Bulgaria: sandy coasts, long dinners and the best gateway to the Balkans

Bulgaria’s popularity as a travel destination has really started to pop off! ⛰️

4 mins
Written by:
Julia Banks

Bulgaria’s popularity as a travel destination has really started to pop off, and for good reason! Its sandy beaches on the Black Sea, dramatic mountainous landscapes and luxuriously timed and seasoned meals are not to be missed if you’re in the area.

Like many of the Balkans countries, Bulgaria was ruled under a totalitarian communist regime after WWII, and only liberated as the Berlin wall fell in ‘89. Unlike most of its neighbours, however, Bulgaria wasn’t really involved in the Yugoslav war, meaning it is a super well-preserved country in terms of its architecture, heritage sites and varied nature.

How to get there

Bulgaria is really convenient to reach from other Balkan and Mediterranean countries. The capital, Sofia, has direct flights from many places in Europe, as does the main city on the east coast, Varna. If you’re on a longer trip and happy to go overland, you can reach Sofia pretty easily from Skopje in Macedonia, or reach Varna from Bucharest in Romania. Bulgaria’s situation in Southeast Europe means it’s an easy – if not large – country to set off from and explore some more off-the-beaten-path destinations that Europe has to offer. Like most of Southeast Europe, the weather gets a bit sizzling in the peak of summer, and the land-locked capital of Sofia can be quite a sweaty place to visit – but the east coast is a treat at this time if you’re a fan of swimming and the sun.

Photo by Antonia Chekrakchieva

Immersing in nature

Rila Lakes

In the northwest of the country, the seven glacial Rila lakes sit amongst snow-capped mountains and forest-lined slopes. Getting to Rila National Park takes a few hours from Sofia, and the hike to see all the turquoise-sparkled lakes is usually done in just one day. If you want to visit the UNESCO heritage-listed Rila Monastery, you can stay overnight in the national park at one of the huts or homestays, which can turn out to feature some rakia (fruit brandy) and intrepid fellow travellers, if you’re lucky! In summer, you’ll be able to do the hike in little clothing without sweltering. Winter would take a little more preparation, as everything will be icy and the lakes freeze over!

Photo by Zhivko Dimitrov
Rhodopes Mountains

The Rhodopes Mountains cover a few countries in Southeastern Europe, but the biggest area of them lands in Bulgaria. It is here you can see the Trigad Gorge, in the south of the country. There, you’ll travel up a ferociously winding and somewhat frightening road sandwiched between two steep inclines of rock that can reach up to 250m in height. You may be brave enough to reach the Devil’s Throat – a gigantic waterfall within a cave that represents the mouth of the devil, with the water rushing back down his throat. In Bulgarian folklore, this cave is said to be the entrance to the underworld.

Photo by Antonia Chekrakchieva
Pirin National Park

More glacial lakes can be found in Pirin National Park, which are surrounded by peaks that are snow-capped for most of the year. This is for the more committed multi-day hiker, though, as you can manage to find trails that will see you winding your way between the wintery peaks for up to three days, covering 40 kilometres. The path can be demanding at times due to the undulating terrain, and the traditional huts you may spend the nights in as you walk can reach altitudes close to 3000 metres.

Photo by Maria Teneva

Cities Steeped in History

Sofia  

Sofia is a natural starting point for Bulgaria if you’ve arrived by plane, and provides a home base for many of the hikes and national parks in the country. Seven thousand years of history steep this city, so you can visit many-a ruin and marvel at the architecture of churches and cathedrals. Easily accessible trams and buses make sprawling Sofia a place that can be enjoyed for many days without quite seeing it all.

Photo by Jean Carlo Emer
Dipping in the Black Sea  

I reached the eastern peninsula of Bulgaria after having travelled through Italy, Croatia, and Greece. When I reached the tiny and ancient town of Sozopol just down from Burgas and jumped into the ocean at golden hour, I thought, “Seriously, how does no one rave about Bulgaria the way they rave about the rest of the Mediterranean?” I was delighted to reach the shoreline and realise I had my feet in golden sand, not pebbles! The main towns of the coast include Varna and Burgas, but since tourism has increased in the past decade, you’re better off going an hour or two outside these more metropolitan cities and finding yourself a sleepy beachside town to enjoy the Black Sea and golden sands: a killer view to eat your tsatsas in front of.

Photo by Lidia Stawinska
Plovdiv

A few hours out of the capital, Plovdiv is a charming old town that retains much of its original architecture and is rich with history. The theatre – an Ancient Greek-style amphitheatre situated high up on a hill with a view of the city – has been restored and maintained as both a piece of history and a stage for contemporary performances of theatre. Kapana is an area not far from the amphitheatre, which has only been the artistic and cultural hub of the city for the past nine years – after the EU funded a revamp of the decrepit and abandoned residential area and made it home to cafes, galleries and bars.  

Photo by Linda Gerbec
Veliko Tarnovo

As you cross the main bridge of the town over the Yantra River, you’ll experience the quaint and comical view of all the upright houses dotted amongst the mountainside, almost stood like a choir overlooking the water. Veliko Tarnovo actually used to be the capital of Bulgaria, and retains the majesty of the same. It’s only a few hours to the Romanian border, too, so makes for a good stopover if you’re headed up that way.

Photo by Jacqueline O'Gara

What to Expect at Mealtimes  

After being magnanimously welcomed into the long weekend holiday of a group of locals, I spent some extra time in Sozopol. We spent several lazy afternoons in a beachside restaurant, eating tsatsas and drinking rakia. I had to quickly adjust to the belated mealtimes of the day – lunch was an event that meandered through the afternoon for hours, so dinner was to be taken around 10pm, which I was told was not a result of being on holiday mode, but the usual operations of people in the area.

Photo by Maria Teneva
Musaka  

Bulgaria’s version of the classic casserole of the Balkans and Mediterranean omits the eggplant and relies solely on potatoes to galvanise the meaty, spiced dish. Bulgaria’s musaka is also topped with yoghurt and baked that way. You’ll find most meals like this accompanied by a traditional shopska salad – simple, fresh and topped with grated feta-like cheese on top.

Tarator

You would be hard-pressed to find a food joint in the country without seeing tarator on the menu – a cold soup that will serve you well during some of the ferociously hot days in the country. It’s light and based on yoghurt, with cucumber, garlic and dill. Think of it like a soupy tzatziki – which, if you’re a fan of freshness and a little too much garlic, is sure to please.

Photo by АннаМариа
Tsatsa

An absolute fixture on the menu at any coastal town along the Black Sea, tsatsa is loved by Bulgarians. It’s basically like their version of fish and chips: think small fish the size of herring, which are caught in droves, battered and fried, heads and eyes still intact. Served with a side of thick chips and a shopska salad, they’re a staple among those visiting the sea. Locals you meet will excitedly tell you to try the tsatsa! And experiencing the cult coastal favourite is half the fun.

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