A Weekend Guide to Sofia & Skopje
If you asked me two years ago if I even knew what or where the Balkans were I would have awkwardly laughed and wished I paid more attention in geography. Two years when I first started my crazy dream to visit all the EU countries there were a few countries on that list that seemed nearly impossible for to go. One of those being Bulgaria. I honestly didn’t know anything; anything, about the country. But I’ve made it happen and beyond happy I did.
Although I haven’t traveled through all the Balkans yet, I have been fortunate enough to see a few: including Bulgaria and Macedonia or more specifically: Sofia and Skopje. Here is my weekend guide to these two captivating cities.
Day 1: Land & Sleep
In the wee hours of the morning after a rowdy flight from Madrid, we landed in a sleepy daze around 01:00 AM in Sofia, Bulgaria. As soon as I walked through arrivals it was like entering a whole different world compared to what I know. The language seemed like a mix between Greek and Russian and nowhere could I find letters from the alphabet that had been drilled into me since kindergarten. The Sofia International Airport Terminal 1 is where the cheap “budget airlines” go in and out which means it was janky AF. Unfortunately for me, I haven’t yet figured out how to control technology and my phone went bananas only showing my the background (which is pizza and reminded my stomach I haven’t eaten in hours) but wouldn’t show the map or address to our hostel.
tip for travelers: when in groups always make sure everyone has a screenshot of the address (in the respective language as well as your own) and the directions.
Our grumpy old man taxi driver wasn’t too pleased with us and we attempted to figure out the wonders of the Apple iPhone. Luckily by the grace of the technology gods, we finally got the address and headed onward.
From the airport to Hostel Mostel, was about 13.20 Lev (the currency of Bulgaria) and luckily for us numbers are universal so there’s no language barrier when it comes to payment.
We arrived at the hostel and were taken up to our jail-like room lined with 18 mattresses on the floor (budget accommodation, eh) plus a freight train snoring system and drunken party goers dancing with door and letting a flood of light randomly in. Despite a loud, freezing and rather bright with a few hours of sleep, we woke up a prompt six hours later to tour the city.
Day Two: Free Sofia Tour & Bus ride to Macedonia
We started our day off with the scrumptious and ample breakfast served by the hostel and joined in on the free walking tour. Apparently, everyone wanted to go to Sofia this weekend, the tour group was massive. The tour was split into three very large groups, so naturally, I didn’t pay attention too much. We walked all through the city for about 2.5 hours stopping at every major attraction to get a wee history lesson.After the tour, we ate lunch. It was McDonald’s. And it was delicious. Haters gonna hate.
Once we finished our meals we decided to head to the train station. From the main Palace of Justice, we took a taxi to the Serdika Bus Station. (It is only 5 Lev – don’t let them rip you off, we had to ask a few taxis before finding a worthy honest ride).
Sofia to Skopje
It takes about 5 hours with a stop at the border to get from Sofia to Skopje. 5 loooooong hours in a bus; although luckily for us the bus company: Matpu had a bathroom and wifi on it…score!
At the border all you do is hand them your passport they stamp it. Drive to the next side. Hand them your passport they stamp it. On you go. All in all, it is a lot less complicated than we thought it would be.
(We arrived into Skopje around 20:00 and a very very very kind man, spoke with a taxi driver to get us to our destination and gave us 100 Lev to make sure we wouldn’t get rip off. Such a kind stranger! But seriously, we need more people like him in this world.
We checked into our adorable hostel and headed out with some other travelers to get some Bulgarian food. Which turned out to be a hoot, we made some friends, had loads of laughs and ate some of the tastiest food my taste buds have ever had the joy of meeting. Before we could order another round of Kamenitza (Bulgarian beer), we decided to call it a night in order to not suffer a hangover the next morning.
Day Three: Matka Canyon & Old Town
We decided to wake up early (so much for not suffering a hangover) and take the local bus to visit the canyons which lie about 45 minutes outside of the city of Sofia.
Steps: 1) Find a bus stop. 2) Check to see if bus 60 comes.
Bus 60: 08:45/10:30/??:?? *this will mostly change over the months
3) Get on, ask for the scanning card that has two trips (there & back) for 150 Lev. 4) sit back, relax (or stand at the front of a crowded, tipsy bus and have a great conversation with the bus driver).
Incredibly kind stranger number two! Our bus driver, a man who navigates wandering souls to their final destinations by day and a strong passion for playing the piano and Macedonia folklore by night. Unfortunately, when we drove, by the station to purchase the bus cards it was closed. And after our 45-minute bus ride exploring the side streets of Sofia, he told us not to worry about the cost and enjoy the city!
Arriving at Matka Canyon you have to do a wee bit of walking towards the restaurant and boat launch in order to see much. You can choose to do a boat ride to explore the caves for about 400 Denars and according to their picture, it takes around two hours. We were short on time and with the sporadic bus schedule, we didn’t want to get stranded so we opted out.
We did a little hike around the water. Then turned around and went back.
Since the bus times tend to be specific and only like 6 a day; we raaaan back to make it to the drop-off spot by 13:00. RAN BACK. (thinking to myself “I should probably go to the gym for reasons like this”).
Luckily there were a bunch of people sitting there and when we asked two girls they said we were in the correct spot. Phew. Phew. Phew. We made it. Except for ten minutes roll by and no bus. We walk a little further down to a makeshift bus stop and wait ten more minutes. Mmm, no bus. Ten more minutes, no bus. So much for that specific time schedule. The two girls asked us if we would like to walk to the next city and pick up the bus from there…eh why not, better than just sitting and waiting. While walking and exchanging Instagrams (duuhh), one of their uncles drove up and offered us a ride back to the city. So we ALL piled & squished into the back seat of this tiny red car (meant for two people) and sped back into town. Said our gracious ‘thank yous and goodbyes’ or ‘blagodarya and chao’ and caught another bus to the Old Town Bazaar.
**will add photo later, once Katy ever uploads hers**
Questionable to know if we got off at the correct stop but ended up wandering to the old Fortress and seeing an amazing view of the city and the breathtaking mountain range in the background, then wandering into a rather empty bazaar. Turns out Sunday’s aren’t a busy day. Slowly we stumbled upon some open shops and of course…desserts.
Macedonia Square/ Bridge/ Archeology Museum & other treasures
Went back to the same restaurant to nom on some beer and salad and chicken and a diiivvviinneee chocolate banana crepe that lasted maybe 40 seconds.
06:00 wake up call to stumble to the bus station to have an ordeal with the bus company.
when traveling on the Macedonia bus you have to get a paper ticket from their office; regardless if you printed yours and it costs 50 Denars.
Four hours later. Over the border. Ate an empty box of coconut treats. We arrived back at the Serdika Bus Station, haggled our way to the center for 5 Lev and wandered around to find food. We went a popular lunch recommendation, had a skoka and a beer and taxied to the airport (which should be less than 15 Lev from the center).
And we out. Until next time Sofia and Skopje