Sofia is in the very center of the Balkan Peninsula.
In fact, one of the city's old names Sredets, meant exactly this: in the middle. It is thought to have referred to the city's central location on the Balkans.
Sofia is about the same latitude as Northern Italy and South of France, but its considerably colder climate is due to, among other things, the city's elevation.
Sitting at 500-550 m above sea level, Sofia is the fifth highest capital in Europe - after Andorra la Vella (1,023 m), San Marino (749 m), Madrid (667 m), and Pristina (652 m).
SOFIA: SURROUNDED BY MOUNTAINS
The city occupies the Sofia Plain and is surrounded by mountains of various elevations.
While most locals automatically think of Vitosha when the word mountain is mentioned, the Balkan Range (Stara Planina), Lozen Planina, Plana and Liulin Planina are not much further away.
In fact, out of the over 30 mountains in Bulgaria, 20 can be reached from Sofia in less than an hour by car or, as is the case with Mt Vitosha by public transportation.
Being surrounded by mountains gives a great opportunity for hiking, biking and skiing but it comes at a price.
Both pollution and cold air are often trapped above the Sofia and the city consistently ranks among the most polluted EU capitals. The problem most often occurs in winter.
The good news is that it is easy to escape the smog. Book a hotel in one of the posh residential areas at the foot of Mt Vitosha or take the Simeonovo cable car to spend some time at 1810 m above sea level at Aleko area and to explore Mt Vitosha.
View of Sofia from Vitosha Mountain.
Vitosha Mountain to the south is the highest mountain around Sofia.
Its highest peak Cherni Vrah (2290 m/7513 ft) is visible from nearly everywhere in the city on a clear day.
Hiking in Vitosha is a favourite past time for many Sofia residents and we can’t recommend it enough.
The access to Vitosha is cheap and easy. The mountain is serviced by the Simeonovo cable car and the Dragalevtsi chair lift, as well as several public transit buses.
Some of the most sought-after neighborhoods of Sofia sit at the foot of Vitosha mountain. Boyana, Dragalevtsi, Simeonovo and, increasingly Bistritsa, are where Sofia’s rich and upper middle class families build houses and mansions of various shapes and forms.
Vitosha Mountain was designated a national park in 1934, and its territory has remained protected ever since.
A mountain trail in Vitosha Mountain near Sofia.
Bulgaria is earthquake prone!
As most of the Balkan Peninsula, the country lies on the Alpine-Himalayan seismic belt; a seismic belt that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean, through the Mediterranean and the Himalayas, to the islands of Java and Sumatra in Indonesia.
The most important cities in Bulgaria, including Sofia, lie in the vicinity of active faults where earthquakes are just a matter of time.
The country experiences several mild earthquakes each year and an occasional stronger one.
In the 20th century alone there were six earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or higher. All but one of them occurred in the span of 27 years between 1901 and 1928.
Since then few moderate earthquakes with magnitude less than 6.0 have occurred.
Earthquakes originating the highly seismically active neighboring countries of Greece and Turkey are also often felt on Bulgarian territory.
The most devastating earthquake in the history of Sofia happened in 1858. Though no instrumental measurements existed at the time, the historical accounts of the destruction put the magnitude around 6.6.
Most of the buildings in the city suffered significant damages. The minarets of the 19 of the 24 mosques in the city fell. Only two of the churches remained functional.
In more recent times, earthquakes continue to be a part of daily life. From 2001 to 2012 several small earthquakes (magnitude less than 5 on the Richter scale) were recorded each year.
The latest significant earthquake (magnitude 5.6) shook Sofia on May 22, 2012 at 3 am. Startled residents took to the streets for a sleepless night anticipating aftershocks. Luckily, no casualties and only mild damages were reported. The earthquake was nicknamed the Pernik Earthquake after the town of Pernik, 30 km south of Sofia, where the earthquake originated.