Skimpy swimwear: check. Sunblock, good book, readiness to swill umbrella-spiked cocktails: check. Ridiculous sums of money to enjoy a spectacular European seaside holiday: not if you’re in Bulgaria. Home to almost 400km of sensational Black Sea coastline, the Bulgarian Riviera is lined with beautiful beaches and ripper resorts, all at a fraction of the cost of others on the continent.
From party-hard playgrounds to nudist hideaways, here’s our pick – in no particular order – of Bulgaria’s best beaches.
The most famous of all Bulgaria’s beaches, Sunny Beach is the country’s biggest – and liveliest – resort. Boasting an 8km-long stretch of fine golden sand, Sunny indeed lives up to its name, averaging about 1700 hours of sunshine between May and October. Lined with high-rise resorts, a trillion restaurants, watersports hire tents and some of the craziest nightclubs in the country, this blast of a beach also boasts a different, less appreciated kind of wildlife: it’s home to some of the coast’s last remaining natural sand dunes and rare plant species. Sunny Beach is across the bay from the historic town of Nesebăr.
Best for: Goodtime guys and gals, stag shindigs, families willing to brave the aforementioned.
Another Bulgarian beach that doesn’t believe in false advertising, Golden Sands does actually have golden sand; many believe it’s the best sand in Europe. Less than 20km away from the ancient Roman city – and resort in its own right – of Varna, Golden Sands is less salacious than Sunny Beach, but comes a close second in terms of mega-resorts and nightlife (its main drag-of-debauchery is aptly named ‘Party Street’). The beach is hemmed in by the densely wooded Golden Sands Nature Park; curative waters from the park’s hot mineral springs are used in local spas.
Best for: See Sunny Beach. Also, spa-hoppers looking for cures and contentment.
Albena bills itself as the coast’s family-friendly beach, and it has the aquaparks, bowling alleys, mini-golf courses and amusement parks to prove it; that mini-trains are one of the beach’s primary forms of transportation is another dead giveaway of just who rules the roost here. The long, clean sandy beach dips into calm, clear waters that also seem purpose-built for littlies: even at 150m from the shore, the sea is no deeper than 1.6m. A free beach library adds to Albena’s appeal. Nightlife is geared towards parents finally getting a moment to themselves.
Best for: Families and toy-train enthusiasts.
Not far from the Turkish border, quaint Ahtopol – coastal Bulgaria’s most southerly town – is a throwback to the Bulgarian seaside of yore. A lighthouse and old wooden houses (as opposed to nightclubs and T-shirt stalls) dot the rocky foreshore, and you’re more likely to see creaky fishing boats than cruise ships bobbing along its sparkling waters. What the beach lacks in the expansive pale sands (and crowds) of the northern resorts, it more than makes up for in atmosphere and history; Ahtopol – the name means ‘The Town of Love’ – is located on the site of an ancient Thracian settlement.
Best for: Budget travellers, families, romantics, nostalgics.
Forgot your togs? Get thee to Irakli! One of Bulgaria’s last remaining wild beaches, nudist Irakli is a favourite destination for anyone seeking an all-over tan. Your wallet will love the fact that free camping is popular here; your more sensitive parts will be grateful for the fine sand along the shore. Irakli, with its beautiful lagoon, tortoises and rich birdlife, is more than a beach to the activists, naturists and artists who savour its isolation: having triumphed over big development, it’s a symbol of people power. Scores of happy hippies descend on Irakli every 30 June for ‘July Morning’, which celebrates the sun rising above the Black Sea.
Best for: Nudists, campers, eco-trippers, budget travellers.
Sozopol was founded in the 7th century BC by seafaring Greeks; thanks to an absolutely stunning stretch of coastline reminiscent of their homeland – no slouch in the ‘beautiful beaches’ department – it’s little wonder they decided to stay. The erstwhile Apollonia is home to the wide Harmani Beach and the smaller Town Beach; campers and those seeking to avoid swathes of sailor-suit stalls and sunbathers will prefer the Golden Fish and Kavatsi Beaches just a couple kilometres from the town centre. Can’t choose? Stroll along Sozopol’s ancient Southern Walls for views of them all.
Best for: History hounds, romantics, anyone who wants to buy a sailor-suit bikini.
One of the few beaches in Bulgaria to enjoy ‘protected’ status, Silistar is a superlatives-defying bonzer of a beach. It’s not easy to get to – it lies deep within the remote Strandzha National Park – but therein lies much of its charm: you’re unlikely to see anyone doing rakija laybacks in a fluorescent mankini here (ahem, Sunny Beach). You will, however, clap eyes on owls, vultures, deer, and quite possibly people running around in the nude. The waters at Silistar are shallow and ridiculously clear, making it a favourite for divers; though rocky at its ends, the small beach has fine, soft sand. Wild camping is allowed.
Best for: Nature lovers, campers, budget travellers, Greta ‘I Want to Be Alone’ Garbo types.