Ultimate Travel Guide to Bulgaria
Bulgaria is one of those countries I first approached with minimal expectations. I honestly didn’t really know what to expect and wasn’t too sure that it would end up being one of those memorable spots, you know? But, let me tell you, after a bit of research and an amazing adventure, I’m quickly learning to silence these presumptuous thoughts…
A cultural melting pot with Greek, Slavic, Ottoman, and Persian influence, Bulgaria is a country of fascinating history and rich culture. Yet, with all this intriguing background, I would argue this to be one of the most uncommon destinations for travellers I have been to, particularly when it comes to venturing outside the capital. In this post, I hope to show you exactly why this country should make your travel list. I’ll share with you how we spent 6 days in Bulgaria, and hopefully give you some helpful tips and tricks for (perhaps?) your own visit!
During our 6 days, we explored Sofia, Rila, Plovdiv, Melnik, and Belodradchik. However, after a vast amount of research, we decided that the easiest and most comfortable way to do all of this was to be based out of Sofia — with day trips to each of our destinations. Yes, this made for some pretty long days, at times, but it was totally worth it!
Everywhere you search, you will see that the #1 hostel in Bulgaria is Sofia’s Hostel Mostel. This is for good reason. For an affordable price, you will not only receive your bed/room, but you will also receive: a free buffet-style breakfast every morning (served from 7:30-10 am), complete with fruits and veggies, meat, cheese, eggs, waffles, coffee, tea, juice, etc.; a free vegetarian dinner each night (served from 7-8 pm); and a free beer with your dinner! The staff is friendly and the hostel is well-located, offering laundry on-site and plenty of storage space.
A few things to be aware of before booking/arriving: If you book a private room as we did, your room will be in a separate building located approximately 7 mins from the hostel hub. Additionally, you are not allowed to drink alcohol on site after 10 pm due to noise levels and neighbor complaints. However, because of this, the hostel does organize a free pub crawl every night of the week, beginning at 10 pm. The hostel also does not organize day trip outings to many places around the country, unlike most hostels I have been to in the past – But, they will happily call around and help you to coordinate what you need. While none of this should deter you from booking with Hostel Mostel, I’m simply sharing some things you can expect, that aren’t necessarily written online.
I would definitely recommend Hostel Mostel, but I would book it decently far in advance as it was full every single night we were there (and it wasn’t even “tourist season”).
Pro tip: book your hostel through the actual hostel website, not through a hostel booking website. This is something I actually learned on this trip!
The 10% “deposit” that you pay is actually a commission that the hostel will never receive
The booking fee is an additional payment for something that you could do yourself
Therefore, by booking your stay through the hostel’s own website, you are actually saving you money and investing that 10% into the hostel who will be responsible for your stay — instead of a third-party corporation.
Getting Around (Transportation)
Taxis: We found taxis to be well-priced in Bulgaria (approximately 0.79 – 0.90BGN/km). That being said, take caution as it can be common for cab drivers to scam tourists, charging them more than necessary. We found OK Taxi to be a reputable company, with their prices fairly stated on the outside of their vehicle.
There is an OK Taxi booth at the airport with an attendant who can book you a cab quickly into town for an easy transition! (Most drivers also don’t speak English, so it can be helpful if you have someone who can call for you in Bulgarian – ex. Someone from the airport or your hostel). Again, if you would like to take a taxi from the airport, I would strongly recommend using this service at the booth (it’s free) as taxis waiting outside the terminal and those with drivers wandering inside the airport will try and rip you off. It’s also always best to point to the fare you are expecting, listed on the side of the taxi, to confirm with the driver that you understand the price agreement.
Public Transport in the City: We only used public transport once as we found it cheap and more convenient to take a taxi or just simply walk. That being said, the one time we used the metro, we found it decently straightforward to navigate. Most stops are translated into English and you can take the metro straight from the airport into town. One trip costs 1.60BGN.
Getting Outside the City: Every place I researched beforehand warned me that the train services in Bulgaria are far from reliable or quick. Basically, it’s better to take a bus than it is to take a train… We took a bus from Sofia to Plovdiv and the trip was only 14BGN (per person, each way). However, most trains and buses are not super well connected and can take hours longer than going by car…
This brings me to my last point about transport… renting a car.
Renting a car in Bulgaria is by far the easiest way to see anything outside of Sofia. There is little organized transportation from Sofia to pretty much all the “must-see” locations, especially outside the tourist season. But don’t be intimidated, the roads are clear and easy to navigate, and gas stations are plentiful. One important thing to note, however, is that Bulgarian roads are notorious for being FILLED with potholes. The main issue with this is that car rental companies in Bulgaria will provide you with insurance for everything except the tires.
Tip: It’s rumoured that some rental companies can over-inflate or under-inflated tires, making them more sensitive to things like potholes. Be sure to check them before you drive!
As an additional heads up — to get anywhere outside of Sofia, you’re looking at no less than a couple of hours journey, each way. This may seem intimidating for some, but honestly, the drives through the country are gorgeous and it’s totally worth it 🙂
Overall, renting a car in Bulgaria is easy, affordable, and a sure-fire way to see the sites you want (need) to see! (Just beware of potholes!!)
PLACES TO SEE & THINGS TO DO
Sofia is a very different European capital. Unlike most, Sofia doesn’t exactly have what you would expect to be an “Old Town” district. However, it does have pedestrian streets, shops, and historically notable buildings located throughout its entirety. We only spent about a day and a half exploring the capital and, while we enjoyed our time, I would say it was enough. There is a very informative and interesting free walking tour offered every day at 10 am, 11 am, and 6 pm. We did this our first morning and found it provided the perfect setup/background for our time in Bulgaria. It also gave us a solid lay-of-the-land as it takes you to each and every monumental and significant spot in town. Not to mention, you get a ton of fun facts!
Speaking of free tours… we also took advantage of the Balkan Bites Free Food Tour. Need I say anything more though, honestly? This tour was amazing! Make sure you call ahead to reserve a spot or show up at least 15-20 mins before it begins though because it fills up fast – and, again, for good reason. The tour is offered every day at 2 pm, lasting approximately 2 hours. Our guide was knowledgeable, fun, and entertaining. He took us to 4 different traditional Bulgarian restaurants around Sofia and while I wouldn’t show up on an empty stomach, the small portions were just enough to give you a perfect sample of some of Bulgaria’s best treats and most valued cuisines. Each restaurant was fantastic and, had us more time, I would have gladly gone back to any one of them for a full meal.Tip: While these tours are free, it’s always encouraged to offer a tip to your guide to show your appreciation.
Places to Eat:
For those who do miss the opportunity or do not have time for the free food tour, here are some of the restaurants I would recommend for Bulgarian bites:
Bagri → seasonal and locally-sourced Bulgarian and Eastern European food
Lavanda → a house converted into a restaurant setting with a cozy atmosphere — they even rent out the top floor to groups who want to watch a movie!
Mekitsa & Kafe → local spot for delicious traditional Bulgarian pastries
Hadjidraganovite Izbi → labelled “the most popular traditional restaurant in Sofia”
In more of a rush and want to pick up something to wander with? Don’t panic. Sofia is absolutely crawling with kebab and pizza shops – tasty and totally affordable!
Note: Looking to pick up some fun souvenirs or gifts from your time in Bulgaria? I recommend “The White Stork Souvenir Shop”. A tiny space located under the city in its tunnels, we found some quality Bulgarian products at affordable prices. The owner was also incredibly kind and informative about the pieces we purchased!
A place I would have loved to explore more, the Rila was a beautiful spot, less than a 2-hour drive from Sofia. Should you have time, the 7 Rila Lakes are highly rated and are raved as a spectacular spot to hike and explore, but would likely require you to spend a night away from Sofia. This is more so due to the fact that you cannot miss also seeing the Rila Monastery!
Rila Monastery is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. A UNESCO World Heritage Centre, the beauty of its construction, presence, and surrounding environment completely blew me away! This place is definitely worth the day trip, even if you’re only heading to Sofia as a weekend destination.
Note: This trip was actually planned and organized by Hostel Mostel. The drivers even took us into the mountains before visiting the monastery for a small hike and cave exploration!
Curious about checking out a Bulgarian city outside of Sofia? Hop on a bus and head south for 14BGN and spend a day in Plovdiv, the EU Cultural Capital for 2019! Though it only has a population of approximately 350,000 people, it is the second biggest city in the country and boasts an astounding amount of history and culture. Surrounded by mountains, this city is filled with plenty of little shops, cafes, and eateries, and also exhibits a surprising amount of Roman ruins. One notable spot, not to be missed, the Ancient Theatre of Philippopolis sits atop the city with a beautiful view overlooking the Balkan Mountains from Plovdiv's Old Town. To this day, it is one of the world’s best-preserved ancient theatres!
Another must-see in this striking little town is Kapana, otherwise known as, “The Trap”. A creative and alternative district, The Trap is home to numerous works of handcrafted street art and impressive graffiti. One could likely spend an entire afternoon in this district alone – So, bring your camera, have a drink, and enjoy the views… everyone else is!
Looking for some outdoor activity, or a break away from the city, to witness the landscapes of beautiful Bulgaria? Get ready to check out…
Though we were only 3 of about 6 travellers in the entire town the day we went, I would strongly suggest a visit to this place. A small town in Southwestern Bulgaria, nestled in the midst of natural sandstone pyramids formed from soil erosion, the town is unlike any others I’ve seen. With small trails that lead you up above the city, you can take in gorgeous birds-eye-views of the town and see for yourself spectacular rolling hills and natural pyramids for as-far-as-the-eye-can-see!
Also, pay a visit to the Kordopulov House for a walk through the biggest Revival building in Bulgaria! Built in 1754, the house exhibits a combination of wood carvings, painted walls, and colourful stained-glass windows. Waking through, you can get a taste for traditional Bulgarian style and décor… but that’s not the only thing you’ll get a taste of! As the house belonged to a rich Melnik winemaker and merchant, the basement is actually a maze of stone tunnels filled with maturing wine! Head on down and you’ll even get a tasting of the local stuff they make in that exact building to this day *insert heart eyes and drooly face here*.
Speaking of wine… be sure to check out any of the local spots for a taste of the many varieties of Melnik wine (The only place you can get it!). Some of the gift shops even offer you free samples 😉 .
Never did I ever anticipate tasting the best wine I’ve had in Bulgaria, but hey, I did! And for the record, Winston Churchill felt the same — It was one of his favourite wines – So much so, that he used to place orders for 500 litres of it at a time, annually… that’s a lot of love for a lot of tasty wine.
In all honesty, probably my favourite part about our trip to Bulgaria. Unfortunately, during our trip to the fortress/rocks, we experienced a flat tire (RE. ENDLESS POTHOLES) and, with the delay, were left unable to visit any of the recommended caves in the area (Venetsa Cave and Magura Cave). With that being said, the trip was still 100% completely worth it!
Located in Northwest Bulgaria, a group of very oddly shaped sandstone and conglomerate rock formations can be found scattered amongst the Balkan Mountains. Believe me when I say that this was one of the most jaw-dropping, breathtaking, memorable landscapes and examples of topography I have ever seen in my life, of any place I have ever been! It also didn’t hurt that there were such few people there… But, honestly guys, a must-see if you ever get an opportunity…
The fortress is located in the same area as the rocks (you actually have to walk through the fortress to get the view from the rocks). As one of the best-preserved strongholds in Bulgaria, Belogradchik Fortress is a cultural monument of national importance. The whole experience of the fortress and rocks is pretty remarkable… It’s almost impossible not to feel as though you’re on another planet as you walk through the fortified walls and up toward a viewpoint that will make you feel like you’ve entered Fantasia.
Tip: If you will be heading outside of Sofia to see other stunning sites around Bulgaria, like Melnik or Belogradchik, be sure to pack snacks and drinks for the journey. In rural Bulgaria, there are few options to stop at along the road and if you do spot something on the way, be prepared for gas station sandwiches and candy.
Bulgaria and its Accessibility
I feel as though I should make one more comment on Bulgaria as it relates to its surrounding partners. If you are planning to visit Romania, Serbia, Turkey, Greece, or the Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria is a country where you will find very inexpensive connections from both Sofia and Plovdiv. So, there’s a little extra incentive to check this amazing place out if you’re planning on visiting any of the boarding countries anyway!
And there you have it, folks – how we spent 6 days in Bulgaria. Hopefully, this post left you a little more knowledgeable about this unique country and maybe even left you keen to plan your own Balkan adventure! Or perhaps, you’ve also been to Bulgaria – was there anything important I missed? What was your favourite part about this intriguing country?! I’d love to hear any of your thoughts or comments on Bulgaria or travelling the Balkans.
Till next time, cheers and happy wanderlusting!