Bulgaria holidays

Experience Bulgaria

Best Places to Visit

Formed around the Maritsa River, Ancient Plovdiv is the heart of the city of the same name. Europe's oldest continually inhabited town was first raised 8,000 years ago. It has witnessed conquering Romans, the Ottoman Empire and the forces of Communism. It boasts a Roman amphitheatre, ancient churches, mosques, city walls and charming medieval streets.

Set in dramatic countryside, the Seven Rila Lakes were formed by glacial erosion and are known by names which denote their unique qualities. Saizata is named for its crystal-clear waters and Ribnoto Ezero is noted for its fantastic for fishing. Hiking and trekking here are best in July and August, as the lakes are frozen for much of the year.

The UNESCO World Heritage city of Nessebar lies on the coast of the Black Sea and is a medieval cityscape of tiny, cobbled streets, and ancient buildings. Once part of the harbour city of Meesembria, now lost beneath the waves, Nessebar has numerous beautiful churches among its highlights, perfect for religious travellers but also for anyone with an interest in local architecture.

Veliko Turnovo is home to the ruined castle of Tsaravets, with its Patriarchal and Royal palaces, and the inner city fortress of Trapezitsa. Set in the northern mountains, its Old City has traditional Renaissance houses overlooking the Yantra River and a selection of historical museums. A small jaunt just outside the city and you will find the Preobruzhenie Monastery – one of the largest of its kind in the area.

Skiing in winter is one of the most popular activities here, with the town of Bansko a perfect family destination. The slopes here are great for both young and old beginners, although there's not much to attract experts. A short drive away is the Four Paws Bear Sanctuary at Belitsa Bear Park, a haven for former dancing bears which now peacefully roam free.

Bulgaria's Valley of the Thracian Kings comprises 1,500 burial mounds lining the sides of the road which leads to the spectacular Shipka Pass. The stone-built tombs of the rich sit side-by-side with less imposing monuments, with six now open to the public. It’s still unknown which classes of the ancient society were entitled to be buried here. Again, this is a worthy addition to any tourist itinerary, and a spiritual experience not to be missed - it's certainly something you can't do in many other locations around the world.

Top Landmarks

Many of Bulgaria's significant landmarks are found in its capital city, Sofia. The city's major landmark is the glorious St Nedelya Church, a great domed masterpiece with breath-taking murals of saints adorning its interior. The mummified body of medieval Serbian king Stephen Milutin lies here in a glass case, yet another unique spectacle for travellers to take in.

Along the Balkan Mountains' western slopes are the soaring Belogradchik Rocks, a group of strangely shaped sandstone formations over 200m tall. Most are associated with local legends and there are five major groups, with the most spectacular incorporated in the Belogradchik Fortress. This looms over the picturesque town of the same name. The fortification was first built during the Roman era and later enlarged during the Ottoman period.

Narrow Cape Kaliakra, jutting out into the ocean not far from Varna, is a famous natural landmark that is noted for its rugged, dramatic scenery and its Roman and Byzantine fortress. This site had significance during the Ottoman era, playing host to a scene of tragic events when 30 young girls jumped from the cliffs to escape Ottoman soldiers. It's eerily beautiful and is also famed for housing the legendary grave of St Nicholas.

The National Archaeological Museum in Sofia tells of the ancient history of the city and country, displaying magnificent Thracian gold and silver jewellery, sarcophagi, Thracian pottery, images and statues, and much more. Set in a historic mansion, the museum presents a timeline of the city's history and its conquerors, and is a must for any history enthusiasts on holiday.

Entertainment

Nightlife in Bulgaria is buzzing in the Black Sea resorts, but the capital of Sofia is catching up fast, with hedonistic bars and watering holes opening up week after week. Vitosha Boulevard and hip Ulitsa Rakovski Street are the capital's most happening places, recently joined by Neofit Rilski. But for clubs, visitors should head for the little streets behind the Sheraton Hotel, a well-hidden secret much loved by those who know it. From shabby venues packed with students to plush, leather-sofa lounge bars and late-night hangouts, there’s much on offer whatever your preference.

Bulgarians love theatre, dance, opera and music of all genres, and there's plenty here to please. From the National Opera and traditional Puppet Theatre, to the National Theatre and the ballet, you can’t escape music and dancing. Live Bulgarian folk music can be heard at many restaurants and in the streets at festival times, with jazz, blues, rock and pop concerts held regularly.

Varna is one of the hotspots of the Black Sea coast, with thousands of visitors arriving here for a summer of fun and games. Varna is the main highlight of the strung-out resorts and is a combination of history and in-your-face modernity. Plazhna Aleya, fronting the beach, is lined with dozens of nightclubs, eateries and bars, with the A-Lounge beach bar the place to see and be seen. Varna also boasts an open-air theatre which hosts different events, from rock concerts to ballet.

Dining Out

A popular misconception is that Bulgarian cuisine consists of stodgy, mundane peasant food. Peasant food it is, but it's also the best-kept gastronomic secret in the region, with its fresh, seasonal ingredients and simple, effective preparation. There's a strong influence from the Turkish occupation, and neighbouring Greece has a presence in the flavours. Indigenous herbs and spices, fresh pork, veal and chicken, cheeses, live yoghurt and local vegetables all contribute to a healthy, delicious range of dishes.

The rich Bulgarian soil, imbued with minerals from the water table, rivers and streams, ensure its products are exceptionally nutritious. A simple salad begins most meals, and meat is mainly grilled over coals or pot-roasted with vegetables. Classic soups include tarator, a cucumber and yoghurt cold soup flavoured with walnuts, garlic and dill. This is often accompanied with the salty, white sirene cheese that frequently appears throughout traditional recipes. The Greek moussaka (aubergine lasagna) is a favourite dish, while Greek baklava (sweet pastry) is a much-loved dessert.

Wine is the beverage of choice, and locally-distilled spirits such as rakia, menta and mastika are often enjoyed at the start and end of meals. Kyufte (meatballs) and various styles of kebab are usually enjoyed with rich sauces and rice.

Beach

Bulgaria's Black Sea coast holds a variety of beaches, from fully-equipped resort sands backed by package-tour hotels through quieter strands away from the main towns to remote, almost deserted beaches backed by forests, where camping is possible and nude bathing common. Beachside choices are here for all kinds of holidays, from family to hippie. Sunny Beach has everything, including summer DJ beach parties, and Golden Sands Beach is great for families. For getting away from it all in a tent, Irakli Beach is perfect.

Romance

For a romantic break in Bulgaria, head for one of the historic towns or villages and stay in a small, family-run hotel with magnificent views over stunning countryside. Belogradchik is a good choice, with its charming main square lined with local eateries serving traditional food and quaint, narrow streets with small shops. Visitors come here for the famous rocks, but it's not inundated with tourists day and night. Pretty villages are nearby, including Chiprovtsi, which is famous for its hand-woven rugs. 

Family

Bulgaria, in general, is a family-friendly country, with a good choice of holidays to keep every family member happy. Beachside holidays are the first choice, but activity holidays here can be planned especially for families with kids over seven years of age. Multi-activities include horseback riding, caving, climbing and rushing around green meadows, and usually include one or two nights camping in one of Bulgaria's nature reserves.

Adventure

There's an incredible choice of adventure holidays based all over Bulgaria, with its topography well suited to sports such as mountaineering, caving, canyoning, quad-bike safaris, mountain biking and tough hikes and treks. Remote protected areas such as Madzharovo are home to grey wolves and vultures, and guided glimpses of their wild world makes for an unforgettable adventure. Watery adventures include kayaking, canoeing and rafting in spectacular gorges created by raging rivers.

Need to know

Language

Bulgarian is the official language of the country, with English spoken in Sofia, Plovdiv, the Black Sea coastal resorts and other major tourist destinations. Russian is also commonly spoken, especially by public transport workers, so stay close to the major resorts and hospitality establishments if you want to avoid a language barrier that is difficult to overcome.

Currency

The Bulgarian currency is the lev, with BGN 1 divided into 100 stotinki. Foreign money is not normally accepted here, although the euro can be used at some outlets. Bulgaria operates a cash economy in its rural areas, but international credit and debit cards are accepted in major cities. Money exchanges are located all over the cities; however, banks are the best places to exchange currency as their rates are competitive. Street money changers should be avoided at all costs. In major cities, towns and resorts, ATMs are easily found but are rare in rural districts, so don't assume you can withdraw cash easily when you need it.

Visas

Bulgaria is a non-fully implemented member of Schengen, with EU and EFTA citizens able to enter visa-free with an ID card or passport for a stay of any length. US citizens and visitors from Australia, Canada and New Zealand can enter visa-free for a stay of not more than three months on production of a valid passport and ticket for onward travel. All other nationalities should check online or at a Bulgarian embassy for visa requirements.

Climate

Bulgaria's geographic position ensures one of the most dramatic weather patterns of any European country. The north is much cooler and wetter than the southern regions, and temperatures vary wildly across the regions and seasons. The lowest temperature recorded is -38°C and the highest is 45°C. The Continental air masses bring heavy snow during the winter season. Winter temperatures in Sofia average freezing, with summer highs of around 28°C, while the south-eastern summer highs are a scorching 35°C or more, with winter averaging 10°C. The shoulder seasons of spring and autumn are generally pleasant.

Main Airports

Bulgaria has four international airports, Sofia, Burgas, Plovdiv and Varna. Full-service flights serve the London-Heathrow to Sofia route while budget flights run from London-Gatwick, London-Luton and Manchester.

Flight Options

Sofia Airport lies just outside the city and offers flights from London-Heathrow via British Airways and Bulgaria Air, with EasyJet flying from London-Gatwick and Manchester. There are also seasonal Thomas Cook and Thomson routes from London-Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol. Burgas Airport serves low-cost flights to London-Luton as well as seasonal flights to London-Gatwick and smaller UK domestic airports.

Travel Advice

Travelling outside the summer high season is the best way to save money, although charter companies often offer last-minute bargains on all-inclusive deals which may be around the same cost as a flight alone. Shoulder season holidays in Bulgaria are usually cheaper, and winter visitors outside the festive season should be able to save on flights and accommodation. Bus, taxi, airport shuttle and hire car are options from the main airports.

Other Transport Options

Travelling from London to Bulgaria by train is a romantic experience that is reasonably straightforward. Take the Eurostar from London to Paris, picking up the overnight sleeper to Munich at Gare d'East station. From Munich, the Railjet runs to Bucharest through amazing alpine scenery. From Bucharest, a daytime train runs direct to Sofia and is another scenic ride.

Getting Around

Getting around by bus is the most practical, cheapest and least time-consuming method of seeing all Bulgaria has to offer. Hiring a car should involve hiring a driver, as road signs are often in Cyrillic script with no English equivalents.

Bus

Bus travel in Bulgaria is cheap, relatively comfortable and the fastest way to get round the small country. Routes connect all large towns and cities, although most drivers don't speak English. Road conditions vary and the trip between Sofia and Varna takes just over five hours.

Car

International car rental companies are represented in Sofia, although it's recommended you hire a driver if you're heading to remote rural areas. Speed limits here are 120kph on highways, 80kph on minor roads and 50 or 60kph in rural areas.

Train

Bulgaria's rail service is generally in a sorry state, although since 2010 some improvements have been made. It's the cheapest option, but by far the slowest due mainly to delays caused by ageing infrastructure. Bulgarian State Railways, the national carrier, connects most towns with the exception of mountainous Pirin and Rhodopes.

BULGARIA`S WEATHER TODAY

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AVERAGE RAINFALL (mm)

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MAP

FACTS

  1. Bulgaria has been home to humans since at least the Paleolithic period, and carved animal bones found there are the oldest examples of humans using written symbols.
  2. The country's name probably means 'to mix', but it's not clear if this is in reference to a mix of ethnicities in the early tribal population, or a sign that the tribes would often 'mix things up' by adopting a generally rebellious stance.
  3. Bulgaria is generally wider east-west than north-south, and is divided in two across its middle by the peaks of the Balkan Mountains.

FACTS

  1. Bulgaria has been home to humans since at least the Paleolithic period, and carved animal bones found there are the oldest examples of humans using written symbols.
  2. The country's name probably means 'to mix', but it's not clear if this is in reference to a mix of ethnicities in the early tribal population, or a sign that the tribes would often 'mix things up' by adopting a generally rebellious stance.
  3. Bulgaria is generally wider east-west than north-south, and is divided in two across its middle by the peaks of the Balkan Mountains.

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