Often overlooked by most travelers, Bulgaria is one of my favorite countries in Europe.
Because it’s under the radar, you’ll find few crowds and plenty of affordable activities when you’re backpacking Bulgaria. I went with few expectations and was blown away by the country’s affordability, amiable locals, incredible history, mountainous landscapes, Black Sea beaches, and upbeat nightlife. Everything about this country is a win.
Bulgaria’s extensive history is evident everywhere, from ancient Neolithic settlements to mysterious Thracian tombs to fortresses left behind by powerful tsars.
Even some of the smallest, most nondescript churches have elaborate religious artwork inside, including paintings of saints and vivid murals.
And, if you’re a nature lover, there are seven mountain ranges throughout Bulgaria!
Bulgaria is amazing, and I can’t speak its praises enough. Don’t speed through the place. There’s a lot to see and do here! Take your time.
This travel guide to Bulgaria will help point the way by giving you tips on what to see, costs, suggested budgets, and ways to save money. It’s your ultimate planning tool!
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Bulgaria
1. Visit Sofia
2. Relax in Varna
3. Explore Plovdiv
4. Go to Veliko Tarnovo
5. Explore the Rila Mountains
Other Things to See and Do in Bulgaria
5. Check out the Museum of Socialist Art
This new museum in Sofia showcases art from when the country was Communist (1944-1989). A large outdoor sculpture park contains everything from a giant statue of Lenin that once stood in the center of the city to the red star that topped the socialist party headquarters. Inside you’ll find propaganda paintings, documentary videos, photographic galleries, and more. Admission is 6 BGN ($3.40 USD) and it’s open daily (except Mondays) from 10am-5:30pm.
6. Hike the Balkan Mountains
This mountain chain is at the center of Bulgaria, and it’s part of the epic European Long Distance Route (E3) following the chain’s main ridge to the Portuguese seaside, spanning a distance of 4,320 miles (6,950 kilometers). For shorter day hikes, find a base town like Apriltsi and trek from there. The Mount Botev summit and the hike to Vodnite Dupki are two popular options.
7. Hit the beaches on the Black Sea
This 250-mile (402-kilometer) stretch of Bulgarian coast lies along the Black Sea, and about a third of this is covered in pristine, sandy beaches. Avoid Sunny Beach (it’s tacky and too crowded) and check out some of the quieter beaches instead, like Pomorie Beach or Sinemorets Veleka Beach.
8. Unwind in Balchik
Balchik is a small coastal town on the Black Sea. The area used to serve as the summer residence for Queen Marie of Romania. You can tour her palace on the seaside promenade and admire the interesting blend of Gothic and Islamic architecture. There are not very many rooms, but they all contain original furnishings and paintings by Queen Marie herself. There’s also a botanical garden of over 600 species of plants. Admission is 10 BGN ($6 USD).
9. Go skiing
Bansko, Borovets, and Pamporovo are the three biggest resort towns in Bulgaria. Most people prefer Bankso because its resort has the longest ski runs, and it’s doable as a day trip from Sofia. Otherwise, there are several hotels and budget accommodations within Bankso and near the base of the ski lifts (although Bankso isn’t the prettiest of towns). A one-day ski pass is about 46 BGN ($26 USD).
10. Stop and smell the roses in Kazanlak
Bulgaria is one of the biggest producers of rose oil in the world, and the town of Kazanlak has hosted the Festival of Roses since 1903. During the first weekend of June, the local community organizes this international event to draw thousands of tourists and guests to celebrate the rose valley. There are rose-picking rituals, events to learn about the rose distillation process, a street procession, acapella choirs, folklore concerts, art shows, exhibitions, and even wine-tasting.
11. Visit the Varna Archaeological Museum
The Varna Archaeological Museum is home to the Varna Necropolis — a prehistoric archaeological site that contains the oldest processed gold in the world, dating back 7,000 years. The gold was extracted from 62 graves (it was custom to bury people with gifts at that time). On display, you’ll find delicately created jewelry and other artifacts, and oddities like Roman surgical tools and ancient Hellenistic headstones. It’s open daily (except Mondays) from 10am-5pm. In the summer, it’s open every day. Admission is 10 BGN ($6 USD).
12. Explore Stara Zagora
Stara Zagora is a smaller city located in the south of Bulgaria, famous for its annual linden-tree bloom (the whole city smells incredibly floral — like a combination of honeysuckle and jasmine). But, for me, the main attraction is Stara Zagora’s historical significance. Other than once being an important crossroad for the Romans, Ottomans, and Thracians, Stara Zagora also contains some amazing prehistoric relics, including ancient burial mounds dating back to 8,000 years ago. The Neolithic Dwellings Museum sits on one of these prehistoric mounds, along with the remains of a home. It’s 5 BGN ($2.80 USD) to visit.
13. Visit the Bachkovo Monastery
Just outside of Plovdiv is the Bachkovo Monastery, dating back to 1083 (although most of it was built from the 17th century). The main attraction in the monastery is the Church of Sveta Bogoroditsa with its interior covered completely in colorful frescoes painted by Zahari Zograf in 1850. The refectory is also full of murals displaying the building’s history. Pilgrims often come to the church to pray in front of the Madonna, which is encased in gold and silver. It’s free to visit the monastery, but the onsite museum costs 2 BGN ($1.15 USD) to visit, and the refectory is 6 BGN ($3.40 USD).
14. Visit the Etâr Ethnographic Open-Air Museum
The Etâr 19th-century ethno-village in Northern Bulgaria is a recreated Bulgarian town lined with cobblestone streets and more than 50 shops and workshops devoted to cobblers, furriers, glass workers, jewelers, leatherworkers, potters, and bakers. Costumed performers move between buildings, making it feel like you stepped back into time (or at least onto a movie set). You can poke around recreated traditional homes, and some of the workshops are still powered by running water. It’s completely cheesy, but you can pick up some perfect handmade souvenirs here. It’s 5 BGNL ($2.80 USD) to visit.
15. Hike at Emen Canyon
If you’re visiting Veliko Târnovo, head west to Emen Canyon. Carved out by the Negovanka River between tall limestone cliffs, the canyon is home to deep swimming creeks and picturesque waterfalls. A two-hour hike on the Negovanka Ecotrail will take you along 90-meter high bluffs leading to viewpoints over the canyon, topping it off with a visit to a 10-meter waterfall.
Bulgaria Travel Costs
Accommodation – Most hostel dorms in Bulgaria cost between 17-23 BGN ($10-13 USD) per night for a four-six bed room. A dorm with eight beds or more will cost less than 17 BGN ($10 USD) per night. (sometimes as low as 11 BGN/$6 USD in the countryside). Private single hostel rooms start from about 39 BGN ($22 USD) per night, while a double private room starts from 44 BGN ($25 USD).
Nightly rates for a budget two-star hotel room with a private ensuite bathroom start at about 44 BGN ($25 USD). If you want to stay at one of the resort areas on the Black Sea, expect to pay double that amount (about 70 BGN/$40 USD) during the summer months.
Airbnb is available across Bulgaria, with shared accommodations (like dorms) starting at about 21 BGN ($12 USD) per night. A private room averages at about 56 BGN ($32 USD) per night, while a full apartment or home averages about 119 BGN ($67 USD).
Wild camping is legal in Bulgaria, which means you’re allowed to pitch your tent just about anywhere for free except private property. There are also well-maintained campgrounds around the country, especially along the coast. Most tent sites for two people cost from 27 BGN ($15 USD) per night.
Food – Food is very affordable throughout Bulgaria. Local street food eats like banica (dough, cheese, and butter) or banitsa (a breakfast pastry) are as little as 1.50 BGN ($0.85 USD), or you can pick up a hearty shopska (like a Greek salad) or kebab for about 5 BGN ($2.80 USD). There are also plenty of places where you can buy a slice of pizza for 0.55 BGN ($1 USD) or less.
For fast food, you can get a full meal for about 8 BGN ($5 USD) at McDonald’s.
Eating out at sit down restaurants is also pretty cheap. A meal at a mid-range restaurant shouldn’t cost more than 10 BGN ($6 USD). Even an entree at an upscale restaurant won’t cost more than 20 BGN ($11 USD). You can eat well here for little!
Grocery shopping is very cheap, costing about 35-44 BGN ($20-25 USD) per week for bread, meat, fruits, and other basics.
Backpacking Bulgaria Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking Bulgaria, expect to spend about 70 BGN ($40 USD) per day. This is assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating local food, cooking some of your own meals, doing the free tours and attractions, limiting your drinking, and using local transportation to get around. You’ll be able to do minimal intercity travel on this budget.
On a mid-range budget of 133 BGN ($75 USD) per day, you can stay in two-star hotels (or a private hostel room), eat out for all your meals, use public transportation to get around, do more intercity travel, and visit more paid attractions. On this budget, you can really do whatever you want within reason. You’ll want for nothing at this price point.
If you want to visit Bulgaria on a luxury budget, be prepared to spend at least 239 BGN ($135 USD) or more daily. This will cover staying in a nice four-star hotel, eating whatever you want, drinking whatever you want, taking some day trips (like skiing), and doing more intercity travel. After that, the sky is really the limit!
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages – some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in USD.
Bulgaria Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips
Bulgaria is one of the most affordable destinations in Europe. You can do a lot on a tight budget, and even most of the country’s attractions (like museums and historical sites) are cheap. You’ll find it hard to break the bank here unless you’re spending your time on the Black Sea coast during peak season (then it will be expensive). Here are some of my ways to save money in Bulgaria during your visit:
- Avoid Sunny Beach – I don’t understand the appeal of a beach that’s so expensive and crowded with tourists. There are more beach chairs here than sand and it is way overpriced. Hit up one of the other coastal beaches instead.
- Stay at Hostel Mostel – Staying at this hostel can lower your costs because not only do they offer free breakfast, but they also have free dinner (which also comes with a free beer). Basically, staying here gets you two meals a day. They have locations in Sofia, Plovdiv, and Veliko Tarnovo.
- Eat at the bakeries – Bakeries in Bulgaria have a great, inexpensive range of pastries and foods which will fill you up in the morning. Two of my favorite snacks there are banica and krenvirshka.
- Couchsurf – If you plan ahead, you can usually find really nice Couchsurfing hosts all throughout the country as there are a lot of them. This way, you not only have a free place to stay, but you’ll have a local host that can tell you the best places to go and things to see.
- Take free walking tours – Walking tours are a great way to get familiar with a city and the culture. Sofia, Veliko Tarnovo, and Plovdiv all have free walking tours. (Be sure to tip!)
- Look for free events – Many of Bulgaria’s festivals are free to attend, and during the summer months many city parks have free scheduled events. Ask your hostel or host what’s going on during your visit.
- Pack a water bottle – A water bottle with a purifier will come particularly in handy here. Save money and thousands of plastic bottles and get a bottle that can purify the tap water for you. My preferred bottle is LifeStraw ($49.99).
Where To Stay in Bulgaria
Bulgaria has lots of great hostels and budget hotels. In the rural areas, it’s more common to come across small family-owned accommodations (where you’ll get a delicious breakfast included). Here are my favorite and suggested places to stay:
How to Get Around Bulgaria
Public Transportation – Local transportation in Bulgaria is very affordable. Sofia has a subway with two lines connecting the city center and the airport, as well as the central bus and train stations. Tickets are 1.60 BGN ($0.90 USD) each.
Otherwise, the public bus system is the most common mode of public transportation throughout the country. The fare is usually between 1-1.60 BGN ($0.57-0.90 USD). Trolleybuses and trams are also common in many cities and are generally about the same price as the public bus. Some cities, like Sofia, have a daily pass for about 3 BGN ($1.15 USD) per day. A three-day pass is 10 BGN ($6 USD) per day.
Taxis are readily available everywhere, with rates starting between 0.70-0.90 BGN ($0.40-0.50 USD), and then an additional 0.70-0.80 BGN ($0.40-0.45 USD) per kilometer. The fare may increase slightly during evenings and nights.
Bus – Bulgaria has lots of private and public minibuses and coaches to get you between the smaller towns and cities, as well as along the coast. Some of the most common bus companies include:
- Biomet – With routes between Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo, and Varna and Burgas
- Etap-Grup – Runs routes between Burgas, Varna, Sofia, and Veliko Tarnovo (as well as other smaller towns in between)
- Union-Ivkoni Links – Runs between most major towns and some smaller ones
Check the schedule on those company websites, or use Busbud to research routes. A bus from Sofia to Varna will cost 33 BGN ($19 USD) and take seven hours, while Varna to Plovdiv is 26 BGN ($15 USD) and also for seven hours. A three-hour journey from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo shouldn’t cost more than 21 BGN ($12 USD).
Train – Train travel in Bulgaria is often cheaper than taking the bus, but a lot slower. For example, the same Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo journey costs just 16 BGN ($9 USD) but takes five hours by train instead of three by bus.
You can use the Bulgarian State Railways website (bdz.bg) to plan your trip.
Flying – There are only two domestic flights within Bulgaria, both operated by Bulgaria Air. One route is between Sofia and Varna, and the other is between Sofia and Burgas. A one-way trip between Sofia and Varna costs about 65 BGN ($37 USD), while one-way between Sofia and Burgas is about 60 BGN ($34 USD).
Hitchhiking – Hitchhiking in Bulgaria is common among travelers and locals. HitchWiki is the best website for hitchhiking info.
When to Go to Bulgaria
If you want hot weather and lots of time on the Black Sea coast, summer (from June to the end of August) is the best time to visit. Temperatures average between 80-95°F (27-35°C) daily, and the water is ideal for swimming. These temperatures are fairly consistent across the country, although the mountain regions can be cooler.
Spring and fall weather can change from day to day. Temperatures range between 41-77°F (5 to 25°C), and it’s often rainy. But if you want fewer crowds and lower prices, this is the best time to come. The fall months (especially September and October) are best for hiking in the cooler temperatures and as the autumn foliage is starting to show.
Winter can be frigid, with temperatures dropping as low as 23°F (-5°C) and bringing lots of snowfall. The snow-capped mountains are beautiful during this time, and many people come here to hit the slopes.
How to Stay Safe in Bulgaria
Bulgaria, overall, is a very safe country. Scams and petty crime like pick-pocketing are the most common danger you’ll face when you’re traveling the country. A common scam is for taxi drivers to tell you that their meter is broken. Insist that you want a taxi with a working meter, or negotiate the cost upfront.
If you’re worried about getting scammed, you can read about the 14 travel scams to avoid right here.
Always trust your gut instinct. If a taxi driver seems shady, stop the cab and get out. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, move somewhere else.
If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it in Bulgaria! Follow that rule, and you’ll avoid being the victim of petty crime.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past.
Bulgaria Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Bulgaria. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors.
- Momondo – This is my favorite booking site. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engine which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments. (If you’re new to Airbnb, get $35 off your first stay!)
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all-around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all bookers.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Europe, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get exclusive discounts when you click the link!
- STA Travel – A good company for those under 30 or for students, STA Travel offers discounted airfare as well as travel passes that help you save on attractions.
- The Man in Seat 61 – This website is the ultimate guide to train travel anywhere in the world. They have the most comprehensive information on routes, times, prices, and train conditions. If you are planning a long train journey or some epic train trip, consult this site.
- Rome 2 Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. It will give you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
- EatWith – This website allows you to eat home-cooked meal with locals. Locals post listings for dinner parties and speciality meals that you can sign up for. There is a fee (everyone sets their own price) but this is a great way to do something different, pick a local’s brain, and make a new friend.
Bulgaria Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading to Bulgaria, here are my suggestions for the best travel backpack and tips on what to pack for your trip.
The Best Backpack for Bulgaria
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Bulgaria
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hairbands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Bulgaria Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
Under the Yoke: A Romance of Bulgarian Liberty, by Ivan Vazov
This book written in 1888 might be the most famous piece of classic Bulgarian literature in the country. It follows the story of a peaceful Bulgarian town subdued by Ottoman rule — but secretly, the people are preparing for an uprising. Boicho Ognyanov, having escaped from prison, returns to the town to assist with the rebellion and to connect with old friends, enemies, and his true love. It’s classic literature with some important history mixed in.
Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian, by Aleko Konstantinov
Another novel written in the late 1800s, this one takes on a more comical twist as you read about the misadventures of a rose-oil salesman named Ganyo Balkanski. He travels throughout Europe, bumbling his way through meetings with the upper class of Vienna, St. Petersburg, and Dresden. But then things turn slightly darker as Ganyo returns to Bulgaria where he finds that bribes and election-rigging are the norm now that Bulgaria has emerged from the Ottoman Empire. You’ll love this book and Ganyo is an odd but endearing character.
Party Headquarters, by Georgi Tenev
The award-winning Party Headquarters takes place in the 80s and 90s, as Bulgaria transitions from communism to democracy. The story follows the main character as he visits his father-in-law, who is a communist party boss tasked with delivering a suitcase filled with an enormous sum of money before he dies. It’s all based on a popular Bulgarian myth — many people believe that as the communist party fell apart, officials kept bags and suitcases of the country’s wealth, and now they’re circulating Europe waiting to be delivered to conspirators.
Valley of Thracians, by Ellis Shuman
In this book, a Peace Corps volunteer has gone missing in Bulgaria, and everyone (except his grandfather, Simon Matthews) believes him to be dead. Matthews, a retired literature professor, starts a search to find his grandson but then gets tangled up in a quest to uncover a stolen and incredibly valuable Thracian artifact. Matthews travels across Bulgaria and the Balkans, exploring ancient tombs and fortresses until he learns that the only hope he has of leaving the country with his grandson is if he finds the missing relic…somehow. It’s an easy read, and a fun one.
Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria, by Kapka Kassabova
Kapka Kassabova was born in Sofia during the communist party’s authoritarian regime. After escaping with her family once the Berlin Wall collapsed, she lived in the UK, New Zealand, Argentina, and a handful of other places. She decided to return to her home country once Bulgaria accepted democracy and became a member of the European Union, only to find the country struggling under the new way of life. This is a great book if you want to know what it was like to live on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
My Must Have Guides for Traveling to Bulgaria
This book shows you how to easily collect and redeem travel points so you can get free airfare and accommodation.
Kristin Addis writes our solo female travel column and her detailed guide gives specific advice and tips for women travelers.
This book features interviews with dozens of teachers and detailed information on how to land your dream job and make money overseas.
My best-selling book will teach how to master the art of travel so that you’ll save money and have a more local, richer travel experience.
Bulgaria Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling Bulgaria and continue planning your trip:
Photo credits: 2