Sofia is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Bulgaria, with a population of 1,222,000 (making it the 15th largest city in the European Union), and some 1,450,000 in the metropolitan area, the Capital Municipality. It is located in western Bulgaria, at the foot of the mountain massif Vitosha, and is the administrative, cultural, and economic centre of the country.
One of the oldest capital cities in Europe, the history of Sofia dates back to the 8th century BC, when Thracians established a settlement there. Sofia has had several names in the different periods of its existence, and remnants of the city's millenary history can still be seen today alongside modern landmarks.
Sofia's development as a significant settlement owes much to its central position in the Balkans. It is situated in western Bulgaria, at the northern foot of the Vitosha mountain, in the Sofia Valley that is surrounded by mountains on all sides. Three mountain passes lead to the city, which have been key roads since antiquity, connecting the Adriatic Sea and Central Europe with the Black and Aegean Seas.
A number of low rivers cross the city, including the Vladayska and the Perlovska. The Iskar River in its upper course flows near eastern Sofia. The city is known for its numerous mineral and thermal springs. Artificial and dam lakes were built in the last century.
It is located 150 km (90 miles) northwest of Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second largest city, 390 km west of Burgas, 472 km (294 miles) west of Varna, Bulgaria's major port-cities on the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast.
Antiquity - Sofia was originally a Thracian settlement called Serdica, named after the Thracian tribe Serdi. Around 500 BC another tribe settled in the region, the Odrysi, known as an ethnos with their own kingdom. For a short period during the 4th century BC, the city was possessed by Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great.
Around AD 29, Sofia was conquered by the Romans and renamed Ulpia Serdica. It became a municipium, or centre of an administrative region, during the reign of Emperor Trajan (98-117). The first written mention of Serdica was made by Ptolemy (around 100 AD). The city expanded, as turrets, protective walls, public baths, administrative and cult buildings, a civic basilica and a large amphitheatre called Bouleutherion, were built. When Emperor Diocletian divided the province of Dacia into Dacia Ripensis (on the banks of the Danube) and Dacia Mediterranea, Serdica became the capital of Dacia Mediterranea. The city subsequently expanded for a century and a half, which caused Constantine the Great to call it "my Rome".
Serdica was of moderate size, but magnificent as an urban concept of planning and architecture, with abundant amusements and an active social life. It flourished during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, when it was surrounded with great fortress walls whose remnants can still be seen today.
The city was destroyed by the Huns in 447 but was rebuilt by Justinian and renamed Triaditsa.
Middle Ages - Sofia first became part of the First Bulgarian Empire during the reign of Khan Krum in 809. Afterwards, it was known by the Slavic name Sredets and grew into an important fortress and administrative centre.
After a number of unsuccessful sieges, the city fell to the Byzantine Empire in 1018, but once again was incorporated into the restored Bulgarian Empire at the time of Tsar Ivan Asen I.
From the 12th to the 14th century, Sofia was a thriving centre of trade and crafts. It was renamed Sofia (meaning "wisdom" in Greek) in 1376 after the Church of St. Sofia. However, it was called both "Sofia" and "Sredets" until the 16th century, when the new name gradually replaced the old one.
Ottoman rule - Sofia was conquered by the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Murad I in 1382, becoming the capital of the Ottoman province (beylerbeylik) of Rumelia for more than 4 centuries.
In 1610 the Vatican established the See of Sofia for Catholics of Rumelia, which existed until 1715 when most Catholics had emigrated.
Liberated Bulgaria - Sofia was liberated by Russian forces in 1878, during the Russo-Turkish War, 1877-78, and became the capital of the autonomous Principality of Bulgaria in 1879, which became Kingdom of Bulgaria in 1908.
During World War II, Sofia was bombed by Allied aircraft in late 1943 and early 1944, as well as later occupied by the Soviet Union. Bulgaria's regime, which allied the country with Nazi Germany, was overthrown and Sofia became capital of the Communist-ruled People's Republic of Bulgaria (1944–1989).
Sofia is one of the oldest capital cities in Europe, blending its past and present in a remarkable architectural style. Historic landmarks include the 10th-century Boyana Church (one of the UNESCO World Heritage protected sites), the Alexander Nevski Cathedral (one of the world's largest Orthodox churches), and the early Byzantine Church of St Sophia.
More modern architecture is represented by the Bulgarian National Opera and Ballet, the Ivan Vazov National Theatre, the Rakovski Str theatre district, Slaveykov Square's outdoor book market, and the NDK, which is Southeastern Europe's largest cultural and congressional centre.
Sofia is the see of an Eastern Orthodox and of a Roman Catholic diocese.
Sofia has also a huge nightlife scene with many different night clubs, live venues, pubs, mehani (Bulgarian traditional taverns), and restaurants.
Museums - Sofia houses numerous museums, notably the National Historical Museum, the Bulgarian Natural History Museum, the Museum of Earth and Men, the Ethnographic Museum, the National Museum of Military History, the National Polytechnical Museum and the National Archaeological Museum. In addition, there are the Sofia City Art Gallery, the Bulgarian National Gallery of Arts, the Bulgarian National Gallery for Foreign Art as well as numerous private art galleries.
Places of special interest - The city also offers many places of special interest such as the Sts. Cyril and Methodius National Library (which houses the largest national book collection and is Bulgaria's oldest cultural institute), the Sofia State Library, the British Council, the Russian Cultural Institute, the Polish Cultural Institute, the Hungarian Institute, the Czech and the Slovak Cultural Institutes, the Italian Cultural Institute, the French Cultural Institute, Goethe Institut, Instituto Cervantes, and the Open Society Institute. Families with children can enjoy Sofia Land, the nearly nine-acre amusement park adjacent to the Sofia Zoological Garden (founded in 1888) as well as the Museum of Natural History.
Sofia currently enjoys a booming film industry as the filming ground of several international film productions. Vitosha Boulevard, also called Vitoshka — ranked as the world's 22nd most expensive commercial street — represents numerous fashion boutiques and luxury goods stores and features exhibitions by world fashion designers. Sofia's geographic location, situated in the foothills of the weekend retreat Vitosha mountain, further adds to the city's specific atmosphere.
Sofia is the major centre of Bulgaria's economic life. The manufacturing sector of the economy, represented by over 800 large manufacturing plants, includes metal products (75% of the total output in the country), textiles, rubber and leather goods, printing (50% of output) and electronics (15% of output). Sofia is also the country's financial hub, home to the Bulgarian National Bank, the Bulgarian Stock Exchange, as well as some of the country's largest commercial banks (such as HVB Bank Biochim, Bulbank, DSK Bank and United Bulgarian Bank). Construction, trade and transport are other important sectors of the local economy. Increasingly Sofia is attracting attention as an outsourcing location for Western European and American multinationals. Sofia is also the headquarters for major Bulgarian and international companies operating in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe.
With the fall of communism in Bulgaria in 1989 major international companies previously not present on the Bulgarian market moved in, the majority of them to Sofia. The real estate market in Sofia has skyrocketed in recent years, for the past year or so with about 100% in just 1 year (2005–2006). The construction industry has exploded with new construction sites popping up everywhere. Unemployment is rather low at about 2.5% compared to the Bulgarian average of 8.9% but also to European levels where it is at about 10%.
After the Liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in 1878 and the establishment of an autonomous Bulgarian monarchy with its capital in Sofia, Knyaz Alexander Battenberg invited architects from Austria-Hungary to shape the new capital's architectural appearance.
Among the architects invited to work in Bulgaria were Friedrich Grünanger, Adolf Václav Kolář, Viktor Rumpelmayer and others, who designed the most important public buildings needed by the newly-reestablished Bulgarian government, as well as numerous houses for the country's elite. Later, many foreign-educated Bulgarian architects also contributed.
The architecture of Sofia's centre is thus a combination of Neo-Baroque, Neo-Rococo, Neo-Renaissance and Neoclassicism, with the Vienna Secession also later playing an important part.
Among the most important buildings constructed in Sofia in the period are the former royal palace, today housing the National Art Gallery and the National Ethnographic Museum (1882); the Ivan Vazov National Theatre (1907); the former royal printing office, today the National Gallery for Foreign Art; the National Assembly of Bulgaria (1886), the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (1893), etc.
After the Second World War and the establishment of a Communist government in Bulgaria in 1944, the architectural line was substantially altered. Socialist Classicism public buildings emerged in the centre, but as the city grew outwards, the new neighbourhoods were dominated by many Communist-era tower blocks (panelki) and examples of Brutalist architecture.
After the abolishment of Communism in 1989, Sofia has witnessed the construction of whole business districts and neighbourhoods, as well as modern skryscraper-like glass-fronted office buildings, but also top-class residential neighbourhoods.
There are 16 universities in Sofia. The Saint Clement of Ohrid University of Sofia is often regarded as the most prestigious university of Bulgaria, being founded in 1888 and having an incoming class of 14,000 students each year. Other important universities include the National Academy of Arts, the Technical University of Sofia, the University for National and World Economics, Sofia Medical University, the Krastyo Sarafov National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts and New Bulgarian University.
Furthermore, institutions of national significance, such as the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and the SS. Cyril and Methodius National Library are located in Sofia. The American College of Sofia, founded in 1860 and regarded as the oldest American academic institution outside the United States provides secondary education to some of Bulgaria's brightest students. The school was closed during the communist era and reopened in 1992. The first class of the reopened school graduated in 1997 and will celebrate their 10th year reunion in June 2007.