While Bulgaria is said to be one of the oldest nations in Europe (yes, it’s older than ancient Greece) and basically a Historian’s dreamboat, don’t let that fool you in to thinking it’s just a pile of old buildings. In summer, Bulgaria shakes off the snow in an extraordinary blast of flowers, vineyards, and rolling green fields. The arts industry is booming, tourism is peaking, the coastlines are sparkling, and the valleys are blooming – Bulgaria is quite possibly one of Europe’s best-kept secrets.
When people think of travelling Europe, they generally don’t imagine visiting Bulgaria. It tends to get a bad rap from the media, and other Europeans, but I travelled alone in Bulgaria and found it to be perfectly safe. It’s so affordable, accessible, and beautiful that there’s no reason not to go. The public transport system is fabulous, they produce excellent wine, the landscape is idyllic, Plovdiv has been dubbed the official European Capital of Culture for 2019, it’s the homeland of Viktor Krum from Harry Potter, and Bulgarian cheese is so good it’s exported all over the world – what’s not to love?
When To Go:
Like many other European nations, Bulgaria comes in to full swing in summer. The nights are warm, the bars are full, and the streets are alive with festivities. Having said that, it’s also beautiful in winter with snow-covered mountains and cathedrals.
How Long For?
One-week is enough to see Bulgaria’s main attractions, but if you’re looking to spend more than a day or two in each place, I recommend two-weeks. You’ll want to spend at least three full days exploring the ancient city of Sofia, with enough time to head out on a day-trip to Rila Monastery, and two-days Plovdiv exploring the old town, and sampling cheese at the many cafes and restaurants.
While part of the EU, Bulgaria is not part of the Schengen Agreement, so many long-term travellers from outside Europe head to Bulgaria to break up their 90-days in Schengen areas so they can spend longer in Europe.
Citizens of the UK, Australia, USA, Canada, New Zealand, and the rest of Europe are free to roam Bulgaria for a whole 90-days, without it effecting the rest of your Euro-trip. A PDF of passport-holders who do/do not need visas is on the Republic Of Bulgaria website.
Lev (lv), made up of 100 stotinki. I use XE for currency conversions – the examples below are correct as of April 2017.
1 USD = 1.83431 BGN
1 AUD = 1.39967 BGN
1 CAD = 1.37701 BGN
1 GBP = 2.30095 BGN
While prices rise in peak season (June to August), Bulgaria is not an expensive place to travel around by any means. A dorm bed will set you back 14lv, a budget meal is around 4 – 11lv, beer and wine is around 4lv, and attractions range from 3 -14lv.
Bus: The bus system in Bulgaria is fantastic. It’s how locals get around, so it’s well connected, and buses tend to leave regularly. It usually costs around 14lv for a four-hour trip, and while you can pre-book using BGrapisanie (also useful for finding the bus schedules, you will need to use Google translate), you can just show up at the bus stand and buy a ticket.
Train: The rail system is a reliable form of transport, but it tends to cost more, and take longer compared to the buses. You’ll also need to book a train ticket in advance on the BDZ site.
Taxi: Most cities and towns are full of taxis, and they’re pretty easy to wave down. Taxis are yellow, and it is illegal for taxi drivers not to use a meter. Anyone who tells you the meter is broken, or that it’s cheaper to negotiate a flat rate, is probably trying to rip you off. Legitimate taxi drivers will have rates stuck to the window of the car (0.80lv/kilometre is the highest these rate you should see), and you will be able to see the meter when you sit in the car. If either one of these things is not present, get out and find another taxi.
Hitchhiking: Hitching is illegal in Bulgaria, so even though I was in a situation at one stage in my trip, I still advise against it.
Bulgaria is full of accommodation options to cater for all budgets. Hostels are in abundance in all cities, and cheaper options are almost always available in smaller towns. For those on a budget, dorm beds cost around 11lv per night, and private rooms in hotels/guest houses can cost around 23lv. If you’re looking to spend a bit more, the highest prices hover around 200lv.
Food is extremely affordable everywhere, regardless of your budget.
Other Things To Note:
Language: The Bulgarian alphabet uses Cyrillic, and the vast majority of street, bus, and train signs have not been translated. Unlike much of Europe, English is spoken very little in Bulgaria, and it can be difficult to communicate, especially at bus stations. If you’re catching a bus, it’s a really good idea to carry around the name of your destination in Cyrillic so you can recognise the destination sign on the front of your bus. To put this in perspective, ‘Sofia’ in Bulgarian is written СОФИЯ. Cyrillic is not intuitive for those familiar with the Latin alphabet, and doing this will save you a great deal of stress.
Street Vendors: If you spend any time at a bus station or in a city, someone may approach you and ask if you’d like to exchange some money, or buy some goods from a bag they’re carrying (usually perfume). These are illegal, under-the-table dealings, and I strongly advise against it.
Airport Taxis: A major crackdown of fraudulent taxi services took place a few years ago, but Sofia Airport is still riddled with people trying to rip you off. When you enter the taxi section, ignore everyone on the floor, and head straight to the OK-Supertrans booth. There will be people with official-looking OK lanyards loitering in front of the booths, but they are not official taxi drivers and will almost certainly charge you an extortionate fare once you arrive in town. It doesn’t matter how nice or convincing they are, I have experienced this first-hand, and it’s not a great introduction to such a beautiful and culturally rich part of the world.