In the shadow of the monumental peaks of the Pirin National Park, Bansko is Bulgaria’s top ski resort.
You can come in winter or summer to pit yourself against nature, cascading through powder on a freestyle ski run or scrambling up a dirt track on a mountain bike.
When you’re not careering through the scenery you can sit back and admire it from the window of a restaurant or cafe in Bansko’s old quarter.
This lofty town was home to a clutch of epoch-defining cultural figures, who helped lay the tracks for modern Bulgaria during the 19th-century Bulgarian Revival.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Bansko:
Bansko’s 16 ski runs are spread across three peaks, the highest beginning at 2600 metres near the summit of Todorka Mountain.
A network of ski lifts will get you up to the runs, including the high-capacity Bansko gondola that climbs more than 600 metres from near the centre of Bansko.
The resort has an affordable ski school for kids and adults, and a large rental centre to kit you out with all the gear you need.
If you get peckish on the slopes don’t worry because the ski station has eight bars and restaurants.
2. Summer hikes
These mountainsides that are under a white blanket in winter are ripe for adventure in the warmer months.
This is when you can set off from the ten trailheads around Bansko on routes that vary in difficulty but are mostly accessible to people of all ages.
In all there are 200 kilometres of trails within moments of your accommodation, much more than you could hope to cram into one holiday.
If you want things to get a bit more vertical then you can also locate the resort’s 21 rock-climbing walls. Indeed, many Alpine climbers come to Pirin to train.
3. Mountain Biking
In the summer many of those ski and snowboard centres will stock all the gear for you to hit Bansko’s many trails on two wheels.
There are seven trails on Pirin Mountain alone, all well-marked and plotted on maps that you can download onto your smart phone.
One circular route, Ponderosa snakes along for 42 kilometres.
For these tougher challenges it’s usually recommended to set off with an experienced guide, who you’ll be able to hire from the same places you get your equipment.
4. Septemvri-Dobrinishte Line
If you’re travelling from Sofia or Plovdiv, this 760mm narrow gauge railway serves Bansko from Septemvri.
It’s a journey you’ll take with you for the rest of your life, gliding up from the Western Thracian Plain into a sequence of mountain chains culminating with the vast Pirin range that dominates Bansko.
The line was constructed in sections between 1921 and 1945, and Avramovo Station at 1267 metres is Balkan’s highest railway station.
Between Avramovo and the previous stop at Sveta Petka there’s an elevation differential of 227 metres, which is achieved by four spirals, and on this section the train changes direction no fewer than six times.
5. Ice skating
This might sound a bit mushy, but it doesn’t get more romantic than ice-skating under the stars, even if you don’t have Olympic skills on the ice.
Bansko’s rink, one of the largest in Bulgaria, has been open for every winter season since 2010 and is an affordable 10 leva for adults and 5 leva for kids.
The rink stays open well after sunset, so it’s a fun, family-friendly way to fill the hours between coming down from the slopes and heading out to dinner.
6. Other summer fun
Aside from hiking and mountain biking there’s more than enough around the resort to entertain a family for a few days.
At the resort there’s tubing, mini golf and even a giant table-football pitch if you don’t mind looking a bit silly.
You could also rent a bike to explore the roads and trails at a more sedate pace or catch the gondola lift up the mountain and see the best panoramas of the Pirin National Park when it’s painted with dark evergreen hills in summer.
For rugged, outdoorsy types the ultimate challenge round these parts is Mount Vihren, which tops out at almost 3,000 metres.
Although it’s not a climb to take lightly, most people who do it are surprised at how achievable it is. There are a couple of companies in Bansko that will send you up there with expert guides.
Most people make the climb in spring and early-summer and it’s essential of course that you come with the proper gear, as even as late as May there’s snow up here.
The walk is an experience you won’t soon forget; not far from the peak are glassy alpine lakes with perfectly reflective waters.
8. Pirin Street
This is old Bansko’s high street where winter sport shops vie for your attention alongside bars, restaurants, cafes and a number of souvenir shops.
This is also near where many of the hotels and ski lodges are located, so on winter evenings Pirin Street thrums with activity and a party atmosphere.
Restaurants will even try to draw you in by grilling kebabs in their shop-fronts! By day in winter or summer of you gaze down the street you’ll have those astounding views of the Pirin Mountains.
9. Velyanova House
Velian Ognev was a 19th-century artist closely associated with Bansko, composing several icons and frescoes that you’ll see in the Holy Trinity church listed below.
His home has been kept as it was when he was alive so is a monument to Bulgarian Revival architecture. Velian Ognev painted the bright murals that you’ll see throughout the building’s interior as well as on the upper section of the external walls.
These paintings depict Europe’s major cities, which reflects the spirit of the times in Bulgaria as the country looked beyond its borders and towards the west in particular.
10. Holy Trinity Church
In the 19th-century Bulgarian Revival the country regained a sense of national identity after centuries under Ottoman dominion.
Bansko’s main church is a product of that time and was designed in a neo-byzantine style with three naves.
It was commissioned by a wealthy local merchant and everything you’ll see was the work of craftsmen and artists from the area.
The icons and frescoes were created by Velian Ognev and the Brothers Dimitar and Simeon Moleovi, all in the mid-1800s. More of their works can be seen at the Icons Exhibition close by.
11. Neofit Rilski House Museum
One of the pioneering figures of the Bulgarian Revival, Neofit Rilski, was born right in Bansko.
Rilksi made the first popular translation of the bible into modern Bulgarian and also wrote the first grammar book for the Bulgarian language.
You can check out his birthplace right next to the Holy Trinity Church. It’s a traditional rural home known as a “Benina” and dates to the 1700s.
On display are authentic artefacts relating to his work, including an edition of his Bulgarian grammar book and sections from a Greek-Bulgarian dictionary that he also made.
12. Nightlife and restaurants
You can’t have a ski resort without an après ski, and Bansko has a couple of nightspots close to the main gondola station.
Happy End is a nightclub and music venue that has welcomed some half-decent performers in its time, like the French House DJ Bob Sinclair. Sing Sing is a cocktail bar that also has a live music stage, and both venues are open well into the night during the busy winter season.
Food-wise Bansko is surprisingly international, with an Italian ristorante (creatively named “Soprano’s”) and a sushi bar complete with Bulgaria’s only tepenyaki grill.
13. Icons Exhibition
This permanent exhibition is inside Bansko’s oldest building, a former convent dating to 1749.
Within there’s a collection of painted icons, each accompanied by a label giving details about the painter and the subject.
Most are local works by the school that produced the paintings for Bansko’s church.
Winter or summer this meditative attraction offers a few minutes of reflection before you get on with your action-packed holiday.
The best way to warm up after a brisk day on the pistes is at a Bulgarian Mehana, or tavern, where Bulgarian cuisine is grilled over open charcoal fires.
Authentic Bulgarian Mehanas also put on dancing and live music to accompany your meal and ensure you come away better acquainted with the regional food and folk culture.
To start you’ll normally get shopska, a light salad with cucumber, peppers, onion and parsley.
Follow this with warming stews or a variety of kebabs, roasted vegetables and meatballs paired seared over flames and served with a local red wine.
Mehana Chanove is the pick of Bansko’s taverns .
15. Rila Monastery
It may take a bit of an adventure to reach this 10th-century monastery enveloped by the steep slopes of the Rila Mountains, but the trip is worth it both for the upland beauty along the way and the magnificent destination.
Rila Monastery is UNESCO-listed and was visited by Pope John Paul II in 2002.
The residential part of the monastery boasts medieval fortifications and a loggia (or cloisters) with four tiers of arches.
The tiling all around is in the classic byzantine style, while if you visit the church you can take in the sumptuous 19th-century murals that seem to cover every available surface.