How Zicasso Works
- Describe your dream trip.
- We match you with up to 3 top travel specialists.
- Book the vacation of a lifetime.
An exotic land framed by mountains and water, Bulgaria is one of Europe’s backwaters. Nature reigns and tradition has been brought forward into the 21st century. Relax on golden beaches, hike or ski untamed landscapes, and connect a network of local villages. Throw in ancient history and vibrant cities, and you have a small country perfect for exploration. Just bring a sense of adventure and prepare yourself to be surprised.
Hillside in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
Bulgaria is no longer the off the beaten track gem it once was, but it is still a jewel for everyone who takes the time to explore. Sublime art hides in gold-domed churches and medieval monasteries, while Orthodox churches showcase emotive scenes through biblical frescoes. Bears and wolves hide in the national parks, with rugged mountain peaks standing over ski slopes and hiking trails. Vast Roman remains are now tucked amid bustling cities, with evidence of Ottoman and Neolithic histories dotting the countryside.
The surprise comes in historic towns and experiential villages, where it is easy to immerse yourself in the traditions of a bygone era. Get into the mountains, and there are not many other people around, with mountain huts allowing multi-day hiking adventures. The language barrier makes encounters fun, as does the determination of people wanting to help you. You may also be shocked by the quality of the Black Sea beaches; calm waves lap against golden sands and parts of the undeveloped coastline.
Traditional architecture in Veliko.
Rewind two decades and Bulgaria was a real European backwater, with hardly any tourism. The transformation has been remarkable, particularly the tourist infrastructure and development of coastal and mountain resorts. Foreign visitor numbers are increasing exponentially each year, yet the off the beaten path feeling remains, especially when you travel away from the coast. The infrastructure aids the adventure as well, with four international airports and options for overland journeys into Bulgaria’s neighbors, either north to Romania or south towards Istanbul or even Greece.
Two weeks can feel like a month, as Bulgaria is surprisingly compact. It is a destination where you can ski and sunbathe on the same day. One week is excellent for getting to know the country, mixing its historic towns, vibrant cities, mountain and village landscape, perhaps even with a spell on the sand. Special interest vacations can also pack a lot into a week, such as hiking or old religious art. Stay for longer and there are many more places to go, or you travel into a neighboring country. It is quite remarkable how distinct Bulgaria is from the countries it borders.
Wherever you travel, you will remember an exotic and rugged enchanting land, where the locals make the experience, and the landscapes come from another world. You never forget Bulgaria, and it always confounds preconceptions. Even after admiring the photos it is impossible to prepare yourself for the surprise. Welcome to one of Europe’s netherworld corners, a country that may be small on a map but packs a big punch when it comes to experiential highlights.
Plovdiv and Northern Thrace (Southern Bulgaria)
Street in old city Plovdiv.
Revitalized mansions and faded grandeur mark the heart of Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city. The cobbled streets twist in a maze that is confusing yet charming to follow, forming a pedestrianized area believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe. Stories whisper from the walls and history emanates from everywhere you turn, making Plovdiv a highlight of Eastern Europe. It is suggested to stay more than one day to make sense of 6,000 years of stone and secrets.
A Roman theater is surrounded with traditional merchants, leading onto a cobblestone web and the wooden church spire of St. Marina. Keep walking, and you find an Ottoman mosque, before a stone gateway that leads to a subterranean world. The wonderful mix of architecture has been revitalized recently and the old quarter is packed with small cafes and restaurants, some offering live music during summer evenings. Plovdiv is also where you jump off into Northern Thrace, the southern part of Bulgaria that used to be known as European Turkey.
The landscape here is blanketed in mountains and forest, with villages and towns mostly along the Roman road to Constantinople (now Istanbul). Bansko has transitioned from quaint medieval leftover to bustling winter ski resort and a place to go hiking. Bachkovo Monastery is a celebration of color, a stopping point when leaving Plovdiv to travel elsewhere. Further towards the Greek border, you find Asen’s Fortress, along with smaller ski resorts in the Rhodope Mountains. Elsewhere there is the Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak, a World Heritage Site and the ultimate ode to the Thracians.
Central Northern Bulgaria
Veliko Tarnovo church at sunrise in Central Northern Bulgaria.
The confusing name of Central Northern Bulgaria is indicative of the region’s history. Geographically it is the northern part of the country. Traditionally it has been the heart of Bulgarian culture and identity, most evocatively discovered with a stay in Veliko Tarnovo. Behind this city’s fortified walls, along the cobbled lanes, you find the recently restored Tsarevets Fortress, citadel at the center of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Splendor clings to all the walls here and while the lanes are a little ramshackle, the passionate people make up for anything that is rough around the edges.
Head into the Central Mountains (Sredna Gora), and there is evidence that Bulgarians have been here since the fifth century. Koprivshtitsa is a pretty town at first glance and is where the 19th-century rebellion formed, making it another destination for living out passionate local history. Most places you go in this region hark back to those glory years from the late 19th century, with stately architecture filling towns like Rousse and Lovech. Also on the visitor trail is the Thracian tomb of Sveshtari and the village of Arbanassi, a treasure trove of historical churches.
Nature also rules here, the region mostly high in the mountains, with ancient beech forests splattered across foothills. The journey can be slow, but it is always beautiful, especially with so many proud Bulgarians to meet along the way. If you have time, you can fully piece together the country’s story. Veliko Turnovo was capital of the Bulgarian kingdom from the 12th to 14th centuries. Veliki Preslav is home to the remains of the 10th-century capital, before Veliko Tarnovo, which is always worth a night especially if you are on route to Romania.
Black Sea Coast
Nesesbar Church of Christ Pantokrator located the Black Sea Coast.
Resort towns have slowly evolved along Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast over the last five decades, first catering for Communist party officials and now getting popular with a British crowd. The success of tourism has meant everything has been scaled in recent years and it has never been hard to attract visitors from Northern Europe, not with such consistent sunshine and soft golden sand. The new resort towns are not especially pleasing, too package orientated for the inimitability that Bulgaria could offer.
Sozopol and Nesebar are the sublime exceptions, ancient towns of crumbling stone and very traditional houses, the latter a World Heritage Site. They get crowded in July and August but are delightful throughout the rest of the year, especially when you stay the night rather than visit on a coast tour from a resort town. The main highlights on the coast are the undeveloped spots, especially those that are yet to be backdropped by hotels. Small beaches and coves are dotted all along the water, with Burgas and Varna staging points for a coastal adventure.
Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral located in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Images of Sofia always contributed to putting visitors off Bulgaria. Large gray suburbs are hardly tempting, nor the lack of elegant architecture synonymous with other European capitals. The city has ben revitalized over the last two decades and there is great energy to the streets, an atmospheric buzz found at pavement cafes and public parks, particularly the area around pedestrianized Bulevard Vitosha. All this makes an excellent introduction to Bulgarian style and culture, one to take with you when traveling elsewhere in the country.
Remnants to the city’s history are centrally located and easy to get around; a selection of Roman ruins the earliest evidence of past zenith. Extravagant and enormous, St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is the icon that you cannot miss; the golden domes provide a compass point and the interior is quite magical. From the 14th century comes Boyana Church, a World Heritage Site filled with ornamental murals. Hagia Sophia Church narrates one millennia of Bulgarian history while a few serene mosques are leftover from five centuries of Turkish occupation.
Peek inside the Amphitheater of Serdica, soak your legs in the waters of Sofia Public Mineral Baths, and then spend your evenings on a cafe terrace. Many visitors use Sofia as a base for a day trip to the Rila Mountains in the northwestern Bulgaria, where the World Heritage Rila Monastery is the country’s most iconic site. Sofia is where the country’s main international airport is located so it is rare to not have at least one night here.
Hiking in Southern Bulgaria
Hiking at Stara Planina Mountain in Tsveta Nesheva Central Balkan National Park.
Rolling landscapes mountains and neolithic caves, crossed by Roman roads and goat-herders. This is Southern Bulgaria and the Rodopi Mountains, where walking paths connect quiet villages and the setting makes for an off the beaten path hiking adventure. This is a soft adventure, with easy walking and immersion in local culture, along with all manner of standout sights including Yagodina Cave, Trigrad Gorge, and Gela village. When following the ridgeline you can mix hiking with transfers to other destinations in Bulgaria’s south.
The gold dome of Rila Monastery is pictured above.
It is impossible not to be impressed when standing beneath the gold domes of Aleksander Nevski Church or joining the pilgrims at Rila Monastery. Sofia’s Boyana Church is another landmark that quickly takes the breath away. But the religious art is not confined to famous sights. Orthodox churches fill the land, and there is so much to admire even in the simplest wooden offering. Frescos and murals are part of every day here, emotive biblical scenes illuminated by soft burning candles.
Rila Mountains and Monastery
The golden entrance of Rila Monastery is a beautiful site.
Bulgaria’s most celebrated sight is worth the trip from Sofia. It resembles a fortress from a distance, mighty walls the compass point as you wind into the Rila Mountains. The interior mixes wood with stone, with peculiar check patterns that fail to suggest what is coming next: the ornamental frescoes and carvings that fill the interior, many of them embellished by gold leaf. This hypnotic place highlights the experiential in Bulgaria. With a private tour, it is good to go at an unusual time, either earlier or later than the Sofia group tours.
Immerse yourself in Bulgarian culture by visiting the small villages in Bulgaria.
Every journey through Bulgaria can be a highlight. While highways connect the major cities, you mostly travel through rural mountainous areas, passing through villages that delight in their tradition. Organic food spills from local street stalls, goats cheese just one of the delicacies. Wooden buildings hark back to times of 19th-century glory, especially in Central Northern Bulgaria. The locals wave and say hello, making themselves understood despite the verbal language barrier. With private tours, you sometimes spend more time in the villages than you do at the sights, serendipity playing its role in the experience.
Sunset at Varna beach lighthouse.
Temperatures change drastically in Bulgaria, hot, dry summers replaced by bitterly cold winters. The mercury peaks in July and August, just as the Black Sea coast resorts get a little swamped with the European school vacation crowd. It swelters in the cities as well as on the beaches at this time of year, with a warm atmosphere added to 19th-century squares and cafe terraces.
The temperature is more benign either side of these months, plus the lack of other visitors makes travel more relaxing. You still get the outdoor cafe culture and all the charms of the small towns, just less of the crowds. The sunshine is renowned in Bulgaria, so from May to September, you can almost guarantee good weather, the exception being when you travel high into the mountains.
Winter ski season runs from late December until the first week of May, although it is only Bansko that stays open for the full duration. February and March are excellent on the slopes. Like the rest of Eastern Europe, spring bring a flurry of color and an optimistic attitude, while fall can be wet yet beautiful as forests shed their leaves.
A seaside resort located in Sozopol, Bulgaria.
Tourism has grown with the improvements to tourist infrastructure, most notably the extended choice of where to stay. Modern luxury hotels can be found across the country now, Sofia and Plovdiv offering a number of iconic options. Most accommodations have spas, something that is common in this country of natural hot springs. The cities have the international hotel chains, although the business districts are not necessary where you like to stay for a tourist visit.
Travel all over the country, and there are many boutique hotels. Revitalized mansions in old quarters, like 19th-century buildings that have received a facelift and been converted to four-star properties in pedestrianized areas. In smaller villages, the hotels may be constructed from wood, spacious and charming just without the contemporary features. Like the ornamental churches, you will find boutique guesthouses to have somewhat grand details, which add to the atmosphere. On mountain hikes, you are likely to stay in wooden huts, comfortable accommodation after a day on the trail.
Bulgaria is a member of the Schengen Area.
Bulgaria is a member of the European Union and is a part of the Schengen Area. U.S. and Canadian citizens do not need a visa for a stay of up to 90 days. For other nationalities, the requirements are consistent with all other Schengen countries.
The country continues to use the Bulgarian lev as currency. This is pegged to the euro, and the country is currently in a drawn-out process towards fully adopting the euro. Many tourist establishments now advertise their prices in euros, and most accept euros in payment, although some merely convert the price back to lev and make 2.5% in doing so.
Currency exchange offices are on the way out as ATMs become widespread across the country, the vast majority of them accepting Visa and MasterCard. This is usually the safest way to travel as it avoids bringing large quantities of cash. As you would expect in Europe, card payments can be made in hotels and most stores, although you need local currency when traveling to the villages.
Although crime is rare in Bulgaria, be aware of pickpockets in large cities like Sofia.
Bulgaria is a safe country to visit where violent crime is extremely rare. Visitors are unlikely to run into difficulties, although there has been an increase in pickpockets as tourism has grown. That is mostly confined to large cities like Sofia and Plovdiv and often takes place in the evenings. All visitors should practice standard awareness. However, these precautions are the same as required in most of Europe’s popular tourist cities, like Paris or Barcelona.
Medical facilities are generally have excellent standards, and the country has become a hotspot for medical tourism, offering complicated treatments for very good prices. If you are in need of medical services, the facilities are good. Always carry a copy of your health and travel insurance policy as this ensures there are no unnecessary delays. Having a guide is also helpful for translation purposes, especially in more rural areas.
Mineral springs and natural spas are another selling point for medical tourism. Therapeutic waters can be found all across the country, and you will learn that Sofia was built upon seven natural springs. While you probably do not need these waters to heal any ailments, they do give Bulgaria a healthy feel. Taking a morning or afternoon in the spa always helps keep you energized for all the culture and history.
Debates continue about whether the tap water is safe to drink. It tastes good and does not give the locals a problem, or most seasoned travelers. However, bottled water is the safest option. Your guides can advise as the situation is localized, with some places in the mountains having tap water that is contaminated by animal feces before trickling into the system.
A traditional Bulgarian folk dance is pictured above.
There is a lovely paradox to traveling in Bulgaria. The people will go out of their way to help you and show you around. The language is more of a verbal barrier than most places in Europe. Hand gestures are the way to go, and it is always worth attempting to follow Cyrillic to help decipher restaurant menus. Many Eastern European nations are home to gregarious people, and Bulgaria pretty much tops the scale. You may be able to speak with older villagers in Russian, and the younger generation has picked up English, particularly in the cities.
The passion to tell a story is part of the Bulgarian psyche and helps to breed excellent guides. Rather than a drab narration of facts, attractions are enhanced by renditions of heroic tales and past glories, especially when you are in the cradle of the Bulgarian nation; historical towns like Veliko Tarnovo are where you get wonderfully ramshackle tales of identity and culture.
The Bulgarians are passionate and you will incur their wrath if committing any cultural faux pax. Most important consideration to remember is to dress modestly when visiting any religious site. Shoulders and knees should be covered, and women should carry a headscarf that can be worn when they enter churches and monasteries. At its heart the culture is conservative, stemming from the Orthodox Church. Be aware of this and it is very unlikely you will upset any of the locals.
Sunrise in Bolata Bay, Bulgaria.
Passion and pride emanate from Bulgaria, something that drifts down to local guides and local tour operators. Zicasso celebrates these excellent local providers by putting you in touch with them. Tour operators will handcraft an itinerary to your preferences, with a few pleasant surprises and suggestions thrown in. It means Bulgaria will come alive, in the hands of the experts.