A quick travel guide to the best of Bulgaria
Photo courtesy of BG Tourism
Hankering for that Olde World Europe of donkey-drawn carts, cobblestone village streets, and cities with more baroque spires than soulless skyscrapers?
Another plus: aside from some moldering Soviet-era hotels, the Cold War allowed most places to skip 50 years of tourism overdevelopment—Black Sea beach resorts excepted.
That's right, Bulgaria has fab beaches—not to mention glorious monasteries, trails through ancient forests, and colorful cities where Orthodox churches share space with Ottoman mosques and remains of 7,000-year-old Thracian settlements.
What to see in Bulgaria
The Rila monastery in Bulgaria. Rila Monastery
Have time for only one thing in Bulgaria? Make it medieval Rila Monastery, a rich repository of art, icons, and the ornate Holy Virgin church in a grandiose courtyard of stacked arcades.
Sofia & Southern Bulgaria
Sofia is famous for being Europe's highest capital (1,799 feet)... and that’s about it. Still, you'll spend some time in this hub for flights, buses, and trains.
Luckily, there are plenty of modest churches and museums in the capital to keep you occupied before heading out to explore Southern Bulgaria, where ancient Thracian and Bulgar traditions mingle with Greek and Roman ruins and echoes of the Ottoman Empire.
Impossibly picturesque Veliko Târnovo snuggles into a gorge of the twisting Yantra River under ancient Tsarevets fortress.
Plovdiv. (Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis) Though Bulgaria's second largest city (after Sofia) and surrounded by sprawl, the historic center of Plovdiv remains a maze of steep cobblestoned streets, gorgeous 18th and 19th century town homes, and a bevy of museums, churches, and mosques.
Plovdiv was founded by the Thracians (though there are traces of Neolithic village life on the site dating human settlement in the area back about 6,000 years), and was later occupied by the Romans, as evidenced by the lovely remains of a Roman theater. It only actually became part of Bulgaria relatively recently, in 1885, following stints in the Byzantine, medieval Bulgarian, and Ottoman Empires.
Best Bulgarian experience: The Black Sea
Sozopol. (Photo by Ansgar Prause) Sip slivova rakiya (plum brandy) in a Black Sea resort.
The main resort town of Varna sports extensive ruins of Roman baths. Nesebâr is the cutest Black Sea village, a cobbled medieval hamlet on a rocky spur, but peninsular Sozopol has better beaches and lower prices.