Rolling down from the pine-clad massifs of the Balkan Mountains and the Rhodope ranges to meet the sparkling blues of the Black Sea, Bulgaria offers everything from sun-kissed beaches to enthralling historical narratives, buzzing party towns to snow-shrouded ski resorts between its borders.
In this guide to the 15 best places to visit in the country, we take a look at all the major hotspots that should be on anyone’s Bulgarian bucket list this year.
The sun-splashed favourite of local Bulgarians heading out of Sofia and Plovdiv for the summer, Varna is much more than just your run-of-the-mill resort town on the edge of the Black Sea. Yes sir, with a long and enthralling history, oodles of crumbling Roman bathhouses and elaborate Orthodox architecture (like the almost unpronounceable Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral), the city appeals to history buffs and culture vultures as well as sun seekers.
Of course, the beaches are still a big factor, and one bustling sand-side promenade beckons travelers with oodles of seafood restaurants and cocktail bars, while lively clubs erupt right on the edge of the shore after dark.
2. Veliko Tarnovo
The legendary City of the Tsars stands aloft on the edge of the rising foothills of Bulgaria’s northern mountains. Bisected by the S-shaped meanders of the Yantra River, the town’s setting is nothing short of breathtaking, with terraces of terracotta-coloured roofs looming over the waterways below.
The pretty cobblestone lanes and half-timbered homes of this one’s old town are prime examples of what’s now known as the Tarnovo school, which developed as the Second Bulgarian Empire boomed in the Middle Ages.
That means travelers here experience a mixture of natural beauty – courtesy of the wild coniferous woods that blanket the landscapes all around – and unbridled culture and history, oozing from the Tsarevets capitol and the clutch of gorgeous Byzantine churches.
The sprawling capital of Bulgaria is something of a patchwork of its own past. Around its edges rise the great brutalist monuments to Soviet rule; endless streams of cookie cutting high-rises.
Closer to the centre and the ancient remains of the Serdica Fort and the Roman-Byzantine Church of St George sit in the shadow of Stalinist municipal buildings.
And then there are the iconic Orthodox domes and gilded edifices of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which glisten under the snow-packed tops of Vitosha Mountain in the distance.
It’s all very eclectic, and rarely fails to impress travelers that opt to linger here a little while.
A showcase in all things Bulgarian National Revival, Zheravna is a rustic and raw picture of one of the country’s most iconic architectural styles of old.
The town itself sits nestled at the base of the mighty Balkan Mountains, between dense thickets of Bosnian pines and white elms, where it seems almost organically formed in its timber-clad, stony appearance.
The cottages that pepper the cobbled streets all come beautifully restored, with more than 150 examples of the typical hardwood facades on display.
Amidst the buildings, sites like the Yordan Yovkov House and the icon-packed St Nicholas Church draw the biggest crowds, while others will head for the August Dobromiritsa Rural Park nearby, where festivals celebrating Bulgarian folk costumes and music erupt throughout the year.
Burgas is one of the favoured gateways to the southern stretches of the Black Sea Coast. A far cry from the ancient and historic centres that pepper the country elsewhere, it’s a largely modern affair of Art Deco rises and manicured parks on the edge of the sea.
It’s also home to some of the most lively music festivals in Bulgaria, like the rollicking Spirit of Burgas that erupts each year in the summer.
North Beach is the most popular stretch of sand in the town, while Burgas also has another trick up its sleeve: the majestically beautiful trio of lakes that range from the bird-spotting paradise of Vaya to the west to the saline waters of Atanasovsko to the north.
6. Rila Monastery
Perhaps the most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in the world, Rila has risen and risen to become a veritable symbol of the Bulgarian nation.
It entered the UNESCO World Heritage List way back in 1983, hailed for its curious intermingling of Mamluk, arabesque, Byzantine and Romanesque styles, and resplendent iconostases walls, carved meticulously and inlaid with shimmering gold leaf.
An on-site museums helps travelers unravel the more than 1,000 years of history that coalesce at the site, while endless courtyards and peristyles decorated in murals and medieval scenes mean there’s plenty of art and architecture to draw the eye.
Prep the salopettes and wax the skis, because Bansko is Bulgaria’s most prized winter sports resort. With countless expansions and new lift projects at its back, the dual ski fields of the Chalin Valog and Shiligarnika that make their home between the fir forests here have become some of the most lauded in all of Eastern Europe.
And even if you won’t be hitting the 70 kilometers of groomed runs on offer, Bansko’s rugged setting in the Pirin ranges and wealth of luxury hotels, hedonistic bars, jazz joints, cross-country trails and Bulgarian tavernas is sure to hit the spot!
Encompassed by endless seas of pine trees that oscillate between verdant green and ice-caked white with the turning of summer and winter, the popular mountain resort town of Pamporovo makes its home amidst the undulating ridges of the southern Rhodope Mountains, just a short jaunt away from the borderlands with Greece.
And while the warmer months here do mean fantastic hiking opportunities along the trails of Smolyan, it’s the snows that really draw the crowds, when the slopes (all 36 kilometers of them) open and chairlifts creak and rattle to the tips of Rhodope with skiers in tow.
Pamporovo is expanding rapidly too, which means it’s certainly one to watch on Eastern Europe’s line-up of budding mountain resorts!
9. Pirin National Park
UNESCO-tagged and rising like a great Balkan bulwark against the borders of Macedonia and Greece, the Pirin National Park is a hinterland like no other in Europe.
Up on high, its snow-spotted summits gather caps of mist, while alpine valleys below are dashed with avalanches of forest-green pine and fir trees, and speckled with the occasional bed of edelweiss.
Meanwhile, deer and bears stalk the woodlands to this day, and wild goats clamber atop the craggy precipices to find shelter in the rocky crevices and caves.
It’s hardly a wonder that this one is hailed as a paradise for hikers and outdoorsy types, with trails soaring to the top of Vihren (the highest peak) and weaving around the whopping 186 mountain lakes!
The otherworldly geological wonders that lurk on the edge of Belogradchik town rarely fail to impress travelers who make their way to this far-flung corner of Bulgaria on the northward slopes of the Balkan Mountains.
Known simply as the Belogradchik Rocks, they offer a sprawling display of hoodoos and anthropomorphic monoliths that’s inspired folk legends and local myths aplenty.
But Belogradchik’s draws don’t end there. No sir, not with that colossal Belogradchik Fortress complex dating back to Roman times on the menu, the citadel of nearby Baba Vida and the mysterious pre-historic wall art of the Magura Cave to boot!
Draped over seven hills along the courses of the beautiful Maritsa River, Plovdiv runs the gamut of historical sights, encompassing Roman amphitheatres, Thracian fortresses, honorific monuments to Bulgaria’s own Krum the Fearsome, National Revival churches and even the occasional Soviet tenement between city limits.
The piece de resistance has to be the old world historic centre though; a Game of Thrones-esque pallet of stone-clad keeps and winding alleyways, Byzantine arches and hidden squares.
Oh, and Plovdiv’s nightlife beckons partiers after hours, as the coffee culture haunts turn hedonist, fuelling nights with indie, jazz and oodles of Balkan beers!
12. Sunny Beach
Throw off the inhibitions and delve into the sun-splashed party town that is Sunny Beach. Bulgaria’s answer to Malia, Ayia Napa and Ibiza, it’s packed with thumping clubs and pubs, chatty promoters offering buckets (literally) of booze for next to nothing, flashing neon, funky ravers, booze cruises and tanned, bikini-clad, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing partiers.
As well as its sleepless edge, Sunny Beach is also home to one gorgeous stretch of sand, which sits lapped over by the Black Sea and backed by the lively Boulevard, where English all-day breakfasts meet Italian pizzas in the international eateries and hotels rise in bursts of brilliant white.
Perfectly-preserved Koprivshtitsa pops up from between the spruces and pines that cover the valleys of the Sredna Gora Mountains like a beautifully adorned gingerbread carving of a town.
In fact, the whole settlement is a protected national monument, supposed to reflect and define the achievements of the Bulgarian National Revival movement in its wealth of painted facades, realist stone sculptures and shuttered homes.
Visitors who head to the spot today can spy out honorific memorial exhibitions dedicated to heroes of the April Uprising of 1876, while other institutions chronicle the life and works of iconic revivalist writers and artists alike.
With traces of human settlement dating back more than seven millennia and what’s been hailed as the most awesome monolithic structure in the entire Balkan Peninsula crowning its hilltops, Perperikon is a real must for any history buffs and culture vultures making their way through Bulgaria.
Before it was built up and fortified by the Thracian tribespeople, it’s thought that Copper Age priests used the hill for rituals and soothsaying, which legend has it foretold the rise of both Alexander the Great and Imperial Rome under Augustus.
Today, visitors can come and wander the off-the-beaten-track dig site, while relics and findings are best viewed at the local archaeology museum in Kardzhali.
Jutting out and sparkling like a Medieval Byzantine pearl between the rollers of the Black Sea, Nessebar is certainly one of the most enchanting and unforgettable cities on Bulgaria’s coast.
It’s famed for an enthralling UNESCO centre where layers of Thracian ruins mix with eye-watering churches built between the 5th and 10th centuries.
There are formidable fortifications too, famed for fighting off both Ottoman Turk and Crusading counts alike, not to mention rows of pretty seaside villas that cascade down neatly to meet the shore, shimmering in whitewash and red-tile as they go. Put simply – this one’s not to be missed!