Bulgaria was not on our bucket list, we hadn’t even considered a trip there, but we loved it so much we just had to go twice. When planning an extended stay in Europe, we had to find destinations where we wouldn’t be restricted by the 90 day stay for the Schengen countries. (Most of Western Europe, Poland and Czech Republic)
We discovered an underrated travel destination with great places to visit. Bulgaria is similar to what other parts of Eastern Europe were like 10 to 15 years ago before they were refurbished, when there were only a small number of tourists. If you’re looking for an authentic cultural experience that’s cheap and not over run with tourists, then you should visit Bulgaria. Its an emerging destination with Plovdiv being the first city in Bulgaria to become a European Capital of Culture next year.
We experienced a unique mix of culture, history, great food, boutique rooms and winter sports on a ten day trip to Bulgaria. We found the Bulgarian people were very friendly and hospitable.
This itinerary includes some of the best places in Bulgaria to visit: Sofia, Rila Monastery, Veliko Tarnovo, Plovdiv and Borovets ski resort. This route is the easiest and most efficient way to travel around Bulgaria using public transport where it’s available. If you don’t want to use public transport, there are good transfer services in Bulgaria that are reasonably priced such as hhbholidays.com (we used them when we returned to Bulgaria in summer)
Bulgaria has some very good boutique accommodation. Prices are lower than what you would pay in Western Europe for the same standard.
One of the biggest surprises in Bulgaria was the great food. With influences from neighbouring Greece and the Balkan countries, the food is fresh and tends to have lots of vegetarian options. The national Bulgarian Shopska salad is as popular as the Greek salad is in Greece, it has a grated white goats cheese rather than feta. Jamie Oliver has also had a big influence in Bulgaria. Many of the shop windows display his books; some cafes were playing his cooking shows. It was a surprise to find Donna Hay’s cookbooks (one of Australia’s favourite chefs) in a restaurant in Sofia.
Spend a day on foot exploring Sofia with its striking domed churches.
Stroll along the pedestrianized Ul Pirotska for local shopping and cafes. Market stalls sell fresh produce and winter hats and gloves close to the main shopping area of the city. Vitosha Boulevard with its international brands has a very European feel about it. The city is being revitalised after becoming part of the EU.
Where to stay
Centrally located in the prestigious Doctor’s Garden neighourhood, the Sofia Residence boutique hotel has large luxurious old world rooms. They include a very good breakfast in your room. There are great cafes and restaurants close by.
There are many flights from Europe direct to Sofia.
Day trip to Rila Monastery and Boyana church
If you only have half a day available, Boyana church is a short drive from Sofia and worth a visit.
Included on the UNESCO World Heritage List; it’s one of the few perfectly preserved medieval buildings in Bulgaria. Only a few people can enter the church at a time. It consists of three buildings from the 10th, 13th and 19th centuries.
Founded in the 10th century by St John of Rila , a hermit canonized by the Orthodox church. His tomb became a holy site. The monastic complex played an important role in the spiritual and social life of medieval Bulgaria. The complex was rebuilt between 1834 and 1862 after being destroyed by a fire a few years earlier. There is a small museum that’s worth visiting while you are there.
Driving time is about two hours each way. We booked the Rila shuttle which gave us two and a half hours to visit the unique monastery and have lunch at one of the small restaurants close by. The shuttle is a shared transfer service. Our car was a bit small for the number of passengers and the length of the trip.
Located in north central Bulgaria on the Yantra River, Veliko Tarnovo is one of Bulgaria’s oldest towns. Known as the “City of the Tsars” it was the historical capital of the second Bulgarian empire from 1185 to 1393. The old city is situated on three hills, Tsaravets, Trapezisa and Sveta Gora.
Wander through the cobbled streets with it’s unique architecture.
Originally a medieval town, Tsaravets Fortress is a must see In Veliko Tarnovo. It’s surrounded on three sides by the river. Spend a couple of hours exploring the ruins.
Restaurant Shtastliveca Old Town has great fresh food and views of the old town. It deserves its number one place on tripadvisor.
It’s worth a visit to the Holy Forty Martyrs Church built at the end of the 12th century where the Bulgarian Tsar Kaloyan and the Serbian Saint Sava were buried.
It’s four hours by train from Sofia to Gorna Orjahovica station and then about 15 minutes by taxi to the old town.
Book online at www.bdz.bg (the booking page is in English, e tickets are in Bulgarian.) It’s difficult to read the tickets, particularly with the different alphabet, we managed to work it out ! The local trains in Bulgaria are quite slow and old.
Dating back over 6,000 years ago, Plovdiv is one of the oldest cities in Europe, it’s the European capital of culture in 2019.
Wander through the quaint cobbled stoned streets in the old town with its traditional carved wooden houses and small museums.
Visit the roman ruins of ancient Plovdiv from the 1st to 4th centuries. The Roman stadium which accommodated about 30,000 people has been excavated in the pedestrian area shopping area. Have a look at the signed area that’s fenced off. The 3D film of the Roman stadium is suitable for families with kids ! Don’t miss the Roman amphitheatre when you walk through the top of the old town.
Plovdiv is a small city that’s easy to explore on foot. There is a large pedestrianised shopping street running through the center of town. Have a meal at the popular Pavaj in the Kapana creative district. The décor is very simple, the food is delicious, fresh and innovative.
This unique hidden destination that will become more widely known next year has a mix of Roman, Ottoman and Communist history and architectural influences.
For more information, go to visitplovdiv.com
Where to Stay
The attention to detail at the 8 1/2 Art Guest House was exceptional. Modern designer rooms with luxurious soft furnishings, handmade chocolates daily and luxury toiletries are in a small building only a few metres from the pedestrianised shopping area. There is a very good breakfast buffet included at the café downstairs. Check prices and availability
Hemmingways is a great restaurant that is directly opposite the guest house.
Best time to visit
A visit in cooler weather is recommended. The air quality might not be good in hot weather as there’s a lot of industry surrounding the city.
There’s a public mini bus from Veliko Tarnovo to Plovdiv. Buy tickets at the bus station. It’s a short taxi ride from the bus station to the centre of Plovdiv.
Fly to Plovdiv from other parts of Europe. (If you only have a few days, visit Plovdiv instead of Sofia. Its my favourite city in Bulgaria)
Borovets ski resort
Located at an altitude of 1350m in the Rila mountains, Borovets is about 90 minutes drive from Sofia. It dates back to 1896, and was originally established as a hunting place for the Bulgarian monarchy.
It’s a small ski resort by European standards that’s very reasonably priced and is suitable for a weekend trip.
It’s a good resort for beginner and intermediate skiers with gentle slopes at the bottom for children. There are pony rides and dog sledding available if you’re looking for other activities.
Traditional wooden restaurants in the village have fresh and tasty reasonably priced food. We found the food there to be much better than the fast food that’s on offer in many large ski resorts.
There’s a 6 seater gondola, 4 quad chairs and a few lift tows.
For more information, go to borovets-bg.com
The opening day five euro pass in December 2016/2017 attracted a huge local crowd. The long queues weren’t worth it, we only skied two runs. A couple of days later, we had the mountain to ourselves.
The best way to get to Borovets is to use a private transfer company such as borovetsexpress.com
We used and recommend Borovets Express for a transfer from Plovdiv to Borovets and from Borovets to Sofia airport.