Travel Guide: Bulgaria
Planning to visit Bulgaria but not sure where to begin? Look no further! We have compiled a ton of information to make this easier on you!
Bulgaria has been part of the EU since 2007 but lucky for us has not adopted the Euro yet! They still use the Bulgarian lev (BGN) which makes this beautiful country one of the cheapest destinations to visit in Europe!
Current exchange rate for June 2017:
1 EUR = 1.95 BGN*
1 USD = 1.75 BGN*
*At time of publishing this blog, please check exchange rate for most current information when planning your trip
The national language is Bulgarian, a slavic language similar to Russian but definitely not the same. Tip: Bulgarians love it when tourists speak Bulgarian so here are a few useful phrases:
Hello! - Здрасти! - Zdrasti!
How are you? - Как си? - Kak si?
Thank you! - Мерси! - Mersi!
Bye! - Чао! - Chao!
Hostel/hotel/guesthouse prices vary from town to town. Sofia (the capital of BG) and the beach towns are much pricer than most of the other cities in BG but still very affordable.
We didn't need to find accommodation when we were in Sofia as we stayed with my family but a group of friends had to find a place to stay and ended up booking at Hostel Mostel. They had a great experience there - the rooms were clean, bright and spacious and they have private and dormitory options. The guys working the front desk were really nice and helpful as well! Again, we didn't stay there so we can’t speak from personal experience but our friends seemed really happy with the choice they made. Private apartments are also available for rent all around the city with prices averaging around $50 per night.
When we visited Veliko Tarnovo we stayed in a guesthouse that we found by asking locals. It was a great deal as we only spent 20 lev per room! TIP: Try and negotiate the price down when you book from a private party as they will quote you higher prices. Bulgarians tend to have different rates for locals versus foreigners… Who do you think gets the better price? If you are traveling with someone who speaks the language have them negotiate the price.
We also stayed in a smaller town near Gabrovo, called Etara. We booked a room in the only hotel available there and it was 50 lev per night, which is quite expensive. We could have found something cheaper but we were traveling with my sister and her 3 month old baby so we chose comfort over price. Small bonus - we got complimentary breakfast which wasn't half bad.
Prices around the coast are higher than the rest of the country especially if you visit during the summer. There are big, luxury hotels everywhere but if you are on a budget you can easily find a room in a private home or a hostel for a fraction of the price.
Overall, accommodation in Bulgaria is affordable with prices from 20 lev per night to 100+ depending on your style of travel and your budget.
Ahhhhh! The food in Bulgaria is simply amazing! And so cheap too! Street food is very popular everywhere you go and the most popular and our personal favorite option is banitza (pronounced bonit-za) - pastry filled with feta, crispy and flaky on the outside and warm and doughy on the inside. You can find those on almost every street corner for only 1 lev. The vendors selling bantiza also offer a variety of other inexpensive options such as pizza, sandwiches and other sweet and/or savory pastries. Even better, pair banitza with ayran, a savory yogurt drink.
Restaurant meals vary from 5 lev to 20 lev per dish and portions are pretty generous.
Some of the must-try Bulgarian dishes are:
- Shopska salad - a tomato, cucumber and feta salad - sounds pretty simple but it’s delicious and considered a staple of traditional Bulgarian cuisine! Pair this salad with Rakia, the traditional Bulgarian grappa-like liquor to have the authentic Bulgarian experience.
- Bean soup also called bob - again simple, it's a bean stew/soup spiced to perfection!
- Moussaka - similar to Greek and Turkish cuisines. Bulgarians also make their own version of moussaka, a potato and meat dish baked and then served with yogurt.
- Kiufte - the easiest way to describe it is a Bulgarian meatball. If you find yourself driving around the country you will see several “BBQ” joints on the side of the road serving kiufte. They usually serve it in a warm bun with several salads! So good and so simple.
If you hadn't already picked up on it, Bulgarian cuisine is very simple and yet so delicious. There are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options as well!
One of our favorite restaurants with a great combination of both traditional Bulgarian food and Western choices is called Sasedite (it means the Neighbors). You can follow the link to see the website (however it is only in Bulgarian), but don't let that deter you! When you go to the restaurant they have english menus and english speaking staff! You'll find amazing food and a lot of drink options too! You can find it on google maps no problem.
5. Must see in Bulgaria
Sofia - the capital of Bulgaria is buzzing with life and old ruins are scattered throughout the city. Old communism buildings still stand, reminding everyone of the “Good, ol' days.” The city centre is filled with high end shops, restaurants, cafes, bars and night clubs all complimented by beautiful architecture, quiet parks and street art peaking behind many corners.
One of the biggest points of interest in Sofia and sort of the trademark of the city is “Alexander Nevsky” the biggest, orthodox cathedral in Bulgaria. It’s hard to miss this beautiful and majestic building with its golden domes shining from a far. The area around the cathedral is nice and open which allows for a great photo and people watching. The inside of it, unfortunately isn't as spectacular, as it is a bit run down and the art work doesn't have that same "Wow" factor as found in other churches around the country.
Throughout the city there are several museums worth seeing but the biggest and most interesting one is the National History Museum located in the old residency of Todor Jivkov, the communist leader from 1954 to 1989 when the communism regime collapsed. The museum contains more than 65,000 exhibits and it’s one of the largest history museums on the Balkans. The Museum’s collections are its greatest treasure, they comprise materials from Prehistoric Ages up through present day. Situated in the outskirts of Sofia, is Boyana Church which has been on the UNESCO Heritage list since 1979. It is one of the few completely and perfectly preserved medieval monuments, testifying to the significant Bulgarian history.
Here you can also find The Presidency, the National Assembly and even Sofia's oldest building the Rotunda St. George which dates back from the 4th century. If you're looking for something more relaxed, Borisovata Gradina (literal translation is The Garden of Boris) is a large park located in the heart of the city that you'll find near the National University Kliment Ohridski, a gorgeous building that sort of reminds me of Hogwarts. We were able to go inside and roam the corridors of this old, enormous school and it truly felt like we were in a Harry Potter book - giant classrooms that still feature old, wooden benches accompanied by spiral staircases and small windows overlooking the courtyard. The city supports a lively arts scene as well. Rakovski Street, Sofia's Broadway, is lined with theaters. Jazz is huge as well as dance clubs, where you can find a mix of world hits and local music.
Plovdiv - one of world’s most ancient cities and Europe’s oldest inhabited city — even beating Athens. Plovdiv is the second largest city in Bulgaria and its lively city centre, that is pedestrian friendly offers a variety of shops, restaurants and markets. But the star of the show is Old Town! Take a stroll down the old, steep and uneven streets and immerse yourself in history!
Enjoy the vibrant house colors, the amazing architecture and the variety of art items offered from every street vendor! Some of the older houses have been converted to hostels and hotels so do spend a night there to fully experience the history of this unique place.
You'll notice some amazing artwork throughout the city as well, keep yours eyes open as some are easier to spot than others. Ancient ruins can be found throughout the city too, one of them a large amphitheater, completely visible when walking down the main pedestrian street downtown Plovdiv! The city is also famous for its wine - so take a tour of one of the wineries and learn more about how they make their famous red wine.. and bonus, you'll even get to try a glass or two.
Veliko Tarnovo - the old capital of Bulgaria is a must see! For all history buffs and castle enthusiasts this is the place! The most significant monument of culture in Veliko Tărnovo with the medieval fortress Tsarevets, situated on the Homonymous Peak, surrounded on three sides is the river Yantra.
It is a great historical place within the Balkan region with many different excavations finding historical pieces from the Byzantine times as well. Arbanasi which is another favorite is only a few miles away and it has still preserved some of the Era of the Bulgarian revival.
Rila Monastery and the 7 lakes - recently we read an article about the 10 most spiritual places in the world (with strongest energy fields) and the 7 Rila Lakes were one of them. The monastery, established in the 10th century is the largest and most beautiful one in Bulgaria.
Throughout history it has been an important center of worship, it has helped preserve cultural traditions and activities and a place that had provided shelter for many religious and public figures. To get to the lakes up from the monastery it takes about 8 hours, the trail is well marked but bring a map just in case as well as food and water! The picturesque views and the peaceful tranquility of the mountain definitely make this place feel like it's out of this world and it is easy to understand why it is considered to be one of the most spiritual places on earth.
Varna is the largest city on the coast line of Bulgaria and the main port is also a naval base. It's the most northern point of the Black Sea in Bulgaria and although it's a good starting point for a trip down the Black Sea coast we wouldn't recommend spending a lot of time there. The weather in the Northern part of the country isn’t as nice and the city despite its beauty lacks that typical beach feel. Visiting Varna of course is a must, due to its rich cultural history, active traditions and tons of family-friendly activities.
Golden sands - one of the most popular resorts on the Bulgarian coastline, famous of its... yes, you guessed it - its golden sand. The sand truly is one of the nicest sand beaches, I have ever seen - gold, soft and fine. The town is popular among the adventure seekers as it offers a lot of water sports such as jet skiing, windsurfing, parasailing and etc.
Sunny beach is the party center of the Bulgarian sea coast, famous for the amount of sun it gets. The town is very popular amongst Russian tourists and it has seen incredible development - largely in clubs and resorts which are everywhere and the beaches are filled with chairs, cabanas and umbrellas. If you are looking for a beach town that offers good drinks, parties that are always on and a decent beach, then this is the place for you.
Sozopol is one of the oldest Bulgarian coastal towns, the city is divided into two parts - old town and the modern part of the town. Old town is family focused with its small, romantic villas while the large, modern and luxury hotels are located in the new part of Sozopol. The town offers a good mix of family-friendly activities, a relaxed environment as well as a buzzing nightlife with tons of good restaurants and night clubs.
If you are looking for something off the beaten path than visit Irakli, located a few kilometers south of Obzor. This small beach town has become famous amongst hippies and nature lovers. It's one of the cheapest destinations on the Bulgarian sea coast - camping here is one of the most popular summer activities. Irakli is often visited by nudists, and skinny dipping is by all means encouraged, so might not be the best family vacation spot.
For those of you who enjoy winter sports like skiing and snowboarding than you should visit Borovetz or Bansko. The two resorts are located fairly close to each other (130 km apart) and are popular tourist destinations during the winter months but there are not to be skipped during the summer either. Bansko seems to be winning the popularity vote as there is a lot to do there despite skiing or snowboarding. The town has a ton of good restaurants and cafes to eat in and several clubs if you are in a mood to party.
Buzludzha (check our blog post here) it's another must see in Bulgaria. This abandoned communist building in the shape of a space ship, located atop the Buzludzha peak is an interesting and unique experience.
These are just a few of the must-see places in Bulgaria but there are much more. The country is quite small but depending on your timeline you can easily see it all. Rent a car or jump on a train and explore this unique country.
7. Popular scams
Unfortunately like anywhere these days, there are a few scams to be aware of when visiting Bulgaria so we have listed them below:
- Taxi scam - taxis are a good form of transportation in the city especially after leaving the bar, however be very careful what car you get into. There are “fake” taxi companies that mimic the real ones but if you look at the logo you will notice that it’s not exactly the same, or the phone number will be different by one digit, etc. Those companies will charge you double if not triple the price of the real ones. They often don't even turn the meter on. So make sure - 1. The company is legit 2. The meter is on 3. Watch how fast the meter goes. Some of the better companies are 1 Euro Taxi and Yellow Taxi 333.
- Price differences - always ask to see a restaurant menu in both Bulgarian and English as sometimes prices tend to be different. For example, coffee for locals would be 1 lev while coffee for tourists is 1 euro (1 euro = 1.95 lev) which is almost double. The same scams apply at some hotels as well.
- The fruit scam - it’s not unusual to see older people sitting on the side of the road selling herbs, veggies or fruits. For the most part those are people who are struggling and need to make some extra cash but sometimes they are just scammers that are targeting tourists especially foreigners. The scam is as follows: They hand you a bag of whatever they are selling while telling you how much it costs, usually a very, very cheap price. If you decline to pay they get really angry, they start yelling and saying that you are robbing them, essentially guilting you into buying their product. While this scam is fairly harmless if you have thick skin, best advice is to just avoid accepting anything from street vendors unless you approach them first.
- Exchange Bureau scam - this was especially popular a few years ago but it's not unlikely to encounter something similar today. Read the boards they post carefully - selling and buying rates, commission rates, etc. Some of them will take your money and give you less than half of what you were supposed to get due to a huge commission fee. And if you try to fight back then you may be approached by “security” in other words, two big guys you don’t want to mess with… Go to banks or larger exchange bureaus in more populated areas to avoid losing money. Also, we recommend checking online or using our favorite tool “XE Currency” app which will give you a good idea on current exchange rates before going.
- ATM fraud - check ATMs for card scanners before sliding your card in. This is not specific only to Bulgaria but a good rule of thumb anywhere you go!
8. The locals
Bulgarians are very patriotic, loving and genuinely nice people. Learn a few Bulgarian words and that will be the golden ticket to their hearts! A lot of Bulgarians know English so don’t be afraid to start a conversation. Overall Bulgarians are happy to show off their pride for their country, their gardens, their homes and if you’re lucky enough - their cooking skills. You may connect with a local while you’re there, don’t be surprised if they invite you for a meal. They truly go all out for guests and are happy to entertain you, as well as fill your belly! It is customary to bring something small with you if this does happen. For example, bring a small tray of cookies/biscuits or a liter of beer. This small token of gratitude goes a long way! Of course, common sense does apply here….if you feel uncomfortable or if your gut feels something is off, then don’t accept the invitation. (This is advice goes for any country including your home country.)
Bulgaria was established as a country in 681 AD and has been inhabited ever since. Over centuries the country has been conquered by the Byzantine Empire and later the Ottoman one, then later liberated with the help of the USSR. The different cultures have influenced Bulgarian traditions but there are still several unique traditions that have been preserved through the years Please read below for details on some of these traditions:
Christmas is one of the most celebrated and cherished holidays in Bulgaria dedicated to family and great food. The preparation for the holiday begins 40 days before Christmas Day with a 40 day long fast - no meat, dairy products or alcohol are allowed in order for the body to cleanse until midnight of December 25th. Not everyone fasts for the entire 40 days but regardless - all dishes served on Christmas Eve remain vegetarian only. During the feast there are usually an odd number of dishes on the table normally 9 or 13 for good luck. Some of the staple dishes featured on Christmas Eve are sarmi (cabbage stuffed leaves with rice and veggies), bob (beans soup/stew), dried fruit and nuts, koledna pitka (white bread) specifically baked for the day. The koledna pitka serves an important tradition, the oldest member of the family breaks the bread and gives out a piece to each family member, leaving the first piece for the house and the second for the Virgin Mary. There is a hidden fortune in each piece of the bread as well - a coin for wealth, a dogwood branch for health, a bean for rich harvest, a button for success at work and a piece of paper for prosperity in education. The table is left uncleared on Christmas Eve as it's believed that the deceased will come and eat the leftovers.
On Christmas Eve, a group of boys (girls are not allowed to participate) known as the Koledari (Carollers) go out to every house and sing songs about health, love and joy. In return they receive food and sometimes money.
New Year's Eve, what is a Bulgarian holiday without banitsa?! On New Year's Eve a special banitsa with fortunes is served! Some of the fortunes are little papers with writing on them such as health, love or luck. Another New Years tradition is survakane, which begins at midnight right as the new year is welcomed and continues during January 1st. Survakane is performed by children, who make survachka (a dogwood branch decorated with dried fruit and nuts) which later is used to lightly smack older family members on their back. Dogwood represents health because it is one of the smallest but toughest trees so the ritual of "beating" the older family members is believed to give them strength and health.
Kukeruvane is one of the oldest and strangest Bulgarian traditions. The ritual originated during ancient times when they would take part in ritual games in honor of the god Dionysus. The Kukeri game is performed by men, dressed in colorful costumes made out of fur and wearing scary, wooden masks. The masks are decorated with lace, threads and ribbons and usually represent different animals such as goats and sheep. They are also painted different colors, red being the most popular one meaning life and fertility. Another essential part of the costume are the big wooden or metal bells that the men wear around their necks or waists. The Kukers walk around, jumping and dancing “special magic dances” to scare away the evil spirits, to celebrate the beginning of Spring and in hopes of good harvest, health, and happiness.
Baba Marta is celebrated on March 1st, Baba Marta (Grandma March, literal translation) comes to bring everyone health and joy. To honor the holiday everyone wears Martenitsa - a small piece of adornment made out of red and white yarn, usually in the shape of two figures a boy and a girl. Most people however prefer bracelets made of red and white string intertwined together. The red represents life and the white is a symbol of rebirth, in other words Baba Marta is a celebration of spring when everything starts to bloom again. The Martenitsa is worn until spring comes or trees start to bloom and then is placed on one of the tree branches.
Easter is taken very seriously by Bulgarians and they have many traditions they take part in to celebrate. It starts with the Sunday 6 weeks prior to Easter known as Zagovezni. This starts their 46 day lent where they basically eat Vegan until Easter. Don't worry though, they more then make up for it on Easter Day with an enormous feast including all the prohibited foods as well as the special kozunak bread. The traditions with eggs are very important as well, as they represent whether you will have good health or good luck for the year. The eggs are dyed either on Thursday or Saturday before Easter Sunday and the first egg is always dyed red for healthand its then saved until next Easter. A service is held starting on Saturday (day before Easter) at 11 pm and everyone brings their colored eggs. At midnight everyone takes their colored eggs and smashes them into each other (two people at a time) for the "egg fight." The last person remaining with an unbroken egg is the winner and is said to have good luck for the year and this egg is also kept until the next Easter as well. During this service, they also take part in walking around the church three times with lit candles to see if their behavior has met the Christian expectations. Some interesting superstitions they have revolving around Easter include; if you hear a cuckoo halfway during lent it means Spring is coming. Even more, if you have money in your pocket when you hear it, you'll have a year of riches and the opposite is true if you're without pocket money. Another interesting one happens on Good Friday, where they set a table up in the church and it represents Jesus' coffin. They crawl underneath table to ensure good health and good fortune for the year.
As you can tell, Bulgarians are serious when it comes to Spring and health! If you find yourself visiting during any of these or other holidays try to take part in some way. It can be quite interesting to observe or celebrate with a culture so full of these unique rituals.
So here you have it - our travel guide to Bulgaria! Hopefully we have answered your questions and if we there is anything that we’ve missed please shoot us an email or leave a commentbelow with any questions you might have!