Bansko is the big daddy of Bulgarian ski resorts. With trails starting from 900m high to 2600m, and with over 100 hotels and pensions, the once-quiet village has more beds than permanent residents. In winter, Brits, Russians, Bulgarians and others come to ski (and party) in this sunny yet snow-filled resort.
The main transport hub for Chiprovtsi or Lopushanski Monastery, this drab modern town was once known as Kutlovitsa then, from 1890, Ferdinand. While under the communists, it became Mihailovgrad, honouring a local socialist revolutionary. It was named 'Montana' following a 1993 referendum, after a nearby Roman settlement.
Sitting in a sort of bowl around rocky hills of up to 1000m in height, Sliven is well known historically for its role in the 19th-century revolution. While the most famous nearby sight (the so-called ‘Blue Rocks’) is somewhat lacklustre, Sliven is still a laid-back and authentic small city with unique museums and good accommodation.
A bit rough around the edges, Kazanlâk is nevertheless a fascinating town where Bulgaria’s various ethnic and religious groups commingle amicably. Life revolves around the loud central square, pl Sevtopolis (good accommodation, eating and drinking are there or nearby). Most famous, however, are the archaeological remains from the area’s ancient Thracian civilisation.
Resting on a bend in the Danube in the far northwest of Bulgaria, Vidin feels a long way from anywhere, and unless you're crossing into Romania, there's little obvious reason for you to wend your way up here. The population has shrunk dramatically over the last decade or so, and it can appear forlorn and eerily deserted.
‘Mountains of Water’ was the ancient Thracian name for this compact, majestic set of peaks covering 2629 sq km – a reference to the 180 lakes, streams and springs gushing with pure alpine aqua. These waters give the range famous attractions such as the small but stunning Sedemte Ezera (Seven Lakes), and entice hikers and day-tripping travellers from Sofia.
About 100km straight south of Sofia, Blagoevgrad (Bla-go-evgrad) is a friendly, liveable place bisected by a small river and filled with grand squares, vibrant cafes and clubs frequented by the 16,000 Bulgarian (and foreign) students at the Neofit Rilski Southwest University and American University of Bulgaria.
Once just a day trip and now a tourist draw, Tryavna (40km southwest of Veliko Târnovo) has been impressively renovated thanks to EU largesse. The National Revival–period homes, stone bridges and cobblestone streets are all aesthetically appealing, as is the sight of the main church selectively floodlit at night.
Stara Zagora (literally ‘old behind the mountain’) is a businessy city, and an important national road and rail connection point. However, it also boasts one of Bulgaria’s nicest central parks and is a surprisingly stylish place filled with beautiful young people luxuriating in cafes along the pedestrian malls.
The crisp mountain air and the weird and wonderful rock formations rising from a lonely hill are what draw visitors to little Belogradchik, on the eastern edge of the Stara Planina mountain range. Although rather remote, Belogradchik’s charms are starting to attract more visitors.
After the vast, artificial resorts further down the coast, Balchik is a breath of fresh sea air. A small, pretty town and fishing port huddled below white-chalk cliffs, it’s a low-key holiday spot that feels like a world away from the likes of Albena, whose lights can be seen winking across the bay at night.
Tiny Melnik is one of Bulgaria's most unique villages due to its traditional architecture, local wine, and location (about 20km north of Greece). Tucked beneath imposing sandstone cliffs. the village has historically been a wine-production centre, and you'll find plenty to sample at restaurants and even at National Revival–era house museums where vintners once lived.
The longest (10km) and highest town in Bulgaria (1010m), Smolyan is actually an amalgamation of four villages, and is the southern Rodopi Mountains’ administrative centre. The steep and forested mountains rise abruptly on its southern flank, lending a lovely backdrop to a town that’s otherwise slightly timeworn and gritty.
Golden Sands (Zlatni Pyasâtsi), 18km up the coast from Varna, was Bulgaria's original purpose-built resort, with the first hotel opening here in 1957. Today it's Bulgaria's second-largest coastal resort, with a 4km stretch of sandy beach, and some of the best nightlife on the coast.
One of Bulgaria’s best spa towns, placid Devin is somewhat dated, though it does offer solitude, services and one or two cafe-bars. Still, it’s the kind of place where unworried mothers leave their baby carriages outside the shop while browsing, and the only noise you’ll hear at night is the far-off baying of hounds.