Sofia is a town to discover. I like that. There is not just one shopping street, only one quarter with clubs and bars, and one area with fancy restaurants. Most of Sofia's good places to go to are hidden in tiny streets and in slightly shattered-looking houses.
When I arrived here I had no idea about Sofia's fancy places. It took me about half a year to discover one of my favourite ones: the Apartment (68 Neofit Rilski St). As the name suggests, it is a big flat, with high ceilings and cosy sofas. You get your beer or – and I highly recommend it – himalayski chay, or Himalayan tea, in the kitchen, and it feels as if you were at a friends' place. But Sofia has two "Apartment" places, and they are located close to each other. I haven't been to the second yet, probably it is good too, but it sure took me quite some time to find the himalayski chay Apartment again.
Then there is the wonderful café Dvete fukli, or the Two Showoff Ladies, (14 Karnigradska St, phone: 986 32 70). I discovered it wandering around the centre in the very beginning of my stay. In a way it is the opposite of the Apartment, and I imagine a Bulgarian grandmother's place might look like it. Dvete fukli offers all the advantages that go together with a grandmother: delicious – and huge! – sweet and salty pancakes, fruit salads, waffes, great coffee – they offer even a kind of latte macchiato version – and service that makes you feel taken care of. Mmmh. Talking about cafés, I also quite like the Coffee House (1 6th September St, phone 986 66 12). From the outside it looks rather low-key, and you might even think it's closed. But step inside and have a hot drink. There are two really friendly and colourful relaxed café rooms (one for smokers and another for non-smokers, though not properly separated). And the staff are welcoming and cordial.
When I meet up with colleagues for lunch I often suggest going to Checkpoint Charlie (12 Ivan Vazov St, phone: 988 03 70). It is separated into two halves, East Berlin and West Berlin, which are decorated accordingly. Since sometimes there is live music in the evening, it has got this trendy but still refined atmosphere, which I enjoy a lot. As well as the food I would recommend also the chocolate mousse dessert. (One is enough for three people, especially if you have had some of the rich pasta meals before.) For a good Bulgarian lunch, I usually opt for Pod Lipite, or Under the Linden Trees, (1 Elin Pelin St, phone: 866 50 53) or Pri Yafata, or At Yafa's, (28 Solunska St, phone: 980 17 27). But Sofia also offers the advantages of a cosmopolitan capital, so you can have it all: sushi in the Sushi Bar (18 Denkooglu St, phone 981 84 42), tajine and couscous in the Moroccan restaurant Annette (27 Angel Kanchev St, phone 980 40 98), really exotic Korean food at the Korean House (34 Elemag St, phone: 963 03 65), French cuisine in the Brasserie (3 Raycho Daskalov Sq, phone: 980 03 98). Motto (18 Aksakov St, phone: 987 27 23) offers a mixture of Bulgarian and international food, and boasts a wonderful garden in the backyard. Go there in summer, but make sure to book a table in advance, as it is always crowded. then there are two places which I especially like visiting because they are in some way typically German: Bitburger (20 Stefan Karadzha St, phone: 981 9665), which provides a beer garden as well as good German beer and sausages, and the Dream House (50A Alabin St, phone 980 81 63). The latter is a vegetarian restaurant, again hidden in a backyard, and with the vegetarian cuisine it offers it could well be located in any bigger German city: many Germans just love vegetarian and healthy food – according to a survey, one out of four carrots consumed by a German was produced ecologically.
Each foreigner will soon notice that there are quite a few restaurant and café chains here in Bulgaria. One might sneer at them, arguing that there is no such thing as a good chain; but every now and then I drop by at one. I like that Bulgarians have built up their own chains – it's not Pizza Hut, it's Ugo or Happy; or Onar, a chain that offers, among other things, Greek-Lebanese cuisine. Of course we now have Starbucks, Costa Coffee and Onda. So for me, going to one of those places is not just going to a chain restaurant, but going to a Bulgarian chain restaurant. Service is usually quick, and they offer a variety of Bulgarian and international food. There is one thing, however, that Bulgarian chains – and also other restaurants – might wish to work on: a more effective separation between smoker and non-smoker areas. I usually am not so particular about this, but when I have my meal I'd rather have clean air.
Talking about smoke I would like to write some words about Sofia's night life. Which is a bit of a challenge actually, because when you go out it is usually together with other people and it is dark and then, no need to mention that, night life places are at least as hidden as are cafés and restaurants. But without night life Sofia is for me incomplete, so I did my best and called up friends of mine to check some favourite names and locations. There is, for example, the bar Hambara, or the Barn, (22 6th September St). My friends and I, however, call it the "Candle Club," as there is no artificial light in it at all, only candles. It is located in an old barn – indeed a resourceful and intriguing choice of place – but mind your step lest you fall down the stairs! To meet foreigners I would recommend Murphy's, an Irish pub (6 Karnigradska St, phone: 980 28 70). If the evening is not supposed to end after a beer or two, there's definitely no lack of music clubs in Sofia. My favourite is My Mojito (12 Ivan Vazov St, phone 089 549 06 91) where a mixture of house, party hits and funk is played. I also quite like Biblioteka, or Library, (3 Raycho Daskalov Sq, phone 980 03 98). If I have guests young in mind or in age and eager for experiencing a party culture different from the one in Germany, I take them to Studentski grad, or Student's Town, and eventually, depending on their merrymaking spirit, to a chalga club.
The better part of the last six years I spent in Heidelberg, in southwestern Germany. It is a wonderful town, with a beautiful historic central area and full of students from all over the world. At first sight it is an "easy" town, with an obvious shopping street (Hauptstraße) and next to it a nightlife street (Unterestraße), maybe both a bit crowded with tourists. Nevertheless, to find the good places to shop, to party or to eat you'll have to discover them for yourself. It's the same here: If all those very special places, be they trendy or cosy, were well signposted and easy to find, it would probably subtract of their merit. I like adventures and I like Sofia, and that's what makes them my favourites.
*Elisabeth Hornung is the head of the Culture and Media Relations Department of the German Embassy in Sofia