Bulgaria is one of the oldest states in Europe, but that doesn’t mean that it is popular amongst travelers. Instead, this petite nation is Europe’s most underrated destination.
While most travelers look to the north to visit Romania or the south to visit Greece or Turkey, few people know that Bulgaria has plenty to offer on its platter.
добре дошли – Welcome to Bulgaria
A storied history ties some of the most powerful ancient civilizations together. Fortresses, ruins, caves, and tombs can all be explored in Bulgaria, which are highlights from the past days when Thracians, Romans, Persians, Ottomans, Celts and Macedonians all tried to claim the land.
While the Bulgarian Empire grew, they ultimately fell under Ottoman Rule before returning to independence. The unique blend of ancient civilizations has made Bulgaria one of the most culturally diverse countries in Europe and a place where history comes alive.
Blended with the country’s history is the diverse landscape. Bulgaria is most famous for its coast, which meets the Black Sea, but the interior parts of the country are home to gentle mountains, raging rivers, and endless forests. In the summertime, the slopes are popular amongst hikers and bikers. Yet, winter brings a different set of adventures and the snow packed hills become a playground for skiers and snowboarders.
Far from the coast and nestled in the mountains is Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital city. A mix of the past and present give life to Sofia’s streets where visitors can explore iconic onion domes, mosques, and monuments. Roman ruins were found within the city limits, which are estimated to be 2,000 years old.
Yet, even with all the historical gems, Sofia is a modern mini metropolis. New age galleries, clubs, and restaurants fill the streets. Just outside the city limits is Mount Vitosha, which is a hotspot for hikers and skiers.
- Culture and Language
- Visa Requirements
- Spending Budget
- How to Get Around
- Top Cities to Visit
- Points of Interest
Culture and Language
With evidence of hominids living in the area 1.4 million years ago, Bulgaria has a long history. Details of the past are blurry, but the country’s recorded history began with an early civilization in 5000 BC. The Thracians appeared in the books by 3000 BC and lasted until about 46 BC, which is when they were conquered by the Roman Empire.
In the second half of the 7th century, Bulgaria made a peace treaty with Byzantine, which allowed the nation to prosper and begin establishing the First Bulgarian Empire. By the 11th century, Byzantine returned to attack Bulgaria with the help of the Rus’ people. The Byzantine Empire ruled until 1185, when an uprising by two brothers in Bulgaria led to the formation of the Second Bulgarian Empire.
In 1396, Bulgaria fell to the Ottoman Empire who ruled for 500 years. Eventually, by the 1700s, the Ottoman Empire had fallen, and this led to the liberation of Bulgaria and the development of the Third Bulgarian State. The 20th century in Bulgaria was rough and the country faced not only the Balkan Wars, but also the two World Wars. The economy was hanging on by a thread and it was only weakened by Stalin who had become close friends with Bulgaria’s Communist leader.
While Communism was left in the past, Bulgaria still struggles to develop as a country. Bulgaria has since struggled to cut ties with its Communist past and fully embrace the West. Corruption is present throughout the country, which led to widespread protests in the summer of 2020. Yet, Bulgarians remain proud of their history and heritage.
Despite numerous empires and countries controlling Bulgaria, the people have remained positive. While reserved, Bulgarian people are naturally curious about visitors and most will welcome you with open arms. Travelers who get to know the locals often comment on their wit and humor.
The Bulgarian culture is quite traditional with a patriarchal and religious society. Men and women are separated by old-fashioned ideologies including the idea that the women stay at home. Christianity is the dominant religion in Bulgaria with many of the Orthodox churches displaying the famous onion domes.
Language is another part of culture and in Bulgaria, the local language dates back to the 9th century. Bulgarian is a South Slavic language, which have developed in three phases; Old, Middle, and Modern Bulgarian. Almost 85% of the country speaks Bulgarian with the rest of the country speaking either Turkish or Romani.
English is spoken within the country, but it is not yet widespread. Travelers will most likely encounter English speakers in tourist areas or Sofia, the capital city. It is estimated that 25% of Bulgaria can speak English. In tourist areas, English can come in handy to communicate with the locals, but out in the rural areas, you shouldn’t expect to hear much of the English language.
While many tourists may be familiar with Europe’s Schengen Visa, Bulgaria is not a part of this agreement. Instead, US tourists must meet the entry requirements outlined by the Bulgarian government to visit the country.
US citizens who have a regular passport can enter Bulgaria and stay for up to 90 days (within a six-month period) without a visa. If you are a US citizen traveling on a diplomatic or official passport, you will need to apply for a visa prior to your arrival in Bulgaria.
All US citizens will need to present a valid US passport for entry into Bulgaria. The Bulgarian government requires that your passport be valid for three months beyond your intended date of departure from the country. You will need one blank page for your exit and entry stamps.
In addition to passports, Bulgaria requires that all travelers have proof of and maintain medical insurance during their stay in Bulgaria. You may be asked to provide proof of your medical insurance upon entry into Bulgaria.
While insurance is vital, there are no vaccination requirements to enter Bulgaria. Travelers who are going to or leaving Bulgaria must declare any currency over €10,000 Euros or the US dollar equivalent.
In Bulgaria, the smaller tourist crowds make the country more affordable. Most European destinations are very expensive to visit, but an exception to that list is Bulgaria. Travelers with budgets of all sizes can afford a trip to Bulgaria to enjoy the country’s untouched beauty.
For a detailed glimpse at what a trip to Bulgaria might cost, travelers can make a spending budget outline to cover the cost of their basic needs. A spending budget will include the price of your flight, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation. These are the most important categories that you will spend money on in Bulgaria, so it is good to be prepared and know how much things cost.
For the vast majority of travelers, the most expensive part of their trip to Bulgaria will be the cost of their flight. The average price for a ticket is $980 US dollars. However, a good deal would lower the price to about $400 or $500 US dollars. The price of airline tickets will also fluctuate throughout the year with the most expensive months to visit being April and May. December and January also see a spike in prices because of the winter holidays.
After you have made a reservation with an airline, it is important to start looking at booking your accommodation. During the peak tourist season, hostels and hotels will quickly fill up, which makes online reservations a great way to secure your accommodation and set a good price.
Backpackers will find that the most affordable accommodation options in Bulgaria are dorm rooms in hostels. In rural areas, hostels will likely charge $10 US dollars per night. In larger cities, hostels may charge up to $15 US dollars per night. For more privacy, guest houses are another affordable option that travelers can use when visiting the country. Most guest houses will charge $15-$30 US dollars per night.
For travelers with a bigger budget, mid-range hotels are widely available throughout the country and they aren’t too expensive. For travelers who are in pairs or a couple, splitting the cost of a mid-range hotel is similar in price to that of a hostel dorm room. Most hotels will charge $36-$50 US dollars per night.
Luxury accommodation in Bulgaria will be significantly more expensive but come with all the amenities you need to feel comfortable. Top-end hotels will normally charge $90-$180 US dollars per night. However, in big cities like Sofia, the rates could rise up to $220 US dollars per night.
With your accommodation booked, the next parts of your budget will be spent while you are in Bulgaria. Most hotels do not provide any meals, but some may include a light breakfast. For most travelers, the cost of food is important to consider ensuring that they have enough cash to eat out when they’re in Bulgaria.
You may be unfamiliar with Bulgarian cuisine, but most people will love its ingredients. Dairy and freshly grown vegetables are staple parts of the local diet and they are topped off with meat and seafood. Along the coast, fish is a popular ingredient but, in the mountains, veal and lamb are the most chosen ingredients.
For a boost of fresh flavor, shopska salad is a popular choice amongst locals. The salad consists of diced cucumber, tomato, peppers and onions, before being topped off with cheese. Another dish that features cucumbers and one that is more reminiscent of Greek flavors is tarator soup, which is made with fresh yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, and topped with olive oil. Tripe is soup is also popular and in Bulgaria it is called shkembe chorba.
For a classic meal, you should try kebapche, which is like a meatball dish with fries and salad. One of the heaviest dishes but one that is delicious is called madrajisko. Madrajisko combines eggs and cheese, which is baked in a clay pot. Onions and peppers are thrown into the mix to add flavor and a little mild spice.
Sweeter dishes include palacinka, which is Bulgaria’s take on pancakes. Thinner than American pancakes, palacinka is similar to an extra-large crepe. The pancakes can be filled with sweet or savory ingredients to change up the flavor. Made of phyllo dough, bansita is a pastry that is often eaten for breakfast or dessert. Finally, a staple dish throughout Southeast Europe, including Bulgaria, is baklava. The sticky honey and layers of fine pastry make baklava it the perfect dessert or snack.
The good news is that travelers don’t have to break the bank to dine out in Bulgaria. Food is very affordable and even the most expensive restaurants charge less than $40 US dollars for a meal. However, more affordable prices can be found at local restaurants outside of the touristy areas. In these places, you can find a meal for about $12-$18 US dollars. Cafeterias as the most affordable dining option and meals will cost $3-$6 US dollars.
Alcohol is not included in the price of meals, but it can be purchased inexpensively. Most drinks, like beer, will cost less than $2 US dollars. However, glasses of wine and cocktails may cost $3 US dollars. If you are drinking in a group, bottles of wine will normally cost less than $5 US dollars.
Whether you’re looking to stay on a tight budget or have some wiggle room, Bulgaria is friendly towards a whole range of budgets. Backpackers can survive by spending $40-$60 US dollars per day of their trip, while most travelers will spend about $90 US dollars per day. Luxury vacations in Bulgaria will be more expensive and you should be prepared to spend $300 US dollars or more per day for a high-class trip.
How to Get Around
When it comes to getting around Bulgaria, it isn’t exactly planes, trains, and automobiles. Domestic flights in Bulgaria aren’t the best option because Bulgaria Air only services flights between Sofia, Varna, and Burgas. However, trains and automobiles are a good way to get around the country. Buses are the cheapest option and on the Black Sea, you can even take a boat or ferry.
Car rentals are the most popular way to get around Bulgaria because they provide you with a convenient and safe way to travel. Driving yourself is also the best option if you are going to remote areas of the country. Most rental agencies will charge about $20 US dollars per day for a rental in Bulgaria. Travelers should be able to drive with the driver’s license issued by their home country, but you should check with rental agencies to ask whether they require an International Driver’s License instead.
Trains and Buses
Trains and buses are the next most popular way to travel for people who don’t want to drive themselves. Both tend to have moment where reliability is questionable, but overall, you will get to where you need to go. However, trains and buses are the slowest way to travel around Bulgaria. Most train and bus rides will cost less than $30 US dollars.
On the Black Sea, you may want to see more of the area or hop to a new port. Ferries can take you to the best spots along the coast for an affordable price. Long distance rides will cost about $17 US dollars, while shorter rides will cost about $7 US dollars.
Top Cities to Visit
While much of Bulgaria is remote or rural, there are still dozens of cities and villages for travelers to explore. From the mountains to the coast, here are Bulgaria’s top cities to visit.
Even though Sofia is the country’s capital, it is not the most popular place to visit. The far western location of the city makes it hard for some people to visit and unattractive to others who want to stick to the coastal areas. However, Sofia shouldn’t be skipped entirely. As a modern metropolis, Sofia is the place to go to explore Bulgaria’s newest restaurants and clubs.
Plovdiv is one of Europe’s oldest cities, which is steeped in Roman history. An Old Town has become the highlight, but nearby Roman ruins have become popular for the outdoor theater. A quaint town also awaits guests in Plovdiv, which has made it a hotspot for tourists to settle into and explore the local culture. As the number one place to visit in Bulgaria, Plovdiv is more popular than Sofia.
Home to the Tsarevets Fortress, Veliko Tarnovo is the second most visited area in Bulgaria. The small city was once the capital of Bulgaria during the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. Quiet lanes and stone cottages give Veliko Tarnovo a unique character. For those that climb up to the fortress, you’ll be rewarded with views of the city and Yantra River.
Varna is the biggest beach resort area in Bulgaria and a hit with the tourists. A National History Museum and Archeological Museum give visitors insights into the area’s history, including the discovery of the world’s oldest gold treasure. But not everything is ancient in Varna and tourists can party the night away in the city’s busy bars and nightclubs.
Much quieter than Varna, Sozopol is another beachside resort in Bulgaria, which is well-known for its stunning Old Town. Modernity has yet to reach Sozopol, which makes it a historical town with its own unique charm. With plenty of beaches and bars, you can sit back and relax as you sip your drink or dazzle your taste buds with a good meal.
Bansko and Pamporovo
With the longest ski run in Bulgaria, Bansko is the most popular town for skiers and snowboarders in the winter months. The Old Town is the perfect place to stay and relax after you’ve spent a long day on the slopes.
For families, Pamporovo is the best ski resort to visit because it features smaller hills that are suited to children. With plenty of snowfall, Pamporovo is open well into the summer months, which gives young learners the best chance to hone their skills on the mountain.
Points of Interest
As if there weren’t enough to explore in the cities, Bulgaria is also filled to the brim with hotspots that have become points of interest for tourists. With natural and manmade wonders, here are the top points of interest in Bulgaria.
Built in the 10th century, the Rila Monastery is a working monastery that is inhabited by about 60 monks. The complex is surrounded by the Rila Mountains, which only adds to the peace and tranquility of the monastery’s character. Visitors can also enjoy catching a glimpse of rare religious paintings, artifacts and carvings, which have been created throughout the years.
Pirin National Park
Threatened by overdevelopment for ski areas, Pirin National Park is the most stunning conservation area in all of Bulgaria. The park has been named as a national treasure because of its towering peaks and glacial lakes. Visitors can say in the park in traditional huts or camp under the stars. Bears and boars call the area home, so visitors do need to be cautious of their surroundings.
A remnant of the country’s soviet past, the Buzludzha Monument is an intimidating structure that has been left abandoned in the mountains. The large dome ceiling is beginning to deteriorate, and the walls have been covered in graffiti, but the sheer size of the structure makes it worth the visit, if you are in the area. Visitors who climb up the steps of the monument will also be rewarded with an excellent view of the mountains and valleys below.
Cascading over limestone rocks, Krushuna Waterfalls is one of Bulgaria’s hidden beauties. The waterfalls are over 60 feet tall and sourced from a hidden cave. Visitors can climb up the rock formations to view the cave and drink from the spring. At the base of the waterfalls, there are gentle pools of water, which are safe for swimming.
Get Out and Go
Ancient and stoic, Bulgaria is the Balkans best guarded secret treasure. The close proximity to Greece, Turkey and Romania means that most tourist choose to skip this little country. Yet, Bulgaria is rich in culture and drop dead gorgeous in appearance, which makes it a destination that you don’t want to miss. Whether you’ve come to explore this little slice of heaven or take a deep dive into the area’s history, Bulgaria doesn’t disappoint.