The only scheduled domestic flights within Bulgaria are between Sofia and Varna and Sofia and Burgas. Both routes are operated by Bulgaria Air (www.air.bg).
Generally, cycling isn’t the most practical (or safest) way of getting about in urban or built-up areas, and accidents involving cyclists are common on the busy roads of Sofia. Many roads are in poor condition, major roads are often choked with traffic, and bikes aren’t allowed on highways. On the other hand, traffic is light along routes between villages and long-distance buses and trains will carry your bike for an extra 2 lv (buy a permit at the ticketing desk).
Cycling is a more attractive option in the Black Sea resorts, where there are plenty of places renting out bikes. Spare parts are available in cities and major towns, but it’s better to bring your own. Mountain bikes are a more attractive option in the countryside, and are sporadically available for rent, especially at campsites. For a dedicated two-wheeled tour of Bulgaria, week-long cycling holidays (starting at 900 lv) can be found at www.cyclingbulgaria.com.
Tap in to the country's cycling community on the Bulgarian Cycling Association website (www.bulgaria-cycling.org).
The only domestic sea transport in Bulgaria consists of a seasonal service between tourist towns on the Black Sea Coast. During the summer months the high-speed Fast Ferry operates from Nesebâr's passenger ferry port to Sozopol (from 27 lv one way) and Pomorie (from 11 lv one way).
Buses link all cities and major towns and connect villages with the nearest transport hub. Several private companies operate frequent modern, comfortable buses between larger towns, while older, often cramped minibuses run on routes between smaller towns. Buses provide the most comfortable and quickest mode of public transport in Bulgaria, though the type of bus you get can be a lottery.
Though it isn't exhaustive, many bus and train schedules can be accessed at www.bgrazpisanie.com.
Biomet Runs between Sofia and Veliko Târnovo, Varna and Burgas, with less frequent routes to Ruse and Silistra.
Etap-Grup Another extensive intercity network, with buses between Sofia, Burgas, Varna, Ruse and Veliko Târnovo, as well as routes between Sofia and Sozopol, Primorsko, Tsarevo and Pomorie.
Union-Ivkoni Links most major towns and many smaller ones, including Sofia, Burgas, Varna, Plovdiv, Pleven, Ruse, Sliven and Shumen.
Car & Motorcycle
The best way to travel around Bulgaria – especially when visiting remote villages, monasteries and national parks – is to hire a car or motorbike. Union of Bulgarian Motorists is the main national organisation for motorists, though little information is available in English.
Before you can drive on motorways, you will need to purchase and display a 'vignette' in your vehicle. For a car, this costs 15/30 lv for one week/month. Vignettes can be bought at border crossings when first entering the country or at post offices and some petrol stations once inside Bulgaria. Rental cars hired within Bulgaria should already have a vignette.
Bring Your Own Vehicle
- If you do decide to drive your own car into Bulgaria, remember that car theft is very common and foreign cars especially are an immediate target.
- You will need to carry all of the original registration and ownership documents, or your vehicle may be impounded by the police.
- Drivers from EU countries can temporarily import a car for use on Bulgarian roads for a period up to six months, provided there is a valid third-party insurance policy.
- Under Bulgarian law, vehicles registered outside the EU need to undergo a technical test and registration before they can be driven on Bulgaria's roads. Import duty and an environmental tax may be levied.
Check with your car rental agency whether your driving licence from home meets their requirements; some operators may ask for an international driving licence.
Note that drivers of private and rented cars (and motorcycles) must carry registration papers.
To rent a car in Bulgaria you must be at least 21 years of age and have had a licence for at least one year. Rental outlets can be found all over Bulgaria, but are most common in the bigger cities, at airports, and at Black Sea resorts. Prices start at around 60 lv to 80 lv per day.
Third-party liability insurance is compulsory, and it is important to hold proof of insurance. Buying comprehensive insurance in your home country is the best idea, but make sure it’s valid in Bulgaria. The Green Card – a routine extension of domestic motor insurance for EU citizens, covering most European countries – is valid in Bulgaria.
The National Bureau of Bulgarian Motor Insurers (www.nbbaz.bg) has some useful advice.
Road Conditions & Hazards
- Bulgaria’s roads are among the most dangerous in Europe, and the number of road deaths each year is high. Speeding and aggressive driving habits are common; during summer (July to September), an increase in drink-driving and holiday traffic can contribute further to accidents.
- Sofia and roads along the Black Sea coast can be particularly traffic-clogged and nerve-jangling.
- Aside from well-maintained main highways, road conditions in Bulgaria can be poor. Drivers must cope with potholes, roads under reconstruction, slow-moving vehicles, horses and carts, and often erratic driving by other motorists.
- Mountain roads can be narrow and suffer from rockfall, while pitted roads and lack of markings are the biggest issues in Bulgaria's rural interior.
- Never rely completely on road signs. Outside cities and major tourist destinations, many are written in Cyrillic only. One useful map to take on your travels is the Bulgaria Road Atlas (1:330,000) published by Domino in Cyrillic and English, and widely available at bookshops in Bulgaria.
Road signs are rare, but official speed limits (50km/h in built-up areas, 90km/h on main roads and 130km/h on motorways) are enforced by traffic police, and speed cameras have been installed on main routes.
There are a number of road rules you are required, by law, to follow.
- Drivers and passengers in the front must wear seat belts, and motorcyclists must wear helmets.
- All vehicles must have a warning triangle, reflective jacket and first-aid kit on board.
- The blood-alcohol limit is 0.05%.
- Children under 12 years are not allowed to sit in the front seat.
- Headlights must be on low beam at all times, year-round. Hire cars may already be configured to do this, so check at the rental office.
- Mobile phones may only be used with a hands-free system.
- If you have an accident, you must wait with your vehicle and have someone call the local police and 112 for assistance.
There are still some cases of corrupt traffic police targeting motorists, especially those in expensive foreign cars, and demanding on-the-spot 'fines' (or bribes) for alleged offences. There has been a crackdown on such racketeering, but if you are unlucky enough to be approached in this way (and it looks like a scam) either ask to pay at a police station or insist on a receipt, with the officer's full details. The 'charge' may well be dropped. There are also occasional reports of impostors masquerading as traffic police attempting to extort fines. Again, ask for ID before handing over any cash.
Hitching is officially illegal in Bulgaria, but people still do it. For some travellers, hitching in rural Bulgaria is seen as preferable to being restricted by infrequent public transport.
Hitching is never entirely safe, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk.
The upsurge in crime over the last few years has dissuaded some Bulgarians from offering lifts to hitchhikers.
Bulgaria’s borders are not particularly ‘user-friendly’, and you may face extra questioning and delays if you are travelling in a stranger's vehicle, so hitching across borders is not recommended.
- Private and public buses and minibuses ply routes between smaller villages, eg along the Black Sea coast and between urban centres and ski resorts in winter. Tickets for minibuses cost roughly the same as for public buses but are usually bought from the driver. Destinations (in Cyrillic) and, often, departure times are indicated on the front window. Most minibuses leave from inside, or very close to, the major public bus station.
- In Sofia, minibuses called marshroutki run between the city centre and the suburbs, acting like shared taxis.
- Most Bulgarian towns have cheap and efficient public bus services that tend to be quite crowded, as this is how most locals get around.
- Trolleybuses also operate in several city centres, drawing their power from overhead cables. They tend to be priced similarly to standard city buses.
Taxis, which must be painted yellow and equipped with working meters, can be flagged down on most streets in every city and town throughout Bulgaria. They can be very cheap, but rates do vary. Taxis can be chartered for longer trips at negotiable rates, which you can approximate by working out the distance and taxi rate per kilometre, plus waiting time.
All drivers must clearly display their rates on the taxi’s windows. These rates are divided into three or four lines:
- The first line lists the rate per kilometre from 6am to 10pm (about 0.60 lv to 0.80 lv per kilometre is average), and the night-time rate (sometimes the same, but often about 10% more).
- The second lists, if applicable, the call-out fee (of about 0.50 lv) if you preorder a taxi (rarely necessary).
- The third line lists the starting fee (0.30 lv to 0.50 lv).
- The final line lists the cost for waiting per minute (0.15 lv to 0.30 lv).
Some drivers try to overcharge unwary foreigners by claiming the meter ‘doesn’t work’ (it must work by law) or offering a flat fare (which will always be at least double the proper metered fare). Dishonest drivers congregate outside airports, train and bus stations and big city centres and in the resorts along the Black Sea coast. Negotiating a flat fare only makes sense if you are asking for a multistop journey, or if waiting time needs to be factored into a day trip by taxi.
- The Bulgarian State Railways (БДЖ; www.bdz.bg) boasts more than 4070km of tracks across the country, linking most sizeable towns and cities, although some are on a spur track and only connected to a major railway line by infrequent services.
- Most trains tend to be antiquated, shabby and not especially comfortable, and journey times are usually slower than buses. On the plus side, the scenery is likely to be more rewarding.
- Trains are classified as ekspresen (express), bârz (fast) or pâtnicheski (slow passenger). Unless you absolutely thrive on train travel or you want to visit a more remote town, use a fast or express train.
- Two of the most spectacular train trips are along Iskâr Gorge, from Sofia to Mezdra, and on the narrow-gauge track between Septemvri and Bansko. Railway buffs often go on these trips for no other reason than the journey itself.
- Train travel in Bulgaria is a normally safe and enjoyable experience, but there have been reports of robberies, pickpocketing and minor annoyances (such as drunkenness) on some cross-border routes, such as to/from Turkey or Serbia. If you are travelling late at night, sit with other passengers rather than in an empty compartment, and if you are making a long overnight trip across the border, try booking a bed in a couchette.
- First-class compartments seat six people, eight are crammed into 2nd class, and the intercity express has individual seats in an open carriage.
- Sleepers and couchettes are available between Sofia and Burgas and Varna but must be booked in advance.
- Fares for 1st class are around 25% higher than for 2nd class. The carriages won’t be any cleaner, but it’s always worth paying the extra just to have a bit more space.
Train travel within Bulgaria is cheap by Western European standards, with a 1st/2nd class express cross-country trip between Sofia and Varna coming in at approximately 25/30 lv. If you’re travelling in a group (three to six people) you may get a small discount.
- For frequent train services between the main cities there is rarely a problem if you simply turn up at the station and purchase a ticket for the next train (but be careful to allow at least 30 minutes to queue up).
- Advance tickets are sometimes advisable on train services such as the intercity express to the Black Sea during a summer weekend. Advance tickets can be bought at specific counters within larger train stations.
- It is not usually possible to buy tickets for travel that does not start from your current location (for example, buying a Plovdiv–Veliko Târnovo ticket isn't possible from Sofia).
All tickets are printed in Cyrillic. Other than the place of departure and destination, tickets also contain other important details:
- Клас – klas – ‘1’ (1st class) or ‘2’ (2nd class)
- Категория – kategoriya – type of train, ie T (express), 255 (fast) or G (slow passenger)
- Влак – vlak – train number
- Час – chas – departure time
- Дата – data – date of departure
- Вагон – vagon – carriage number
- Място – myasto – seat number