I can already hear you scoffing – free food tour, it doesn’t exist! Well, it does in Sofia, Bulgaria. The Balkan Bites Food Tours have been operating in Sofia for three years now and is the perfect way to learn a little bit about the Bulgarian culture while testing out not only some traditional Bulgarian foods, but some of the newer foods that Bulgarians eat today.
The Sofia free food tours run daily at 2pm and the meeting place is in the Park Crystal, right near the giant head. The head is actually of Stefan Stambolov, one of the most important revolutionaries in modern Bulgaria. He was assassinated by being stabbed in the head hence the big cut through his statue.
Groups are kept to about fifteen people, so it is recommended that you reserve a place but not necessary. We didn’t reserve, but there was plenty of capacity. Three guides arrived, but in the end only two groups were created. Ours had exactly 15 people, but I think the other group had one extra.
Each of the groups went to five places, one of which was the same for both groups. At the time we didn’t know this, but at the end we were given a map with all the places both groups went to, so we could test out the other suggestions at our leisure later. This means if you do this tour, you may go to places I did not.
The food offered at each of the locations is more of a taste than a full meal. Don’t expect to be able to skip lunch and this will make up for it.
Here’s where we went.
Lavanda is a modern fusion restaurant that is set up in a house that was originally built by a prominent politician. It is a little tricky to find and uses one “apartment” in the house, spread over a few different rooms. We used the “living room” to eat in, but were also shown the cinema room, in which black and white movies are projected on the wall in the evenings while diners eat. There is also a private balcony with only room for two for the perfect romantic dinner.
Our first taste was some cows cheese and cows yoghurt mixed with some herbs, wrapped with zucchini on a cracker. This was a tasty start, with most of the group wanting more. While nibbling, our guide filled us in on the importance of yoghurt to Bulgarian cuisine. While the actual origins are a bit sketchy, in the early 1900’s it was discovered that yoghurt needed a particular bacteria to form. That bacteria can only be found in nature in the Bulgarian hills, hence it is now known as Bacillus bulgaricus. Even today yoghurt is eaten on nearly everything by Bulgarians.
We next got to taste a dessert. These were lavender flavoured meringues. They were very light, almost crumbling in our fingers, and very sweet.
Skaptoburger is a relatively new eatery in Sofia, but it has won the prize for the best burger in the city for two years in a row. They also sell some of the finest craft beers available locally.
We got to try the classic Skaptoburger, a traditional beef and bacon burger with tomato, lettuce, cheese, jalapeños and their special hot burger sauce. Lets just say I went into Google Maps and took a screen shot of exactly where we were so I could find this place again later, it was that good.
Mekitsa & Kafe
Our third stop on the free Sofia food tour was in this tiny little cafe called Mekitsa & Kafe. It’s the only one in Sofia that now makes mekitsa. This is a traditional Bulgarian pastry that was widely available many years ago, but slowly it disappeared from restaurant and cafe menus and was only made at home. A few years ago a search was done throughout the country to find the best mekitsa recipe, and that is the one now used here.
Basically this is just fried dough covered with a powdered sugar. It was crispy on the outside, the texture a bit like churros. We just had them plain, but the locals also eat them with honey, jam, or even fruit. I would happily indulge in these tasty little pastries again.
Before we could head inside this traditional Bulgarian eatery we had to all learn to say that name! Hadjidraganovite Izbi. Luckily there was not test, because I am sure I would have failed miserably. The restaurant has been set up with traditional elements from all over Bulgaria.
Here we got to try three different types of Bulgarian dips. The first two were made from cows cheese and cows yoghurt with various herb and spices, the third was a lot more complicated. It takes three months to make and was made from sheep yoghurt, goats cheese, red peppers, walnuts and garlic. All three were served on little rounds of bread. All three were also delicious, and our guide implied that the third one is the popular favourite, but my preference was for the first of the three, the plainest of them all.
We were also given a small taste of the homemade dessert wine made in the restaurant. Here is is simply called Pelin after the herb used in it. The wine was sweet, but not too sweet. As someone who is not a huge fan of dessert wines which can be overly sweet, this one was actually delicious and I would drink it again.
Our final stop was at a new restaurant, Ribs Brothers – open barely six months at the time of our visit. My heart sank a little when we arrived, because I am not a huge fan of pork. My husband on the other hand thought it was Christmas, as pork ribs are his favourite food.
We were given a BBQ pork rib each to try. I did have a small nibble before passing the remainder to hubby. I thought they were slightly dry, but everyone else seemed to really enjoy them, so perhaps that was just me. The restaurant looked trendy and popular. Some of the other flavours of ribs looked interesting too.
Yes, this was a food tour, but on the way we had a few cultural stops to explain some of the curiosities of Bulgaria.
Along the streets there are strange little windows at knee level. These are what is translated to English as “squat shops”, because you have to squat down to talk to the person working in the shop. The shop is actually in the basement of the building, and are perfectly legitimate, coming about just after the fall of communism when everyone tried any way the could to earn a living. Some people only had basement space, and this was how they interacted with their customers.
All around Sofia are these murals with writing in two languages. They have been done (or at least commissioned) by the embassies of different countries present in Sofia. Each shows a short poem written in the original language then translated into Bulgarian. There are at least thirty of them around, mostly painted on schools.
This is one of many churches around Sofia. This one was originally a mosque, and once abandoned was used as a prison. Now it is an Orthodox Church. But that’s not the interesting part about it. It’s famous for being the place where a well-known beggar used to sit day in and day out. That beggar has become a revered figure in Sofia as over the years he has donated thousands of Lev to the church. He is the biggest single donor to the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. His birthday is still celebrated, and only a few weeks ago he reached the ripe old age of 104!
I can’t recommend this Balkan Bites free food tour enough! As with all free tours, it is nice to tip generously to support the guides as well as the organisations who put on these tours. To find out more about this and other tours put on by this group (such as their Pub Crawl), head on over to their website here.
If by some crazy chance you cannot join the free walking tour, then consider visiting one of the above Sofia restaurants. They will not disappoint.
For more things to do in Sofia, go to my post here.