Black Sea Coast
Bulgaria's long Black Sea coastline is the country's summertime playground, attracting tourists from across Europe and beyond, as well as Bulgarians themselves. The big, purpose-built resorts here are becoming serious rivals to those of Spain and Greece, while independent travellers will find plenty to explore away from the parasols and jet skis.
Veliko Târnovo & Central Mountains
Bulgaria’s central heartland is vital to the national consciousness, for its role in the 18th- and 19th-century National Revival; this legacy lingers in the period architecture of Lovech and Koprivshtitsa, and at battle sites such as the forested Shipka Pass.
The Danube & Northern Plains
Much of northern Bulgaria is quiet, off-the-beaten-track territory and sees very few foreign visitors. It's a rewarding part of the country to explore, though you'll need plenty of time, patience or, most usefully, your own transport, to visit its more rural corners. Unspoilt mountain landscapes, wild nature reserves and peaceful monasteries are waiting for you to discover.
The vast territory of the ancient Thracian tribes, now encompassed by modern Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, remains a wild region of varied and dramatic landscapes and remote villages. However, its one major urban centre, Plovdiv, is Bulgaria’s second-biggest – and, arguably, its best – city, and an important transport hub.
With its art galleries, winding cobbled streets and bohemian cafes, Plovdiv (Plov-div) equals Sofia in things cultural and is a determined rival in nightlife as well – it has a lively, exuberant spirit befitting its status as a major university town. Being a smaller and less stressful city than Sofia, Plovdiv is also great for walking.
Bulgaria’s third city and maritime capital, Varna is by far the most interesting and cosmopolitan town on the Black Sea coast. A combination of port city, naval base and seaside resort, it’s an appealing place to while away a few days, packed with history yet thoroughly modern, with an enormous park to amble round and a lengthy beach to lounge on.
The evocative capital of the medieval Bulgarian tsars, sublime Veliko Târnovo is dramatically set amidst an amphitheatre of forested hills, divided by the ribboning Yantra River. Commanding pride of place is the magisterial, well-restored Tsarevets Fortress, citadel of the Second Bulgarian Empire.
One of Bulgaria's most elegant cities, Ruse, sometimes written 'Rousse', has more than a touch of Mitteleuropa grandness not seen elsewhere in the country. It's a city of imposing belle époque architecture and neatly trimmed leafy squares, as if a little chunk of Vienna had broken off and floated down the Danube.
For most visitors, the port city of Burgas (sometimes written as ‘Bourgas’) is no more than a transit point for the more obviously appealing resorts and historic towns further up and down the coast. If you do decide to stop over, you'll find a lively, well-kept city with a neat, pedestrianised centre, a long, uncrowded beach and some interesting museums.
The stark Pirin Mountains, with peaks surpassing 2900m, rise dramatically out of Bulgaria’s southwest; their dark, portentous appearance has affected the human imagination since well before the ancient Slavic tribes named the mountains after their god of thunder and storms, Perun.
There’s an awful lot of concrete in Shumen, but it does make its own beer, Shumensko Pivo. Not only that, this somewhat faded but friendly industrial city full of communist memorials is crowned by a striking medieval fortress, and has a surprisingly wide range of eateries and drinking spots.
Vast stretches of serene pine forests, perilously steep gorges and hundreds of remarkable caves characterise the enthralling Rodopi (rod-oh-pee) Mountains, which cover some 15,000 sq km of territory, spilling across into Greece. Much of the border between the two countries is determined by the Rodopi range (85% of which is Bulgarian).
Ancient Sozopol, with its charming old town of meandering cobbled streets and pretty wooden houses, huddled together on a narrow peninsula, is one of the coast’s real highlights. With two superb beaches, a genial atmosphere, plentiful accommodation and good transport links, it has long been a popular seaside resort and makes an excellent base for exploring the area.