Tristan Davis is in his senior year at New York University where he studies Politics, Human Rights, and Middle Eastern/Islamic studies. Tristan spent 3 months traveling through the Balkans this past year. For more of Tristan’s Eastern European adventures, read this.
Bulgaria is an up-and-coming tourist destination: On the Eastern side, there are beaches and parties along the Black Sea, and on the Western side and in the center of the country, are older cities filled with ruins and monasteries, surrounded by mountains. This past spring, a friend and I decided to road-trip Western and Central Bulgaria on a whim. We spent 5 days driving around and exploring the vast countryside– you could do the best of Sofia and Plovdiv in a long weekend or spend 7-10 days exploring and hiking all over. Either way, these are 3 places you’ve got to visit in Bulgaria!
BULGARIA TRAVEL: NEED TO KNOW
Budget/cost of travel: Hostels are from $5-$15/night. You can get by on $20/day, and eat like royalty for $5-10.
We spent more money because we rented a car, which was $100 for 3 days, which I totally recommend.
In total, I spent roughly $300 (USD) in 5 days, not including the flight, but including the rental car and staying in private rooms at hostels.
Transport/how to get around:
There are inexpensive buses, trains, etc. to get from city to city, but driving is much easier, direct and gave us a chance to see some smaller towns and rural parts of the country. Walking around Sofia is the best way to see the city, but some sites require driving/taxis or taking the metro.
- 2 or 3-days: Fly into Sofia and make a day or one-night trip to Plovdiv
- 4-5 days: Start in Sofia and make day or overnight trips to Plovdiv, Veliko Tarnovo (another town we went to that’s really pretty), and/or Rila for hiking.
- 7 days: Sofia for 2-3 nights, with a day-trip to Rila to hike and visit the monastery (back to Sofia at night). Take the bus/drive to Plovdiv and/or Veliko Tarnovo for 1 night. To finish it off, continue to the Black Sea coast cities of Burgas and Varna for the best parties in the country.
When to go: It’s always a good time to visit Bulgaria!
- Peak Season is May-early September, for harvest, and then the summer.
- July and August: hottest weather and best parties on the Black Sea.
- Rose Harvest: 20 days from late May to mid-June
- March-April and October: the perfect time to visit if you’re like me and prefer cooler temperatures and few tourists
- November- March: Skiing season, generally the low season.
Bulgaria’s quiet capital is set in a picturesque mountainous landscape. This is the best place to get a grasp of Bulgarian history and culture.The city is an eclectic mix of styles, from Ancient Greek to Brutalist to Modern. There are Ottoman mosques, Byzantine churches, Russian Orthodox cathedrals, and impressive Sephardic synagogues, so if you’re into architecture, (or cheap beer) you’ll love Sofia.
If you take a “Communism tour”, which I highly recommend, you’ll get to see the secret entrances of old government buildings, hidden symbols and hear about life under the recent Socialist regime. Most older people, like in other parts of the Balkans, have a nostalgia for the 1970’s-90’s, because Bulgaria was economically doing much better than it is today. And if you haven’t had enough politics, there’s a Socialist Art museum just outside of the city, with vintage propaganda movies, music, and sculptures. Because of the Socialist times, public transit is really great!
We were stunned by the sheer amount of flowers everywhere. Bulgaria is the world’s biggest exporter of roses, but since it wasn’t quite rose season yet, the place was covered in red and yellow tulips instead. Rose season is in June and is insanely busy, so we figured we’d go early and beat the crowds. I definitely would recommend it, because there weren’t any tourists. But, of course, now I want to go back to see the roses!
Bulgaria’s second largest city, Plovdiv is set to be 2019’s European Capital of Culture. If you’re interested in seeing pretty places, souvenir shopping, local art, Plovdiv is your kind of town. Despite it resembling a traditional Bulgarian town, in the heart of the ‘Creative district’, ice cream parlors and beer gardens serve to the large student population. Plovdiv’s major attraction is its sprawling old city, which consists mainly of traditional wooden manors from the late 1800’s, a Roman theater and the Hippodrome.
The food here is the epitome of ‘comfort food’: starch, bread, beer, cheese, and meat. For a couple of dollars, I ate a potato pie bigger than my head and washed it down with two liters of local brews. For meat-eaters, there are.. well.. big roasted legs of various woodland creatures, if you’re into that. Hands down though Banitza, in all its buttery cheesy goodness, is the pastry to try. Trust me when I say it’s worth the calories… you won’t regret it.
Plovdiv seemed much less expensive than Sofia (not that Sofia is particularly expensive). I wanted to buy almost everything I saw: traditional clothing, instruments, gas masks, and all kinds of antique furniture and handmade goods. It is small though so one day and night is enough time to see and do everything at a very relaxed place.
Rila Monastery and National Park
Drive deeper into the Bulgarian countryside, and you’ll pass endless rolling hills and small towns. Rila, one of many of these little unassuming villages, is home to one of the most impressive Monasteries I have ever seen (and I study religion, so I’ve seen a fair amount of monasteries).
The monastery was founded by the followers of St. John of Rila, a hermit in the 800’s who was known to commune with nature, singing to birds like Sleeping Beauty. And also like Sleeping Beauty, St. John’s body lies in the monastery.. and people wait in line to kiss his casket!
A few miles outside of the town, is the Rila Mountains National Park, which boasts miles and miles of scenic trails. Unfortunately, after we saw the Monastery, it started pouring rain, and since it was also only about 40 degrees up in the mountains, we didn’t really feel like climbing a mountain. We decided to just drive back to Sofia, and stopped in some small towns along the way to break up the drive. But, the national park, from just what we saw, looks really incredible, I can’t imagine what the views are like from the top! Bulgaria is definitely somewhere I will be going back to in the near future.
From the goregous scenery and interesting historical sites to the cheap and delicious food and beer, Bulgaria is everything you need for a weekend getaway in Europe. I can’t wait to go back, to see more of the country, and party on the Black Sea!