Bulgaria’s Black Sea resorts have been popular holiday haunts for more than a century, though it wasn’t until the 1960s that the coastline was developed for mass tourism, with Communist party officials from across the former Eastern Bloc descending on the beaches each year for a spot of socialist fun in the sun. Since then, the resorts have mushroomed, growing increasingly sophisticated as the prototype mega-complexes have been followed by holiday villages. With fine weather practically guaranteed, the selling of the coast has been a success in economic terms, but with the exception of ancient Sozopol and touristy Nesebar, there’s little to please the eye. Of the coast’s two cities – Varna and Burgas – the former is by far preferable as a base for getting to the less-developed spots.
Top image © trabantos/Shutterstock
The south coast’s prime urban centre and transport hub, Burgas (Bургас) provides easy access to the picture-postcard town of Nesebar to the north and Sozopol to the south. Bypassed by most tourists, the pedestrianized city centre, lined with smart boutiques, bars and cafés, is pleasant enough, though Burgas’s best features are the well-manicured Sea Gardens overlooking the beach, and its rusting pier at the eastern end of town.
Burgas has long suffered from a shortage of budget accommodation, though the establishment of a small hostel suggests that things may change.
Burgas’ pedestrianized central boulevards are crammed with bars, cafés and restaurants that spill out onto the streets in summer. There are several pleasant places to eat in the Sea Gardens and plenty more bars along the beach.
Famed for its delightful medieval churches, nineteenth-century wooden architecture and labyrinthine cobbled streets, Nesebar’s (Несебър) old town, 35km northeast of Burgas, lies on a narrow isthmus connected by road to the mainland. It was founded by Greek colonists and grew into a thriving port during the Byzantine era; ownership alternated between Bulgaria and Byzantium until the Ottomans captured it in 1453. The town remained an important centre of Greek culture and the seat of a bishop under Turkish rule, which left Nesebar’s Byzantine churches reasonably intact. Nowadays the town depends on them for its tourist appeal, demonstrated by the often overwhelming stream of summer visitors. Outside the hectic summer season, the place seems eerily deserted, with little open other than a few sleepy cafés.
A man-made isthmus connects Nesebar’s old town with the mainland. Standing just inside the city gates, the Archeological Museum has an array of Greek tombstones and medieval icons on display. Immediately beyond the museum is Christ Pantokrator, the first of Nesebar’s churches, currently in use as an upmarket art gallery. It features an unusual frieze of swastikas – an ancient symbol of fertility and continual change. Downhill on ul. Mitropolitska is the eleventh-century church of St John the Baptist (now also an art gallery), only one of whose frescoes still survives. Overhung by half-timbered houses, ul. Aheloi branches off from ul. Mitropolitska towards the Church of Sveti Spas, outwardly unremarkable but filled with seventeenth-century frescoes.
A few steps to the east lies the ruined Old Metropolitan Church, dominating a plaza filled with pavement cafés and street traders. The church itself dates back to the sixth century, and it was here that bishops officiated during the city’s heyday. Standing in splendid isolation beside the shore, the ruined Church of St John Aliturgetos represents the zenith of Byzantine architecture in Bulgaria. Its exterior employs limestone, red bricks, crosses, mussel shells and ceramic plaques for decoration.
Visitors can either head for Nesebar’s handful of small beaches or hop on a shuttle bus to the unattractive neighbouring resort of Sunny Beach where a great expanse of golden sand studded with thousands of umbrellas stretches for several kilometres along the overdeveloped coastline.
There are plenty of places to eat, although most restaurants are aimed at the passing tourist crowd, serving predictably mediocre food. Snacks are available from summertime kiosks along the waterfront.
Sozopol (Созопол) is a busy fishing port and holiday resort, especially popular with East European tourists. The town’s charm owes much to its architecture, the old wooden houses jostling for space, their upper storeys almost meeting across the town’s narrow cobbled streets. The oldest settlement in Bulgaria, Sozopol was founded in the seventh century BC by Greek colonists.
The Archeological Museum behind the library holds a worthwhile collection of ancient ceramics, as well as a number of artefacts uncovered in the local area. Further into the town, follow the signs to the Southern Fortress Wall and Tower Complex, which gives access to a beautifully restored tower dating from the fourth century BC.
Sozopol’s two small beaches are predictably overcrowded in high season, so it’s worth making the short trip north to the emptier beaches around the Zlatna Ribka campsite.
Accommodation in Sozopol can be even harder to find during summer than in Nesebar, and most places shut down for the rest of the year. The Lotos travel agency can arrange private rooms of varying standards (16–30Lv/person)
Varna (Варна) is a cosmopolitan place, and nice to stroll through: Baroque, nineteenth-century and contemporary architecture are pleasantly blended with shady promenades and a handsome seaside park. As a settlement it dates back almost five millennia, but it wasn’t until seafaring Greeks founded a colony here in 585 BC that the town became a port. The modern city is used by both commercial freighters and the navy, as well as being a popular tourist resort in its own right.
Social life revolves around ploshtad Nezavisimost, where the opera house and theatre provide a backdrop for restaurants and cafés. The square is the starting point of Varna’s evening promenade, which flows eastward from here along bul. Knyaz Boris I and towards bul. Slivnitsa and the seaside gardens. Beyond the opera house, Varna’s main lateral boulevard cuts through pl. Mitropolit Simeon to the domed Cathedral of the Assumption. Constructed in 1886, it contains a splendid iconostasis and bishop’s throne. The Archeology Museum on the corner of Mariya Luiza and Slivnitsa houses one of Bulgaria’s finest collections of antiquities. Most impressive are the skeletons adorned with Thracian gold jewellery that were unearthed in Varna in 1972 and date back almost six thousand years.
South of the centre on ul. Han Krum are the extensive remains of the third-century Roman baths. It’s still possible to discern the various bathing areas and the once huge exercise hall. At the southern edge of the Sea Gardens, the Navy Museum is worth a trip to see the boat responsible for the Bulgarian Navy’s only victory; it sank the Turkish cruiser Hamidie off Cape Kaliakra in 1912.
Varna’s municipal beach offers a perfunctory stretch of sand but little tranquillity as it’s dominated by open-air bars and clubs. The beaches at the busy resorts of Golden Sands and Albena to the north are hardly any quieter, but are certainly wider and much more attractive. Beyond Albena the coastline turns rocky until the villages at Krapets and Durankulak, just short of the Romanian border, which boast some wonderful undeveloped sandy beaches.
There are plenty of bars to choose from along bul. Knyaz Boris I, while in summer the beach, reached by steps from the Sea Gardens, is lined with open-air bars, fish restaurants and a seemingly unending strip of nightclubs. Outside high season, though, it’s pretty dismal.