Bulgaria’s shopping landscape has gone through several transformations in recent years. With the introduction of larger shopping malls, air conditioned shops, bigger stores and several European discount chains, the shopping experience here has become more enjoyable. However the country still holds onto to its domestically made products such as high quality handicrafts, wines, great food and textiles, as well as local ceramics and leather goods or hand carved souvenirs.
Upscale brands and the biggest names in world fashion have made their appearance in Bulgaria, so regardless of whether you are bargain-hunting for clothes, cosmetics, accessories or shoes, you have a very good chance of finding what your looking for. Bulgaria has also placed a stronger emphasis on the total shopping experience, and this means that shops are often set amongst some of the finest Bulgarian restaurants and cosy cafes.
If its old world charm you're after, Bulgaria offers excellent locally made textiles, handicrafts, embroidery, carpets, ceramics and woodcarvings. Buying a genuine Bulgarian national costume is also an option. The most common locally produced gifts include table cloths embroidered with intricate patterns, lace, Trovan pottery, handmade toys, as well as a variety of art, featuring wooden sculptures, oil paintings and antique furniture. A must-buy for Bulgaria is the local rakia, home-made schnapps sold in little ceramic urns or in bottles.
Shopping in Sofia is concentrated on the district flanked by Vitosha Blvd, Rakovski Street, Graf Ignatiev Street plus the tiny lanes leading off from them. Another place is the Central Department Store (TSUM), a 4-story building housing designer clothing stores, gifts, hand-made soaps, cell phone equipment, accessories, shoes, furniture, etc. Yet another popular venue is the shopping district dominated by Shipka St, San Stefano St and Oborishte St. This is an interesting place to browse through tiny quaint shops, cosy boutiques and antique shops, which offer a much more personal approach than the larger more trendy stores. Bargain hunters will simply love the city’s market stalls.
The open-air craft market near Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia is a perfect place to shop for gifts, old books, cheap antiques, coins and vintage clothing. Slaveikov Square is another place to go shopping for used books, and this spot offers frequent sales on CDs, computer games, etc. The Central Halls (Halite) at Maria Luiza Blvd are the best place in town to go shopping for food. This historic building houses some hundreds of stores packed with fresh groceries, with the facility’s food court offering local cuisine and several good cafes.
Shops usually open at 9am or 10am and stay open until 6pm or 7pm. On weekends, shops are open from 11am and close early, usually around 1pm. The local currency is the Lev (BGN), available in denominations of 100, 50, 20, 10, 5, 2 and 1. The Lev is tied to the Euro at a fixed rate (1 EUR = 1.955 BGN). Notes dated 1997 and earlier are no longer in circulation. When exchanging currency, be sure to obtain a bordereaux receipt indicating the amount exchanged. This must be kept until your departure. It is advisable to exchange money in banks and at large hotels. Under no circumstances should you exchange currency on the black market. Travellers should also be especially cautious when exchanging money at foreign exchanges as some of them have reportedly been displaying misleading rates of exchange.
ATMs are located all over Bulgaria's cities, but it is a good idea to check with your card provider prior to your departure. The most widely accepted credit cards are American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa. Still, Bulgaria remains a country which operates largely through cash. Traveller's Cheques are accepted in major hotels and restaurants. It is best to take traveller’s cheques in euros, US dollars or pounds sterling if you wish to avoid additional exchange rate charges.
Some older shops might not accept credit cards, so it is best to carry some cash just in case. Larger stores and food chains have just begun to accept Mastercard and Visa. Be aware that most shops may not allow you to return or exchange goods once purchased, even if you show them a receipt. If you think you might want to come back to exchange some of your purchases, check before you buy anything. The shop staff, especially at the larger stores, might not be too friendly as well. If buying an antique check in advance if you require an export certificate.