Bulgaria is a true adventure playground. Hiking, biking and rock climbing are popular, with numerous trails in the spellbinding Stara Planina and in national parks such as Pirin. The Black Sea coast draws snorkellers and windsurfers, while skiers and snowboarders flock to Borovets and Bansko each winter.
Hiking has long been enormously popular in Bulgaria; it was even encouraged as a patriotic activity during communist times. Today it's the sheer joy of Bulgaria's 37,000km of marked trails that brings walkers.
The trans-European hiking trails E3, E4 and E8 all cross through the country, while the E3 trail, which begins in Spain, follows the crest of the Stara Planina range from Belogradchik eastward to the coast at Cape Ermine, and is signposted along the way. The Bulgarian stretch is roughly 720km in length; if you want to go the whole way, count on taking at least 25 days. The E4 and E8 trails both pass through Rila National Park and offer varied scenery and difficulty.
Walkers are well supported, with numerous hizhas (mountain huts) along the more popular tracks, as well as in real wilderness areas. While some are very basic affairs, intended only as no-frills overnight shelter, others are more comfortable, sometimes with attached cafes. It’s one of the more positive legacies of the old communist regime, which believed that hiking was a healthy and productive proletarian pastime.
The Rila Mountains are a rugged, rocky, heavily forested range with plunging glacial valleys and rich plant life. One of the most attractive and accessible walking routes heads into the Malîovitsa range, south of the small town of the same name and based around soaring Mt Malîovitsa (2729m).
Another relatively easy and very pleasant walk runs along the Rilska River toward Rila Monastery, before reaching Kiril Meadow.
The Pirins offer some of the very finest walking country in Bulgaria. It’s an alpine landscape of glacial valleys and lakes, and the climate is blessed with a moderating Mediterranean influence.
The Sredna Gora is the highest, most visited section of the Stara Planina, with hundreds of marked tracks and the largest number of hizhas. The Stara Planina is noted for its sudden weather changes, and some of Bulgaria’s highest rainfalls and strongest winds have been recorded here, so be prepared.
Guides are invaluable when hiking in Bulgaria, both because of remote and tricky terrain and for the insights they can give into the landscape's geology and myths; find a guide via Hiking Guide Bulgaria (www.bulguides.com) from around 120 lv per day. For organised hiking tours, contact Odysseia-In in Sofia.
Rock Climbing & Mountaineering
The Rila, Pirin and Stara Planina mountain ranges each have numerous locations where you can rock climb and mountaineer. In these perilous peaks, and with snow and low temperatures persisting at higher levels into summer, a qualified guide is essential. Find local guides with mountaineering or rock and ice climbing expertise through www.bulguides.com (from 230 lv per day).
The Bulgarian Climbing & Mountaineering Federation (www.bfka.org) has information, advice and links to regional clubs. The website www.climbingguidebg.com is also a good resource.
There are well over 200 peaks higher than 1000m in the alpine, lake-dappled Rila range. Malîovitsa village is home to the Central Mountain School, which offers rock-climbing activities and guides. Climbing here is only for the experienced. Mid-June to mid-September has the best conditions.
This range features more than a hundred peaks above 2000m. The northern face of Mt Vihren (2915m) is the most popular climb in this region and can be accessed from Bansko, though it is extremely challenging; indeed most climbing routes in the Pirin Mountains are only suitable for experienced climbers. BTour can arrange family-friendly and beginner-level rock climbing from Bansko (from 70 lv per person, minimum group of three). May to September has the best conditions, but ask about conditions locally.
The 550km-long Stara Planina (Balkan Range) has more than 350 climbing routes from Vratsa. The most frequented section is the Vratsa Rocks in the far west, the largest limestone climbing area in Bulgaria. Mt Botev (2376m), inside the Central Balkan National Park, is a popular climb, with easy access from Karlovo. Learn more at the Natura Information Centre. Spring or autumn are the best times to climb.
Skiing & Snowboarding
Bansko is the number one skiing and snowboarding resort in the country, and it continues to expand rapidly, particularly with hotel developments encroaching on its mountainous horizon. It has the most modern facilities, the longest snow season and the biggest international profile. It boasts 75km of marked ski trails (from 900m to 2600m in elevation), and all abilities are catered for, plus there's a stunt park for experienced snowheads to leap and slalom. The ski season runs between mid-December and April, helped in part by the use of artificial snow cannons. It's at its best from January to March.
Pamporovo, sited at 1650m in the Rodopi Mountains, and with 25km of trails, is a family-friendly place and great for beginners. The more experienced will be drawn to the giant slalom run and, most difficult of all, the infamous 1100m-long Wall.
Nearby Chepelare is quieter and further from hotel developers' radars, but it has 30km of cross-country tracks and some of the longest runs in Bulgaria. Mechi Chal I (3150m long) is a black-level run used for international competitions, while Mechi Chal II (5250m) is a combined red/green slope with a 720m vertical drop.
Borovets, in the Rila Mountains, has three main ski areas comprising 58km of pistes, many of them scenic and fringed with trees, plus well over 30km of cross-country runs.
Just 10km from central Sofia, Vitosha is a convenient destination for weekending city folk and has slopes to suit all levels of skiers and snowboarders. Other, smaller (and cheaper) ski resorts such as Malîovitsa are mainly patronised by Bulgarian holidaymakers and there's little to detain visiting skiers beyond a day.
During the summer, big Black Sea package resorts such as Sunny Beach (Slânchev Bryag) and Golden Sands (Zlatni Pyasâtsi), as well as some smaller seaside towns, offer organised water sports, including jet-skiing, waterskiing, parasailing and windsurfing. Often these are quite casual affairs set up at various points along the beaches.
Scuba diving has become popular in recent years, and there are several places along the coast where you can try it. Popular tourist towns such as Varna, Sozopol and Nesebâr are the places to go, and there's a diving resort just north of Tsarevo. As well as standard training courses and boat dives, there’s also the opportunity to explore wrecks.
Birdwatching & Wildlife Watching
Bulgaria is a haven for all kinds of wildlife, including such elusive creatures as brown bears and wolves, plus more than 400 species of birds (around 60% of the European total).
Birdwatching is a popular hobby and several companies run birdwatching tours. The nesting period (May to June) and migration period (September to October) are the best times to come. The Via Pontica, which passes over Bulgaria, is one of Europe’s major migratory routes for birds. Top picks for birdwatchers include Lake Srebârna, home to Dalmatian pelicans and rare cormorants; Pomorie Lake, with more than 200 bird species; and Kaliakra Nature Reserve, frequented by migratory birds.
Cycling & Motorbiking
Though not always advisable as a means of getting around cities, cycling is an excellent way of exploring some of the more off-the-beaten-track areas of Bulgaria’s wild and wonderful countryside.
Malko Târnovo in southeastern Bulgaria has some enjoyable cycling trails, as does the coastal area around Varna. Inland, Veliko Târnovo's surrounds have good options for cyclists.
There are surprisingly few businesses that rent out bikes. It’s a good idea to either bring your own or book a package or tour. Alternatively, seek out accommodation at a guesthouse or campground that offers bike rental, such as Camping Veliko Tarnovo or Guesthouse Djambazki.
Motoroads (www.motoroads.com) has a good choice of mountain bikes (minimum five-day rental from 240 lv) and motorcycles (minimum five-day rental from 485 lv). Motoroads also organises a series of self-guided trips, including five-day motorcycle tours of the Black Sea coast and Bulgarian monasteries (each from 1270 lv).
Odysseia-In runs mountain-biking trips through the Rodopis and along the coast. Its self-guided five-day cycling trip along the Black Sea coast costs around 1020 lv.
Cycling Bulgaria (www.cyclingbulgaria.com) is another big outfit offering interesting excursions, from a one-day Mt Vitosha ride from Sofia (66 lv) to eight-day tours of the Western Balkan mountain range (from around 960 lv).
The reputable Plateau Cycling runs whole- or half-day guided cycling trips around Varna and the Black Sea coast, including bikes and pick-ups.
Seeing the open countryside from atop a horse can be a magical experience, and there are several companies around the country offering horse-riding tours in some of the most spectacular areas such as Stara Planina, the Pirin Mountains and the Black Sea coast. Arbanasi is an especially good destination for equine enthusiasts, with a family-friendly riding school on the eastern edge of the sleepily scenic hilltop village; short rides cost from 25 lv.