Bulgaria holidaysThe sample prices are per person based on two people travelling!
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.
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 many 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.
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.
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 southeastern region’s summer highs are a scorching 35°C or more and winter here averages 10°C. The shoulder seasons of spring and autumn are generally pleasant.
Bulgaria has four international airports, Sofia, Burgas, Plovdiv and Varna, giving gateways to its various regions. Full-service flights serve the London-Heathrow to Sofia route, while budget flights run from London-Gatwick, London-Luton and Manchester. Burgas and Varna receive low-cost flights from London-Luton, while budget flights to Plovdiv arrive from London-Stansted.
Sofia Airport lies just outside the city and offers flights from London-Heathrow with British Airways and Bulgaria Air, with EasyJet flying from London-Gatwick and Manchester, and Wizzair flying from London-Luton. 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. Varna Airport offers a huge number of charter flights to the UK. Flight times from London average 3 hours dependent on final Bulgarian destination.
Travelling outside the high summer 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 onward transportation options from the main airports.
Travelling from London to Bulgaria by train is a romantic experience as well as 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 by bus is the most practical, the cheapest and the 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. Train travel is disappointing, as trains are old, rickety, uncomfortable and very slow.
Sofia Airport is the hub for domestic flights, with Bulgaria Air offering routes to the coastal resort of Varna and Burgas, although the comparatively short driving distances between major towns in Bulgaria hardly merits a flight, however inexpensive.
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. Buses leave from the city’s Central Bus Station, with GRUP Plus and Biomet two of the many bus companies. Travel around towns by bus is tricky due to signage in the Cyrillic alphabet.
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. Outside the capital, station signs are in Cyrillic, making missing your destination a possibility.
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. Road conditions depend on location and locals drive on the right. Domestic or wild animals on the roads need watching out for, especially during harvesting.
Ancient Plovdiv is the heart of the modern city of the same name, formed around the Maritsa River. Europe’s oldest continually inhabited town was first raised 8,000 years ago. It saw conquering Romans, the Ottoman Empire and finally the forces of Communism, and 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 has shallow waters which are great 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 Black Sea coast and is a medieval cityscape of tiny, cobbled streets, ancient buildings and an almost lost way of life. Once part of the harbour city of Meesembria, now lost beneath the waves, Nessebar has numerous beautiful churches among its highlights.
Veliko Turnovo, home to the ruined castle of Tsaravets with its Patriarchal and Royal palaces, and the inner city fortress of Trapezitsa, was the Second Bulgarian Empire’s capital city. Set in the northern mountains, its Old City has traditional Renaissance houses overlooking the Yantra River and a selection of historical museums. Just outside the city is the Preobruzhenie Monastery.
Skiing in winter is one of the most popular activities here, with the town of Bansko a perfect family winter destination. The slopes here are great for young and old beginners alike, 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 roam free.
Many of Bulgaria’s plethora of 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 breathtaking murals of saints adorning its interior. The mummified body of medieval Serbian king Stephen Milutin lies here in a glass case.
Along the Balkan Mountains’ western slopes are the soaring Belogradchik Rocks, 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 which 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 for its rugged, dramatic scenery and its Roman and Byzantine fortress. The site of tragic events in Ottoman times when 30 young girls jumped from the cliffs to escape the attentions of Ottoman soldiers, it’s eerily beautiful and legendarily holds the 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.
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. No-one knows which classes of the ancient society were entitled to be buried here.
Nightlife in Bulgaria is as hot as it gets in the buzzing Black Sea resorts, but the capital of Sofia is catching up fast, with hedonistic bars and watering holes opening up week by 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. From shabby venues packed with students to plush leather-sofa lounge bars and late-night hang outs, you won’t be disappointed.
Bulgarians love theatre, dance, opera and music of all kinds, and there’s plenty here to please, from the National Opera and Ballet and the National Theatre to the traditional Puppet Theatre, everyone’s favourite. Live Bulgarian folk music can be heard at many restaurants and in the streets at festival times, and jazz, blues, rock and pop concerts, and jam sessions are held regularly.
Varna is the hotspots of the Black Sea coast, with many thousands of visitors arriving here for the summer season 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 varied events, from rock concerts to ballet.
Sunny Beach in Burgas is another favourite holiday hang-out, with casinos, bars, late-night clubs, karaoke joints and wild party nights. Right in the centre is Dance Club Mania, a top-class dance venue attracting the crowds with its well-known visiting DJs. Disco Lazur is equally popular for its 12 bars and open-air swimming poolâ€•great for cooling off, intentionally or accidentally.
A popular misconception is that Bulgarian cuisine consists of stodgy, uninteresting 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 say in the flavours. Indigenous herbs and spices, fresh pork, veal and chicken, cheeses, live yoghurt and local vegetables all contribute to a healthy, delicious diet.
Factor X in this mix is the rich Bulgarian soil, imbued with minerals from the water table, rivers and streams, and ensuring 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, and the salty, white sirene cheese makes a frequent appearance in traditional recipes. The Greek moussaka (aubergine lasagna) is a favourite main 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 the various styles of kebab with rich sauces are served with rice, which is also used as a flavoured stuffing for aubergines, courgettes and peppers in the Greek style. Herb and fruit teas are refreshing in summer and warming in winter.
In short, the sheer range of Bulgarian cuisine and its many tastes makes dining out here a foodie’s delight, and there’s a huge choice of eateries at all levels to choose from.
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.
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.
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.
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.