In Bulgaria's Charming Old-World Capital, a Modern Oasis
By Alexander Lobrano
The New York Times
Until the beautifully designed 71-room Sense Hotel opened in June, luxury in Sofia, the handsome capital of Bulgaria, was often more defined by what the Balkan city doesn’t have than what it does — which is a lot of character and un-self-conscious charm. Despite a population of 1.2 million, the city has none of the stress-tinged, work-centric rhythms found in most European capitals, existing instead in a gentle post-Ottoman twilight, its leafy neighborhoods still full of small cafes, bars and taverns. The arrival of Starbucks hasn’t completely sidelined the local preference for Turkish coffee and the city’s old market — where kerchiefed farm wives sell their pickles in recycled jars and there is an abundant supply of the delicious cheese-filled phyllo pastries known as banitsa — is still busy, despite the big supermarkets opening on the outskirts of town.
All of which is to say that Sofia won’t be “the next Prague” or “the new Berlin” anytime soon, and that’s a good thing. Tourists are still scarce, and the locals have a reflexive and gracious sense of hospitality that makes travelers feel welcome even if they might be disoriented by the country’s Cyrillic alphabet (although more and more street signs include the Roman alphabet).
Still, Sofia’s beau monde loves the new Sense Hotel for breaching the city’s cozy provincialism. Its rooftop bar boasts superb views of ancient Roman ruins and Byzantine, Ottoman, Secessionist and Socialist buildings, including the wedding-cake tiers of gilded and verdigris copper domes of the Saint Alexander Nevski Cathedral. Designed by the Rome-based architectural firm Lazzarini Pickering Architetti, the Sense is a discreet modern beauty on Sofia’s Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard, a road paved with mustard-colored bricks.
The Sofia-based interior design firm Architectural Group Tzonkov echoed the hotel’s understated exterior with serene, light-filled interiors. A light-box-style marble bar animates the lounge. Black cherry-colored parquet floors and taupe leather walls warm up the rooms, which come with Molton Brown toiletries. But the real showstopper is the spa, complete with a 15-meter stainless steel lap pool, saltwater soaking tub, sauna and steam room, plus a comprehensive spa menu.
Here, for those wanting to explore all the hotel’s surroundings have to offer, some of the must-see destinations in Bulgaria’s capital.
Museum of Socialist Art | The two-year-old institution houses a fascinating, moving and occasionally campy display of state-sponsored propaganda art produced in the country under Communism. There is also an open-air sculpture garden that includes a massive striding stone Stalin and the huge red star that once topped the Communist Party headquarters. 7 Lachezar Stanchev Street; 359-2-980-0071.
National History Museum | Housed in the old communist dictator Todor Zhivkov’s grandiose former residence is a spectacular display of golden Thracian treasures and medieval icon paintings. 16 Vitoshko Lale Street; 359-2-955-4280, historymuseum.org.
K.E.V.A. | Sample local fare, like bean stew with sausage, salads and grilled meats, at this arty cafe-style restaurant tucked away in the courtyard of the School for Performing Arts. 112 Rakovski Street; 359-877-313-233.
Predi 10 | Friendly English-speaking waitresses serve delicious Bulgarian home cooking, like peppers stuffed with meat and rice. 1 Professor Milko Bichev Street; 359-884-935-857.
Sense Hotel Sofia, 16 Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard; 359-700-20670-800; sensehotel.com.