How Sofia's bathhouses are powering the Bulgarian city's renaissance
The Bulgarian capital is being reborn in the mineral waters of its palatial old bathhouses, their restoration enticing a fresh influx of visitors to the city’s legendary thermal springs and communist-era rakia bars.
The door is large and wooden. Oak, most likely. It forms a beautiful entrance to a beautiful building. I wonder if the decorative gold embellishments that cover it are original or new. I also wonder whether I’ll ever get the thing to actually open.
It’s mid-morning in Bankya, a district to the west of Sofia. Straddling the border between the Bulgarian capital and the forested hills of Lyulin Mountain, the area has long been synonymous with health and wellbeing. Its star attraction is Central Mineral Bath Bankya, a storied and stately baroque bathhouse that’s been the focus of a major redevelopment project over the past few years. It’s this building that I’m here to visit and, kindly, I’ve been given the honour of unlocking it. Unfortunately, the door won’t budge.
“It’s 100 years old,” explains Alexandra Alexandrova, Bankya’s deputy mayor. She appears businesslike in a grey blazer and matching skirt, but her demeanour is casual and warm; she habitually pinches her long nails together whenever an English term momentarily eludes her, as if trying to pluck the word from the air.
After a fair bit of frantic fiddling, there’s a loud thunk as the weighty brass key finally twists in the antique lock and the door creaks open. Behind me, a mock cheer sounds from the small delegation of officials who have agreed to show me around the historical structure, which, at the time of my visit, was still a few months from officially opening to the public.
We spill into a vast reception foyer — where round bulbs drip from a circular chrome chandelier like an iced confection — and immediately take a left turn, following a corridor into one of the building’s two main wings. We emerge into a circular room with a deep, round pool at its centre. The dark red floor tiles are offset by brushed blue walls, giving way to a white domed ceiling where small, circular windows permit selected beams of sunlight. The air is cool and our footsteps echo around the silent structure. Plamen Simeonov — himself a former deputy mayor of Bankya — who worked in the bathhouse in the 1970s, utters something softly in Bulgarian. “He says it’s a treasure,” Alexandra translates with a smile.
Although few visitors would know it today, the Bulgarian capital owes its existence to its natural thermal waters. The area’s mineral-rich pools endeared the site — which was originally occupied by Thracian tribes — to the bath-loving Romans, who built a major settlement here in the first century. When the Ottomans arrived roughly 12 centuries later, they also made the salubrious springs a focus of the city, utilising the natural waters for drinking and bathing.
The trend continued with King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, who, in a bid to improve the general hygiene of his subjects, began constructing large, ornate bathhouses throughout the city to utilise the naturally heated waters, beginning with Bankya’s in 1911. The yellow-walled, crescent-shaped structure is considered the finest work of German baroque architect Carl Hocheder, who also designed the Müllersches Public Baths in Munich.
Then, in 1946, Bulgaria became a communist country. Although the city’s bathhouses remained the beating heart of the community, where people would come to heal ailments and socialise with friends, their upkeep wasn’t prioritised. By the time the communist regime toppled in 1990, the beautiful structures had fallen into a state of dilapidation. With insufficient funds to restore them, they were boarded up and left to deteriorate.
“There was an actual tree growing here, through the roof,” says Alexandra, gesturing to one of the treatment rooms as we wind through the upper floor of the bathhouse. She points out original piping and tiled frescoes as we pass showers and saunas, explaining the painstaking process of repairing the ruined building. It was a project that started in 2019 and took, as she puts it, “two years of work and one year of paperwork”. The restoration is now complete, but the building remains closed to the public while the municipality finalises which company will operate the baths.
Fittingly, given it was Sofia’s original bathing complex, the restoration of Bankya’s bathhouse marks the beginning of what appears to be a concerted effort by officials to reclaim the city’s forgotten spa culture. In Bankya itself, a large outdoor pool utilising the same mineral spring has also been revamped and reopened to the public. Meanwhile, Sofia’s mayor has outlined plans to begin restoration work on similarly striking bathhouse complexes in the neighbourhoods of Ovcha Kupel and Gorna Banya.
I’m midway through discussing these ambitious government plans with Alexandra when our tour comes to an abrupt end. Despite the raging midday heat, Plamen, whose deep-set wrinkles and peppery white moustache place him well into his twilight years, has a game of tennis scheduled and doesn’t want to be late. Naturally, this remarkable, age-defying stamina is attributed to regular exposure to Bankya’s miraculous mineral water.
Before Plamen heads out into the scorching midday sun, I ask him, since he campaigned tirelessly for the bath’s reopening, whether he’s excited to return to the facility. “Excitement is too simple a word,” says Alexandra, acting as translator. “We lost a part of our culture when the baths closed down. Plamen has made it his life’s mission to see this building reopen.”
Soaking it all in
Back in the city centre later that day, I find myself standing before another impressive building. Its size, dual symmetrical domes and prominent use of yellow have an uncanny resemblance to Bankya’s mineral baths. From the outside, at least.
“This is the Sofia History Museum,” says Dino, a local, long-haired film-director-cum-tour-guide, with a hint of a sigh. “It’s a very interesting museum, but locals don’t like it. Some even hate it because they want their baths back.”
Opened in 1913, the Sofia Central Mineral Baths was one of the city’s most popular bathhouses, enjoying pride of place in the heart of the Bulgarian capital. However, it couldn’t survive the tough postwar years, eventually closing its doors in 1986. It remained empty and unused for nearly three decades, before being controversially repurposed into a museum in 2015, housing exhibitions covering the history of Sofia. But even here, change is bubbling under the surface. After years of campaigns, protests and petitions, there are whispers of at least one wing of the elegant building being converted back into a bathing facility.
In the meantime, drinking fountains surrounding the building still grant visitors round-the-clock access to the mineral spring; Dino shepherds our small tour group over to the line of people queuing for a taste. Holding back his long, black fringe, he bends low to slurp some of the warm water flowing from one of the metallic pipes.
“Delicious,” he says with a grin. “They say it also has good qualities for the liver.” And that could be a particularly useful benefit given the other liquid held in equally high regard by Sofia locals.
To find it, I cut through the City Garden flanking the National Theatre, just as the sun is setting behind the snow-capped Vitosha massif, a nearby mountain range that seems to loom in the background of every city vista. A soft breeze rustles the ringlets of Martenitsa bands — red and white yarn tassels given as a sign of friendship during the spring celebration, Baba Marta day and hung on blossoming tree branches — prompting the chess players with sun-reddened crowns to begin methodically packing away their pieces. As they vacate, younger crowds start to move in, scouting potential spots to set up camp for the evening in a summer ritual known as ‘bench parties’.
I arrive at Raketa Rakia Bar as darkness falls. Sitting inconspicuously between two grey tower blocks, the bar enjoys a perennial popularity due to its zany, communist-era decor and extensive selection of rakia, a tonsil-stinging fruit liquor that’s been distilled in Bulgaria for generations and is considered the country’s national drink. Just like the city’s mineral water, it’s also been bestowed mythical properties, be it as a form of stress relief, pain relief, or, as one bartender later tells me, a cure for Covid-19.
A waiter finds me a table and recommends a couple of his favourite rakias from the menu, one made from fig and another he ominously describes as ‘spicy’. I tell him I’ll try both, along with a bowl of tripe soup (another Bulgarian delicacy). Around me, groups of people sip rakia-infused cocktails and pose for photos alongside archaic television sets and dog-eared posters of long-dead Soviet leaders.
Looking around, it feels like Sofia is undergoing a kind of natural course correction, like a river cutting off an unnecessary meander that has diverged from its intended path. One of the city’s great attributes, entwined in its culture throughout history, is its ability to re-emerge from the depths of obscurity. The regime that led to its downfall in this instance now serves as a novelty decor choice.
The rejuvenation of the city’s majestic bathhouses is great news for locals who long for their return, but the move to save them could also be key to unlocking Sofia’s potential as a travel destination, enticing more visitors to immerse themselves in the city’s charms. That might involve glimpsing golden Thracian burial masks in the city’s Archaeological Museum, hopping between street-art-spattered bars hiding in cellar spaces, or getting to grips with the city’s diversifying food scene (although I’d have to file the tripe soup under the ‘acquired taste’ category).
But for now, as renovations evolve, a little patience is needed. As I can attest, great things sometimes take a little time to unlock.
14 hours in Sofia
Breakfast at Sun Moon
The sweet smell of freshly baked pastry hangs in the air of this neighbourhood vegetarian bakery and restaurant, where diners converge around a large wooden counter and tables, or on a scattering of seating that occupies a parasol-shaded wedge of pavement outside. Homemade breads, traditional banitsa (a sweet pastry served with yoghurt) and lip-smacking smoothies all vie for the affection of early risers, while pizzas and curries move in to steal the spotlight later in the day.
Sofia Regional History Museum
It’s no longer a functioning bathhouse, but, in its current guise as a museum, the miraculous building is free for guests to nose around. The floors are still vividly tiled and the large arched windows illuminate plunge pools where bathers once soaked. The exhibits themselves provide an enjoyable overview of the city’s colourful history, encompassing everything from Neolithic-age pottery to gold-encrusted royal carriages. Don’t forget to sip from the mineral-water drinking fountains outside.
Ancient ruins and relics
During construction of the city metro, authorities turned up enough Roman remains to make Time Team’s Tony Robinson giddy. You’ll likely bump into some on any trip underground, but the most impressive section is the Ancient Serdica Complex, comprising the remnants of Roman homes, an early Christian basilica and a bathhouse dating from around the fifth century. For more recent relics, a short walk east is the antique flea market, where you can browse stalls piled with war medals, communist-era signs and vintage cameras, while vendors battle one another at backgammon.
St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Sofia’s star attraction is this enormous, golden-domed basilica, which, despite being named after a Russian prince, serves as a symbol of modern, independent Bulgaria. It took 30 years to build, funded by donations from across the country. Inside, five golden chandeliers dangle far below the beautifully frescoed ceilings, illuminating the portraits of halo-sporting saints that fill the walls. A classical art gallery occupies the tranquil, white-walled crypt underneath.
Lunch at Supa Star
Soup is big in Bulgaria, so much so that the capital has numerous places dedicated solely to serving the hearty dish. Supa Star, a hole-in-the-wall-style spot on hip Shishman Street, was the city’s original ‘soup bar’ and remains its most beloved. Its selection of fresh homemade broths changes daily, ranging from traditional Bulgarian staples like tarator, to more creative offerings, such as sweet potato and ginger. Don’t deliberate for too long, though or aim for an earlier lunch slot — once they’re gone, they’re gone.
Take a bath
Having opened its doors to the public in late September, Bankya’s magnificent bathhouse is the number one choice, and could be paired with a few lengths in the neighbouring Olympic-size, open-air Aquabankya complex in summer. Alternatively, the Korali Pancharevo pool complex, in the south of Sofia, is smaller, but has unbeatable vistas across Lake Pancharevo and its naturally warm water is extra inviting in winter. Both sites are roughly a 20-minute taxi ride from the centre.
Dinner at Shtastliveca
A feel of faded grandeur wafts from this popular dinner spot on Vitosha Boulevard, Sofia’s main thoroughfare, making visitors feel they might have strayed into a Wes Anderson movie. The 1930s-style decor, encompassing old porcelain tea sets, white lace tablecloths and floral-print sofas, steals the show, but it’s complemented by an assortment of delectable Bulgarian dishes, ranging from seared pork-neck steak to stuffed aubergine with smoked cheese. Look out for themed nights, where traditional live music further ramps up the eccentricity factor.
Sample Sofia's Music Scene
Sofia has a reputation for its nightlife, with the halcyon days of the 1990s techno scene clinging on at legendary club Yalta. But for something a little more refined, squash into single-roomed Club Renaissance to hear local songsters tickle the ivories while trams roll past on the cobbled street outside. Memorable live music is also on offer at underground rock and karaoke bar Rock’N’Rolla, and the late-night Jazz Bar.
Look out for the last of the city’s klek (‘squat’) shops. At these quirky convenience stores, set up in residential basements, vendors’ heads poke out just above street level. They’re a disappearing relic from the days following the fall of communism, when everyone was out to make a quick buck.
Due to its cultural significance, the oldest building in the city, the fourth-century Church of St George, was concealed behind a block of high-rise buildings during communist rule. To find it, walk under the arches opposite the Bulgarian Archaeological Museum.
If Bulgarian rakia is a little harsh for your tastes, another unorthodox Balkan beverage to sample is pelin: wine, fermented with herbs typically found in absinthe. The restaurant Hadjidraganovite Kashti serves a homemade version.
Getting there & around
British Airways, Bulgaria Air, Easyjet, Ryanair and Wizz Air are among the carriers flying non-stop from the UK to Sofia.
Average flight time: 3h10m.
Sofia is well-connected to European destinations by rail, with direct routes to Turkey and Romania, and indirect services to cities across the continent. London to Sofia takes two days, via Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest.
Most attractions are within walking distance. The metro is clean, cheap and offers contactless card payment in place of traditional tickets. It also connects to the airport. A three-day metro fare offers unlimited travel for 72 hours for BGN10 (£4.50). The Moovit app is helpful in navigating the city’s public transport.
When to go
Sofia is beautiful in summer, with average daytime temperatures of 25C to 30C. Spring and early autumn are cooler, but still largely sunny. Winter offers skiing on Vitosha mountain and perfect conditions for a dip in one of the city’s outdoor hot springs.
Where to stay
InterContinental Sofia. From £105, room only.
Hostel Mostel Sofia. From £20, room only.
How to do it
Intrepid offers a nine-day tour of Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey inlcuding in Sofia, from £1,028pp, with transport and excursions, including hikes in the Pirin Mountains, a visit to Tsarevets Fortress and a walking tour of Plovdiv’s old town. Excludes flights.
Published in the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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