After my first Balkan trip almost 10 years ago, I was so pleasantly surprised to find such an interesting region that has seemingly slipped under the radar. The Balkan states, spanning across southeastern Europe, are easy on the pocket, and are chocked full of history and Soviet architecture.
I finally returned to Bulgaria this summer, and rekindled my love for the underrated Balkan state. Bulgaria is a beautiful country packed to the brim with rich history and culture, and a tinge of Soviet edginess that you just can’t find in western Europe.
Cost of Travel in Bulgaria
Bulgaria is an incredibly cheap destination and it’s much more affordable than other parts of Europe. You’ll get a bang for your buck, going on Bulgaria day tours for as cheap as $50 and staying at decent hotels for $50/night.
Food in Bulgaria is really affordable, fresh and delicious. A meal in a standard restaurant is usually around US$5-10 including drinks. A pint of beer costs around $1-2.
Expect to pay around $30-50 for a midrange hotel with air conditioning, private bathroom and WiFi. Hotels on the beach are definitely much more expensive, at $70-150 for a four-star hotel.
How to Get to Bulgaria
Sofia International Airport is the main gateway to Bulgaria. It’s a small airport but it’s served by most major cities in Europe.
You can get cheap flights to Sofia from London, Amsterdam and Paris for around $100 return (three-hour journey). Airlines that serve Sofia include British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, Wizz Air and Ryanair.
Aeroflot and LOT Polish Airlines fly from New York to Sofia for around US$700-1000 return. You’ll most likely need to transit via Moscow or Warsaw.
As a landlocked country surrounded by five countries, Bulgaria is easy to get to overland. But most trains tend to be old and shabby, and journey times are usually slower than buses.
From Serbia, the Balkan Express runs daily between Sofia and Belgrade (11 hours) from June to September. Trains depart from both cities in the mornings. Check out Serbian Railways’ website for details.
From Romania, you can catch a train from Bucharest (10-hour journey) to Ruse or Veliko Tarnovo. From Turkey, the daily Bosfor (Bosphorous Express) goes from Istanbul to Sofia and continues onto Bucharest. The journey takes 9 hours and there are sleeper cabins on the train. Check the Turkish State Railways website.
It is even cheaper to travel to Bulgaria by the international buses from the surrounding countries and they’re relatively comfortable. On my first trip to Bulgaria, I took an overnight bus from Istanbul to Plovdiv and it was easy and smooth-sailing.
When traveling out of Bulgaria by bus, the cost of entry visas for the countries concerned are not included in the prices of the bus tickets. A good timetable for international connections can be found here.
Plovdiv is the main gateway for those traveling overland from Greece, Turkey and Macedonia. Sofia is the nearest city for those traveling overland from Serbia and Romania. Here’s more info for each travel route:
When to Travel Bulgaria
The best time to travel Bulgaria is during the shoulder season, from April to June, and September to October. The weather will be more pleasant, and the prices are lower. I went to Bulgaria in April on my first trip and it was perfect.
It can get really hot in summer, from June to August, with temperatures rising to 40+ degrees Celsius. Summer is also the peak tourism season, when the beaches on the Black Sea are packed to the brim.
Winter is mostly low season across the country, and most of the smaller towns will shut down. But Bulgaria is one of the best budget ski destinations in Europe, with affordable and excellent ski conditions. Bansko is the most popular ski resort.
How Long to Travel Bulgaria?
This depends on your interest of course, but two weeks are enough to explore Bulgaria properly and get to know its culture and people.
I spent around a week in Bulgaria on my first trip and 10 days this time. I felt that I actually got to know it really well on my second trip and saw a lot more than on my first trip.
If you’re an intrepid traveler, I recommend the following itinerary as it’ll allow you to see the best of the country at a relaxing pace. You probably want to skip the beaches, but I suggest keeping Varna in your itinerary as it’s a cool coastal city.
Two-Week Bulgaria Itinerary:
Days 1-3: Sofia
Day 4: Day trip to Seven Rila Lakes & Monastery
Days 5-7: Veliko Tarnovo
Day 8: Day trip to Etara Ethnological Centre
Days 9-10: Varna
Day 11: Day trip to Nessebar
Days 12-13: Plovdiv
Day 14: Sofia
How to Get Around Bulgaria
It is relatively cheap and easy to drive in Bulgaria. The main highways are well built and signs are in both Bulgarian and English. You can rent a compact car in Sofia for US$78 per week or $130 for two weeks.
In order to drive on Bulgarian roads, you will need to display a vignette sold at petrol stations and post offices. Rental cars hired within Bulgaria should already have a vignette.
Bulgarian drivers can be aggressive and most don’t stick to the speed limit, so just be aware.
Bus is the fastest and most popular way to get around Bulgaria. There’s a great bus network across the country and distances aren’t that long. You can find many bus and train schedules here.
Here are the main bus companies in Bulgaria:
Biomet — Runs between Sofia and Veliko Târnovo, Varna and Burgas.
Etap-Grup — Another extensive intercity network, with buses between Sofia, Burgas, Varna, Ruse and Veliko Târnovo.
Union-Ivkoni — Links most major towns and many smaller ones, including Sofia, Burgas, Varna, and Plovdiv.
Traveling by train is the cheapest way to explore the country, even cheaper than taking the bus.
For example, a train ticket from Sofia to Plovdiv costs just US$5 for a two-hour train ride. Although the trains are sometimes old and slow, some of the rail journeys offer beautiful views.
All trains are run by the Bulgarian State Railroad Company. You can buy train tickets online.
Where to Stay in Bulgaria
There is a wide variety of accommodation to choose from in most parts of Bulgaria and they’re much cheaper than in other parts of Europe.
Sofia: Rosslyn Thracia Hotel Sofia
As one of the best hotels in Sofia, this elegant hotel is located just a few minutes from Vitosha Street, a pedestrianized street right in the heart of the city. Room rates are reasonable, decor is modern and the breakfast spread is excellent! Check rates here.
Veliko Tarnovo: Park Hotel Sevastokrator
This hotel has exceptional views of Veliko Tarnovo from above as well as a nice swimming pool. It’s technically located in Arbanasi, a hilltop town just 10 minutes away from Veliko Tarnovo. Check rates here.
Varna: Rosslyn Dimyat Hotel Varna
This upscale modern hotel is located in the heart of Varna next to the Sea Garden, 500 m from the Varna Beach. You can’t get a better location that that. Prices are affordable for a 4-star quality hotel. Check rates here.
Plovdiv: The Stay Hotel Central Square Plovdiv
An incredibly stylish hotel located right in the heart of old town Plovdiv, the Stay Hotel offers excellent value for money. Rooms are spacious and have lots of facilities. Attractions are all within walking distance from here. Check rates here.
bulgaria travel - hotel park sevaskotar in arbanasi
Food in Bulgaria
I’m a big fan of Bulgarian food, especially the barbecued meats that are ubiquitous here.
Bulgarian cuisine shares characteristics with other Balkan cuisines — it’s like a blend of Greek and Turkish food. Meat is the main staple, along with fresh ingredients like tomatoes, dill and onions.
It’s actually quite easy to find vegetarian Bulgarian dishes on nearly every menu, though due to Bulgaria’s love affair with its cheese and dairy products, vegans won’t be so lucky.
There are some Bulgarian staples you need to try:
Shopska salad — A mix of tomatoes, cucumber, sirene cheese
Tarator — A cold yogurt soup made of cucumber and garlic
Kebapche — Known as Kebab in most places, grilled meat with spices
Meshana skara — Mixed grill that typically includes kebapche, kufte, and a skewer of pork meat similar to a souvlaki
Where to Eat in Bulgaria
There are lots of Bulgarian restaurants everywhere, as well as more international offerings in the big cities. I’ve found food to be really food wherever I went.
Here are some of the best places I ate at:
Hadjidraganov’s Cellars, Sofia — This traditional Bulgarian restaurant can be a little touristy, but it’s the best place to go for a feel of Bulgarian traditions. Portions are big, and food is served on wooden Medieval-style platters. Read reviews.
Restaurant Shtastliveca Old Town, Veliko Tarnovo — Rated as the best restaurant in Veliko Tarnovo, this place has excellent views of the old town and offers a well-rounded variety of traditional and modern cuisine. Be sure to make a booking in advance! Read reviews.
Park Hotel Sevastokrator, Arbanasi — The restaurant at this hotel in Arbanasi not only has great views, but also an affordable and good menu. They use fresh products and meat and I highly recommend the grilled trout.
Staria Chinar – Preslav, Varna — An institution and fixture in Varna’s food scene, this is excellent for some elegant, classic Bulgarian dishes. Read reviews.
Things to Do in Bulgaria
Explore Sofia’s Old Town
Bulgaria’s capital Sofia makes an excellent base to get an introduction to Bulgarian culture and history. The city has an eclectic mix of Roman buildings, Ottoman mosques and Soviet blocs. You’ll need at least three days to see them all.
Start with St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral, the second largest cathedral in the Balkan region. Then head on St George Rotunda, the oldest building in modern Sofia that dates back to the 300s. Don’t miss the Central Bath, one of the most photographed buildings in Bulgaria.
This bike tour is a great way to see all of Sofia’s sights on wheels.
Hike around the Seven Rila Lakes
Outdoor lovers would love the Seven Rila Lakes, a group of glacial lakes situated in the northwestern Rila Mountains close to Sofia. Hiking trails weave their way around the lakes that are perched 2,500 meters above sea level.
Each lake carries a name associated with its most characteristic feature. The highest one is called Salzata (“The Teardrop”) due to its clear waters that allow visibility in depth.
If you’re tight on time, you can book a day trip to the Seven Rila Lakes from Sofia.
Visit the Famous Rila Monastery
Rila Monastery is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. The iconic landmark is located close to the Seven Rila Lakes, at 117km (73 miles) from Sofia.
Founded in the 10th century, the monastery is named after its founder, the hermit Ivan of Rila (876 – 946 AD), and houses around 60 monks.
You can also combine a visit there with the Seven Rila Lakes. This day tour is affordable and comes with great reviews.
Wander around Veliko Tarnovo
Of all the places I’ve visited in Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo is probably my favorite. This small town was once the medieval capital of the Bulgarian empire, and now has a special charm thanks to its long history.
Veliko Tarnovov is a hodgepodge of impressive castles, museums and historical sites. Stroll along the cobblestoned Gurko Street and admire well-preserved old houses, and watch craftsmen hard at work in the Samodovska Chashia Market.
You can also visit Veliko Tarnovo on a day trip from Plovdiv. Get more info here.
Explore the Tsarevets Fortress
The iconic symbol of Veliko Tarnovo is the Tsarevets, an impressive fortress that dominates its skyline. With only pedestrian access, you can walk along the breathtaking fortress walls and take in views onto the surrounding hills of Sveta Gora.
Children are free to run, clamber and discover, the only place where caution is advised is at Execution Rock at the northern end of the fortress. As the name suggests a fall from here down to the Yantra River would be nothing less than fatal.
Immerse in the Open Air Etara Ethnographic Museum
Located close to Veliko Tarnovo in the town of Gabrovo is this beautiful open air museum that transports you back in time. The ethnographic centre spans over 7 hectares of area, showcasing how life used to be during the Bulgarian National Revival.
The park has replicas of traditional houses during that period, as well as water installations and craftsmen workshops. There are also stores selling sweets and artwork from yesteryears.
Visit the new Neofit Rilski Historical Park
Just a few kilometers outside of Varna is the newly opened Neofit Rilski Historical Park. It’s yet to be fully completed, but already offers some exciting activities. I was rather impressed by the scale of the park.
For curious travelers, the historical park is a great place to learn about Bulgarian history, from the Neolithic period to the Thracian Civilization and Second Bulgarian Empire.
The park gives the sensation that you’re stepping back in time, into a medieval complex with archery demonstrations and horse-riding displays. There are numerous replicas of archaeological site and historical monuments as well as homes that people used to live in.
Relax on Varna’s Beaches
As a vibrant coastal city, Varna is the main gateway for tourists that are heading to the Black Sea coast. Intrepid travelers will probably choose to skip the beaches, but don’t miss out on the charm of Varna.
The city is packed with history yet it’s thoroughly modern, with a lush and green seafront park to amble on. Its beach is not too bad to while away a lazy afternoon and enjoy some fresh seafood.
In the city centre you’ll find Bulgaria’s largest Roman baths complex and its finest archaeological museum, as well as a lively cultural and restaurant scene.
Get Lost in the Charming Old Town of Nesebar
The ancient part of Nesebar is located on a peninsula that juts out from the Black Sea coast (previously an island).
Nesebar has on several occasions found itself on the frontier of a threatened empire, and as such it is a town with a rich history. Due to the city’s abundance of historic buildings, Nesebar became a UNESCO Site in 1983.
Today it’s really popular with tourists especially in summer, so get there early if you want to get lost in its narrow cobblestoned streets.
Soak Up History in Plovdiv
As Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city, Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s heartthrob with a romantic old town. The city is packed with colorful and creaky 19th-century mansions that are now house-museums, galleries and guesthouses.
As the European Capital of Culture 2019, Plovdiv is quickly drawing more music and art lovers. Once an amiable waystation between Bulgaria and Greece or Turkey, the city has flowered into a destination in its own right – and one that should be on any itinerary through central Bulgaria.
For those short on time, this day tour leads you around Plovdiv, Asen Fortress and Bachkovo Fortress in 1 day.
Language in Bulgaria
Bulgarian is the country’s only official language. Bulgarian is written with Cyrillic, which makes trying to read Bulgarian words quite difficult for most of us.
English isn’t widely spoken in Bulgaria, especially among the older generation. But younger Bulgarians in the big cities tend to speak a bit of English.
Safety in Bulgaria
Most parts of Bulgaria are very safe and I never felt unsafe on both trips there. I traveled solo on my first trip and with my four-year-old daughter on this recent trip.
The only danger that travelers face is theft, primarily from pickpockets. In general, try not to stand out and avoid dark alleys at night if traveling solo.
Practical Tips for Traveling Bulgaria
Within cities, minibuses called marshroutki act like shared taxis and are common in many ex-Soviet countries. You just need to flag them down and buy tickets from the driver.
One thing to note for those traveling with kids, it is allowed to smoke in most places in Bulgaria, even indoors. It can be annoying for non-smokers.
As an ex-Soviet country, Bulgaria still shares a relationship with Russia and many Bulgarians still speak Russian.
I think of Bulgarians as quite similar to Russians. They may not smile a lot and can come across as rude. But give them some time, show that you’re friendly and they’ll eventually warm up to you.
Author: Nellie Huang