Like a local: exploring art and theatre in Sofia, Bulgaria

The Bulgarian capital is packed with cultural experiences, from artists collectives and dance performances to grand nights at the opera.Monday, 2 March 2020

Modern marvels Sofia offers no shortage of grand historic buildings — the Bulgarian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral being a particular highlight with its striking Byzantine architecture and sage-green domes. But look beyond the city’s classical landmarks and you’ll find a blossoming modern arts scene that’s worth seeking out.

High on any art lover’s list should be Swimming Pool, a city-centre arts space located on a rooftop with an empty 1930s pool. The calendar here is diverse: exhibitions, performances, screenings and events are held here, with a rolling programme of work including discussions and talks in this very cool space.

For art with a heart, check out The Fridge, which supports young artists and encourages participation in the arts. Works and performances include contemporary dance, experimental music, film screenings and workshops.

There’s also Aether — this independent, experimental space was founded in 2016 with the intention of engaging local and international artists in collective projects. For those interested in movements like microsociety and how art and history can shape our ideas, this is a must-visit.

The Institute of Contemporary Art is just outside the city centre on the first floor of a residential house and well worth heading out of town for. It’s a vibrant and fun place to visit, with a clutch of artists’ studios, plus exhibition space with work from upcoming and prominent Bulgarian artists.

For something a little different, Water Tower Art Residency isn’t exactly a gallery, but an annual international event that uses abandoned buildings throughout the city, aiming to draw public attention to the immediate environment. It’s run by an artist collective, with a programme of public events. Dates for this year’s events are yet to be announced.

Show time 

Be sure to catch a performance at the Ivan Vazov National Theatre, one of the most important landmarks in Sofia, located by the beautiful City Garden. Productions at the main theatre range from Shakespeare and modern plays to ballet. Performances are mostly in Bulgarian, but there are occasional English-language nights.

The National Palace of Culture, meanwhile, is a huge Communist-era exhibition space that opened in 1981 to mark 1,300 years since the founding of Bulgaria. It’s a monumental hexagonal monolith of concrete, glass and steel that hosts concerts, dance performances, films and plays. If the weather’s pleasant, join skateboarders, families and picnickers in the popular park that surrounds it.

If you’re looking for a shot of high culture, tickets for the Sofia Opera and Ballet are very reasonable, and there are a variety of productions from famous operas to musicals and special productions for children.

While plenty of opera-goers do dress up, and the website states that ‘formal attire is recommended’, in reality there’s a very wide range of attendees wearing everything from jeans to suits. It’s also a lovely, grand building to admire, and the productions are first-rate. 

The Bulgarian Army Theatre was built in 1936, and once housed the opulent Royal Cinema. It’s more about the stage than the screen these days, with a main hall and a studio theatre, staging modern versions of classics as well as contemporary drama. Performers are often well-known Bulgarian film and television actors.

If your Bulgarian’s not quite up to scratch, however, head to Sofia Theatre, where English subtitles have been introduced for much of the repertoire (check the website for details of the subtitled shows). The theatre’s varied offering is accessible and contemporary, with around 10-12 productions a year in its four spaces.

Tomislav Rashkov's favourite after-dark spots

Tomislav is vice president of 365 Association, a non-profit association with a focus on tourism and culture. One of its initiatives is the Free Sofia walking tour.

1. Bar Petak
The name of this bar means ‘Friday’ as no matter what day of the week you go, it always feels like Friday here. Almost every local has a story about this place.

2. Hambara
To enter Hambara — the oldest underground bar in Sofia — you have find the venue in a very small, dark street, then knock on the door and wait for someone to let you in. Everything is lit entirely by candles, and there’s a piano, too.

3. K.E.B.A
Most of the regulars are artists, actors, painters, musicians and filmmakers — unsurprising given that it’s right next to the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts. They play interesting, alternative music, serve great drinks and there’s a very friendly atmosphere for a great evening out.

4. Exe Club
This place attracts a lot of upcoming DJs, has a very slick design and plays all the best tracks you won’t hear anywhere else. It’s frequented by people who really like to have fun.

5. Sputnik
This is the best bar for first-class cocktails in Sofia. It looks amazing, but the biggest highlight is the bartenders — simply tell them your mood and favourite ingredients and they’ll make you the perfect drink.

Published in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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