I always define Bulgaria as the European gem many people are looking for but don’t know how to find it yet. Bulgaria is the last stop of the former Soviet Bloc where the Old Balkan Mountains crash into the Black Sea and where the West meets the East. I know it’s a cliché thing to say but in Bulgaria’s case, it’s true. Bulgaria borders Turkey on the east and it’s the starting point in Europe for many Asian immigrants. Traveling to Bulgaria is a different yet still amazing experience and I’ll do my best to show you why I think you should visit.
Unlike the other countries on the Balkan, in Bulgaria, you will find big Chinese, Arab, and Indian communities that transferred a significant part of their culture to this lovely country. Bulgaria is also the oldest country in Europe never to change its name. It’s probably the only country where people nod their head when they say no. And the country with the 8th fastest internet speed in the world! So if you’re a traveling hipster that is searching for a different experience, Bulgaria is definitely the place for you.
Getting to Bulgaria
Let’s start at the beginning: how to tot in Bulgaria? Bulgaria has three international airports. The largest one is in Sofia, the capital and the other two are in coastal cities Varna and Burgas. Bulgaria is also one of the newest members of the EU so it’s well-connected with the rest of Europe via bus or train. And yes, it’s also part of the Euro trail.
The transport between cities in Bulgaria is slow as the roads aren’t really good but at least it’s super cheap. You can get from Sofia to the Black Sea Coast on the other side of the country in approximately 8 hours by road. The good part is that most small towns and villages are well-connected via buses or trains so you can explore the whole country without renting a car or hiring a driver.
Best time to visit Bulgaria
The best time to visit depends entirely on what you want to do. Bulgaria has a lot to offer. If you want to relax at some of the exotic beaches at the Black Sea Coast, come between June and August. However, you can avoid the tourist rush and visit in the shoulder season in May and September. The weather will still be pleasant. If you are a winter fan and want to indulge in skiing or other winter activities, visit between December and March. If you are a nature lover or a fan of bird watching and similar activities, visit in April or May. With that being said, let me introduce this charming country to you and tell you why it’s going to be the next big thing in Europe.
Related: Should you visit Europe in the winter?
Bulgarian food is not very famous on the old continent but just like all other Balkan countries, Bulgarians have some amazing food. Their food is a beautiful mix of traditional Balkan, Greek, and Turkish food. The first thing that comes to mind when Bulgarian food is mentioned is Banitsa. Banitsa is a must-try greasy ad delicious baked pastry filled with either: egg, potato, onion or meat. It’s the most common breakfast among local people. One thing that goes well with this is the famous Bulgarian yogurt that’s supposedly the best in the world. Also, if you’re a meat lover you will enjoy their oversized chunks of traditionally prepared barbecue.
Just like all other Balkan countries, Bulgarians love their meat. Some other amazing dishes you can try are kavarma (a spicy pork stew) and gyuvech (meat and peppers cooked in an earthenware pot). They also have some very good traditional salads, like taratur which is made of cucumbers and garlic dipped in some of their delicious yogurts. Finally, you can wash all that delicious food up with some delicious Bulgarian wine from vineyards reclaimed from the no man’s land that used to separate the Eastern and the Western Bloc in the past century. Alternatively, you can also try their neat traditional hard liquor drink mastika.
Getting lost in the Bulgarian mountains
Bulgaria has a lot of mountains and nearly one-third of its area is covered in lush green forests. The majority of tourists that visit the sunny beaches at the Black Sea coast don’t really know what they are missing. Don’t get me wrong, I like beaches but the Bulgarian mountain experience is truly something amazing. Even though there aren’t too many people visiting the mountains, the infrastructure and the facilities are surprisingly good.
Most of the mountains have a lot of accommodation options and a lot of restaurants. Additionally, you will find a lot of mountain villages built in a 19th century ‘revival’ style so wondering around the Bulgarian mountains can make you feel like you traveled back in time. Getting there also isn’t expensive as pretty much everything is cheap in Bulgaria. With an average salary of around $400 USD, Bulgaria is still one of the poorest countries in Europe. However, Bulgaria isn’t only a cheap destination. It’s much more than that…
Exploring the Bulgarian cities
Just like the mountains, the cities which aren’t on the coastline don’t get the number of visitors they actually deserve. But places like this are always more fun to explore. There isn’t a tourist rush, prices are low and the free walking tours are amazing. Places like Sofia and Plovdiv have free walking tours that normally have between 6 and 10 tourists a day. Just for comparison, most free walking tours in Europe I took had at least 30-40 people. So, if you want to get away from the tourist crowd, this would be a good choice for you.
The Old capital is one of the most interesting places in the Balkan Peninsula. It’s a city with 1000 years of history behind its name and it was the country’s capital between the 12th and 14th century. The town sits on a sharp S-shaped ravine which just adds to its unique charm. With its amazing fortress and tiny streets, it’s easy to see why the Bulgarians chose Veliko Trnovo as their capital: it was almost impossible to conquer!
Plovdiv, the city of seven hills
Plovdiv is the second oldest city in Bulgaria and just like Rome, it’s made of seven hills. The Plovdiv Old Town has some stunning amphitheaters and other remnants from the Roman times which are in a surprisingly good shape. Plovdiv is also a great starting point for exploring the Rodopi Mountains.
Sofia, the poor man’s Prague
Sofia is one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the Balkan Peninsula, where the West meats the East thing feels the most. Here you will find big Chinese, Arab, Turkish, and Indian communities that integrated their cultures into Sofia’s soul. Sofia has a stunning city center and the architecture around this area has a striking resemblance with Prague. Just like Prague, it also transformed most of its socialist-era student dorms in some of the city’s best clubs. A lot of similarities with the main difference being: it’s cheaper. Sofia is also surrounded by two great mountains: Vitosha and Rila and it’s a great starting point for some amazing hiking adventures. Finally, if you’re into shopping, near the iconic Nevski Cathedral you will find one of the cheapest street markets in Europe where you can get some amazing bargains.
Things to do in Bulgaria
I can really make this list very very long but I’ll just mention some of my favorites that I didn’t cover yet.
The “Lord of the Rings” fort
Bulgaria has its own “Lord of the Rings Fort”, located around 4 hours away of the capital, Sofia. Belogradchik (the White City) is home to the Kaleto, a stunning architectural masterpiece built during the Roman era.
The UFO building
During their time, communists built some unorthodox stuff and Bulgaria was no exception. Around an hour and a half away from Veliko Tarnovo, you will find Bulzludzha, a former communist meeting hall that was closed after the fall of socialism in 1991. However, that didn’t stop people from smashing in and trying to take their last memories from the socialism. The building is still in a good shape today it still looks really futuristic and today is known among travelers as the UFO building.
The seven lakes of Rila
The Rila Mountains are simply amazing. They are a home to the Rila Monastery, one of the oldest monasteries in the region and a UNESCO heritage site and to the seven lakes of Rila. When looked from above, these lakes look like giant footsteps leading to the mountaintop. I already wrote about the Rila Lakes in the 9 places in the Balkan you must see before you die.
This is one of my favorite hiking spots in Bulgaria. On the way, you will be completely surrounded by lush green forests and spectacular view. If that’s not enough you will get to see the Trigradska River disappearing inside an enormous cave locally known as Devil’s Throat.
Does Bulgaria sound like a country you would visit? Let me know in the comments!