|
Things to Do in Sofia
The first thing you should do is go on one of the free walking tours. They're a bit short at less than 2.5 hours but it's the best way to see the sites and get some history of the country. You can do the morning free walking tour at 11am, then go straight to the 2pm free food tour which is what I did and loved it. If you're starving you can get a snack or just order a full sized pastry at the 2nd stop.
Also you'll want to check out either the free bike tour which is actually $6 or the hiking tour offered by the same company. One of my favorite things about the tours in Sofia is the fact that different companies are creative enough to come out with their own types of unique tours instead of trying to compete head on with the same.
There are also a ton of other day trips from Sofia that i'll mention below, making it a great place to stay for at least three nights as there's plenty to do outside of the city.
|With the group from the Balkan Bites Free Food Tour|
Day Trips from Sofia
Aside from the free tours, you can also do day trips to Rila Monastery, Vitosha Mountain or to the 7 Rila Lakes. I decided to skip the monastery as I've heard it's a long drive and a bit boring compared to the other day trips unless you are super into religion and can read Bulgarian.
I would highly recommend hiking up Vitosha mountain as it's only 20 minutes outside of the city and can be done for free with Sofia Green Tours which introduced us to a cool group and led up for the day hike starting at 11am and ending around 5pm.
Bring 1.5L of water as there is no where to fill up during the hike itself as well as a sandwich or pack lunch as you'll be having a picnic halfway through. Ask your guide if you can have lunch at the lake as it's a beautiful place to sit for half an hour. At the waterfall take a look into the pools of water as you'll gold, yes real 24k gold. I asked the guide why there wasn't more people collecting it and all he could say was the amount of time it would take to get a gram wouldn't be worth the effort, but I was blown away how easy it was to collect a few pieces as a souvenir which I'm carrying in my photocopied passport page with me still today.
|Day hike up Vitosha Mountain in Sofia, Bulgaria|
|Finding 24k Gold in the waterfalls of Sofia, Bulgaria|
Day Trip: Hike to the 7 Lakes
The other day trip I would recommend is the hike up to the 7 Rila Lakes. It goes from 9am - 6pm and is a long day of driving, off roading, and hiking but is also one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. We organized it through Hostel Mostel paying $28 per person for the "tour" which was really just a taxi to the base of the mountain.
Once you get there you can either take a ski lift to the top which takes around 30 minutes or do what we did and hire one of the 4x4 trucks to take you to the top. Here you can off road in a military grade Mercedes Benz G-Wagon which is the same car the $100,000 G500 is based off of for around ten bucks per person. It was a ton of fun, just make sure you ask your driver to take you all the way up (or as much as he can go) as our guy dropped us a steep 30 minute hike away the top.
The hike itself is beautiful as you walk through various levels of plant life, and walk past 6 lakes. The 7th one is too far for most day trips but from the top of the mountain you can see three of them in one view which is beautiful. Make sure you bring lunch to have as a picnic around the lake and at least 1.5L of water. We refilled our bottles in the waterfall without issue but if you'd rather bring an extra bottle and not risk it you can buy another bottle at the base of the ski lift before you head up.
|Off roading in an old Mercedes Benz G-Wagon|
|At the top of Rila Lake in Sofia, Bulgaria|
What to Eat in Sofia
One of the biggest downsides of traveling in Bulgaria is the fact that they use they write in Cyrillic which makes menus impossible to read unless you happen to read Bulgarian. In Russia or Ukraine you could just use Word Lens to translate but Bulgarian isn't available yet. In places like Poland that are more tourist friendly you'll have English menus or pictures but it doesn't seem to be the case in most restaurants in Sofia.
We ended up being able to read the menu half of the time as we mainly hung out in the city center which had English menus, but in both Sofia and Burgas we ended up having a pretty difficult time trying to order food if we tried to venture out on our own. I ended up eating more than one meal at Hadjidraganov's Cellars as it was in a great location, had really good food and was a great value as you could easily split any of the mains with a friend and still be full. It's a great place to go if you are in a large group as they have huge platters to share.
|Tutmanik s Gotovo Testo (Bulgarian Cheese Bread) as sampled on the food tour|
|Lutenica - Bulgarian Red Pepper Spread also sampled on the food tour|
|Lamb stew in a bread bowl and a huge board of grilled meats and potatoes|
Where to Cowork in Sofia
I'm currently sitting in the biggest coworking space I've ever seen, and it's here in Sofia out of all places. It's three floors, has a nice outside sitting area, and a built in coffee shop. The only downside is that it seems like everyone here is working for a company, startup or is part of a team. Betahaus Sofia seems like an awesome place for startup teams but Sofia in general isn't a digital nomad hotspot like it is in Chiang Mai. If you get a month pass and attend the events you'll be sure to meet some friends, but don't expect to get plugged straight into a community the first day you arrive.
I also wanted to check out include Soho which is the only coworking space i've seen that also has yoga and ballet classes.
|Coworking out of Betahaus in Sofia, Bulgaria|
The Beaches of Bulgaria
If you want to get out of the city and visit some beaches, you can take a bus from Sofia to Burgas and visit the black sea. My buddy Sam and I ended up staying in Burgas but would recommend you stay in Sozopol instead as it is a much nicer beach town. Most tourists go up to Sunny Beach which is the party capital of Bulgaria so if you're into wild nights that'll be a good option for you as well.
The actual beaches at Burgas and Sozopol were both way too crowded and not very nice but luckily a short taxi ride away was Smokini Beach which was a lot better, although they still reminded me of the ultra packed tourist beaches in Thailand such as the ones in Phuket. My advice would be to explore the other beaches further outside of the main areas such as Veleka beach or Arkutino as recommended by Ivan on my instagram page.
Quick video of my favorite beach in Bulgaria
Hanging with Locals
It was fun visiting the black sea coast but I think I'm a bit spoiled by the beaches in Thailand and Indonesia to have really appreciated them. If it wasn't for me meeting Ksenia who happens to live in Burgas, I never would have known how to get to the beaches outside of the city. But turns out it's pretty easy, you can either rent a car or simply take the bus that leaves every thirty minutes from the main station in Burgas to Sozopol then take a lcoal taxi from there to the other beaches.
Big thanks to Ksenia for showing us around, hanging out with someone who's a local always makes the experience of travel more fun. She's also happened to be one of the winners of the Bulgarian version of "The Voice" which was pretty cool having her sing to us randomly. So make sure you stay social and talk to random people when you travel as you never know who you're going to meet along the way!
Overall Thoughts on Sofia
I like it, Bulgaria is cheap, pretty safe and if it wasn't' for me discovering the visa loophole with Poland and me preferring that country overall, I would have absolutely spent more time in Sofia and the black sea coast of Bulgaria as it's an easy way to spend the whole summer in Europe on a budget and without visas.
I would definitely recommend it as an off the beaten path place to visit in Europe as it's super cheap, relatively easy to get to if you don't mind taking long bus rides and it's all part of the adventure. Personally, I don't think it'll become a huge digital nomad hotspot anytime soon even though on paper it's really the perfect place with easy visas, low costs of living, good food, beaches, mountains, skiing and coworking spaces. It's just one of those places that is a bit too behind when it comes to the ease for new travelers to navigate, get by with English, call an Uber or the other conveniences that we've been accustomed to and enjoy. If you want to know more about Bulgaria and our Eastern Europe travel plans, make sure you listen to episode 125 of the Travel Like a Boss Podcast.
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