Soul-stirring mountains rival golden beaches, while cities hum with nightlife and art. Within Bulgaria’s beguiling blend of nature and history, unforgettable adventures are guaranteed.
Black Sea Beaches
Long, sandy beaches and fine weather reel holidaymakers into Bulgaria’s Black Sea resorts each summer. Bulgarian inlanders are helplessly drawn to the freshening sea breeze and miles of turquoise water. Foreign visitors, too, are wise to Bulgaria’s coast, thanks to gorgeous seaside resorts such as Primorsko (and prices that compete well with Western Europe). Even the coast's two big cities, Varna and Burgas, have attractive beaches within minutes of their urban hearts. And while Sunny Beach, Sozopol and other favourites are thoroughly developed, there are still plenty of undiscovered coves north and south of the major hubs.
Churches & Religious Art
No visitor to Bulgaria can fail to be impressed by its religious art, from vast gold-domed churches to miniature icon paintings. Sofia’s Aleksander Nevski Church and 10th-century Rila Monastery draw visitors and pilgrims galore, while Tryavna’s wood carvings and Bachkovo’s apocalyptic murals are gathering fame. But Orthodox churches in even the tiniest villages have much to admire: emotive paintings of saints, often set in carved wooden screens (iconostases), appear magical when bathed in flickering candlelight. Almost as spectacular are the settings of many sacred buildings: granite cliffs, thrashing streams and lonely mountain passes.
Mountains & Forests
Bulgaria’s untamed landscapes quicken the pulse of hikers, mountain bikers and skiers. Seven mountain ranges ripple across the country; glacial lakes sparkle between these snow-dusted peaks, and tangles of forest conceal wolves, bears and lynx, a glimpse of Europe’s primeval past. Networks of trails and hizhas (hiking huts) allow access to such raw beauty as mist-cloaked panoramas in the Stara Planina range and sunrise from Bulgaria’s second-highest peak, Mt Vihren (2915m). Between trekking among Rodopi villages, thundering across ski fields in Bansko or birdwatching in Pirin National Park, Bulgaria has much to delight (and exhaust) lovers of the great outdoors.
Whispers of history emanate from Bulgaria’s fortresses and ruins. Caves secreted in Bulgaria’s river-sculpted wilds hold traces of Neolithic settlements. The mysterious Thracians left behind dazzling hauls of gold and silver, and tombs that can be explored to this day. The Romans built cities of breathtaking scale, the bathhouses, walls and amphitheatres of which sit nonchalantly in the midst of modern cities such as Varna and Plovdiv. Successions of tsars strutted along the ramparts of Tsarevets Fortress at former capital Veliko Târnovo. And these histories are no less relevant today, with Thracian art and Bulgaria’s victory over the Ottomans continuing to inspire.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Bulgaria.
The massive Belogradchik sandstone and limestone rock formations cover an area of around 90 sq km and tower over the town. The rocks, standing up to 200m high, were sculpted over millions of years by natural compression. Several hiking trails of varying difficulty lace through the rocks. The tourist information centre has a map of the routes.
The highlight at this Unesco-protected Thracian settlement is a nearly perfectly preserved three-chamber burial tomb from about 300 BC. The high quality of the construction, the fine artwork and reliefs adorning the tomb, and the exquisite burial gifts attest to the advanced state of the civilisation. Visitors are free to walk throughout the compound and visit a Muslim shrine from the 16th century. It's located about 8km from the town of Isperih, in the village of Sveshtari.
Exhibits at this vast museum, the best of its kind in Bulgaria, include 6000-year-old bangles, necklaces and earrings said to be the oldest worked gold found in the world. You'll also find Roman surgical implements, Hellenistic tombstones and touching oddments including a marble plaque listing, in Greek, the names of the city’s school graduates for AD 221. All of the exhibits are helpfully signposted in English, with excellent explanatory text. There's a large collection of icons on the 2nd floor.
The inescapable symbol of Veliko Târnovo, this reconstructed fortress dominates the skyline and is one of Bulgaria’s most beloved monuments. The former seat of the medieval tsars, it hosts the remains of more than 400 houses, 18 churches, the royal palace, an execution rock and more. Watch your step: there are lots of potholes, broken steps and unfenced drops. The fortress morphs into a psychedelic spectacle with a magnificent night-time Sound & Light Show.
About 30km south of Plovdiv stands the magnificent Bachkovo Monastery, founded in 1083. Most of the complex dates from the 17th century onwards, with the Church of Sveta Bogoroditsa (1604) as its colourful centrepiece. The church is decorated with 1850s frescoes by renowned artist Zahari Zograf and houses a much-cherished icon of the Virgin Mary. More beautiful murals can be found in the former refectory.
One of the symbols not just of Sofia but of Bulgaria itself, this massive, awe-inspiring church was built between 1882 and 1912 in memory of the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died fighting for Bulgaria’s independence during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78). It is named in honour of a 13th-century Russian warrior-prince.
If ambling down cobbled lanes with a stick of halva in hand sounds like an agreeable foray into Bulgaria's past, a day in Etâr will delight. Nearly 50 shops and workshops cluster along the lanes of this historic complex, set between trees along a tributary of the Yantra River. Officially an open-air museum, Etâr feels like a movie set with its costumed performers and traditional handicrafts. The museum is on the Gabrovo–Shipka road, a 17km drive north from Shipka.
A history of destruction and revolution, as dramatic as its cliff-backed location, entices visitors to Dryanovo Monastery. Originally founded in the early 13th century, when relics of St Michael were transported from Batak, the complex was plundered by the Ottomans. It was rebuilt in the late 17th century at its present location, astride the gorge about 6km from Dryanovo village, sheltered by limestone bluffs. The highlight is its frescoed church, sporting a huge gold and red chandelier.
Almost blending in with the surrounding rocks, the Kaleto Fortress was originally built by the Romans and later expanded by the Byzantines, Bulgarians and Turks. Most of what you see today was completed in the 1830s. You can wander round three courtyards and explore the defensive bunkers; accessing the highest rocks involves a precarious climb up steep ladders.