How to Meet People Abroad: Sofia, Bulgaria

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bulgaria1In this month’s edition of How to Meet People Abroad, Melibee’s Gerry Botchoukova-Farkova provides some great tips for meeting locals in the beautiful city of Sofia, Bulgaria!  Gerry’s recent trip back to her home country of Bulgaria provides us with an insider’s view of the city. (The photo on the left is in the heart of Sofia at the City Square. It is called “Nezavisimost” – meaning Independence.)

Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, is a 6,000 years old settlement with the look and feel of a modern and upbeat European metropolis. The young spirit of the city is conveyed through its motto “It grows, but never gets old.” Still, Sofia needs to be experienced in order for this message to be understood and fully appreciated. So what better way to get to know the city where Via Diagonalis once led the way to mighty Constantinople (by the way you can still set foot on it today!) than to meet some Sofians and get a taste of the local life together?!

OK! So maybe this is easier said than done. But have faith! Bulgarians are very open, warm and welcoming people with whom one can easily strike a conversation even in the most unlikely of places. Plus, as a local Sofian myself, I am here to help. I have handpicked the top five ways and places for you to meet people while abroad in Sofia, Bulgaria. So shall we?

5. The Nightlife – Yes! We are starting with the nightlife as the #5 way of meeting people while in Sofia. It is important to clarify here, that by “nightlife” I mean all the life that takes place in the city after dark. It plays a major role in Sofia’s culture and there is even a local term coined specifically for it “noshtna Sofia” (нощтна София) which literally translated means “Sofia by dark”, but it is so much more than that. It is a feeling that overcomes you when you see the city transform and wake up for its “other,” more private life, before your very eyes.

As Bulgaria’s capital city and with a population of about two million, Sofia if only by virtue of size has the most active and rich nightlife that the country has to offer. That includes but is certainly not limited to: clubs, lounges, birarii (Bulgarian versions of beer gardens), garden restaurants, festivals, open air cinemas, sidewalk cafes, jazz performances in the park, concerts, night theater performances, and more. In fact, here is a sample of what is taking place in noshtna Sofia right now:  Fortissimo Fest, The Night of the Theaters, and a short list of concerts for the fall season. It is easy to strike up a conversation and meet lots of interesting people at any of these events and more. Don’t be shy and get out there. You might even get an opportunity to practice your Bulgarian.

Chicken potato soup in a bowl of bread. (Photo courtesy of Sandra Ionescu)
Chicken potato soup in a bowl of bread. (Photo courtesy of Sandra Ionescu)

4. Over Food: “На Гости” (at a home cooked meal) or at a popular spot in town- Food is central to Bulgarian culture. In many respects Bulgaria resembles the rest of the Southern European countries when it comes to gathering around the table to break bread and bring the family together. There is always room for one more and guests are never turned away, even if they come unexpectedly. For these reasons and more, the #4 top way of meeting people in Bulgaria is to do it over food. There are numerous Bulgarian holidays around the year that present perfect opportunities to get invited “на гости” (na gosti) or in other words to a home cooked meal by a friend, roommate, classmate or a colleague. When that happens, make sure you don’t go empty handed. Make a quick stop by your local store or florist to pick up a box of chocolates, a bottle of “ракия“(rakia- strong Bulgarian alcohol), or a bouquet of 3, 5 or 7 flowers (odd numbers are for the living, even for the dead) to offer as a gift to the hostess. Although such a gesture would most certainly not be expected from a non-Bulgarian, you will make a great first impression and will be deemed a person with good manners for not having shown up empty handed. In a high context culture, such as the Bulgarian one, the non-verbal communication really does matter.
You can also meet plenty of your friends’ friends if you tag along for a dinner out on the town. Bulgarians don’t shy away from bringing their various friends and contacts together, so it is a safe bet that you will be introducing yourself and perfecting your handshake quite a bit throughout the night. If nothing on the menu looks familiar, ask the locals for some recommendations and bond over the unfamiliar but delicious Bulgarian food. Here are just a few of my favorite places to have an authentic Bulgarian meal in Sofia: Divaka, Pri Yafata, and Chevermeto.

Traditional Bulgarian grill: kebabche & kiufte (Photo courtesy of Sandra Ionescu)
Traditional Bulgarian grill: kebabche & kiufte (Photo courtesy of Sandra Ionescu)

3. Outdoors: In the city parks or on the nearby Vitosha slopes- Sofia might be the biggest and most populated city in Bulgaria, but it certainly is not a claustrophobic one due to the abundance of parks and city gardens. On any given day, even on the drizzly ones, you will find a group of older men huddled over a chessboard on a park bench contemplating the next move; mothers with strollers exchanging recipes or medicine advice; outdoors tango lessons; or someone admiring the latest public art installation. The parks and gardens are the “breathing” places of the city and asking to join an impromptu game of soccer (in Bulgaria it is called football) with people you have never met before, is quite a normal thing to do. Signing up for the Sofia Green Tour, a daily free biking tour that takes place from April to November at 11am and 5pm is another great way to meet friends and find out about upcoming events.

The city's "Garden Park" (Photo courtesy of Gerry Botchoukova-Farkova)
The city’s “Garden Park” (Photo courtesy of Gerry Botchoukova-Farkova)

If, however, you are more of a nature lover and crave to leave the city limits for the fresh mountain air, then the slopes of Vitosha Mountain, located on the outskirts of Sofia, are the place for you. Sign up for a hiking, biking, skiing or snowboarding day trip or even better, organize one yourself, advertise it on campus, and you will be well on your way of expanding your Bulgarian network of friends.
2. Gathering places– Like-minded people tend to stick together and once you find one, you have found all of them. Depending on what your interests are and how outgoing you are willing to be, there are a number of places around Sofia that lend themselves to a great round of socializing. One such place is +Това , a space for social meetings, events, and art installations with a kitchen, bar and store. They are very well known for their “Social Sundays”, a monthly event that usually includes plenty of good food and music. Others they have hosted in the past are “Vintage Bazaar”, “Live painting session” and “A night of board games” to name a few. Various workshops and presentations also make an appearance from time to time on their social calendar. More great options for gathering places around town include PaperCake (a bookstore for contemporary literature and chocolaterie), Room № 5 (a place to socialize or read or just be), and Dada Cultural Bar (a place that celebrates culture in all of its forms by hosting an array of events).

If you are more business inclined and would like to put a finger on the pulse of the young and creative entrepreneurial community in Sofia, then work side by side with some of them at Betahaus, a communal workspace where you can rent a desk just for the day. Take advantage of their offer of a free trial day to test the space out, and use this excellent opportunity to get some conversations started with the people across from or next to you.

1. “На Кафе“/ Over Coffee. At last, we have arrived to the #1 way to meet people in Sofia, and that is over a great cup of Joe. In Bulgaria, we often joke that drinking coffee can be a national sport. It is a social event that is not about efficiency, multitasking or keeping yourself sufficiently caffeinated so that you can get more work done. On the contrary, coffee is drank leisurely, most often in cool, sleek, inviting coffee houses, lounges or trendy gardens, with at least one other social contact if not with all of your best friends. The art of drinking coffee in Bulgaria is quite egalitarian in the sense that it is very socially accepted to invite even someone you barely know to coffee in order to socialize and get to know them better. That will not be viewed as inappropriate or culturally unacceptable in the very least. In fact, there are thousands of business deals, meetings, reunions, social events, first dates and lunch breaks that take place each and every day in the always full coffee houses of Sofia. Believe me, you will not be the only one there, so take the initiative and invite a classmate or a colleague to coffee to talk about that project both of you are working on, and perhaps a little bit about the city that lives and breathes around you.

Coffee houses line up on both sides of the pedestrian Vitoshka Street in the center of Sofia (Photo courtesy of Sandra Ionescu)
Coffee houses line up on both sides of the pedestrian Vitoshka Street in the center of Sofia (Photo courtesy of Sandra Ionescu)

I hope you find my advice helpful and please come back and share with us how you met people in Sofia and throughout Bulgaria.

Happy travels!

GerryBotchoukovaFarkovaAbout the Author:  Gerry Botchoukova-Farkova is an Innovation Associate at Melibee Global. In addition she currently serves as a Honorary BG Cultural Ambassador for Foundation Identity for Bulgaria, where she also heads the foundation’s English blog. Gerry has lived and studied in Spain, Bulgaria and the United States, and holds a B.A. in International Studies Summa Cum Laude from Bentley University. In her spare time she enjoys traveling and writing her blog entitled ~WithLoveFromBG~

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  • Hello Gerry. It is such a wonderful guide that surely would proves handy for meeting people in Sofia, Bulgaria. The city has a rich culture. Nightlife in Sofia city is just amazing. There are loads of pub and bars are available in the city. By visiting such kind of spots, you can easily interact with local people.

    • Gerry Botchoukova

      Hi Allen, thank you for your kind words on this guide! Indeed, Sofia is a very friendly city, where local connections are easily forged as long as the traveler is willing to step outside the “guided tour” path. I have noticed your interest in Bulgaria & invite you to stop by http://www.WithLoveFromBG.com where I am sure you will find a lot of “Bulgarian inspiration”. Stay in touch! 🙂

  • Kamran Elahi

    Hi Gerry, I hope this guide will help me to meet locals from Sofia, Bulgaria. I have a shot visit planned to Sofia in October and i’m very excited to meet new peoples.

    • Gerry Botchoukova

      Hi Kamran! That is great! I know that you will enjoy Sofia very much. Just stay open minded and with my tips in hand, I am certain that you will meet plenty of local friends. Please come back and let us know about your experience and how helpful you found this guide. 🙂 Safe travels!