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.
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. Tsarevets Museum-Reserve is located on Tsarevets Hill, which has been settled since time immemorial due to its strategic location. Thracians and Romans used it as a defensive position, but the Byzantines built the first significant fortress here between the 5th and 7th centuries AD. The fortress was rebuilt and fortified by the Slavs and Bulgars between the 8th and 10th centuries, and again by the Byzantines in the early 12th century. When Târnovgrad became the Second Bulgarian Empire’s capital, the fortress was truly magnificent, but it was sacked and destroyed with the Turkish invasion in 1393. Tourists can thank the communists for returning it to a semblance of its former glory (although some archaeologists grumble about the faithfulness of the restoration). Not much English-language information is provided, but guided English-language tours (10 lv) can be arranged by enquiring at the tourist-information centre. Entering the structure, pass through two gates and veer left (northeast) for the fortress walls – some were once 12m high and 10m thick. Further along the walls are the unrecognisable remains of a 12th-century monastery, various dwellings and workshops and two churches. To the north lie remains of a 13th-century monastery, and Execution Rock, from which traitors were pushed into the Yantra River. Alleged traitor Patriarch Joachim III was the most famous figure to take the plunge, in 1300. The complex’s eastern path is less remarkable; return to the middle, using the hilltop Patriarch’s Complex as a landmark. Past one of several modern bells (used in the Sound and Light show) are a ruined nobleman’s dwelling and two churches to the left (east). Below the Patriarch’s Complex are the foundations of the Royal Palace, from where 22 successive kings ruled Bulgaria. Once covering 4500 sq metres, the palace included an appropriately enormous throne (measuring about 30m by 10m) and Roman columns, probably transferred from nearby Nikopolis-ad-Istrum. From the palace, head west to the main path and up the steps to the Patriarch’s Complex, also called the Church of the Blessed Saviour. Once about 3000 sq metres in size, it was probably built around 1235 and has been extensively restored. The city views from the front steps are more impressive than the modern murals inside, depicting 14th- and 15th-century Bulgarian history. Returning towards the main entrance, veer left along the path hugging the southern wall. At its end is the restored Baldwin Tower, where Baldwin I of Flanders – the perfidious Crusader who led the sacking of Christian Byzantium in 1204 – got his just deserts, imprisoned and executed after his defeat by the Bulgarians a year later. There are great views from the top.
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. The monastery was founded by Georgian brothers Gregory and Abasius Bakuriani, aristocrats in Byzantine military service. It flourished during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185–1396) but was ransacked by Turks in the 15th and 16th centuries. Major reconstructions began in the mid-17th century. Inside the Church of Sveta Bogoroditsa, note the cupola featuring a beautiful mural of Christ, the 17th-century iconostasis and the icon of the Virgin. Believers claim that this miracle-working icon was painted by St Luke, though art historians date it to the 11th to 12th centuries. Pilgrims regularly pray before the silver- and gold-encased Madonna; if you see queues, it is likely to be a line to place items before the icon to be blessed. The monastery’s southern side houses the former refectory, dating to 1601. This is well worth visiting for the extraordinary frescoes (1643) relating the monastery’s history. A gate beside the refectory leads to a (rarely open) courtyard; this leads to the Church of Sveti Nikolai (1836). During the 1840s, Zograf painted the superb Last Judgment inside the chapel; note the condemned, nervous-looking Turks on the right and Zograf’s self-portrait (no beard) in the upper-left corner. A small museum of icons also opens when there is sufficient demand. Around 50m from the monastery entrance, the restored 11th-century ossuary features wonderful medieval murals. Ask staff to open the doors. A prominent explanation board provides monastic history (in English, French and German), and a map of hiking trails to nearby villages. Bachkovo Monastery offers rooms (10 lv to 15 lv per bed) but be aware that only married couples can share a room and some travellers report being turned away. Enquire upstairs in the reception office or, better yet, online in advance. Take any bus to Smolyan from Plovdiv’s Rodopi bus station (5 lv), disembark at the turn-off about 1.2km south of Bachkovo village and walk about 500m uphill. There are also direct buses half-hourly (6 lv).
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. Designed by Russian architect Alexander Pomerantsev, the church was built in the neo-Byzantine style favoured in Russia at the time and is adorned with mosaics and gold-laden domes. The cavernous, incense-scented interior is decorated with naturalistic (though now rather faded) murals, pendulous chandeliers and elaborate onyx and alabaster thrones. Visitors are welcome and there are daily services where you can hear evocative Orthodox chants and prayers.
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. Etâr’s 19th-century National Revival–style buildings, gaily painted in peach and periwinkle blue, house the workshops of bakers, cartwrights, cobblers, furriers, glass workers, hatters, jewellers, leather workers, millers, potters, weavers and more. Yes, it's rather twee, but if you’re looking to take home a memento of bygone days in the Balkans, there are quality goods from silverware to pottery on sale. Some of the workshops are powered by water from a stream running through the complex; the Karadzheika Watermill dates to 1780. Aside from shopping, it's possible to peer inside traditional cottages, watch an old sawmill and pause inside the Holy Epiphany Church, a replica of an 1868 temple in Radovtsi village. Enter the complex either on the northern side (near the Hotel Stranopriemnitsa), at the central administration building, or on the far southern side, near the large car park. A multi-entry, one-day ticket is usually required, and guided tours (in English, French or German) are available for another 7 lv per person (minimum of five people).
Plovdiv’s magnificent 2nd-century AD amphitheatre, built during the reign of Emperor Trajan, was uncovered during a freak landslide in 1972. It once held about 7000 spectators. Now largely restored, it's one of Bulgaria's most magical venues, once again hosting large-scale special events and concerts. Visitors can admire the amphitheatre for free from several look-outs along ul Hemus, or pay admission for a scarper around.
At the far western end of the seafront, this palace was completed in 1926 by King Ferdinand of Romania for his English wife, Queen Marie, when Balchik was part of Romania. Size-wise, it's a relatively modest villa, though the architecture – a blend of local, Gothic and Islamic styles topped with a minaret – is unique. Behind the palace are the extensive botanical gardens. The complex also includes a water mill, a winery and the tiny Chapel of Sveta Bogoroditsa. The half-dozen or so rooms on show contain original furnishings, including paintings by Marie, and several photographs of the queen striking dramatic poses on the grounds. Also here is a curious collection of local archaeological finds, including Roman pottery and mammoth bones. In the garden, around 600 species of flora are featured throughout a series of themed terraces, including an impressive collection of cacti. If you’re travelling here by bus from the southern coast, get off at the bus stop opposite the palace – either look for the tour buses and souvenir stalls, or ask the driver to drop you off at the dvorets (palace). The entrance here leads into the top end of the botanical gardens. Another entrance is off the seafront promenade.
A sky-blue church, posing against forested valleys, is the centrepiece of this 1833 monastery. What began as a humble wooden church outside Sokola Cave (Falcon Cave) expanded into the outbuildings and well-preened garden here today. Like many cloisters in Bulgaria, Sokolski Monastery sheltered revolutionary fighter Vasil Levski. The monastery is a 2.5km drive southwest of Etâr's Open-Air Museum, near Vodnitsi village. The stone fountain at the centre of the garden was crafted in 1868 by Kolyu Ficheto, Bulgaria's pre-eminent National Revival–era architect. Its eight spouts are a nod to eight Gabrovo rebels who were captured and hanged. There are souvenir and snack stands inside and outside the complex, as well as an excellent sweet shop selling rooster-shaped bonbons and lokum (rose-scented candy).
Sveta Sofia is one of the capital's oldest churches, and gave the city its name. A subterranean museum houses an ancient necropolis, with 56 tombs and the remains of four other churches. Outside are the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and an eternal flame, and the grave of Ivan Vazov, Bulgaria's most revered writer.