Museum Island: Best Museums to Visit in Sofia
Let´s start the museum run!
Everyone who has ever visited Sofia had heard that saying: “Sofia is the city that grows but does not age”. This, however, is definitely not to say that Sofia hasn’t seen it all. This city’s turbulent history begins thousands of years ago with Neolithic settlements that eventually lead to the forming of a Thracian town called Serdica around 1400 BC. Since then, Sofia has seen many peoples come and go – Thracians, Celts, Romans, Bulgarians and Turks all left their own fingerprint on this city. The wild cultural mix that Sofia is today reflects the shared fate of the territories that now form Bulgaria. The spirit of the country has been captured in a wide variety of forms in many of the museums around town.
The ancient city centre has not moved its location for thousands of years and it matches today’s city centre – that is where our tour begins. If you go to Lavov Most (Lions’ Bridge), which is like 2-3 minutes’ walk from Budapest Hotel, then continue up Maria Luisa Blvd. you will reach the grand Banya Bashi Mosque (easy to notice) in just 600 meters. To the left of the mosque is the picturesque building of the Central Mineral Baths. A historical feat in itself, this building now houses the Sofia History Museum, dedicated to this town’s exciting history. After lengthy renovation work on the building, the Museum re-opened just last year in 2015 for the public and now offers over a thousand exhibits dating from 6,000 BC to present day. Visitors can stumble upon anything from a reconstructed Neolithic house to the golden carriage clock presented to Prince Ferdinand by Queen Victoria.
If you keep walking up Maria Luisa Blvd. and take the underpass below St. Sofia’s statue you will reach another monumental religious building – the St. Nedelya cathedral. Go to the left on Saborna str. and you will reach the National Archaeological Museum. This is the oldest museum in Bulgaria and it has been located in this very building (a former mosque) since 1899. The mosque dates back to the 15th century and it gives any archaeological museum the perfect setting for displaying historical artifacts. The scope of exhibits, that the museum covers, is immense. Not only because it aims at covering thousands of years of history, but also because it does so nation-wide, not focusing strictly on Sofia. Some of the highlights are the Valchitran gold treasure from the 14th century BC and also the original floor mosaic from St. Sofia church.
When you walk out of the museum, you will find that you are on a yellow-pavement road called Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd. Follow that to the right of the museum and soon enough on your left you’ll see the imposing building of the former royal residence that now houses the Ethnographic Museum. It offers one of the richest collections of pastoral woodcarving and over 4, 000 different exponents that depict Bulgarian lifestyle from the beginning of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century AD. Bulgarian beliefs, traditions and culture are all embodied in many products of fretwork, embroidery and music, so if you visit this museum it is recommended that you join a group led by a curator because they will be able to best explain the meaning of what you see.
Keep walking on the yellow pavements down Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd. until you reach 15th of November str. – turn left and you will see the impressive Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Besides being incredible to look at from the inside and outside, Alexander Nevsky offers more than what meets the eye. The cathedral’s crypt has been actually turned into a museum. On the left side of the main entrance there are some steps that will lead you to the underground museum where you’ll find what is claimed to be the largest collection of icons in Europe. Over 200 exhibits that date from the 13th to the 19th century are displayed in a well-fitting atmosphere as well as three fragments of wall paintings, engravings and other antique religious artifacts.
If you do want to look at art, but religious art is not exactly what you were hoping for – then worry not. Just across the Alexander Nevsky square there is massive building that is now known as National Gallery Kvadrat 500. The museum opened doors in May 2015 after some re-organization and out of the staggering fund of 42,000 pieces of art, it now exhibits over 2, 000 paintings from Bulgarian and foreign artists. It takes a while to go through the whole collection not only because of its volume but also because it is divided in 28 halls on four levels which also makes for great exercise!
So far, your tour includes plenty museums to visit for one day. However, if you are in the mood for more, here are some honorable mentions: the National Museum of History, the National Museum of Military History located in the lovely park of the Military Academy, the National Museum of Natural History on Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd., the Earth and Man National Museum with its collection of precious stones and minerals, situated near by the NDK.Many of the items in some of the museums were found in the area of this tour. If you have enjoyed the museum run, your walk back to Budapest hotel through this ancient area will surely feel very different because you will have met the spirit of Sofia.