Bulgaria is the last of the Balkan countries on my list to visit. Having already been to all of the former Yugoslavian countries, as well as a road trip through Albania and Kosovo, and of course various road trips through Greece, it was time to finally visit Bulgaria.
While Bulgaria is not high on the list for visitors to Europe, with people opting for places like Croatia or Greece, there is more than enough to do in the country. The Balkans in general is my favorite part of Europe. While most people swoon over popular places like France, Holland, or Italy, I find myself enthralled with the countries in the Balkans. I find the history and culture to be so much more interesting than Western Europe and I find myself again and again coming back to this region.
Bulgaria has it all. From Cosmopolitan cities to ancient wonders. From beautiful mountain ranges to idyllic beaches on the Black Sea. The wine is excellent while cheap, and the food is heaven if you are keen for grilled meats. Bulgaria is located at crossroads between Europe and Asia and throughout history it was a place of incredible trade and a cultural melting pot.
I am not sure why but I find Balkan history to be fascinating. Bulgaria is no different. In ancient times, Bulgaria was settled by the Thracians for thousands of years. Greeks and Romans eventually took control of the peninsula. Like the neighboring countries of Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia, Slavic speaking people settled in the area from the 6th century AD as well as the Bulgars, a nomadic people coming from Central Asia.
The Bulgars grew strong and conquered neighboring lands forming the first Bulgarian Empire. Eventually, the region came under Byzantine Rule in the middle ages and ultimately fell to the Ottomans like the rest of the Balkan region. Ottomans ruled the area for 500 years with its influences still felt to this day.
As Bulgaria is a Slavic speaking nation, after WW2, the country looked to unite with Tito’s Yugoslavia given how culturally similar the nations were. Stalin refused this union and ultimately Bulgaria came under the influence of the Eastern Bloc’s version of Communism. Bulgarians still feel the most connected with their South Slav neighbors in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia etc. but they are probably happy to have avoided the Balkan Wars.
I had visited North Macedonia a few months prior to Bulgaria and noticed that some of the words in Macedonian were very similar to Bulgarian (but different than Serbo-Bosnian-Croatian). Turns out that Macedonia was part of Bulgaria only a century ago and the languages are nearly identical!
Best time to visit Bulgaria
Bulgaria enjoys a continental climate experiencing all seasons. As it is located further south, you will generally find milder winters than other countries in Europe.
Summer months can be extremely hot especially inland around the big cities. Temperatures can easily go above 35c and stay there for long periods of time. Many people flock to the coastal towns of Varna, Burgas and Sozopol during these months to escape the heat. Expect lots of sun with the occasional shower.
In the winter months, temperatures can go below freezing especially in the mountain towns. Sofia and Plovdiv will generally be milder with daily lows slightly below freezing. However, mountain towns can be well below -10c. Bulgaria has ski mountains so you can expect that the weather won’t be like that of Croatia or Montenegro!
Bulgaria, while beautiful, does not experience the same tourism numbers like neighboring Greece. In the summer months, you’ll see various tourists from around the world but you will never feel overwhelmed like the amusement park conditions in places like Dubrovnik, Croatia. The month of August will see a mass exodus of Bulgarians from the cities to the beach towns. However, outside of that, there is not really a bad time to visit the country.
Whether you visit in the summer, or the shoulder seasons of Spring/Autumn, you will find that there aren’t many tourists which is fantastic.
How to get around Bulgaria
Bulgaria is well connected with the rest of Europe. There are daily flights to Sofia from many European capitals with plenty of discount airlines flying into the city (like Ryanair, Wizzair etc). I flew from Frankfurt to Sofia via Wizzair and paid about €70 round trip.
Sofia is well connected and can easily be reached by bus from neighboring cities like Belgrade, Thessaloniki, Skopje, Bucharest etc.
To get around Bulgaria, I rented a car from Sofia and drove around the country. Car rentals are very cheap in Bulgaria with gas prices generally below the average of the rest of the EU. I always like driving a car as I feel like I have the freedom to explore the little things that I want, when I want.
The road conditions in Bulgaria are decent but not great. The main highway is great but you’ll be on many smaller roads with questionable roads.
Alternatively, if you do not want to rent a car, you can also get around quite easily by bus and trains. The country is well connected, albeit with old soviet style trains and not the high speed trains Western Europe enjoys.
Buy the Vignette if you’re coming from another country
If you’re crossing the border into Bulgaria from another country like Northern Greece, or North Macedonia, make sure to absolutely buy the vignette. You can purchase this at the border for €15 for two weeks and this will allow you to drive legally on the roads.
Alternatively, you can purchase this online at their website. This is a great option if you want to pay by credit card as they don’t accept card at the small shops near the borders. Make sure to buy this otherwise you will be caught and fined. I was very impressed with their toll system and how sophisticated it is to catching people.
They have cameras all over the country and toll police will be informed when your plate gets photographed and they will be waiting for you. Do not risk it, otherwise the fine will be €300!
Where I went in Bulgaria
I had a total of just under two weeks for my Bulgaria trip. I think one week to two weeks is probably enough to see the highlights of the country. Of course, the more time in a place is always better but I understand people’s time constraints!
If these places are on your list of place to visit, then this is the itinerary for you. Don’t worry, I will have plenty of itinerary examples depending on the amount of days you have to travel.
- Rila Monastery
- Buzludzha Monument
- Koprivshtitsa Town
- Varna (Black Sea), Sozopol etc.
Full Bulgaria Travel Itinerary
The trip starts in Sofia. I flew here from Frankfurt and spent my first three nights exploring the capital. Although it is not the most beautiful city, I really enjoyed the vibe and energy the capital has to offer.
From Sofia, I did a day trip to the Rila Monastery in the south which is a very popular day trip. Afterwards, I rented a car to go to Plovdiv. Along the way, I stopped in the traditional village of Koprivshtitsa to enjoy the views before arriving in Plovdiv. In Plovdiv, I spent another three nights exploring the city. While in Plovdiv, I also made a day trip to the Buzluzdha communist monument which was just amazing.
Finally, my last few days were spent along the Black Sea visiting the coastal towns of Bulgaria. I based myself in Varna and used it as a base to explore the neighboring beaches and regions. I recommend 2-3 nights here depending on how much of a beach escape you want. I’m not particularly impressed with the Black Sea as far as beaches go. The Mediterranean is far superior in my opinion but you will generally find cheaper prices here.
Bulgaria’s main airport is its capital of Sofia. However, there are smaller airports in Plovdiv and Varna that service many international airports around Europe. If you’re not renting a car, then you could potentially fly into Sofia, and fly out of let’s say Varna on the Black Sea so you don’t need to backtrack your way to Sofia.
Full map of Bulgaria Itinerary
Day 1-3: Sofia, Capital of Bulgaria
It’s likely that most trips to Bulgaria will start in the capital city of Sofia. Sofia is home to about 1/3 of Bulgaria’s population and is a city with much to offer. It’s not as beautiful as other Balkan cities and I’ve even been told my some people to skip the city entirely but that is a mistake. There is plenty to do in Sofia that’s worthwhile.
Bulgaria, having been under the Eastern Bloc, has much of the Communist style architecture as other Eastern European cities which is a contrast to the Tito controlled Yugoslavia that emphasized preserving and restoring historical buildings. Sofia is not so beautiful in the traditional European sense but it’s a great place to spend a few days enjoying the energy of the city.
Alexander Nevsky Church
Perhaps the most iconic representation of the city of Sofia is the Aexander Nevsky Orthodox Church. I’m a big fan of Orthodox churches preferring them to Catholic cathedrals. This church in Sofia is one of the largest I’ve seen and is a must visit when coming to Sofia. The green and gold domes of this massive structure guided traders and merchants in the past when they were close to the city of Sofia.
The church is free to enter. I didn’t find the inside of the church particularly impressive but the outside is just beautiful.
In the same area is the Serdica archaeological complex, where the restored remains of the excavated Roman city of Serdika are on public display. Next on your walk are the Ottoman-era Banya Bashi Mosque and (demonstrating the cultural diversity of Bulgaria through history) Sofia Synagogue, one of the biggest synagogues in Europe. Between the two is Sofia’s central market – perfect for grabbing a snack or souvenir.
One of Sofia’s most prominent landmarks, the National Palace of Culture is about a 15-minute walk from the sights listed but chances are you will come across it if you explore any of Sofia’s many parks and green spaces. It was opened in 1981 to celebrate 1300 years of the Bulgarian state and is a must for travellers interested in architecture from that era.
Free walking tour of Sofia
Like other European cities, the free walking tour of Sofia is a must do when visiting Sofia. I did this tour upon arrival just to get my bearings of the city. The tour lasts 2.5-3 hours and visits the main highlights of the city.
The tour started off with a general history of Bulgaria which is always interesting. We visited the numerous main sights of the city like the St. Nedelya Cathedral Church, the Banya Bashi Masjid mosque, the St. George Rotunda, National theatre, various Roman ruins and more.
The tour meets every day at 11am at the Palace of Justice in the city center.
Sofia Pub Crawl
I also can recommend the Sofia pub crawl. If you’re a solo traveler, this is the perfect place to meet cool people and have a good night out on the town. The tour meets at 9pm and goes around the town visiting numerous bars and clubs.
The cost is 30 Lev which is a bit steep but you get some free beers and shots with the price.
The Scene or the Sense for Rooftop Drinks
For the best views of the city, I would recommend visiting the Scene rooftop bar at the Hyatt Hotel or the Sense Rooftop at the Sense hotel. Both hotels are near to the Alexander Nevsky Church and features this beautiful building front and center.
The drinks here are quite expensive especially by Bulgarian standards but this just comes with the territory. Come here for a nice glass of wine while enjoying the views of Sofia and the neighboring mountains.
Rakija Bar Restaurant
Without a doubt, Rakija bar is my favorite restaurant in Sofia. It’s known for its extensive Rakija menu with many different Rakija varieties. If you’re new to Rakija, it is the national drink of Bulgaria and all the other Balkan countries. It is a way of life and religion all rolled up into one.
You can sample various styles of Rakija at this restaurant. Rakija can be made from various fruits like grapes, plums, quince, pear, peaches etc. Regardless, you’ll have a good time and feel drunk very quickly.
The food at this restaurant is also delicious. Get the grilled chicken or the traditional Bulgarian kebapche and you’ll be in heaven.
Located in the city center, Shtaslivetsa is one of the top restaurants in Sofia. The inside is immaculately decorated and the traditional Bulgarian food that is served is also delicious. It feels very fancy inside but the prices are quite reasonable.
For a quick breakfast, look no further than Rainbow Cafe. In additional to a traditional brunch style menu, they also make the most delicious Mekitsi (fried dough) and Banitsa (local pastry similar to Burek). Make sure to get the Mekitsi with jam!
5L Speakeasy Bar
Day 4: Day Trip to Rila Monastery
Rila Monastery, or the Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila, to give it its full name, is an Eastern Orthodox monastery founded in the 10th century. A fire destroyed the monastery at the beginning of the 19th century, and the complex was rebuilt soon after. The Bulgarian Renaissance style stripes are its most distinctive feature. UNESCO inscribed Rila Monastery as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
There is a dress code for visiting Rila monastery, so make sure you are appropriately attired: long trousers and skirts (at least below the knee), no sleeveless tops (bring a scarf or shawl to cover your shoulders).
This monastery is one of the most impressive complexes I’ve ever seen. Not only are the churches in fantastic conditions, but the whole complex is the size of a football stadium surrounded by views of the beautiful Balkan mountain range.
Day 5: Koprivshtitsa
Along the way from Sofia to Plovdiv is the village of Koprivshtitsa. This mountain town is one of the most traditional and picturesque towns in Bulgaria and is well worth a visit as it is located along the way. It is a popular day trip from Sofia and is accessible even if you don’t have a car.
Koprivshtitsa is one of the most beautiful towns in Bulgaria and the Balkans. It’s full of buildings, mostly houses, from the 19th century that are the best example of Bulgarian Revival Architecture. There are exactly 383 of them and the majority of them were restored to its former glory with vivid colors, rich decorations, and distinctive shapes.
The best view of Koprivshtitsa is from the Georgi Benkovski monument located above the town. Going up there isn’t too difficult and you will be rewarded with some amazing views of Koprivshtitsa and surrounding Sredna Gora mountains.
To be honest, there is not that much to do in the city. I stopped here for lunch at a traditional restaurant which was fantastic. I found that the best thing to do in this town is simply walk through the streets and admire the architecture.
Day 5-7: Plovdiv
After exploring Sofia, the next step on the Bulgaria itinerary is the historical city of Plovdiv. As one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2019, Plovdiv is probably the most tourist-friendly city in Bulgaria and it has a lot to offer visitors. What Sofia lacks as far as old European charm, Plovdiv offers it and more.
Plovdiv is thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe, with a history dating back over 6,000 years. It was sacked, controlled, and sacked again by almost all of the major historical empires of the region. From the Greeks, to the Romans, to the Huns, Mongols, Turks and more, everyone has come through Plovdiv and fallen in love with the city.
Aylak, is one of the guiding principals of Plovdiv. I learned this on my walking tour that the word and concept originated in Plovdiv. What does it mean you ask?
To simply chill out and enjoy the life. The art of doing nothing and having a good time. While you could see the sights of Plovdiv in a half day, it’s worthwhile just to spend some time in Plovdiv and enjoy the life. That’s the guiding principal after all!
What to do in Plovdiv
Spend your first day in the city exploring its ancient monuments like the aforementioned amphitheatre and the ancient stadium. Wander through the picturesque old town and enjoy the view of the city from the ruined fortress on Nebet Tepe.
The town center is quite small and you can walk the cobblestone streets from one end to the other in 15 minutes. There are plenty of shops and restaurants along the way to keep you occupied.
You can also head into the trendy neighborhood known as Kapana, which means “The Trap” in Bulgarian. This neighborhood is located within the old town and is made clear by the narrower more windy pedestrian streets. This pedestrian only area is packed full with great restaurants, cafes, and bars. It’s likely that you’ll be spending at least some of your time in this area. I pretty much spent all my time here.
Plovdiv is known as the city of hills – sometimes seven hills after the number of hills in and around the city, and sometimes three hills after the ones Old Plovdiv was founded on. Don’t expect towering peaks – Dzhendem tepe is the tallest at just over 300 metres. If you are interested in Bulgaria’s communist-era monuments Alyosha, the Unknown Soviet Soldier Memorial sits atop Bunarzhik, known as Liberators Hill and the second-highest hill in Plovdiv (at just 108 metres).
Go on the free walking tour of Plovdiv
Like the free walking tour of Sofia, the Plovdiv tour is definitely a must do for all visitors. I learned a lot about the history of this city which I never would have otherwise. It meets every day at 11am and lasts about 3 hours.
Where to eat in Plovdiv
Plovdiv has many fantastic restaurants serving delicious Bulgarian foods, burgers, pizza, and more. My favorite restaurant in the city was without a doubt Pavaj restaurant in Kapana. The Shopska salad and the veal cheeks were to die for! Other great restaurants I tried are the following:
- Aylyakria Restaurant
- Sofra Turkish Restaurant
- Хранителен Комплекс Център Витекс-90 ЕООД – Local grilled food
- Rahat Tepe: Must Visit for the amazing views of the city and great grilled ribs
Where to drink in Plovdiv
There are no shortage of places to have a good drink in Plovdiv. Bulgarians love to drink and have a good party so you’re in the right place. For the best bars, you will go to Kapana as there is literally a bar every few meters.
For the best cocktails, go to Anyway Social Bar or The Barber & Cat (only open on weekends). Across the street from Anyway Social Bar is the Cat and Mouse Beer Bar as well as Friends Cafe.
Day 8: Day trip to Buzludzha Monument
Bulgarians will probably be dismayed to hear that the Buzluzdha communist monument is perhaps the coolest thing I saw during my visit. Located at Buzludzha peak in the Balkan mountains, this Soviet era monument looks more like a spaceship or UFO than it does an Earthly structure.
It’s also located in the middle of absolutely nowhere and the nearest towns look more like medieval villages compared to this futuristic building.
What is the Buzludzha monument?
I first saw pictures of the Buzludzha building on my Instagram feed years ago. I thought it was fake at first but after research, found that it very much existed in the countryside of Bulgaria near to the town of Stara Zagora.
The Buzludzha monument was a Soviet monument constructed in the early 1980s. It was built with the futuristic architecture of the time that exemplified all things Soviet. The interior space of the monument featured walls covered in richly detailed mosaics, which illustrated an allegorical history of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Notable scenes depicted space travel, warfare, and communist workers driving their pitchforks into a serpent symbolic of foreign capitalism.
The monument was used for the entire 1980s as a museum dedicated to Communism and an event center for high level gatherings. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the monument was abandoned almost overnight. The monument was shut from the public and has been in a state of deterioration ever since. Nevertheless, the facade is still well in place and this is easily the most amazing communist monument of all time.
Getting to Buzluzdha
From Plovdiv, it is about 2 hours by car to the Buzluzdha monument. It is located high up in the mountains and a 20 minute drive from the main road up windy mountain roads. There is no way to get here really by public transportation as again, it is located in the middle of nowhere.
However, you can arrange day trips to visit Buzluzdha from Plovdiv but these aren’t as popular as I thought.
Can you go inside Buzludzha?
The pictures of the inside of Buzluzdha are just as impressive as the outside. Filled with beautiful and decaying mosaics from Soviet times, the inside looks like a fantasy movie. It reminded me of the decrepit structures I saw at Chernobyl.
Sadly, as of 2019, it is impossible to enter the Buzluzdha building. It has been completely sealed off and there are no ways to enter unless you have a jetpack or really sophisticated climbing equipment.
Sad I know. You will just have to settle for (amazing) photos from the outside of the building!
Day 9-12: Black Sea
If you have more than one week for travel through Bulgaria, the next logical step is to head to the coastal towns of the Black Sea!
Bulgaria’s Black Sea towns are beautiful and a great getaway in the summer for the locals. However, let’s be clear that the black sea is not the Mediterranean. It’s not as beautiful and the water is nowhere near as clear as the waters on the Greek islands. If you want the best beaches, drive west to the Ionian islands of Greece.
However, as you’re already in Bulgaria, it only makes sense to keep going and see what else the country has to offer!
Varna is Bulgaria’s main Black Sea seaside resort and port city. I prefer Varna over Burgas as well. Varna’s conventional sights include Varna Cathedral, the ruins of the Roman city of Odessus and the Sea Garden, a park that stretches along the coast. The Sea Garden is also where you can find the Pantheon of the Fallen in the Fight Against Fascism, an impressive monument close to a statue of Yuri Gagarin in the Alley of Cosmonauts. A little further from the town centre is the Park-Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship, another must-see for monument-seekers. Varna is a popular holiday spot and although the city has a wide fine sand beach, we’ve never spent much time on it.
Varna has a few museums but our favourite is the Retro Museum a real blast from Bulgaria’s socialist past. There are all sorts of memorabilia on display including a collection of over fifty cars from the era including Trabant, Moskvich and Volga models. The museum is at the Grand Mall of Varna which is close to the main bus station – it’s a good place to visit if you have time to kill before your bus.
Explore the Black Sea Coast
If you want a smaller, more sleepy seaside town, then head to lovely Sozopol. This town boasts a couple of fine sand beaches, beautiful cobbled streets, and a laid-back atmosphere.
If you want some more western amenities, a party scene, or a high-end beach resort, the head to Sunny Beach or Nessebar which are significantly more touristy and developed than Sozopol.
Bulgaria Itinerary Day By Day
Here is a breakdown of my itinerary on a day by day basis. I’ve created a few examples depending on how much time you have so hopefully this will help you plan your trip to Bulgaria!
One week in Bulgaria
Day 1: Land in Sofia, Sofia for the day
Day 2: Full day Sofia
Day 3: Day trip to Rila Monastery
Day 4: Sofia to Plovdiv
Day 5: Plovdiv Full day
Day 6: Plovdiv Full day
Day 7: Back to Sofia to fly home
Ten days in Bulgaria
Day 1: Land in Sofia, Sofia for the day
Day 2: Full day Sofia
Day 3: Day trip to Rila Monastery
Day 4: Sofia to Plovdiv
Day 5: Plovdiv Full day
Day 6: Plovdiv Full day
Day 7: Plovdiv to Varna
Day 8: Black Sea
Day 9: Black Sea
Day 10: Back to Sofia for a flight out
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