Bargaining

Haggling is fairly common in markets selling furniture or antiques (where there is often 10% to 25% wiggle room on a price), but the overwhelming majority of shops and stalls sell goods at a fixed price. Bargaining over cab fares is appropriate for long, multi-stop journeys or day tours by taxi; otherwise, insist on a meter and be wary if you're told the meter is broken.

Dangers & Annoyances

Bulgaria is no more dangerous than any other European country, but it is worthwhile being streetwise in larger cities.

  • Parked cars, especially with foreign licence plates and/or rental-agency stickers, are targets for thieves. Never leave valuables inside your car.
  • Watch out for pickpockets in markets and on buses, and be wary of gangs of young pickpockets in big cities.
  • Bulgaria has very harsh drug laws. Don’t attempt to buy, sell, transport or use drugs.
  • Taxi drivers at airports, train stations and beach resorts can overcharge outrageously.
  • Changing money on the street is illegal, unnecessary and you risk extortionate rates.

Discount Cards

International Student (ISIC), Youth (IYTC) and Teacher (ITIC) discount cards can be used in Bulgaria, and offer a range of discounts on transport, accommodation, restaurants, shopping, entertainment venues and tourist attractions. Many places that accept these cards don’t advertise the fact, so it’s always worth asking. Cards may be bought in Bulgaria at branches of the Usit Colours (www.usitcolours.bg) travel agency. Check online at www.isic.org for current details and for participating companies.

Embassies & Consulates

Emergency & Important Numbers

Bulgarian area codes have between two and five numerals. When dialling a local number, drop the initial 0. The EU-wide emergency number 112 can be used in Bulgaria.

Bulgaria's country code359
Ambulance150
Fire160
Police166
24-hour Pharmacy Information178

Entry & Exit Formalities

As Bulgaria is a member of the EU, citizens of other EU nations will face minimal border formalities.

Delays are common at border crossings, and customs officials are generally an unfriendly and suspicious lot; expect to be questioned on what business you have in coming to Bulgaria and where you intend on staying.

Customs Regulations

  • Whether you’re inspected by customs officers depends on how you enter the country, but bona fide tourists are generally left alone.
  • If you’re travelling between Bulgaria and another EU country, then normal EU rules on what you can import or export apply.
  • If you enter or leave the country with more than €10,000 on you (in any currency), you must declare it.
  • Check with the customs service in your home country for advice on what you can import duty-free from Bulgaria.
  • For information about exporting unusual items (such as valuable archaeological artefacts) by air, contact the National Customs Agency (www.customs.bg).

Passports

There are no restrictions on any foreign-passport holders entering Bulgaria, other than the length of time they are allowed to stay. Passports should be valid for at least three months after the date of your intended departure from Bulgaria.

Visas

Visas are not required for EU citizens. Citizens of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA can visit visa-free for up to 90 days.

Further Information

Citizens of other EU member states and Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, the USA and several other countries can stay in Bulgaria visa-free for up to 90 days. Other nationals should check the current requirements with their nearest Bulgarian embassy or consulate before their departure. Visas cannot be obtained at border crossings. At the time of writing, Bulgaria was not a member of the Schengen zone, and its application to join had long been pending.

Visa Extensions

Visitors wishing to extend their visit to Bulgaria beyond the 90-day limit have to apply for a residence permit at the National Migration Directorate (http://migration.mvr.bg); application forms can be downloaded from the website. This is likely to be a time-consuming, bureaucratic nightmare, and nobody here will speak anything but Bulgarian. It’s probably far better to contact the Bulgarian Embassy in your own country for advice before you travel if you envisage being in the country for more than three months. The Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.mfa.bg) has useful information, in English, on visas and other immigration matters.

Etiquette

  • Greetings Bulgarians are polite and a little reserved on first meetings, so a handshake is most appropriate.
  • Personal space Bulgarian attitudes to personal space are more relaxed than some other cultures. People may approach closely when speaking to you, or join your table at crowded restaurants.
  • Queues The Bulgarian attitude toward queuing can be somewhat fluid; idle or distracted travellers can expect queue-jumpers to pounce.
  • Gifts Flowers and bottles of spirits are well received by Bulgarian hosts, if you're lucky enough to be invited to dinner.
  • Tipping Rounding up a bill, or leaving 10% of the total, is standard tipping practice.
  • Public transport In Bulgaria it is considered very poor form not to relinquish your seat for a pregnant or elderly person.

LGBT Travellers

Homosexuality is legal in Bulgaria but gay culture is very discreet as a result of prevailing macho attitudes and widespread homophobia. Same-sex relationships have no legal recognition and gay couples cannot adopt children or seek IVF treatment.

In common with other Eastern European countries, Bulgaria is a very conservative society. Discrimination is illegal, but many Bulgarians react negatively to open displays of affection between same-sex couples, and a depressingly high number consider homosexuality a mental illness. Attitudes, among younger people at least, are changing, and there are several gay clubs and bars in Sofia and small scenes in Varna and Plovdiv. There is an annual Gay Pride march in Sofia (www.sofiapride.org), although this has been the focus of protests and even violence in past years.

One of Bulgaria's biggest music stars, Azis, is an openly gay, cross-dressing Roma, who has spoken about the double discrimination he faces towards his sexuality and ethnicity.

For more information see www.gay.bg and www.gay-bulgaria.info.

Insurance

A travel insurance policy to cover theft, loss and medical problems is a sensible idea. There are a wide variety of policies available, with some policies offering lower and higher medical-expense options, so check the small print.

Some policies specifically exclude ‘dangerous activities’, which can include scuba diving, motorcycling and even trekking. A locally acquired motorcycle licence is not valid under some policies.

You may prefer a policy that pays doctors or hospitals directly rather than you having to pay on the spot and claim later. If you have to claim later, make sure you keep all documentation. Some policies ask you to call back (via reverse charges) to a centre in your home country where an immediate assessment of your problem can be made.

Check that the policy covers ambulances as well as an emergency flight home.

Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.

Checking insurance quotes…

Internet Access

  • Most hotels and hostels offer free internet access to guests, and wi-fi hotspots can be found in many restaurants, cafes and other businesses. Some hotels offer laptops for guest use.
  • With the increasing availability of wi-fi, internet cafes have become something of a rarity in Bulgaria. Where internet cafes do exist, access is usually cheap, between 2 lv and 3 lv per hour, although these are often cramped, smoky bunkers where teenage boys play deafening computer games, and connections can be painfully slow.
  • In reviews the @ symbol is used to show premises that provide computers for internet access, or plug-in facilities for laptops, while the wi-fi symbol denotes places that offer wireless internet access.

Maps

Even for dedicated satnav users, road maps are a good idea if you’re driving around Bulgaria (though recent ones can be frustratingly tricky to track down). Domino's Bulgaria Road Atlas (1:330,000) and Freytag & Berndt's Bulgaria Road Map (1:400,000) are high quality, though Marco Polo's Bulgaria (1:800,00) is the most freshly updated.

For hikers, maps are even more crucial. It's recommended to buy hiking maps online before you reach Bulgaria, or get them at bookshops in Sofia (before you reach remote hiking terrain; map availability in villages is very variable, even at tourist offices). A good place to find maps in the capital is Zig Zag Holidays, which sells maps covering the various national parks and mountain ranges. Elsewhere, local travel agencies or tourist information centres are your best bet.

Media

  • Magazines Seek out Vagabond (www.vagabond.bg), a glossy, English-language lifestyle magazine, published monthly and available at bookshops and newsstands in Sofia, and some coffeeshops in Varna, Plovdiv and Stara Zagora.
  • Newspapers Novinite (www.novinite.com) is an online English-language source of Bulgaria-wide news.
  • Radio Key stations include Radio Bulgaria (BNR; www.bnr.bg), which has a daily one-hour English-language broadcast, and BG Radio (91.9FM; www.bgradio.bg).

Money

ATMs are widely available. Credit cards are accepted in most hotels and restaurants; smaller guesthouses or rural businesses may only accept cash.

ATMs

ATMs that accept major credit cards (ie Visa, MasterCard and American Express) are common, found in all sizeable towns and cities. The total amount you can withdraw depends on your bank's own restrictions.

Black Market

Foreigners may be approached on the street (especially in Sofia or Varna) and asked to change money, but this is illegal and there’s a high chance you’ll be given counterfeit leva, short-changed or robbed, so don't do it!

Cash

Bulgarian banknotes come in denominations of 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 leva. Coins come in 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 stotinki and 1 lev. Prices for smaller items are always quoted in leva or a fraction of a lev, eg on a bus ticket the fare will be listed as ‘0.50 lv’ rather than ‘50 stotinki’. Some shops will not bother to give change less than 1 lv in value. It's wise to bring exact change or small bills for minor attractions, which seldom seem to have change.

Credit Cards

You cannot rely on using a credit card exclusively in Bulgaria; use it to get cash from banks and for major purchases only. Credit cards are commonly accepted in hotels, restaurants and shops in the big cities, towns and tourist resorts, but acceptance is less widespread in more rural areas. Some places, particularly the more expensive hotels, will add a 5% surcharge to your bill if you use a credit card.

Currency

The local currency is the lev (plural: leva), comprised of 100 stotinki. It is almost always abbreviated to lv (лв). The lev is a stable currency. For major purchases such as organised tours, airfares, car rental and midrange and top-end hotels, prices are often quoted by staff in euros, although payment is possible in leva, too. Bulgaria has no immediate plans to adopt the euro as its national currency.

Exchange Rates

AustraliaA$11.28 lv
CanadaC$11.34 lv
Europe€11.95 lv
Japan¥1001.67 lv
New ZealandNZ$11.22 lv
Romania1 lei0.43 lv
UKUK£12.45 lv
USAUS$11.74 lv

For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.

Money Changers

Foreign exchange offices can be found in all large towns, and current rates are always displayed prominently. They are no longer allowed to charge commission, but that doesn't always stop them trying; always check the final amount that you will be offered before handing over your cash. Avoid exchange offices at train stations, airports or in tourist resorts as rates are often poor.

When changing money, make sure that the foreign banknotes you have are not torn, marked or grubby, otherwise they may be refused. Similarly, make sure that any leva given to you are not torn or marked. The best currencies to take to Bulgaria are euros, pounds sterling and US dollars. You may have trouble changing less familiar currencies, such as Australian or Canadian dollars, but you should be able to find somewhere in a city such as Sofia, Plovdiv or Varna that will accept most major international currencies.

It’s also easy to change cash at most of the larger banks found in cities and major towns; the exchange rates listed on the electronic boards in bank windows may offer slightly higher rates than foreign exchange offices, but they may charge a commission.

Tipping

  • Bars Serving staff don't expect tips per round, though leaving a small tip when you leave is appreciated.
  • Hotels Expectation of a tip for hotel staff is rare except in very high-end places.
  • Restaurants In some restaurants a 10% service charge is already added, although waiters may still round up the bill or not return with your change.
  • Taxis Metered-taxi drivers usually expect to keep the change from a fare.

Travellers Cheques

Travellers cheques are not as popular as they once were and can only be changed at banks. Many only accept American Express and Thomas Cook, with commission rates as high as 3% to 5%.

Opening Hours

Standard opening hours are as follows.

Banks 9am to 4pm Monday to Friday

Bars 11am to midnight

Government offices 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday

Post offices 8.30am to 5pm Monday to Friday

Restaurants 11am to 11pm

Shops 9am to 6pm

Photography

Taking pictures of anything in Bulgaria that might be considered of strategic importance, such as military camps and border crossings, is not advisable. These days officials are much less paranoid about photography than they used to be, but use common sense. It’s best to ask permission before taking close-up photos of people. Heed photography restrictions in monasteries and churches, as flouting the rules can offend.

Post

The standard cost of sending a postcard is 0.40 lv within Bulgaria, while a letter up to 50g costs 0.65 lv. Postcards and letters weighing up to 20g cost 1 lv to elsewhere in Europe and 1.40 lv to the rest of the world. Get the most up-to-date rates at www.bgpost.bg.

To send a parcel from Bulgaria, it will save you hassle to bring it unwrapped to the post office. Anything heavier than 2kg must often be taken to a special customs post office (ask at the post office for information).

Public Holidays

During official public holidays all government offices, banks, post offices and major businesses will be closed. Hotels, restaurants, bars, national parks/reserves and museums usually stay open (unless the holiday coincides with a normal day off), as do most shops and petrol stations; border crossings and public transport continue to operate normally.

New Year’s Day 1 January

Liberation Day 3 March

Orthodox Easter March/April/May

May Day 1 May

St George’s Day/Bulgarian Army Day 6 May

Cyrillic Alphabet/Culture and Literacy Day 24 May

Unification Day 6 September

Bulgarian Independence Day 22 September

Christmas 25 & 26 December

Smoking

  • Smoking Around 45% of Bulgarians smoke – one of the highest proportions in Europe. Since 2012, smoking has officially been banned in all public spaces, including restaurants, bars, hotels, cinemas and workplaces, but is still permitted at outside restaurant tables.

Taxes & Refunds

The value-added tax (VAT) of 20% is included in all prices quoted in Bulgaria, and is included in all prices listed in our reviews. Some restaurants add a service charge of 10%, and some top-end hotels and tour-guide services list pre-VAT prices.

Telephone

Domestic & International Calls

  • To call Bulgaria from abroad, dial the international access code (which varies from country to country), add 359 (the country code for Bulgaria), the area code (minus the first zero) and then the number.
  • To make an international call from Bulgaria, dial 00 followed by the code of the country you are calling, then the local area code, minus the initial 0.
  • To make domestic calls within Bulgaria, dial the area code, which will be between 2 and 5 digits long, followed by the number you wish to call. If you are making a domestic call from your mobile phone, you will also have to insert the country code (+359) first, unless you are using a Bulgarian SIM card.
  • To call a Bulgarian mobile phone from within Bulgaria, dial the full number, including the initial 0.
  • Find phone numbers of local businesses via www.goldenpages.bg.

Mobile Phones

Visitors from elsewhere in Europe will be able to use their mobile phones in Bulgaria. Local SIM cards are easy to buy in mobile phone stores (bring your passport) and can be used in most phones.

More Information

  • Mobile (cell) phones are as commonplace in Bulgaria as anywhere else, and many hotels, restaurants and other businesses give mobile numbers as their prime contact number.
  • Mobile telephone numbers have different codes to land lines (eg 087, 088 or 089) and are indicated by the abbreviations ‘GSM’ or ‘mob’.
  • Bulgaria has three main mobile service providers which cover most of the country: M-Tel (www.mtel.bg), Telenor (www.telenor.bg) and Vivacom (www.vivacom.bg).
  • Visitors from other European countries should be able to use their own mobile phones as usual, but check your provider's roaming rates. Travellers from outside Europe may have to purchase a Bulgarian SIM card in order to use their handsets on the Bulgarian mobile network.

Phonecards

Prepaid phonecards, for use in public telephones, are available from newspaper kiosks and some shops in denominations ranging from 5 lv to 25 lv. Cards for domestic or international calls can be used in public phone booths and some also accept credit cards.

Time

Bulgaria is on Eastern European Time (GMT/UTC plus two hours), except during daylight saving time, when clocks are put forward by one hour between the last Sunday in March and the last Sunday in October. There are no time-zone changes within the country.

If it’s noon in Sofia, it’s 2am in Los Angeles, 5am in New York, 10am in London, 11am in Paris and 7pm in Sydney, not taking into account daylight saving (where applicable) in these countries. The 24-hour clock is commonly used throughout Bulgaria, and always used for bus and train timetables.

Toilets

Most toilets are of the sit-down European variety, though squat toilets exist at some tourist attractions (especially monasteries) and near the Turkish border. All hotels provide toilet paper and soap, but these are rarely offered anywhere else.

Public toilets are usually found at bus and train stations, underpasses and parks, and standards of cleanliness are generally poor. You will be charged between 0.30 lv and 0.50 lv per visit, sometimes more for toilet paper. Much better (and free) facilities are available within modern shopping malls and Western fast-food franchises.

Tourist Information

Bigger cities, and smaller towns popular with tourists, have dedicated tourist information centres, which provide free maps, leaflets and brochures, although a good many, strangely enough, are staffed by speakers of only Bulgarian. National parks often have information centres offering advice.

Burgas (www.gotoburgas.com)

Ministry of Tourism (www.tourism.government.bg)

National tourism portal (www.bulgariatravel.org)

Plovdiv (www.visitplovdiv.com)

Ruse (www.tic.rousse.bg)

Sofia (www.visitsofia.bg)

Varna (www.visit.varna.bg)

Veliko Târnovo (www.velikoturnovo.info)

Travel with Children

Children play a big part in the social and cultural scenes of family-friendly Bulgaria. Aside from bars, children are welcomed with open arms at restaurants, hotels and attractions.

The Black Sea coast, and winter sports areas such as Bansko, are the most family-friendly regions. Bigger hotels here often have playgroups and kids’ clubs. More rural areas may appeal to older children, as activities such as horse riding, cycling and wildlife-watching are available. All big towns have public parks with playgrounds, as well as attractions that children might enjoy, like zoos, which you can find in both Sofia and Varna.

For inspiration and tips on family travel, pick up a copy of Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children guide.

Practicalities

  • Baby care Most of the necessities for travelling with toddlers, such as disposable nappies (diapers), baby food and fresh or powdered milk are readily available in shops and supermarkets across the country. Public nappy-changing facilities are not common in public toilets but they can be found in toilets at higher-end restaurants and hotels.
  • Babysitting Agencies are only common among the expatriate community in Sofia. Some top-end hotels offer this service, however, and ski creche facilities are increasingly common in luxurious hotels at winter sports hubs such as Bansko.
  • Breastfeeding Public breastfeeding is not very common in Bulgaria, though awareness-raising groups are working to change attitudes.
  • Cots and car seats Top-end, international chain hotels in cities, and hotels in coastal resorts, usually have cots available. International car rental firms can provide children’s safety seats for a nominal extra cost, but it’s essential to book these in advance.
  • Restaurants Most restaurants in Bulgaria welcome families with children, although few offer specific children's menus, and fewer still have high chairs. You're more likely to find these kinds of facilities in and around the Black Sea resorts and in some places in Sofia. There are plenty of Western-style restaurants and international fast-food chains if your little ones are fussy eaters.

Accessible Travel

Unfortunately Bulgaria is not an easy destination for travellers with disabilities. Uneven and broken footpaths pose challenges, and ramps and toilets designed for disabled people are few and far between, other than in a handful of top-end hotels in Sofia and other big cities. Public transport is not generally geared toward the needs of travellers with disabilities.

One organisation worth contacting is the Center for Independent Living (www.cil.bg) in Sofia.

Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guide from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.

Volunteering

There are a number of opportunities for volunteering in Bulgaria. Various international organisations have ongoing projects in the country, and there are also many local groups that welcome foreign volunteers.

British Society for the Protection of Birds (www.rspb.org.uk) Occasional opportunities to assist with fieldwork relating to endangered species.

Bulgarian Archaeological Association (www.archaeology.archbg.net) Find out about volunteering opportunities on archaeological digs in Bulgaria.

Green Balkans (www.greenbalkans-wrbc.org) Rescue centre for the rehabilitation of injured animals, with a network of volunteers who transport creatures back to their habitats.

Habitat for Humanity (www.habitatbulgaria.org) Organises house-building and community-based projects in poorer neighbourhoods.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (www.wwoofbulgaria.org) Can direct you to current projects and openings for volunteers on farms around the country.

Weights & Measures

  • Weights & Measures The metric system is used.

Women Travellers

In general, travelling around Bulgaria poses no particular difficulties for women. For the most part, sober men are polite and respectful. However, Bulgarian women won't normally go to a bar or nightclub unaccompanied, and single foreign women may attract attention. If you do attract unwanted advances, saying Az sâm omâzhena (‘I am married’) gives a pretty firm message.

For overnight train journeys, choose a sleeper compartment rather than a couchette. Women in big cities and coastal resorts dress as they please; in more rural areas, modest clothing is the norm. At some monasteries and religious sites, you may be asked to wear a shawl or headscarf (they are usually available to borrow), though this is increasingly uncommon if the visitor is otherwise covered from collarbone to knee.

Feminine hygiene products, such as tampons, are widely available in supermarkets and pharmacies across the country.

Work

Since Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, there are no longer any labour restrictions on citizens of other EU countries, but with high levels of domestic unemployment and some of the lowest wages in Europe, Bulgaria isn’t an obvious destination for foreign job seekers. In fact, local people lament the 'brain drain' as Bulgarian youth seek work in other European countries.

The government is keen for foreigners to establish businesses as long as most of the staff are Bulgarian, but paperwork can still be labyrinthine. Most foreigners working in Bulgaria are employed by multinational companies in jobs arranged before arriving in the country.

If you intend to seek employment in Bulgaria and are not an EU, EEA or Swiss citizen, you will need a work visa; contact your local Bulgarian embassy for details. If you do find a temporary job, the pay is likely to be very low. Do it for the experience, rather than the money, and you won’t be disappointed. Teaching English is one way to make some extra cash, but the market is often saturated.

If you arrange a job before you arrive, your employer should plough through the frightening mass of paperwork from relevant government departments and pay the various fees. If you land a job after you arrive, or you’re considering setting up a business in Bulgaria, contact expats for current advice about the plethora of required forms and fees.

Work Your Way Around the World by Susan Griffith provides practical advice on a wide range of issues.