Skiing, hiking, climbing, rafting and more: finding adventure in Bulgaria
Bulgaria may be more famous for corruption than its incredible natural environment, but that is slowly changing. From the Balkan Mountains, which run laterally through the centre of the country, to the alpine ranges of Rila and Pirin in the southwest, and the Rhodope Mountains further east, visitors will find mountains and thickly forested valleys roamed by lynx, wolves and bears. Bulgaria’s dynamic climate is perfect for paragliders, while on the coast the Black Sea is littered with exciting wrecks for divers to explore.
Skiing & snowboarding
With many peaks over 2500m, the Rila and Pirin mountains hold the country’s best resorts. Borovets and Pamporovo are popular with Bulgarians and visitors alike, but one of the up-and-coming spots is found at the foot of the Pirin mountains – the historic village of Bansko (there are ruins dating back to 100BC). Bansko has 14 lifts covering two mountains, glorious forested runs and reliable snow (it also has snow-making equipment). It is also one of the cheapest places you will find anywhere to try the ultimate skiing indulgence – heli-skiing.
There are boundless options for walkers visiting Bulgaria. One of the most dramatic and historic walks in the country is the three- to four-day trip from Mt Musala (2925m), Bulgaria’s highest peak, passing alpine meadows, rocky cirques and glacial lakes to end up at the World Heritage–listed Rila Monastery, which was founded in the 10th century and is one of Bulgaria’s most famous sights. In nearby Pirin, Vihren (2914m) is another classic target for peak-baggers. But there are excellent networks of trails throughout Bulgaria, and walkers can explore between remote villages, ending long days with a glass of rakia (grape brandy) in one of the country’s vast network of hizhas (hiking huts).
Climbing & mountaineering
Climbing in Bulgaria is a revelatory experience; the country is dotted with numerous small but unique crags. Sport climbers should visit Prohodna Cave at Karlukovo, a bizarre limestone cavern with two entrances and two skylights in the roof known as the "Eyes of God". The area is not for beginners, with routes up to 8c+. Lakatnik, just north of the capital Sofia, is Bulgaria’s most popular climbing area with 250 sport routes. Traditional climbers and alpinists will find their own piece of paradise amid the superb granite towers and crags gracing the Rila and Pirin mountains.
Kayaking & rafting
While Bulgaria is riddled with rivers, many are too small for paddling – but there are a few exceptions. The Kamchia and Struma rivers are popular with guiding companies, and are excellent trips for beginners, while the tight, technical rapids of the Devinska and Buinovska are better suited to experienced paddlers. On the coast, sea kayaking trips are popular on the Black Sea, with plenty to explore, from beautiful beaches and towns to sea cliffs and Roman ruins.
A diverse landscape and dynamic weather patterns make Bulgaria one of Europe’s best paragliding (and hang-gliding) destinations. There are many launch sites in the mountains, with Sopot in the Balkan Mountains being one of the most popular spots. Good flying conditions can also be found on the coast.
With 5840m of ascent, the gruelling Tryavna Ultra takes trail runners 141km through the Balkan Mountains, past such highlights as the flying saucer-like brutalist Buzludzha Monument, built to celebrate communism then abandoned.
With marine history going back to antiquity, diving in the Black Sea is all about wrecks and historic sites. Divers can visit the remnants of the German WWII Black Sea fleet, from a battleship to minelayers and torpedo boats, or explore spooky sunken WWII Soviet submarines. North of Varna, there’s an old Roman port at 12m, with the treasure of Alexander the Great rumoured to be buried nearby.