Bulgaria is relatively easy to get around and a wide range of trains, buses and minibuses are available. To explore the country more fully, you might want to hire a car inside the country.
All cities and major towns have buses, but they tend to be overcrowded and uncomfortably hot in summer. New privately run minibuses operate in some cities, such as Sofia but you’re almost always better off using a taxi. Bus tickets are regularly checked by conductors, especially in Sofia. Don’t forget to buy an extra ticket for each piece of large luggage (ie suitcase or backpack). Major cities also have trams and trolleybuses (a cross between a tram and bus) and Sofia has a modern metro system.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they’re planning to go.
Hitchhiking is officially illegal in Bulgaria, but people still do it, and hitching in rural Bulgaria may be preferable to being restricted by infrequent public transport (but travel will tend to be in fits and starts because many cars often only travel to the next village). The upsurge in crime over the last few years has dissuaded some Bulgarians from offering lifts to hitchhikers. Bulgaria’s borders are not particularly ‘user friendly’, so hitching across them is not recommended.
Buses link all cities and major towns and connect villages with the nearest transport hub. In some places, buses are run by the government. These buses are old, uncomfortable (when compared with city buses) and slow. Newer, quicker and more commodious private buses often operate in larger towns and cities, and normally cost little more than the fare on a ramshackle public bus.
There are also numerous private companies running services all across the country, the biggest of which are Etap-Grup (02-945 3939; www.etapgroup.com) and Biomet (02-963 1366; www.biomet-bg.com), which operate from Sofia and link up with most major towns and cities.
All timetables are listed (in Cyrillic) inside the bus stations and all buses have destination signs (in Cyrillic) in the front window.
For a public bus, you normally buy a ticket from the counter marked kasa inside the station. This way you’re guaranteed a seat and you know the correct departure time and platform number. However, in some cases the cashier will tell you to buy a ticket on the bus.
Bus travel in Bulgaria is very cheap by Western standards, with a cross-country ticket from Sofia to Varna or Burgas costing around 20 lv to 25 lv, and a ticket from the capital to Sandanski in the far south just 8 lv.
Probably the best way to travel around Bulgaria – especially when visiting remote villages, monasteries and national parks – is to hire a car (or motorbike). However, there’s no point hiring a car and then parking it for three days while you explore Plovdiv or Varna on foot, and it can be difficult driving around any city, particularly Sofia.
Petrol is available in unleaded super 95 and unleaded super 98, as well as diesel and LPG. Major brands such as Shell and OMV are often preferred by local drivers because water has been known to make its way into other brands.
Petrol stations are found roughly every 15km to 20km along the highways, and are mostly open from 5am to 10pm. Some near Sofia and other big cities are open 24 hours.
To rent a car in Bulgaria you must be at least 21 years of age and have had a licence for at least one year. Rental outlets can be found all over Bulgaria, but the biggest choice is in Sofia. Prices start at around €30 per day, though international companies such as Avis and Hertz charge more. All major credit cards are normally accepted.
Some of the more reliable agencies that have offices in the capital and elsewhere:
Avis (02-945 9224; www.avis.bg)
Budget (02-937 3388; www.budget.bg)
Europcar (02-931 6000; www.europcar.bg)
Hertz (02-945 9217; email@example.com)
Tany 97 (02-970 8500; www.tany97.bg)
Tourist Service (02-981 7253; www.tourist-service.com)
There are comparatively few places where you can rent a motorbike; one of the better places is Motoroads (08-8537 0298; www.motoroads.com; office 1, bl 279, Mladost 2, Sofia 1799) in Sofia. It offers a range of motorbikes, costing from €40 per day, plus a deposit of €300.
Third-party ‘liability insurance’ is compulsory, and can be purchased at any Bulgarian border. Buying comprehensive insurance in your home country is a better idea (but make sure it’s valid in Bulgaria). The Green (or Blue) Card – a routine extension of domestic motor insurance to cover most European countries – is valid in Bulgaria.
Bâlgarski Dârzhavni Zheleznitsi () – the Bulgarian State Railways (BDZh; 02-931 1111; www.bdz.bg) – boasts an impressive 4278km of tracks across the country, linking most sizable towns and cities, although some are on a spur track and only connected to a major railway line by infrequent services. Apart from on a couple of lines, including Sofia–Kyustendil and Sofia–Plovdiv, trains tend to be antiquated and shabby, and journey times are slow. Buses are normally quicker, more comfortable and more frequent, especially between cities and major towns, although on the plus side, you’ll have more room in a train compartment, and the scenery is likely to be more rewarding.
Trains are classified as ekspresen (express), bârz (fast) or pâtnicheski (slow passenger). Unless you absolutely thrive on train travel, you want to visit a smaller village or you’re travelling on a tight budget, use a fast or express train.
Two of the most spectacular train trips are along Iskâr Gorge, from Sofia to Mezdra, and on the narrow-gauge track between Septemvri and Bansko. Railway buffs often go on these trips for no other reason than the journey itself.
Train travel in Bulgaria is a normally safe and enjoyable experience, but there have been reports of robberies, pickpocketing and minor annoyances (such as drunkenness) on some cross-border routes, such as to/from Turkey or Serbia. If you are travelling late at night, sit with other passengers rather than in an empty compartment, and if you are making a long overnight trip across the border, try booking a bed in a couchette.
First-class compartments seat six people, eight are crammed into 2nd class, and the intercity express has individual seats in an open carriage. Sleepers and couchettes are available between Sofia and Burgas and Varna but must be booked in advance. Fares for 1st class are around 25% higher than for 2nd class. The carriages won’t be any cleaner, but it’s always worth paying the extra just to have a bit more space.
Although prices have risen in recent years, train travel within Bulgaria is still cheap by Western standards, with a cross-country trip between Sofia and Varna costing approximately 22 lv (2nd class). A 1st-class ticket on this route costs 27 lv, probably the most you’d ever pay for a seat on a domestic train service in Bulgaria. If you’re travelling in a group (three or more people) you may get a slight discount.
Tickets for public buses can rarely be booked in advance but seats on private buses can be reserved one or more days in advance. However, except for long-distance services at peak times, eg between Sofia and Varna in August, there’s no need to book any bus more than a few hours ahead. In fact, if you arrive at the bus stop or station about 30 minutes before departure, you’ll normally get a ticket for the bus you want.
For frequent train services between the main cities there is rarely a problem if you simply turn up at the station and purchase a ticket for the next train (but be careful to allow at least 30 minutes to queue up). Advance tickets are sometimes advisable on train services such as the intercity express to the Black Sea during a summer weekend. Advance tickets can be bought at specific counters within larger train stations and at Rila Bureaux in cities and major towns. Staff at Rila are normally far more helpful, knowledgeable and likely to speak English than anyone at a train station, so it’s best to deal with Rila for advice, schedules and advance tickets.
As more and more independent foreign tourists ‘discover’ Bulgaria, new travel agencies have emerged to offer activity and special-interest tours. Some will just bus you off on the well-trodden paths to Rila Monastery and the like, and large groups are normally required, while others offer a more personal service.
If you’re pressed for time or find getting around a little difficult, an organised tour is worth considering. Even a one-day tour can be worthwhile, especially to remote monasteries and villages. Travel agencies and tourist offices that offer local tours are listed in the regional chapters of this book. Plenty of agencies at the Black Sea resorts of Albena, Sunny Beach (Slânchev Bryag) and Golden Sands (Zlatni Pyasâtsi) offer tours, but to avoid unnecessary expense, check out the local transport before booking a pricey ‘excursion’ to the nearest town.
Enterprising Bulgarian travel agencies that offer interesting tours around Bulgaria are surprisingly few and far between but you could try the following companies:
Neophron (052-650 230, www.neophron.com; PO Box 492, Varna) Runs guided bird-watching trips on the coast and in the mountains, as well as other trips for those interested in botany or wild animals. It’s run by professional ornithologists.
Odysseia-In Travel Agency (02-989 0538; www.odysseia-in.com; 1st fl, bul Stamboliyski 20-V, Sofia) Odysseia-In can book you on hiking, snowshoeing, caving, bird-watching, botany or numerous other trips across the country. It can also book rooms in over 100 mountain huts, monasteries and village homes.
Zig Zag Holidays (02-980 5102; www.zigzagbg.com; bul Stamboliyski 20-V, Sofia) Offers environmentally sensitive tours and tailor-made outdoor activities, including hiking, climbing, caving and nature trips. Contact them for prices.
Private and public minibuses ply routes between smaller villages, eg along the Black Sea coast and between urban centres and ski resorts in winter. Tickets for minibuses cost roughly the same as public buses but are usually bought from the driver (though always check this first at the counter inside the bus station). If you can choose between a public bus and minibus, take the latter because it’s quicker, normally more comfortable and standing is rarely allowed. Destinations (in Cyrillic) and, often, departure times are indicated on the front window. Most minibuses leave from inside, or very close to, the major public bus station. In Sofia, minibuses called marshroutki run between the city centre and the suburbs, acting like shared taxis.
Bulgaria is reasonably compact, and bus and train services are reliable and cheap, but if an eight-hour bus journey from Sofia to the coast doesn’t appeal, flying may be the answer.
Generally, cycling isn’t the most practical (or safest) way of getting about in urban or built-up areas, and accidents involving cyclists are common on the busy roads of Sofia. Many roads are in poor condition, some major roads are always choked with traffic and bikes aren’t allowed on highways. On the other hand, traffic is light along routes between villages and long-distance buses and trains will carry your bike for an extra 2 lv or so. Cycling is a more attractive option in the Black Sea resorts, where there will be plenty of places renting out bikes. Spare parts are available in cities and major towns, but it’s better to bring your own. Mountain bikes are a more attractive option in the countryside, and are sporadically available for rent. There are several specific mountain-bike routes.