When it comes to Bulgaria, people know of its Eastern European heritage, its superstar gymnasts and tennis athletes, and its largest export – fragrant rose oil. However, few people know of its exact location and cultural idiosyncrasies. Tucked between Romania, Serbia, Greece, and the Black Sea, this Balkan country is home to some of the world’s oldest civilizations.
Hardly any other culture in the world so aptly combines antiquity with modernity. All at once, Bulgaria has progressed toward a technologically advanced center while still maintaining the structures, ruins, and traces of the ancient civilizations that used to inhabit its diverse landscape.
And diverse it is. Plains, mountains, lakes, and seas adorn its small but mighty geography. With a population of 7 million and a landscape that is traversable in just 6 hours, it’s hard to believe that one small country could contain so many multi-faceted and breathtaking sights. However, Bulgaria proves itself time and time again as a gem of the Slavic region.
Despite the fact that you can cross Bulgaria in just 6 hours, it will take much longer than that to really absorb the sights. And even then, there will still be countless more sights to see. However, in just seven days, you can easily touch upon some of the most widely lauded and breathtakingly beautiful destinations within this small country.
Day 1: Sofia
Both the country’s capital and a sprawling metropolis, Sofia promises not to disappoint. No matter how you’re getting into Bulgaria, chances are that Sofia is your first stop. The airport and central ground transportation hubs are all here. This city is a spectacular mix of old and new, preserving its old buildings and well-preserved Thracian ruins while still introducing new hi-tech architecture (such as the Capital Fort skyscrapers).
Upon arriving in Sofia, the premier stop for many is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. This elegant and historic Neo-Byzantine cathedral is beautiful inside and out. One of the largest Eastern Orthodox Cathedrals in the world, it can hold up to 10,000 people inside and is a major tourist attraction.
Another favorite stop is the Central Mineral Baths, appropriately located in the center of the city. This former Turkish public bath turned museum is a testament to the city’s abundance of mineral springs. The bathhouse is surrounded by hot mineral water fountains, where passersby are welcome to have a drink or even just simply soak their hands.
If you’re looking to do some shopping and stock up on souvenirs, your next stop should be Vitosha Boulevard. This is the city’s main commercial street and shopping center, akin to an open-air shopping mall. It features designer stores such as Versace, D&G, Boss, and more, but also boasts smaller mom-and-pop establishments. The best part? It’s adorned with a multitude of small sidewalk cafes where you can sit, have an espresso (or Turkish coffee, a local favorite) and engage in some people-watching.
Day 2: Pleven
To get to Pleven from Sofia, we highly recommend taking the train. Sure, the train cars can be a little rickety and derelict, but it’s all part of the experience, right? The train from Sofia to Pleven carries you through the Balkan Mountains, where you’ll soak up unforgettable sights. The railway is reminiscent of one traveling through the Swiss Alps, as you chug along with sky-high mountains above you and small riverside villages below you.
A personal favorite village of mine for passing through is Svoge. Not only is it quaint, but it’s also the main production site of a local chocolate bar by the same name. Chocolate lovers unite!
Pleven’s main attraction is its city center filled with Bulgaria’s trademark sidewalk cafes and traditional European architecture. It’s also famous for its Kaylaka, a large urban park featuring a manmade lake and numerous ponds, cafes, and restaurants – as well as a zoo. Think Central Park, but greener and far more enticing. Unlike Central Park, it features the ancient ruins of a Roman fortress. Seems like anywhere you go in Bulgaria, you’re bound to see some ruins.
Day 3: Veliko Tarnovo
Veliko Tarnovo is about a 2-hour commute from Pleven, and perhaps one of my personal favorite destinations. This city is located on the Yantra River, with its unique and historic houses and buildings rising above and overlooking it for a spectacular Riviera-like sight. Its winding cobblestone roads, cozy gift shops, and bustling streets filled with vendors make you feel right at home in this traditional European town.
The city is often referred to as the “City of Tsars” for being home to Kings during the Second Bulgarian Empire. One of its most spectacular landmarks is Tsarevets, a medieval fortress located atop a hill overlooking the city. If you’re willing to climb the thousands of steps and whip yourself into shape after indulging in the country’s local cuisine of rakia (fruit brandy) and banitsa (a guilt-inducing greasy phyllo pastry), the trek is totally worth it.
Day 4: Black Sea Coast – Balchik & Nessebar
You must have known the Black Sea Coast would be a mandatory stop on the list. The sea is most beautiful in Bulgaria – white sands, warm water, and remarkable hotels. Start in Balchik at the northernmost point and explore the Balchik Palace. Overlooking the sea, this palace was once home to Queen Marie of Romania and consists of a botanical garden, a holy spring, a monastery, and a chapel.
From the rocky shores of beautiful Balchik, you can travel down to the Southern coast, where you’ll collide with the town of Nesebar. On your way to Nesebar, you’ll pass the world-renown Sunny Beach resort, a summer tourism favorite populated with luxury hotels, bars, and nightclubs.
Nesebar is situated on a long, narrow, manmade isthmus that reaches into the sea. Originally a Thracian settlement, it is known for its colorful history, from its colonization by the Greek to its capture by the Ottomans. Evidence of its varied history can be seen throughout the peninsula, alongside modern hotels, restaurants, and gift shops.
Day 5: Etar
Bid goodbye to the coast as you head back inland to the mountains. Situated in the Balkan Mountains is the Etar, officially known as the Etar Architectural-Ethnographic Complex. It is an open-air museum that showcases life in old Bulgaria. It features various crafts, such as wood-working, pottery, coppersmith, needlework, and more.
There is also a water mill and a variety of Bulgarian revival houses, featuring two stories and bay windows in a variety of colors – from vibrant orange to powder blue. If you stop to absorb the abundance of old Bulgarian customs, you must drop in for a cup of hand-brewed Turkish Sand Coffee. The fine coffee grinds and water are mixed in a “cezve” and brewed over hot sand, creating a rich, thick, memorable brew.
Day 6: Plovdiv
As you approach the final leg of your journey, it is time to witness the clashing of culture that is Bulgaria. That is why you must stop for a stroll in Plovdiv. Plovdiv was originally a Thracian settlement that was subsequently conquered by the Persians, Greeks, Celts, Romans, Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Slavs, Crusaders, and Turks. All of that makes the fact that the city dates back to the 8thmillennium BCE seem like small potatoes (but it’s not really).
In fact, Plovdiv is globally known for being the oldest city in Europe – and one of the oldest in the world. Among its luxurious outdoor shopping malls, casinos, and fine eateries are the ruins (surprise, surprise) of the ancient Plovdiv Roman amphitheater and the Plovdiv Roman Stadium. It is also home to the oldest American academic institution outside of the U.S.
The Plovdiv Roman amphitheater, also known as the Ancient Theater of Philippopolis, is well worth the visit. To this day, it hosts shows and performing arts events under the starlight. At dusk, when the theater is lit up with warm lights that emphasize its lavish columns and grandeur over the city, you will be absolutely mesmerized.
Day 7: Rila Monastery
This is the last stop as you inch your way back to the capital of Sofia. Located in the Rila Mountains, the Rila Monastery (which is home to over 60 monks) is of utmost cultural significance to the Bulgarian people. During the years of foreign rule, it served as a refuge for the Bulgarian people and a sanctuary for the preservation of their culture.
It is named after St. Ivan of Rila, a patron saint of the Bulgarians and a hermit who lived in a cave and vowed to forego material possessions. The complex was built by his students. Note to travelers: when visiting the monastery, make sure to dress modestly or they will not allow you in. Shorts are prohibited at all costs, and quietness is encouraged.
Just outside the monastery, travelers are allowed to engage in otherwise normal tourist activities. Street vendors sell rose liqueurs and handmade crafts, as well as fried powdered donuts (warning: be prepared to wait in line!)
While enjoying your tasty treats, awe at the surrounding mountains – tall, strong, and stoic like the country’s people. Surely, while gazing upon Bulgaria’s landscapes and residents, you will feel a sense of pride for your own cultural and historic roots – whatever they may be. The beauty of Bulgaria is more than in the structures and fixtures that date back centuries, it is in its ability to remind you of each civilization’s resilience and hardships that have been engrained into history.
As you take in the country’s idyllic mix of ruins and skyscrapers, mountain villages, and sprawling cities, old and new – you will be reminded of the value to treasure your history, but embrace your present.