Eastern Europe's under the radar gem

Bulgaria’s laidback capital charms with its quirky museums, open-air chess players, bargain dining and even the odd bear or two.

Ringed dramatically by mountains and containing a fascinating grab bag of monumental Stalinist architecture and ornate Orthodox churches, Sofia is a siren for the more adventurous traveller. With balmy spring weather, pleasingly low prices and new metro lines that should be the envy of many a western capital, this is an off the beaten path destination on its way up.

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Cultural Activities in Sofia

Like many an old Soviet capital, Sofia is big on museums and, while some might lean towards the old school, that’s part of their charm.

Sofia History Museum is a bite-sized introduction to the city whose venue itself deserves a plaque: the collection – covering the Bulgarian monarchy, pre-Communism, as well as recent archaeological finds – is arrayed over two floors of the jauntily coloured old Turkish mineral baths.

Equally colourful are the displays of costumes and crafts in the Ethnographical Museum, giving an insight into the rustic, exotic life early travellers would have found throughout most of Bulgaria. With oddities such as a two-headed tortoise and more bears – sadly stuffed this time – the Natural History Museum possibly takes the crusty curation look furthest, but it’s one of the more offbeat things to do in Sofia.

Extending the retro theme – although it only opened in 2011 – the Museum of Socialist Art takes a trip back to collectivist times with depictions of doughty factory workers and Soviet leaders gazing towards a utopian future.

Art Gallery Nikola Petrov specialises in Bulgarian works, and the National Gallery Quadrat 500 holds plenty of foreign modern pieces, albeit by few big stars.

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