Despite its small size Bulgaria has given to the world far more than its share of historical and cultural treasures. Several of Europe’s earliest civilizations were formed here in antiquity, and many awe-inspiring ancient temples, fortresses and tombs have been uncovered, as well as the oldest known piece of gold jewellery, on display in the coastal resort of Varna. This is a country saturated with tradition, yet far from rooted in the past, as you will see in its modern hotels. The lively seaside towns dot the Black Sea coastline, the cities of Sofia, Plovdiv and Ruse renowned for their architecture and cultural opportunities, and a sterling reputation for winter sports, all ensure Bulgaria earns its place among the most underrated European destinations.
Sofia - One of Europe’s most affordable capital cities, Sofia sits at the foot of the Vitosha Mountain. An absorbing mix of architectural styles reflects the leanings of the many foreign architects invited to build here following the War of Liberation in the 19th century. After exploring the spectacular Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which can hold up to 10,000 worshippers, and also houses a number of religious icons, rest up a while in one of Sofia’s many streetside cafes. You won’t break the bank with a hotel in Sofia.
Plovdiv - Known as the City of the Seven Hills, Plovdiv is one of the world’s oldest cities, having over the centuries been ruled by the Greeks, the Goths, the Huns, the Celts, the Romans, the Crusaders and the Turks, among others. As one might expect then, several notable archaeological features have been unearthed here, from ancient theatres to medieval towers, Ottoman baths and mosques.
Varna - Among the attractions in this lively Black Sea coastal resort are the Varna Archaeological Museum, which has on display the oldest gold jewellery ever found, and the Sea Garden park. With an aquarium, a zoo, a beautiful fountain, an open-air theatre and a park, you can easily lose a day around here - and why not? For those in search of evening entertainment, there are plenty of nightspots clustered along the seafront and hotel to lay your head.
Ruse - Bulgaria’s ‘Little Vienna’ is a cosmopolitan city on the banks of the romantic Danube, and famed for its beautifully preserved Neo-Baroque and Neo-Rococo architecture, particularly along Aleksandrovka Street in the old city centre. Panoramic views are afforded from the TV Tower, built during Soviet times.
For a dose of Bulgarian life at the turn of the 20th century, visit the Kaliopa House in Ruse, with its exquisite furnishings and textiles that reflect the introduction of European culture into Bulgaria. In Sofia, no-one should miss the Largo, a notable example of Soviet Classicism architecture - in the middle of the complex you will find the ruins of Serdica, an ancient Thracian and Roman city that has been protectively encased in a glass dome.
Discover a jewel of the Bulgarian Renaissance period with a Koprivshtitsa small-group tour by coach - amble along the cobbled streets, admire the ornamental wood carvings on the outside of homes and churches, or join in the fun at the popular folk festivals held here. A few hours south of Sofia is Melnik, Bulgaria smallest town and scattered with notable architecture. The local wine was reportedly a favourite of Winston Churchill but if you’d like to take the measure of it yourself, be on your guard - it’s pretty strong.