Some time ago, I embarked on a life-changing travel adventure in Bulgaria, a gorgeous little country neatly tucked away in the Balkan Peninsula. Offering a delicious menu of high-peaked mountains, sunny beaches, wonderful history and spectacular culture, I can guarantee that Bulgaria will become one of your all-time favourite destinations in the entire world.
In fact, I’m so sure that Bulgaria will make just as impactful an impression on you as it made on me, that I’m gonna make a deal.
If you’re reading this, and you plan to travel to Bulgaria, and then you did, but you were very disappointed, you can write me here on this email and tell me that I’m nothing else but a Big Fat Liar.
And I’ll take it. Without even blinking.
And you know why I’m so confident? Because I know that this will never ever happen.
Because the thing is, everything about Bulgaria is a win: it’s cheap, but beautiful, it’s remote, but close enough, it’s one country, but a wonderfully diverse one, and it has a special offering for every type of traveller out there!
So if you’re convinced to visit Bulgaria already, I prepared some bullet-proof destinations for you, as well as expert tips from local Bulgarians and my own little pieces of advice for you to consider. Hope this helps to plan your Bulgarian adventure!
Your Complete Guide To Bulgaria
Flights & transportation
Flights to Bulgaria are as cheap as they can get, and sometimes you can fly there starting at $10 one way (depends from where from, of course). When I went last year in October, I paid $50 return from Berlin to Sofia. Be prepared to pay more if you’re travelling during high-peaked season, though (but then again, who does that nowadays anyways — right?).
For it’s size, Bulgaria has more than enough airports — 5, to be precise. In Sofia (capital), Plovdiv (a small charming town in the middle of the country), Burgas and Varna (two resort cities at the coast), and Gorna (not far from Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria’s cultural gem). Most tourists usually fly into Sofia, as the tickets are the cheapest, but for those visiting Bulgaria to chillax at the Black Sea, it makes sense to arrive in Burgas or Varna instead.
You should remember that public transportation throughout Bulgaria is not fully reliable. They have an impeccable subway system in Sofia, yes, but getting from one small town to another might be kinda problematic sometimes as buses are quite irregular sometimes.
Thus, the best way to navigate is to rent a car in Bulgaria: it’s faster, more convenient, and still cheap (especially if you share).
Language & Budgeting
How much money should you take to Bulgaria? Good question!
For 4 years in a row now, Bulgaria has been famously offering the cheapest beach getaway in Europe at Sunny Beach — and it’s even cheaper in other, less touristy parts of Bulgaria. I spent almost two weeks in Bulgaria and spent around $390 (excluding the flights), which is approximately the same as one weekend in Copenhagen.
Crazy. I know.
But one extra reason to travel to Bulgaria, though.
In bigger cities, you can easily pay with cards (Visa, Maestro, whatever you have) but in more rural areas I do recommend to have some cash with you. That is, a handful of Bulgarian levs (1 USD = 1.75 BGN).
When it comes to the Bulgarian language, get ready to scratch your head over the weird-looking cyrillic alphabet — the one that most Slavic and Balkan countries have eventually adapted. It wasn’t a problem to understand some written Bulgarian me since I’m Russian (duh), but for many people out there cyrillic letters are just as mysterious as Chinese hieroglyphs.
From my experience, Bulgarians speak very decent English, though. So if you’re lost in translation, confused in navigation, and clueless in your direction, just ask a local. They’ll find the words to help.
If there’s one thing all Bulgarians love to do, it’s to eat. Bulgarians love food, they eat all the time, and they can’t stop. They chew, and they chew, and they chew, and it looks so yummy that it makes you wanna chew, too! And thankfully, Bulgarian food offers a lot of delicious dishes to chew from. I mean, to choose from.
The Holy Trinity of Bulgarian food is:
- Shopska salad (fresh veggie salad topped with lots of Bulgarian cheese)
- Banitsa (a baked piece of heaven that resembles a Turkish borek)
- and Tarator (a soup made of yoghurt)
You should know that Bulgarian yoghurt is not just any type of yoghurt. It’s a very unique product with special lacto-bacterias that, they say, prolong life and gift eternal youth to those who consume it daily. It has a different taste from “normal” yoghurt and is also more dense. Kind of like soft butter.
Bulgaria, just like Greece, Lebanon, and Egypt, is one of the world’s cradles of civilisation. That means that Bulgaria is one of the places where human race, as we know it, has originated.
(Just a cool historical fact to show off during tea parties.)
(Anyways. I continue.)
Bulgaria’s history dates back to more than 7 millions years ago, when pre-humans left their first traces in the Balkans. At around 5000 BC, there was already a pretty sophisticated, civilised community, and then later on, there were Thracians, Persians, Celts, Romans, Slavs, Turks, and Bulgars themselves that together shaped a melting pot of what now is modern Bulgaria.
In other words, Bulgaria probably has more history than and history geek would be able to consume in a lifetime. And that’s precisely why exploring Bulgarian cities is such an interesting task, my friends ????
Bulgaria’s Big Apple, nation’s beloved capital, the centre of the Balkans, the navel of the world, Sofia is a place where East meets West — just like in Istanbul. It’s quite common to find yourself standing on a crossroad between an Orthodox church on one side, a Catholic cathedral on the other, and a Muslim mosque right in front of you. In that sense, Sofia is just like Jerusalem, a melting pot of different religions, a unification of different worlds.
But unlike Istanbul or Jerusalem, Sofia doesn’t have the stressful vibe and the somewhat negative tension of the overly busy city with overly opposing cultures. Sofia is relaxed, it doesn’t break under pressure, and it just feels free.
So take a walk and enjoy the atmosphere!
Sofia’s most popular landmark is the Alexander Nevski Cathedral. It’s the bigger Eastern Orthodox cathedral in the world — so big it hardly fits in your camera lens — and it looks absolutely spectacular, both inside and out.
Also, I asked Maria from Travelling Buzz to give a few tips too. She’s the leading Bulgarian blogger out there, btw, so she knows her stuff:
Top 3 local spots in Sofia:
- City Garden in front of the National Theatre. It’s perfect for a beer with friends. During summer months it’s stuffed with young people drinking and chatting, it’s amazing.
- New favourite: Military Academy Park. It’s quiet and drop dead gorgeous.
- Kopitoto area on the Vitosha mountain: for a perfect a sunset view over Sofia
Top 3 cafes in Sofia:
- Travellers Club Sofia
- Peroto (for bookworms and coffee lovers)
- Costa Coffee (for digital nomads)
Following Sofia, the next must-stop is the city of Plovdiv.
Now, why should you visit Plovdiv, I hear you ask?
Well, I can give a few reasons.
First, Plovdiv is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. People started living there at around 479 BC and haven’t stopped ever since.
Second, Plovdiv, just like Rome, stands on the Seven Hills. And that’s cool.
Third, Plovdiv is amazingly well-preserved. The Old Town is precious, and the city centre has many ancient Roman highlights to marvel at: a theatre, an odeon, an aqueduct, a stadium, and even a hippodrome, half-buried by cement and glass that you can walk on today (so you’ll get a sneak peek).
However, Plovdiv is not only a monument of Roman antiquity, but also Bulgaria’s culture hub. The city has the country’s oldest library and the world-famous Philharmonic, which is associated with some of the biggest names from the music realm, such as Dmitri Schostakovitch and Sviatoslav Richter. There are also numerous art events, exhibitions, little hipster cafes full of digital nomads sitting behind their little laptops, and so on and so forth.
No wonder then that Plovdiv is to become European Capital of Culture in 2019!
I asked my Bulgarian friend Geri from When Woman Travels to share her local Plovdiv knowledge with us, too:
Top 3 things to do in Plovdiv:
- Walk in the Old Town on its cobbled streets among its beautiful houses from the Bulgaria’s Revival Period
- Check out the main pedestrian street with classic architecture and many cafes and shops
- Explore the Capana district with its plentiful of indie cafes, beer gardens, bars and shops
selling handmade items from local artists
Where to eat in Plovdiv:
- Aladin for tasty (and cheap) Arabic food
- Kino Cafe for sampling the traditional Bulgarian breakfast called mekitsa
In any guide to Bulgaria you’ll come across, Veliko Tarnovo will always be one of the top city recommendations. And why’s that?
Veliko Tarnovo is the heart of Bulgarian history: one of the oldest towns in the country, its centrepiece is the magnificent Tsarevets Fortress, which is considered to be the citadel of the Second Bulgarian Empire. What’s more, Veliko Tarnovo is tucked away in the dramatic landscapes of the Yantra River, surrounded by the amphitheatre of forested hills, which only adds to its medieval charm.
You can easily relive Bulgaria’s past by simply taking a walk along the lanes and the cobble-stone streets. If you want more, there are a few tips from Ellie and Nina Alexander from Follow The Sisters, also Bulgarian bloggers.
Top 3 things to do in Veliko Tarnovo:
- Explore the Gurko Street, the most charming street in Veliko Tarnovo that is sinking in roses, beautiful old-style houses, and local art shops.
- Visit the Asenevtsi Monument: located right next to the local art gallery, this monument is impressively huge and incredibly detailed in its ornaments. The panoramic patio around the monument offers the most famous view of the city, with its houses looking like little birds on wires, one above the other.
- Check the Tsarevets Fortress: the true heart of Bulgaria, Tsarevets will provide lots of historic context about the country — and also challenge the tourists with with a peculiar combination of the ancient Roman walls, medieval architecture, and a communist church nearby. Definitely a must-see!
Where to eat in Veliko Tarnovo:
- Shtastlivetsa: one of the best restaurants not just in Veliko Tarnovo, but in whole Bulgaria. Mouth-watering menu and a perfect opportunity to enjoy traditional Bulgarian cuisine!
- City Pub: come to this place for the chill, modern atmosphere and a huge variety of beer.
- Stratilat: a lovely pastry shop with incredible desserts on offer.
Like Plovdiv, Veliko Tarnovo has become a favourite stopover for backpackers and digital nomads, so you’ll easily find an alike-minded soul to mingle with, if you want.
As mentioned above, Bulgaria offers some of Europe’s ultimate beach destinations. Mainly, people head to Sunny Beach for some sun and some beach (I’m funny, I know). However, travel experts, like Nomadic Matt, recommend staying the hell away from Sunny Beach, as it’s become so popular among tourists that it’s become too difficult to enjoy.
So if you’re on the lookout for some ultimate beaches, stay at Varna — this city can easily become your ultimate base. The nicest beaches in Bulgaria — such as the wonderful Asparukavo beach or the famous Golden Sands — are just a 20-minute ride away from Varna, so you can easily “get in and get out” if you want.
Sozopol, Sozopol… A beautiful coastal town of less than 5,000 people, it is one of the oldest ones in Bulgaria. If you’re in for antiquities, there’s plenty to see. And if you’re down for beaches, there’s plenty to enjoy as well.
Hiking in Bulgaria
Seven Rila Lakes
Bulgaria’s most notable nature attraction, the Seven Rila Lakes is also the ultimate hiking destination in the country. It goes above and beyond the world “beautiful”, and when you visit, you see why.
Hidden high up in the Rila mountains, amongst the yellow meadows, amidst the green mossy rocks and the occasional colourful sprinkles of flowers, there peacefully lie the stunning Seven Rila Lakes, gracing humanity with their majestic presence. If you’re lucky enough to visit the Lakes when there’s no people around (that is, when you travel off season with weather being slightly off too), you’ll experience one of the most meditative hike of your life: slow, quiet, thoughtful, with softening silence wrapping you around like a warm blanket, and with a gorgeous gorgeous view. To say that it’s beautiful there would simply be an understatement.
Hiking the Seven Rila Lakes isn’t very physically challenging, so anyone can do it, really. There are chair lifts conveniently getting you up the hill and it’s a pretty cool experience in autumn, when you often have to go through a very thick fog.
Read: My Postcards from the Seven Rila Lakes (+Mini Guide)
When in Rila, another must-do is to visit the Rila Monastery: the biggest, most famous and arguably most beautiful Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. Founded in the 10th century by Ivan of Rila, a hermit and a saint, the monastery now attracts about a million of visitors per year.
Being a Russian myself, I’ve obviously seen many Orthodox monasteries and churches before, but this one was particularly striking: the detailed, colourful, bright frescos are honestly so beautiful it almost made me commit to going to church on Sundays again, like a good honest Christian ???? (Just kidding.) But seriously, though — look at this:
The Rila Monastery rests beautifully amidst the mountains, the atmosphere of the location is the most romantic, it’s quiet and peaceful and beautiful and there’s nothing more to wish for ❤️
Musala, known as the Everest of the Balkans, is the highest peak in the region (2998m). Now, if Seven Rila Lakes goes relatively easy on your physique, you should be prepared for greater challenges if you set your eye on the Musala. And not only that — you have to be equipped, too.
When I hiked Musala myself, I came terribly unprepared. I brought no food, no water, no extra clothes, and I didn’t make accommodation plans — in other words, I made every hiking mistake you could make. Until this day, I also consider this as one of the most stupid things I’ve ever done in my life in general.
But I digress.
Geographically, Musala lies a bit off the beaten path, and it’s not that easy to get there. You can either get there by car (the most convenient option) or take 3-4 buses, your call.
Whatever you choose, it’s totally worth it.
You’re going to be one-on-one with nature, and, honestly, not many things can beat that. It’s a stunning, challenging and therefore a very gratifying hike: you’ll stumble, you’ll be out of breath, you’ll make frequent stops to recharge your batteries, and you’ll often regret having started this, but hey, there’s no better feeling than the one you get at the very end. Standing there at the top of the mountain, looking over the way you’ve gone, is just so empowering that it truly feels like a life achievement. (Which it is, imho.)
They say the Rhodope Mountains are located between heaven and hell.
They say the Rhodope Mountains are cursed by gods.
They say the Rhodope Mountains was the place where Orpheus found his Euridice, only to lose her forever again.
Now, while all of that might be nothing but myths, they also say that the Rhodope Mountains hide some of the most beautiful spots in Bulgaria — and that is definitely true.
If you have time to travel around Bulgaria, do try to include a visit to this area, full of cultural landmarks (like The Devil’s Bridge on the photo below), truly magical landscapes, and very picturesque hiking trails.
Check out this website for a very detailed self-guided tour in the Rhodope.
An easy day trip from Varna, the Stone Forest is a destination with a twist.
The truth is, it’s not really a forest but a desert instead — and is, in fact, the only desert in Bulgaria and one of the very few in Europe. There are even cacti growing there and stuff. So yeah, it’s a ‘real thing’.
Essentially, Stone Forest is a vast space full of huge, super-old, super-massive pieces of rocks. Older than Stonehenge, taller than Trump Tower (for their time, of course), these formations have been there for millions and millions of years, until they became a national landmark in 1930s.
THIS IS IT!
My (I mean, your) ultimate guide to Bulgaria!
Anything else you’d add to the guide? Leave a comment below and I’ll make sure to add your suggestion! ????