I only have 24 hours in Sofia, Bulgaria and it’s my first time here. Every moment has to count, especially because I want to tackle the local food scene. One day isn’t enough, but sometimes our schedules get in the way of our travel plans and we have to make the most of our time.
When I’m faced with an impossibly short stay in an unfamiliar destination, the first thing I do is find a food tour. There’s no better, faster way to get geographically orientated and learn about a place’s history and flavors. Plus, you get an opportunity to chat one-on-one with a knowledgeable local. Culinary tours are also safe ways to step outside your travel comfort zone to try new things.
Back in my weirdly retro Bulgarian hotel room, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I Googled “Sofia food tour” and the first site that came up was Balkan Bites, Sofia’s daily free food tour.
Hold up – a FREE food tour? As in, it costs nothing? I’d never heard of a free food tour, but it was meeting at 2:00PM in the old town’s Park Crystal and there was no way I was going to miss it.
A group of seven or eight travelers gather in the square; they’re mostly young backpackers. Our tour guide reiterates that the tour and food we’ll taste is free. Why free? Well, Balkan Bites wants to give first-time visitors to Sofia an authentic taste of Bulgaria.
I get it. When out-of-town friends visit, I insist on taking them to my favorite local haunts. Bulgarian food remains somewhat of a mystery in the world of culinary tourism, so this is a great way to get acquainted with a city that is still discovering its tourism identity. Balkan Bites also arranges private food tours, city tours and local guide services at a cost.
After a history lesson on Bulgarian yogurt, we trek to trendy soup-themed restaurant, SupaStar to sample tarator, a chilled yogurt soup made with cucumber, walnuts, garlic and dill. It’s fantastic. Open since 2009, SupaStar is a vital part of Sofia’s emerging food scene, marrying Bulgarian culinary traditions with the concept of fast food. Here we learn that in the 1960s, a “traditional” Bulgarian cuisine was decided by the government and all restaurants were required to make the same basic dishes. This homogenized food culture decimated regional cooking, something Bulgaria is slowly rediscovering today as the country finds its food roots.
We walk to our next food stop along a colorful street where graffiti mixes with public art. We descend into a pedestrian underpass near the stadium, where stalls and shops line a dimly lit corridor. Here we find a woman turning out banitsa, a savory Bulgarian cheese pastry normally enjoyed as a breakfast snack.
Banitsa is made with layers of buttery filo dough stuffed with a variety of white cheeses, then coiled into a loop and baked. Our guide called ahead – bless him! – so our pastry is fresh out of the oven and steaming hot. Inside, the molten cheese is salty and slightly pungent, it oozes out of the crisp pastry and the whole thing kind of blows my mind. I reach in for seconds, thirds and fourths. If there’s one reason to visit Sofia, this banitsa is IT.
Next, we walk to a vegan restaurant, Sun Moon, to sample whole grain breads and traditional tomato spreads. In Bulgaria, tomatoes are a religion, or at the very least a source of national pride. At Sun Moon, it’s all about the bread, down to the dozens of varieties of stone-ground flour they make on site from locally sourced grains.
Our Balkan Bites tour wraps at the most “Bulgarian” of our restaurant stops, Hadjidraganovite Izbi, a kitschy, rustic-themed eatery offering nightly live folk music. Downstairs, we sit at a wooden table and sample a variety of local cheeses accompanied by thimble-sized cups of Pelin, a slightly sweet, herby wine infused with wormwood.
And all of this for free? Almost. The guide will accept gratuities. I loved every minute of our two-hour walking/eating tour and felt like Sofia and I had a successful “first date.” I tipped my guide ten Bulgarian lev, roughly five Euros. I can’t recommend this tour enough, and even if you don’t have time for a tour, check out some of these culinary hot spots for an authentic taste of Bulgaria.