Enter stage left, Sofia, Europe’s newest capital.

Like the errant tyrants of its past, foreign property tycoons long ago cottoned on to the prize that is Bulgaria. Sheltered behind the Iron Curtain for nigh on 50 years, the country finally shuffled past the bouncers of Club EU in the early hours of New Year’s Day. Bulgaria represents something of an outpost for Europe, locked as it is between the Balkans and the Black Sea. And it’s only just beginning to exploit its tourist potential.

A walk through history
Setting foot in town, the first thing on your mind should be a stroll around Sofia’s streets. Much of the city was demolished during World War II, leading to the development of Soviet-style communist blocks that make British estates look princely. But, ignoring these satellite dish-decorated delights, the city is awash with many elegant, classical facades and fascinating religious spots. Pointing to the city’s multi-layered past these include a synagogue, mosque and countless orthodox churches.

Most splendid of all is the Aleksandâr Nevski cathedral. Built as a memorial to the 200,000 Russians who died fighting for Bulgarian independence in the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-78, the domed building took about 40 years to complete and was only really finished by 1924. Essentially a hallowed mound of ostentatiously sculptured Christmas puddings, it’s well worth sitting in on a service here to see, hear and smell one of the many incense-fuelled sermons. In the crypt below, visitors interested in art and history are treated to an impressive display of iconography from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Turkish delights
Walking west through the city centre, you come across the Zhenski Pazar. The name pazar (market), dates back to Ottoman rule. The Turks, still a sizeable minority in Bulgaria, occupied the country for nearly 500 years, and left a big impression on the city, not least the fruit and vegetable stalls in this quarter, which blossom with colour all year round. This is the best place to see locals and country folk peddle their wares, from clothes to candle holders.

A Spot of Raki
Bar-hopping is a vocation in Sofia. The latest ultra-hot bars mix in well with cosy caverns, and offer drinkers a variety of environments to sup their beer – or ‘pivo’. Popular venues include Swingin’ Hall on Dragan Tsankov street, which regularly showcases excellent cover bands, and 22, on Ivan Shishman, a haunt of the younger crowd.

Other than rock and techno, turbo-folk rules Bulgaria. Essentially traditional song backed by a frenetic dance track and sung by a tarted-up pop diva, it gets the pulses racing like a house track never could. My own night of Bulgar hedonism opened with a shot of Raki, a piercing Schnapps-like speciality that is as addictive as it is dangerous. One thing led inevitably to another, and I found myself headbanging to AC/DC in a taxi en route to so-called Student Town. It is here, at club Maskata and elsewhere, that the city’s revellers dance away the early hours.

After the hangover, it’s well worth spending
an extra day checking out the charms of the countryside around Sofia. Just nine kilometres southwest of the city lies Boyana, a delightful hillside village which is home to the National Museum of History. The exhibitions showcase ancient artefacts, including Roman treasures and Thracian gold dating as far back as 1000BC.

Alternatively, a trip out to one of Bulgaria’s vineyards always makes for a day well spent. As one of the world’s largest exporters of bottled wine, the country is dotted with finely-combed grape fields. If you’re lucky enough to be in the country on February 14, you will be able to enjoy the Trifon Zarezan festival, at which wine growers prune and sprinkle their berries with wine to bring on a prosperous harvest. The highlight of the day is a gigantic meal. What better excuse for a Valentine’s Day outing?

•Additional information supplied by Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com). The second edition of Lonely Planet Bulgaria is out now.