We accidentally happened upon Bulgaria whilst staying in Romania & were so surprised by how much it had to offer that we stayed an extra few weeks!
For the most part, Bulgaria is a big and flat country with a huge amount of arable farm land. It’s capital city is Sofia, located to the country’s west. The mountain ranges which separate it from Greece and Macedonia sit to the south of the country whilst its infamous Black Sea beaches are on the east.
Bulgaria is another country with a turbulent history of invasion and communism and didn’t declare independence from the Soviet Union until the 1990’s. The country was once hugely politically unstable and suffered a damaging ‘brain drain’ which devoid Bulgaria of its educated.
Bulgaria remains on the whole a poor country due to political corruption although this is virtually non existent today, the legacy lives on. Rural poverty, derelict country houses and vacant land is evident whilst the cities flourish from new money. Interestingly though, The Republic of Bulgaria declares itself a secular state but designates Orthodoxy as its “traditional” religion.
The people are kind and friendly but don’t necessarily expect a smile, especially from the older generations. You will certainly have to work for that smile!
Top Ten Cities in Bulgaria
- Sofia – 1.24m
- Plovdiv -338,000
- Varna -334,000
- Burgas -200,000
- Ruse -149,000
- Stara Zagora -138,000
- Pleven – 106,000
- Sliven – 91,000
- Dobrich – 91,000
- Shumen -80,000
What to Know about Bulgaria
The official language of Bulgaria is Bulgarian, a Slavic language, and it’s spoken by approximately eight million people.
The written language is The Cyrillic Script and we found it a challenge to understand! In fact, we understood just a few characters after we visited.
- Bulgaria’s currency is the LEV and it is as stable as any other European currency.
- ATM’s can be found in cities and larger towns and every shop, supermarket and restaurant we visited accepted payment by bank card.
- Europe has open borders but if you’re driving into the country you will be required to stop and show your passport.
- Citizens of the following countries can visit Bulgaria for up to 90 days within each six-month period without a visa: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Malta, Malaysia, Mexico, Monaco, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Romania, San Marino, SAR – China (Hong Kong, Macao), Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, USA, Uruguay, the Vatican, Venezuela.
- Citizens of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia can enter Bulgaria without a visa for a maximum of 30 days in any six-month period.
- All other nationalities require a visa for any visit to Bulgaria.
- Apply for a visa directly with The Republic of Bulgaria Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
- A bed in a hostel costs around 15 LEV per night whereas private rooms in hostels might cost 50 LEV per night. Free WiFi is usually included in hostel stays and some include breakfast.
- Guesthouse rooms usually cost 40 LEV.
- Airbnb (get $25 off your booking) is available in certain locations with prices generally between 20-60 LEV per night.
- Booking.com offers a comprehensive list of hotels, hostels, guest rooms and private villas/houses. Hotels vary from 70 LEV up to 400 LEV per night depending on which type of hotel and how many rooms you have. Most hotels have interconnecting rooms or apartment style rooms.
- Bulgarian food is relatively cheap. A basic restaurant meal will cost about 8 LEV.
- Plant based food restaurants are not easy to find outside the main cities but there was always something on the menus to eat. We found that we could order nearly all of the side dishes and turn them into sharing plates.
- If you plan on buying and cooking your own food, fresh produce is frequently sold by farmers on the side of roads as well in town markets. It’s quite often organic. In the summer there are HUGE watermelons for sale as well as tons of tomatoes and onions.
- Supermarkets can be found in all large towns and cities and we found that Lidls offered the best quality fresh food as well as a range of plant-based packaged food. Expect to pay about 150 LEV for a family week shop.
- We hired a car through Sixt in Romania which cost about £200 a week. Let’s talk about Bulgaria’s roads! Some roads are in a fantastic condition; newly and evenly surfaced whereas some have pot holes every few metres and some roads are nothing more than dirt tracks. The speed limit varies significantly and reflects the quality of the road. It can take a while to drive around.
- Bulgarian trains have a reputation for being incredibly slow, albeit very cheap. Sofia to Burgas only costs 15 LEV but the ride can be 7-11 hours long.
- The bus network is comprehensive and often serves small rural towns. Local bus rides cost a few LEV and Sofia to Varna costs around 35 LEV.
- You can purchase tickets for the metro in Sofia at each entrance. Tickets range from 1.60 LEV for a single journey to 12 LEV for ten journeys. A month’s card will cost 42 LEV. See prices and routes here.
- Melnik and the Rozhen Monastery – This working monastery is the biggest in the Pirin Mountains in southwestern Bulgaria. It is one of the few medieval (12th century) monasteries that remains well preserved. Its most significant building, the Nativity of the Virgin Church, contains stained-glass windows, 200-year-old murals, woodcarvings and iconostases. If you’re feeling fit, you can hike 7km up there from Melnik.
- Rila Monastery – Bulgaria’s largest and most important monastery was founded in the 10th century by Saint John of Rila and receives a million visitors per year. It is regarded as one of Bulgaria’s most important cultural, historical and architectural monuments.
Areas of natural beauty
- Rila mountains – The highest mountain ranges in Bulgaria are abundant with glacial lakes. The Seven Rila Lakes is one of the prettiest and also busiest hikes I have completed in eastern Europe. Also famous for its monastery.
- The Black Sea – This area is the heart of Bulgaria’s summer tourism and with 378 km of coastline, it isn’t hard to figure out why. White and golden sandy beaches occupy approximately 130 km of the 378 km long coast which has sadly become dominated by high rise hotels, private areas, deckchairs, bars and summer apartment blocks. There are just a handful of beach areas on the coastline that could be described as wild or natural.
- Balkan Mountains – Running from the border of Serbia right down to the Black Sea, this enormous mountain range, 560km to be precise, divides the country in half. Hiking the mountains is plentiful and you’ll discover areas such as The Valley of the Roses and its festival as well as old oak trees, waterfalls, caves with paintings and monasteries.
- Marvelous Bridges – Sort of comparable to open ended caves, these ‘bridges’ are a rock formation in the Rhodope Mountains in southern Bulgaria. At the foot of Persenk Peak, three marble arches sit with a river flowing through them. The larger of the vaults is passable but the other two are not. It is 15m wide and 96m long!
- The wonderful rocks – A short distance between Varna and Sunny Beach you’ll happen upon a set of strange peak rocks that have been blasted to allow a road through them. Created by limestone, water and wind, they’re fun to visit for 20 minutes if you’re in the area.
- Pobiti Rocks – Just north of Varna sits this strange desert with cylindrical shaped, hollow ‘stones’. Worth a visit but only if you’re in the area. Adults cost 3 LEV and children 2 LEV.
Places of Interest
- Sofia – A bustling and lively city with a newly developed restaurant scene. There are lots of museums, the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a puppet theatre, parks and gardens and not to mention shops.
- Plovdiv – Plovdiv dates to 4,000BC and over the centuries has been called Eumolpia, Trimontium and Paldin. Its most famous name was Philippopolis which literally translates into “City of Phillip”. Plovdiv has a vibrant city center in comparison to the old town. The city center still contains some historical sites and both areas are pedestrian-friendly, making it easy for visitors to take in the main sights on foot.
- Veliko Tarnovo – Located on a prime position on three hills this city is often referred to as the City of the Tsars due to its former main residence of nobility. Again divided into old and new, the old town is an example of medieval architecture containing ramshackled streets, a palace, a fortress and a cathedral.
- Balchik – straddles the Black Sea. The town sprawls scenically along hilly terraces descending from the Dobruja plateau and the Botanical Garden houses a palace. The botanical garden costs 10 LEV for adults, 2 LEV for children from 7-18 years old and children up to 7 years old are free.
- Kaliakra – Overlooking the Black Sea this long and narrow stretch of cliff is home to a medieval fortress. From its walls you can spot dolphins frolicking in the sea below and if you look up, you might spot some of the thousands of migratory birds that fly overhead.
- Borovets – The ski resort is at an altitude of 1350 m and has 58km of marked pistes. It’s one of Bulgaria’s biggest financial investments to bring in winter tourists.