Often overlooked by travelers, Bulgaria is actually one of my favorite countries in Europe.
Because it’s under the radar, here you’ll find few crowds and plenty of affordable activities. I arrived with few expectations and was blown away by the country’s affordability, incredible history, mountainous landscapes, Black Sea beaches, and wild nightlife.
Bulgaria’s long 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 several mountain ranges throughout the country offering all kinds of hikes.
In short, 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.
This travel guide to Bulgaria can help you plan your trip, save money, and make the most of your time in this underrated destination.
Table of Contents
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Top 5 Things to See and Do in Bulgaria
1. Explore Sofia
2. Relax in Varna
3. Visit Plovdiv
4. Go to Veliko Tarnovo
5. Explore the Rila Mountains
Other Things to See and Do in Bulgaria
1. Check out the Museum of Socialist Art
This 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 all kinds of propaganda, documentary videos, photos, and more. Admission is 6 BGN.
2. Hike the Balkan Mountains
This mountain chain is at the center of Bulgaria. 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 6,950 kilometers (4,320 miles). 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 hikes.
3. Hit the beaches on the Black Sea
This 402-kilometer (250-mile) stretch of Bulgarian coast lies along the Black Sea. About one-third of this coastline is covered in pristine, sandy beaches. Avoid Sunny Beach (it’s tacky and crowded) and check out some of the quieter beaches instead, like Pomorie Beach or Sinemorets Veleka Beach.
4. 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 (1875-1938). 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 with over 600 species of plants. Admission is 10 BGN.
5 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. There are several hotels and budget accommodations within Bankso (although Bankso isn’t the prettiest of towns). A one-day ski pass is 56 BGN in Bansko and 62 BGN in Borovets and Pamporovo.
6. 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 that attracts thousands of tourists. 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. Best of all, most of the events are free!
7. 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 (it’s 7,000 years old). The gold was extracted from 62 graves (it was custom to bury people with gifts at that time). On display, you’ll also find intricate jewelry and other artifacts, as well as oddities like Roman surgical tools and ancient Hellenistic headstones. Admission is 10 BGN.
8. 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). 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 8,000 years. The Neolithic Dwellings Museum sits on one of these prehistoric mounds, along with the remains of a home. It’s 5 BGN to visit and super informative!
9. Tour the Bachkovo Monastery
Just outside of Plovdiv is the Bachkovo Monastery, dating to 1083 (although most of it was built from the 17th century). The main attraction in the monastery is the Church of Sveta Bogoroditsa, which has an interior completely covered in colorful frescoes painted by Zahari Zograf in 1850. The refectory (dining hall) 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 and the refectory is 6 BGN.
10. 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 dozens of traditional shops and workshops devoted to cobblers, furriers, glass workers, jewelers, leatherworkers, potters, bakers, and more. Costumed performers move between buildings, making it feel like you stepped back in 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 a bit cheesy, but you can pick up neat handmade souvenirs here. Admission is 5 BGN.
11. 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 creeks (perfect for swimming) and picturesque waterfalls. A two-hour hike on the Negovanka Ecotrail takes you along 90-meter-high bluffs, leading to viewpoints over the canyon and a 10-meter-tall waterfall. It’s a beautiful region to explore on foot!
For more information on specific cities in Bulgaria, check out these guides:
Bulgaria Travel Costs
Accommodation – Hostel dorms with 5-8 beds cost between 14-25 BGN per night. Private hostel rooms cost 30-60 BGN per night. Free Wi-Fi is standard and most hostels also include self-catering facilities.
Budget two-star hotels range from 50-100 BGN per night. If you want to stay at one of the resort areas on the Black Sea, expect to pay double that amount during the summer.
Airbnb is available across Bulgaria, with private rooms ranging from 20-55 BGN per night. An entire home/apartment costs around 60-110 BGN.
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 start at 28 BGN per night for a basic pitch without electricity.
Food – Bulgarian cuisine is hearty and similar to that of its Balkan neighbors. Meaty stews with lamb, goat, or chicken are common, as are sausages and all kinds of yogurts (dairy products are big here). Popular dishes include kebapche (grilled mincemeat), shopska salad (a salad with tomato, cucumber, and cheese; similar to Greek salad), and moussaka.
Overall, food is very affordable throughout Bulgaria. Local street food eats like banica (cheese pastry) are as little as 1.50 BGN. You can pick up a hearty shopska or kebab for about 6 BGN.
For fast food (think McDonald’s), you can get a combo meal for about 9 BGN. A casual meal at a restaurant serving traditional cuisine costs around 10 BGN. A large pizza also costs around 10 BGN.
If you want to splash out, a three-course meal with a drink costs around 25 BGN.
Beer is 3 BGN while a latte/cappuccino is 2.50 BGN. Bottled water is around 1 BGN.
Grocery shopping is very cheap here, costing about 44-53 BGN per week for basic staples like rice, pasta, seasonal produce, and some meat.
Activities – All activities are affordable in Bulgaria. Museums are usually less than 10 BGN while lift passes for skiing cost 40-65 BGN for a day pass. Adrenaline activities, like bungee jumping, cost around 60 BGN. Bike rentals are usually under 20 BGN for a full-day rental.
Backpacking Bulgaria Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking Bulgaria, expect to spend about 50 BGN per day. On this budget, you’ll be staying in a hostel dorm, cooking most of your meals, limiting your drinking, taking public transportation to get around, and sticking to mostly free activities like hiking and going to the beaches. If you plan on drinking, add 5-10 BGN to your daily budget.
On a mid-range budget of 120 BGN per day, you can stay in a private Airbnb, eat out for most meals at cheap fast food joints, have a couple of drinks, take the occasional taxi to get around, and do more activities and tours like visiting museums or going skiing.
On a “luxury” budget of 195 BGN per day or more, you can stay in a hotel, eat out for all your meals, drink more, rent a car or take more taxis, and do whatever tours and activities you want. This is just the ground floor for luxury though. The sky is 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 BGN.
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 here as most of the country’s attractions (such as 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 and intentionally trying to splurge. Here are some ways to save money in Bulgaria:
- Avoid Sunny Beach – I don’t understand the appeal of a beach that’s overpriced and crowded with tourists. There are more beach chairs here than sand! Hit up one of the other coastal beaches instead.
- Stay at Hostel Mostel – Staying at this hostel chain can lower your costs because they include free breakfast and free dinner. They have locations in Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo.
- Eat at the bakeries – Bakeries in Bulgaria have an inexpensive range of sweet and savory pastries that can fill you up. Two of my favorite snacks there are banica and krenvirshka.
- Stay with a local – If you plan ahead, you can usually find Couchsurfing hosts all throughout the country. This way, you not only have a free place to stay but you’ll connect with a local host that can share their insider tips and advice.
- Take free walking tours – Walking tours are a great way to get familiar with a city and its culture. Sofia, Veliko Tarnovo, and Plovdiv all have free walking tours. Just be sure to tip your tour guide at the end.
- Enjoy free events – Many of Bulgaria’s festivals are free to attend, and during the summer many city parks have free scheduled events and concerts. Ask your hostel or host what’s going on during your visit.
- Bring a water bottle – The tap water here is safe to drink so bring a reusable water bottle to save money and reduce your plastic use. LifeStraw is my go-to brand as their bottles have built-in filters to ensure your water is always clean and safe.
Where to Stay in Bulgaria
Bulgaria has lots of fun, affordable hostels around the country. Here are my favorite and suggested places to stay:
How to Get Around Bulgaria
Public Transportation – Public 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 each.
In other cities, public buses are the most common mode of public transportation. Fares are usually between 1-1.80 BGN. Trolleybuses and trams are also common and generally cost the same.
Some cities, like Sofia, have a daily transportation pass for 4 BGN per day. A three-day pass is 20 BGN per day.
Taxis – Taxis are readily available everywhere, with rates starting at 1 BGN, costing an additional 0.80-0.99 BGN per kilometer. Always make sure your driver uses the meter so you avoid getting ripped off.
Bus – Bulgaria has lots of private and public minibuses and coaches to get you between the smaller towns and cities. A bus from Sofia to Varna costs around 33 BGN and takes seven hours, while Varna to Plovdiv is 23 BGN and also takes seven hours. A three-hour journey from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo shouldn’t cost more than 21 BGN.
Train – Train travel in Bulgaria is often cheaper than taking the bus, but it’s a lot slower. For example, the same Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo journey costs just 13 BGN but takes a little over four and a half 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 limited domestic routes around Bulgaria, making this an inconvenient option for most travelers. That said, flying is affordable here. A one-way trip between Sofia and Varna costs about 66 BGN, while one-way between Sofia and Burgas is about 60 BGN. Unless you’re pressed for time, though, I’d stick to the bus.
Car rental – Car rentals are super affordable here, costing as little as 18 BGN per day. If you have someone to share the ride with, this could be an affordable and flexible way to get around the country.
Hitchhiking – Hitchhiking in Bulgaria is common among travelers and locals alike. HitchWiki is the best website for additional hitchhiking tips and info.
When to Go to Bulgaria
If you want hot weather and lots of time on the Black Sea coast, summer (June through August) is the best time to visit. Temperatures average 29-32°C (84-90°F) 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 5-21°C (41-70°F ) in the spring and the weather can be quite foggy and cloudy, with not a lot of sunshine. But if you want fewer crowds and lower prices, this is the best time to come.
The fall months (September-October) are best for hiking as the autumn foliage is starting to show. Fall temperatures range from 2-21°C (36-71°F).
Winter can be frigid, with temperatures dropping as low as -5°C (23°F) and bringing lots of snowfall. The snow-capped mountains are beautiful during this time, and many people come here to hit the slopes. If you’re not coming here to ski or do winter sports, however, I’d skip a winter visit.
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, but even those are rare.
That said, it’s always a good idea to keep your valuables secure and out of sight.
As in any city, always keep an eye on your drink when out at the bar. Additionally, avoid walking home alone if you’ve been drinking.
When taking taxis, always make sure the meter is on. 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 common 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 experience an emergency, dial 112 for assistance.
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.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Momondo – This is my other favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here too.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments.
- 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 in their spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can share 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 the booking websites.
- 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 a discount when you click the link!
- 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.
- Rome2Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B in the best and cheapest way possible. It gives you all the bus, train, plane, and 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 specialty 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 on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
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 Your Trip
- 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 (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 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
- Hair bands & 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
Written in 1888, this book 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, its 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 as 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 as many people believe that as the communist party fell apart, officials kept bags and suitcases of the country’s wealth for their own personal gain.
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 eventually 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.
Bulgaria Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling Europe and continue planning your trip: