You might have heard of free walking tours before, but have you ever heard of free food tours? Yes, where you go restaurant-hopping and try all sorts of different food, filling your stomach with the local goodies…for free!
Well, I had never heard of it either until I went to Sofia, Bulgaria and googled for things to do. Compared to other European countries, Bulgaria is not a very well-known tourist destination. Well, at least not to Asian tourists. So, the Bulgarians are doing their best to promote their country and their culture, hence the free tours.
Balkan Bites is an attempt at providing travelers to Sofia with the first free daily food tour in Europe and maybe even the world. It will take you to some of the most interesting family-owned restaurants that Sofia has to offer, where you will get to sample traditional Bulgarian cuisine. At the same time, you will also get to learn about the history and customs behind the food.
Currently, Balkan Bites has a team of 11 trained guides to take you on this scrumptious and informative culinary adventure. Apart from the free food tour, they also organize treasure hunts, market tour, pub crawl, graffiti tour, and communist tour. Do visit their website to check the current prices.
How to Book
Reservations are generally not required if you’re only one or two persons. Just show up at the meeting point (Crystal Park, in front of the big head statue of Stefan Stambolov) 10 – 15 minutes before the tour starts. The tour starts at 2 p.m. every day, except national holidays.
However, if you’re a bigger group, it is recommended to make a reservation in advance to make sure you have a spot on the tour. Give them a call at +359 87 761 3992 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The maximum tour size is 30 people, on a first-come-first-serve basis.
On the tour, you will visit at least four different places, which may vary from day to day depending on circumstances. The tour takes approximately 2 hours.
If you can’t make it to the free food tour, or if you’re traveling in a big group, or if you simply want your own privacy, you can book yourself a private tour. Let them know the date, time, and any additional requests, and they will get back to you with a quote.
Similarly, if you have any dietary restrictions or prefer halal/vegetarian food, let them know in advance, so that they can try to accommodate you. Otherwise, you can always just decline any food that you can’t take, or give your portion to the other group members — I’m sure they wouldn’t mind (I know I wouldn’t!).
UPDATE (December 2020): Due to Covid-19, they are suspending all tours until further notice.
What to Expect
At the time of my visit, they were doing some construction work around Crystal Park, and part of it was barricaded. So, it took me some time to find my way to the meeting point. Luckily, I got there just as the group was about to leave.
Our guide was Rado, a local actor and musician with a great passion for food, which — I’m sure — is a prerequisite for this job.
Our first stop was SupaStar, Bulgaria’s first soup bar. Open since 2009, it offers a new concept of healthy fast food with a variety of traditional and creative soups for takeaway or dine-in. Although there are now many new soup bars — some of which are open 24/7 — Supa Star remains the original with the best menu options.
There, we tried a traditional Bulgarian soup called tarator, which was made with chilled yogurt, cucumber, walnuts, garlic, and dill. It was very refreshing especially during hot weather.
The Traditional Bakery
After the soup, we walked through some alleys to get to a traditional bakery, where a woman was making banitsa, a savory Bulgarian cheese pastry that is typically served for breakfast. Banitsa consists of layers of buttery filo dough stuffed with a variety of cheeses. When eaten fresh out of the oven, the molten cheese will ooze out, giving you a contrasting sensation as you bite into the crisp pastry.
To go with my banitsa, I ordered a fermented wheat drink called boza, which is popular in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It has a consistency like that of a yogurt drink, but with a rather funky smell and taste.
In the past, boza was commonly laced with alcohol and opium, and was often consumed by soldiers as a warming and strengthening beverage. Now, it only serves as a good source of carbohydrates and vitamins, but it’s definitely an acquired taste.
Next, we went to a trendy burger & beer joint called Skaptoburger. Prior to starting the restaurant business, the owners had spent a long time in the US, where they gained experience and ideas. In fact, Skaptoburger was originally opened to cater to the American students in the area, so that they could get a taste of home away from home.
Despite being a relatively new eatery in the city, Skaptoburger has won the coveted King Burger Prize for two years in a row!
We tried the classic beef burger with tomato, lettuce, cheese, jalapenos, onion, and their special hot burger sauce. They also have vegetarian burgers for plant-based people.
Mekitsa & Kafe
After that, we continued our journey to a cozy little cafe in the center of Sofia called Mekitsa & Kafe. Mekitsa is a traditional Bulgarian fried pastry that used to be widely available many years ago but was slowly disappearing from Bulgarian culture.
The idea of Mekitsa & Kafe is to revive this dish, introducing it to the younger generation and taking the older generation down memory lane.
The restaurant owners had traveled across Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Romania, in search of the best mekitsa recipe. After six tries, they finally managed to come up with their own special concoction, which will remain a secret.
Apart from the traditional toppings (powdered sugar, jam, and cheese), they also offer a number of modern twists, such as basil pesto, and halva and butter. This is currently the only place in Sofia where you can get freshly prepared mekitsa.
Our last stop on Sofia free food tour was Hadjidraganovite Izbi, an authentic Bulgarian-style restaurant serving national specialties. Most of the dishes here are prepared on an open flame, on a hot plate, or in an oven.
There’s a bouncer at the door that will only let you in if you know how to pronounce the restaurant name correctly.
The interior is decorated with traditional Bulgarian costumes, chairs made of casks, and handmade wooden ornaments representing different periods of Bulgarian history. If you come here in the evening, you will be serenaded by one of the best Bulgarian folklore bands in the city.
We tried three different types of Bulgarian cheese-and-yogurt dips served on tiny round breads.
As the finale, you’ll get to sample their homemade dessert wine called Pelin, a slightly sweet after-dinner drink that is made with 24 fermented herbs. But before you drink this, you’ll have to learn how to say ‘cheers’ in Bulgarian:
I’m not usually a big fan of European food (or as we call it in Asia: Western food), because compared to what my Asian palate is used to, it all tastes a little too bland. But Bulgarian food didn’t disappoint me at all, probably because of its proximity to Greece and Turkey, both of which have some of my favorite European cuisines.
On top of that, this tour took me to places that I wouldn’t have found (and probably wouldn’t have been able to afford) on my own.
So, if you come to the ‘City of Roses’, make sure you try the Balkan Bites Free Food Tour, and make sure you come with an empty stomach.
Have you tried Bulgarian food? Which dish did you like the most? Comment below: