I am a shopper. When David and I go on vacation, one of our best practices is to arrive in our destination with only carry on luggage, and then check luggage (full of trinkets, naturally) on the way home. I have some hoarder-type tendencies (it ranges from tchotchke to canines) that are very real, and perhaps they most strongly manifest in my accumulation of things when I travel.
Because of this, I always research the best places to shop in a country before I arrive. Given the compressed timeline we were on for our recent Balkan trip, however, I didn’t have the luxury of hours and hours to research the living hell out of every destination before takeoff, so I had to resort to doing research on the ground, in-country.
Thankfully, a cursory search for “flea markets in Sofia” let me to Bitaka, the sprawling flea market northeast of the city center – pretty much where any guide will tell you not to go. After reading up a bit on the place, I decided that if we were going to find some winning crap to take home, Bitaka would be the place.
And how it didn’t disappoint. We arrived at around 9am after a long slog of a bus ride from Macedonia the night before. We had plans to go for a run tour at 11am, so we didn’t have a ton of time. Luckily, we had no issues getting a cab to take us there – well, not all the way there. He had to let us off before the official entrance, as the roads were filled with merchandise and the folks hawking it. Car parts, vintage pornography, hairless dolls – this place had everything!
I get the feeling that there was a significant Roma population there. Horsedrawn carts were sitting next to cars in the parking lot like it was no big deal. (To be fair, it was probably only a big deal to the American tourist with a camera). The sheer volume of goods was staggering. David and I were quite overwhelmed, but not too overwhelmed to buy things. We walked out with a bunch of great items: my favorite being an old athletic bag from a Sofia Marathon of years past – for 1 lev (around $0.75).
Families hunkered around the edges of the official section of the flea market having makeshift barbecues – roasting meat and corn over fire, never mind it being 9:30 in the morning. I didn’t take too many photos, on account of being afraid that I may be targeted for my valuables, but I think I feared for nought. Never once did I feel at all in danger or threatened by anything or one there.
The flea market only operates on Saturdays, and the general rule is the earlier you get there the better. I had read that it closed early on Saturday, but when we left at 10:30am or so, it was still going strong. That said, the “good stuff” may get picked over by that time. Though what was “good stuff” to me is likely quite different from what the “good stuff” was to a local shopper.
If you’re a fan of old military or Communist kitsch, Bitaka is a great place. Merch is cheap, and prices are negotiable (of course!) – I recommend bringing a little pocket calculator if your Bulgarian is rusty or nonexistent. We spent about 20 leva on a great amount of loot – but the stories alone are worth more than their weight in counterfeit gold or stolen bike parts.
While the other Bulgarian people we met did double takes when we told them we went to Bitaka (it’s likely thought of as unsavory due to the socioeconomic statuses of the people that shop and sell there – and there may be a Roma element of institutionalized discrimination in here…), we had a great time, and would recommend it to anyone looking to get out of their comfort zone – and looking for deals on kitschy crap to bring home!
It’s easy to get there via cab, but you may have issues finding one to take you back. There were plenty of cabs in the parking lot, but the cabbies they belonged to were all shopping and not eager to take a couple of Americans back to their hostel. We ended up walking to the nearest main drag from the flea market (in front of the Kaufland – kind of a Bulgarian Walmart, I guess?) and hopping a bus to take us back into town. You could theoretically do this in reverse, and catch the bus out there (bus 86 terminates just past the Kaufland, from which you can follow the stream of people heading to Bitaka) as well. Take note that the 86 doesn’t run through the main tourist part of Sofia. However, there is a stop for it right at the Lion’s Bridge (Lavov Most) – which has its own subway stop adjacent to it.