Long ago, Bulgaria was the most powerful country in Europe. That is a title it no longer has, but it can still lay claim to being one of the most fascinating. It should also be noted that the country is one of the most budget-friendly places to visit in Europe. Read our guide to the best things to do in Bulgaria and you will see that this country is worth your attention.
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1. Alexander Nevski Cathedral, Sofia
Of all the best things to do in Bulgaria, visiting the Alexander Nevski Cathedral, which stands in a square of the same name, remains the most enduring. Its immaculate golden domes, restored to their original splendour with gold leaf donated by the Russian Orthodox Church, still dominate the city’s skyline and glitter in any amount of sunlight. Even a dull day can be brightened by their sparkle.
Built between 1882 and 1912 in the elaborate neo-Byzantine style of the time, the cathedral is named after St Alexander Nevski, the Russian tsar who led his country to victory over Sweden in 1240. He was the patron saint of Tsar Alexander II, the Russian monarch at the time of the cathedral’s construction.
2. Vitosha Boulevard, Sofia
Modern central Sofia, which stretches from the inner ring road to ploshtad, Sveta Nedelya (St Nedelya Square), is by no means an architectural wonder. The most modern building is the magnificently ugly National Palace of Culture, known by locals and marked on most maps as the NDK.
Vitosha Boulevard is Sofia’s main shopping street. Vitosha has long been a centre of commerce, and the street is pleasant enough on the eye, with most of the post-World War II buildings being no taller than four or five storeys. Shops, cafés, street traders and surprisingly wide pavements make a stroll along Vitosha one of the best things to do in Bulgaria.
- For price and quality: Expo Sofia Hotel
- For luxury: Grand Hotel Millennium Sofia
Where to stay in Sofia:
3. Mount Vitosha
The presence of the Vitosha Mountains just 10km (6 miles) from the centre of the city makes Sofia one of the most fortunate capitals in Europe. Access to Vitosha National Park from Sofia is easy: a taxi will cost no more than 10 leva to either the Dragalevtsi chair lift or Simeonovo gondola stations. Public transport to both is surprisingly unreliable outside the ski season (December to April).
Dragalevtsi is a charming village offering several good places to stay and eat is most famous for its monastery, built in the mid-14th century. Though little of the monastery remains, the original 14th-century church and a few of the original cloisters are in good condition, while the gladed setting alone is well worth the 15-minute walk up from the chairlift station.
4. Rila Monastery
Northeast of Blagoevgrad lies the Rila range and Bulgaria’s most visited attraction, Rila Monastery. The Rila range is the sixth-highest in Europe and the Moussala, at 2,925m (9,600ft), is the highest mountain in the Balkans. The range is home to thousands of small lakes. Samokov is the region’s main town.
Among the peaks, valleys, lakes and forests lies the world-famous Rila Monastery an outstanding example of National Revival-period architecture. It can be seen in a rushed day trip from Sofia, but a more leisurely visit is recommended, with tours departing from Borovets, Bansko and Blagoevgrad almost every day of the year.
5. Plovdiv old town
Plovdiv, in the Plain of Thrace, is the country’s second-largest city, and perhaps the most picturesque. The best way to enter Plovdiv’s Old Town is to follow ul Saborna, which meanders uphill to the Nebet Tepe Citadel from pl Dzhumaya.
The first sight that looms on the right (up some steep steps) is the Church of the Virgin Mary with a strikingly colourful pink and blue clock tower. A short detour from here is the splendid Roman Amphitheatre.
Built in the 2nd century during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, it is the best-preserved Roman monument in Bulgaria. It is now used as a venue for operas, plays and concerts almost every evening throughout the summer, most notably the annual Verdi Festival.
You will find more info about Bulgaria's second-largest city in our guide to 10 reasons to visit Plodiv.
- For an old town: Plovdiv City Center Hotel
- For superb comfort: Business Hotel Plovdiv
Where to stay in Plodiv:
Known to all Bulgarian schoolchildren as the cradle of the modern Bulgarian state, Koprovshtitsa, 75km (47 miles) east of Sofia was the site of the ill-fated April Rising of 1876. Then a rudimentary force of Bulgarian nationalists sought to spark a nationwide revolt that would finally free Bulgaria from the Turks.
Though the rising was ruthlessly suppressed, it did at least raise international awareness of the brutality of the Turkish regime in Bulgaria, and the town has remained a symbol of Bulgarian nationalism and culture. For such reasons, it is the host of a national music festival (held every five years, it is next due in August 2020). At an altitude of 1,060m (3,480ft), the town is also a popular mountain resort.
7. Relaxing in Sunny Beach - one of the best things to do in Bulgaria for a family holiday
Just north of Nessebur is the lively beach resort of Sunny Beach, Slanchev Bryag in Bulgarian. More than 150 hotels stretch along the narrow 7km (4-mile) beach, making it the largest resort on the Black Sea. Having played second fiddle to Golden Sands for some time, Sunny Beach has seen a revival. In recent years the completion of the Sofia−Burgas motorway has seen it become increasingly popular amongst Bulgarian families.
It remains cheaper than the northern resorts and offers great opportunities for water sports while boasting some of the best value hotels on the coast. There are also tens of restaurants and terraces, and an endless number of bars and discos.
8. Bulgarian Food
Eating well is not going to be a problem in Bulgaria. The country’s cuisine – a mix of Balkan, Turkish and Slavic influences – can appear meat-heavy at first, but on closer inspection it’s tasty, great value and healthy. Must sample the delicious and smooth Bulgarian yoghurt (kiselo mlyako), one of the gastronomic highlights of the country, renowned for its health benefits.
Defining what is actually Bulgarian national cuisine, as opposed to what is merely Balkan, is difficult. Bulgarian dishes include sirene po shopski (baked goat’s cheese) and kavarma (meat and vegetable stew, often very spicy). Other popular dishes include tarator (a thick cold yoghurt and cucumber soup, often served as a starter), and kiopolou (roasted or grilled aubergines and peppers often served covered in vinegar).
Once a well-kept secret, birdwatching is one of the best things to do in Bulgaria. Bulgaria’s reputation for birdwatching has become more widely known in recent years and the country is fast becoming one of Europe’s top birdwatching destinations. Two areas, in particular, offer a great range of bird species: the marshlands around Bourgas and the Madzharovo nature reserve in the Rhodope Mountains.
The more than 500 kinds of birds that either nest in Bulgaria in spring or pass through migration in the autumn, including the Dalmatian pelican, glossy ibis, spoonbill, black stork, pygmy cormorant, ferruginous duck, Egyptian, black and griffon vultures, Levant sparrow-hawk, long-legged buzzard, peregrine falcon and white-tailed, golden and eastern imperial eagles.
10. The Seven Rila Lakes
The Seven Rila Lakes are a group of glacial lakes in the Rila Mountains. As a popular tourist destination, they are known for their spectacular beauty and striking mountain scenery. Each of the Seven Lakes is named after its shape, and they are also situated at different altitudes from 2,100 to 2,500 metres above sea level. The lakes have the following names:
- Dolnoto ezero (The Lower Lake);
- Ribnoto ezero (The Fish Lake);
- Trilistnika (The Trefoil);
- Bliznaka (The Twin);
- Babreka (The Kidney);
- Okoto (The Eye);
- Salzata (The Teardrop).
11. Rose Valley
During the first weekend of June each year, the town of Kazanlak holds the Festival of the Roses, an age-old pageant celebrating the rose harvest of the surrounding villages, which together form what Bulgarians refer to as the Valley of the Roses. The roses are in full bloom during the late spring. Kazanlak became rich in its rose oil during the 18th century, and today the Museum of the Rose in Tyubelto Park tells the story.
12. Visiting Pirin National Park - one of the best things to do in Bulgaria for skiing and hiking
Bulgaria has three national parks: Pirin, Central Balkan and Rila, as well as nine nature reserves, of which two, Pirin and Sreburna, are on Unesco’s World Heritage list. Directly south of Sofia is the small Rila mountain range, known primarily for the Rila Monastery, Bulgaria’s most famous attraction. Further south, stretching towards Greece, are the Pirin Mountains.
Both ranges offer decent skiing (at Borovets in the Rila, at Bansko in the Pirin) and serve as good bases for hiking and walking, especially from the spa town of Sandanski.
13. Winter Sports
Bulgaria is blessed with natural wonders. The beaches of the Black Sea are among the finest in Europe. The interior is marked by great mountain ranges, with plains in between. During the winter one of the best things to do in Bulgaria is wander up or down a piste. The best hiking is offered by the Pirin Mountains, the most spectacular of the Bulgarian ranges, while the Rhodopes offer less demanding hikes.
The undisputed winter capital of Bulgaria, Bansko is the largest ski resort in the Balkans. Since the local council invested heavily in building a vast network of new ski lifts during the 2000s this sleepy town – whose centre is packed with National Revival-era houses – has become one of the most popular skiing destinations in Eastern Europe.
- For a first-class holiday: Lucky Bansko Aparthotel SPA & Relax
- For mountain views: Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena
Where to stay in Bansko:
14. Tsarevets Fortress
At various times called Ternov, Trunov, Turnovgrad or simply Tarnovo, Veliko Tarnovo’s existence has long depended on the possession of the imposing citadel that sits atop Tsaravets, the highest of the three sacred hills among which the city nestles.
The main attraction in Veliko Tarnovo, Tsaravets was first settled by the Thracians, though the first fortifications were probably constructed by the Byzantines in the 6th and 7th centuries. As the Byzantine Empire declined, that first fortress fell into ruins, which were built in the 10th century by the Slavs, who were responsible for much of the structure that can be seen today.
15. Devil's throat cave
Passing through the spa town of Devin, most visitors head straight for the Trigad Gorge, a steep, narrow chasm cut by the lively River Trogradska. At the apex of the gorge, the river plunges into a cave known as the Dyavolskoto Gurlo or Devil’s Throat, one of the most spectacular natural sights in the country.
A viewing platform has been positioned over the point where the river goes underground. The tour of the cave, which is memorable for its sheer size and the deafening echo of gushing water, is one of the best things to do in Bulgaria, but not for the faint-hearted.
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