First-time Bulgaria in 3 Days:
This is a bit busy, we admit. But if you’d like to pack in a couple experiences in a short period, this is what we’d recommend:
- Veliko Târnovo. See the Fortress, eat on Shtastlivetsa restaurant’s balcony for river gorge views. Stay in private room at tavern-style Hostel Mostel near the fortress.
- Daytrip to Tryavna, by rental car, to shop at local crafts shops and get a leather craftsperson to make you a Bulgarian belt. En route back, drop off at the 19th-century Dryanovo Monastery wedged between cliffs; a short trail reaches Roman road ruins just above. Also ask at Mostel about waterfall swimming holes. Or press on the Shipka Pass.
- To Plovdiv. Regular buses take four hours. Visit the 2000-year-old Roman amphitheatre and 19th-century homes in the cobblestone walkways around Old Town. Check out art. (Plovdiv hosts many art events, including Process Space Art in May 2018.) Stay up late, following students to bars, and getting kebabs in central alleys.
First-time Bulgaria in 7 Days:
- Start in Sofia. Go to market, fill water bottles at public springs by mosque, get your first shopska salad.
- Drive to Veliko. Wander along gorge. Go to fortress.
- Daytrip from Veliko to Tryavna, monasteries, Roman roads.
- Drive to Shumen. Get buffalo milk at pass, visit Buzludzha (the “UFO building”) and Thracian tombs below the pass. Continue to Nesebâr, stay in seaside UNESCO site, eat fish on a balcony. Or to Sozopol, another historic town with boat trips to the sea. (The former has inns in the historic area, the latter does not.)
- Day on the seaside.
- Drive to Plovdiv in about four hours. Stay in Old Town, see amphitheater.
- Drive to Sofia in two hours. Party in Student Town.
Show-off Bulgaria in 7 Days:
Very few visitors do this. It’ll score you some cocktail party talking points once you’re home.
- Start with a day in Sofia.
- Take the morning five-hour train to Vidin in northwest. Touch the Danube from the city center riverwalk. See synagogue ruins en route to nearby 10th-century Baba Vida fortress.
- Bus to Belogradchik in 75 minutes. Hike on the rocks of Belogradchiski Stali surrounded by a Roman/Bulgarian/Ottoman fort that looks like Middle Earth.
- Return to Sofia by the morning train. Rent a car. Drive south to Rila Monastery to overnight with the monks.
- Drive south alongside the Rila Mountains to Melnik, near the Greek border. A six-fingered vintner has a cave on a hillside you can buy cheap wine — or stick with wine in little inns or those sold roadside in empty water bottles. The red wine here is considered “hangover-free.” Prove it.
- Drive into the Rhodope Mountains on backroads to the east, stay in tiny Shiroka Laka, three hours’ east. There’s a traditional music school here. Drop by to see students learn the gaida, basically the Bulgarian bagpipe. Shiroka Laka has a fun clickety-clackety name that's fun to say (sha-ROCK-a LUHK-a).
- Drive on to Plovdiv, for a final night amidst Roman ruins, Old Town cafes and kebab shops.
THE WORST OF BULGARIA
BEACHES. Sorry, but it’s the beaches. Beaches of Bulgaria get acclaim, but remain a question mark in appeal because of shockingly over-developed, condo-crammed resort “towns” like Sunny Beach. Don’t go there. If you must get beach time, find better beach space by looking south toward the Turkish border. Sinemorets has some nice golden-sand beaches with minimal development. The coastal scene, meanwhile, has many merits, notably Varna, Nesebâr and Sozopol.
SOFIA, KIND OF. Sofia is not a bad city. It can be great fun, if you focus on food and drink and leisurely walks or take trams around. Or go to Mt. Vitosha to hike or ski. But, by appearance alone, it’s gray, modern and lacking any particularly key attractions, making it not the best representative of the best of Bulgaria.
DON’T LEAVE WITHOUT…
EATING BULGARIAN FOOD. (And not just the pizza.) Try the banitsa pastry, shopska salad, and toast it with rakiya brandy.
GOING TO A KÂSHTA HOUSE MUSEUM. They’re part of 19th-century revival period where Bulgaria shrugged off eight centuries of Ottoman rule. Koprivshtitsa is full of them, as is Old Town in Plovdiv.
VISITING A MONASTERY. Rila’s is the most famous (and you overnight there – if you find the monk with the room keys), but there are many great ones. Ivanovo Rock Monastery, in Rusenski Lom Nature Park near the Danube River, is cut into rocky cliffs and features 14th-century murals.
LEARNING CYRILLIC. It’s Bulgaria’s biggest claim to fame.
GOING TO A LITTLE VILLAGE. They’re very very cute. Shiroka Lâka, south of Plovdiv, has homesteads in the hills, plus dung heaps and a Bulgarian traditional music school you can drop by. Locals love the 19th-century revival homes you can visit in Koprivshtitsa, or — lesser visited — Kotel.
A COUPLE MORE THINGS TO READ
When Lonely Planet asked Robert to write about the Black Sea Coast, he agreed — with a condition. “Only if I can buy a 1972 Moskvitch.” They agreed, because buying the Soviet car was cheaper than renting a car. (It cost a few hundred dollars, and was gifted afterwards to Assen, our pal at Hostel Mostel in Sofia/Veliko. Ask him about it.) Riding a Soviet-era car was the ultimate ice-breaker. Everyone wanted to know why Americans were riding around Bulgaria in one. Everything went well — even after the starter broke (see video above).
While updating Bulgaria for Lonely Planet, Robert discovered the socialist-era housing blocks of the capital’s outskirts were home to some of the most active bars and clubs. Studentski Grad — or Student Town — is literally a student town, filled of university dorms. After communism fell, ground floors turned into nightclubs. Things go late. Robert wrote about it for the New York Times.