Over the last 6 months, I have spent time in Bulgaria and Serbia, which has prompted me to compare the two capital cities of Sofia and Belgrade. The Balkans are excellent value for money with much to see, and a lot to learn about the very turbulent history. Which of these cities has the best nightlife? Which has the best day trips? Which is cheaper and more tourist friendly? If you only have time to see one, which should you choose? I hope that you enjoy my article on Belgrade vs Sofia.
Belgrade vs Sofia: Nightlife
Belgrade is the clear winner on nightlife. It has the reputation of being the party capital of Eastern Europe. If you want a few good nights on the town, whether it’s upmarket classy bars or themed Kafanas, you will have an amazing night out in Belgrade. I loved Kafana SFRJ (I call it the Tito bar) and the Witch Bar!
Savamala, the up and coming arts quarter is great for bars and clubbing. In Belgrade, remember that the best clubs (Tilt, Teatro) will require reservations, so make sure that you book in advance. In the summer time, party boats (splavovi) go up and down the Danube, and you can even party in the old Fortress and underground!
I did a great evening on the New Sofia Pub Crawl, but it wasn’t as ‘happening’ as Belgrade. This might have been because the students were out of town – Sofia is a big student city, so clubbing is much better during term time. There is an enjoyable and relaxing outside drinking culture in Sofia – people socialise and drink together in parks.
Belgrade vs Sofia: Food
Bulgarian and Serbian food is very similar – a lot of pastries and heavily meat based dishes such as Sach. Neither Sofia or Belgrade are that ideal for vegetarians.
I am nominating Sofia as the winner for food. Food seemed to be cheaper and more varied in Sofia than in Belgrade. I had an amazing mountain trout on my day trip to Rila Monastery. I enjoyed a variety of gorgeous pastries and salads in Sofia.
I have to admit that I was somewhat disappointed with Serbian food – it’s a lot of meatballs and sausages without much of a side! You can find good Western food in Belgrade, but it is a lot more expensive. I think that I was also put off by the fact that I got sick in Belgrade, and people still smoke in restaurants, so I couldn’t fully enjoy my meals in a lot of places. The best restaurant that I found in Belgrade was Manufactura.
Belgrade vs Sofia: Value for Money
Sofia is the clear winner on value for money. Belgrade is cheap, but Sofia was cheaper (as of 2016). Read my full article on How Cheap is Sofia? I was picking up croissants and pastries for breakfast for about 13p!
The average cost of a local beer in Sofia is £0.76 compared to £0.94 in Belgrade. In Sofia I was easily picking up beer for 2 Lev (about 2.5 Lev to the £). In Belgrade, admittedly I was drinking in ‘swankier’ bars, but I was paying between 150-200 Dinars in the Serbian capital, which works out about £1-1.50 per beer (It’s around 150 Dinars to the £).
Accommodation is around the same price in the two cities, if you are buying property, Sofia is cheaper than Belgrade.
Transport is also cheaper in Sofia than Belgrade – you can buy a Metro ticket in Sofia for around 30p. In Belgrade, tram and bus tickets are around 50p. Still extremely cheap, but all adds up to make a difference!
Belgrade vs Sofia: Health and Accessibility
Sofia is the winner on health and accessibility. As I mentioned, I got an awful stomach bug in Belgrade (see: I got sick in Serbia). I didn’t get sick at all in Sofia.
In Belgrade, I also got feasted on by mozzies. That was probably my own fault for not using bug spray, but in the cold weather of February, you don’t expect to need to! I didn’t get bitten too much in Sofia, even in the summer and in the Bulgarian mountains! This could be because Belgrade is positioned on the Danube.
The other downside to Belgrade is that they don’t have the smoking ban in bars and restaurants. This came into play in Bulgaria in 2012, so Sofia is generally smoke free, which is much better for travellers with asthma.
If you are considering an accessible city break, I would also recommend Sofia over Belgrade. Sofia has many slopes for wheelchairs on the subways and is a relatively flat city. I met a wonderful Turkish girl in Sofia who was travelling in her wheelchair and she managed extremely well in Sofia. Read more in my article about Finding Inspiration in Borisova Gradina Park.
Belgrade is quite hilly and also has many uneven pavements and road works, which make it not as suitable for wheelchair accessibility as Sofia.
Belgrade vs Sofia: Accommodation
In Belgrade, if you are looking for luxury, go for the centrally located Hotel Moskva. In Sofia, go for the Grand Hotel Sofia, The Hilton or the Radisson Blu.
For cheap hostels, I highly recommend Trip and Sleep in Belgrade (from 5€/£3 a night next to Knez Mihailov) and Crosspoint in Sofia (£4-8 a night – basic but clean and good location). If you are looking for a more up-market hostel in Belgrade, go for Skadarlija Sunrise or Hostel Bongo (from around 10€ a night). For a more upmarket and sociable hostel with a bar in Sofia, go for Art Hostel (More like £10 a night).
Belgrade vs Sofia: Day Trips
From Sofia, you can visit Plovdiv, Koprivshtitsa and Rila Monastery. From Belgrade, you can visit Novi Sad or head up into the mountains. Novi Sad can be combined with a visit to Petrovaradin, one of the largest 18th Century Fortresses in Europe. Around 2 hours from Belgrade is Lepenski vir – the oldest organized settlement in Europe. Both of these cities offer excellent local trips to monasteries.
It’s a very close call on day trips – so hard to decide between Sofia and Belgrade. I’m going to go for Sofia as the winner, but only just! That’s because of the amazing Roman ruins of Plovdiv, which is set to be the capital of culture 2019, and the fact that Rila Monastery was one of the most amazing things I have seen in Eastern Europe.
Expect to pay around 60€ for full day excursions from Belgrade or Sofia.
Belgrade vs Sofia: City Sights and Architecture
Belgrade has to be the clear winner on city sites. The Kalemegdan Fortress is free and extremely impressive. You can also walk down Knez Mihailov to see amazing 18th Century Architecture.
Belgrade also has several Churches that are worth a visit including Belgrade Cathedral, Sava Church and St Marks.
Indeed, Sofia has some impressive buildings including the amazing Alexander Nevski Cathedral and the University, but was not quite as impressive in architecture overall as Belgrade.
Although Belgrade is the overall winner on Architecture, be aware that there is a bizarre architectural mix of historical and more ugly looking communist blocks or modern buildings. Unfortunately, this happens in the former communist countries.
Belgrade has a great bus network and trams. There is a main rail station to get to other parts of Serbia and buses to and from the airport.
However, Sofia wins on public transport due to having all of this infrastructure in place as well as a cheap efficient and easy to navigate Metro system (undergeround). At around 30p for a ticket, you can’t go wrong!
Belgrade does have plans to put a Metro in place, but these have been stalled by a lack of funding. Traffic and congestion is a problem in Belgrade, and when the Metrolink is finally built, it is hoped that these problems will be alleviated.
Belgrade vs Sofia Overall
Value for Money SOFIA
Day Trips SOFIA
City Sights and Architecture BELGRADE
Health and Accessibility SOFIA
You can see that Sofia is my personal preference, and the winner based on the above categories. I find Sofia very easy to get around and excellent value for money, and as a blogger, I would certainly consider Sofia as a base for a few months. However, if you are a party animal, or on a hen/stag do, it has to be Belgrade every time!
I hope that this has helped you to decide between the these two fabulous cities, but if you have time, please see both. Which do you prefer when considering Belgrade vs Sofia?