Bulgaria Travel Guide
🗝️ Key Facts
💶Currency: Lev (BGN)
🕙Time Zone: +2 GMT
📞Phone Code: +359
✈️Best time to visit: April to September
🍴Eat: Shopska salata
🗺️Don't miss: National Museum of History in Sofia
🗺 Menu of Contents:
Bulgaria is a beautiful country, with great mountains for both winter sports and summer walks; it is small in size but rich in ancient culture, scenic splendour, friendly people and old-fashioned warmth and hospitality. Situated in the southeast of Europe, on the Balkan Peninsula, Bulgaria is not as much a tourist destination as its Greek and Turkish neighbours despite the popularity of its reasonably priced Black Sea resorts, which are scenically captivating with their fine, sandy beaches, sunny climate, and safe seas.
Although better known for its sea resorts, the essential character of Bulgaria can really be found in its spectacular mountainous regions.
At the foot of the Vitosha Mountains lies the laid back capital city, Sofia, which is home to a great number of architectural monuments and museums.
As varied as the different mountain ranges are the people who dwell in them, with distinctive regional customs, crafts, festivals, and folklore adding colour to the Bulgarian landscape. Small, picturesque villages welcome guests with typical, warm-hearted Bulgarian hospitality, sharing traditional cooking and a delight in their pastoral environment.
Bulgaria's history is displayed across the country in its old towns, ancient Thracian relics, decorated churches and monasteries, and in the rustic settlements that have preserved the traditional beliefs of its people. One of the country's biggest assets for visitors is its variety, but whatever aspect one chooses to explore, there is always the assurance of a warm welcome.
Arriving to Bulgaria from within Europe is simple thanks to the number of growing low cost airlines offering cheap and frequent flights to Bulgaria now. You can fly there from most European capitals, using national or legacy airlines which fly into the country's main gateway, Sofia.
The national airline is Bulgaria Air, which flies from domestic destinations within Bulgaria to Sofia and onwards to many European capitals. Alternatively you can take low cost airlines like Easyjet, Wizzair or Ryanair.
If coming outside Europe, there are very limited direct connections. So a transit stop will be required in some major European city normally.
Another option in getting to Bulgaria is by Bus or train from other countries. If you're travelling around and don't want to spend lots of money on plane tickets then getting Eurolines coaches is the best answer. You can more info on routes and prices at Eurolines.bg
By train you can reach Sofia from neighbouring counties.Cities like Belgrade, Istanbul, Bucharest, Athens, Ljubljana, or Vienna have direct services to Sofia.
Within the country, public transportation is somewhat still old fashioned when compared to other cities. However since Bulgaria is now part of the European Union it's improving its transport infrastructure. Sofia has a good and reliable public transport system, however, the rest of the country can offer limited services when in smaller cities.
Travelling domestically you will find plenty of busses and trains linking other cities. It's not expensive to travel by them and tickets can always be bought on the day of departure costing the same as bought in advance.
Bulgaria has continental weather which brings hot summer's and very cold winter's (often snow). The appeal is double, as many travellers opt for Winter to ski in the nearby mountains, which have the benefit of being much cheaper then other ski resorts like France or Switzerland.In winter temperatures can drop to -5 in the mountains, but +3 on the planes. On the opposite side Summer's are very enjoyable with temperatures reaching the high 30's and plenty of blue sky. For tourism in the country, culture and nature it's probably best to visit Bulgaria from April to September. Taking in mind that the months of July and August are more expensive. If you want to visit for Winter sports then the best time is January.
Dinner is a social occasion, with traditional music and dancing in many restaurants, especially in resorts and in some Sofia eateries. Food is hearty and good. Meals usually start with a salad, from which there are many to choose from on the menu. There is a wide variety of national dishes, as well as Western European standard dishes. There are many attractive folk-style restaurants and cafés throughout the country.
Specialities include: Tarator , cold soup made from cucumber, walnuts and yoghurt. Shopska salata, huge salad starter with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and white cheese. Kavarma ,individual casseroles of pork or veal, onions and mushrooms. Surmi, stuffed vine or cabbage leaves stuffed with meat. Kebapche, small, strongly spiced, minced meat rolls.
As for drinks: Coffee is very popular, specially served espresso style. Infusions, made from herbs and dried leaves, particularly lime. White wines include Evksinograde, Karlouski Misket and Tamianka. Heavy red wines include Mavroud and Trakia. As for liquors, mastika (aniseed spirit, usually diluted) and rakia (local brandy) are local favourites.
I discovered Bulgaria from a tour around other countries within the region and was pleased not to have missed out on it. The country is not the most advertised in Europe, however there are lots of positive things about my visit to Sofia. The people are hospitable, friendly and welcome visitors, I was pleased to see people smiling, and a general sense of good customer service. Sofia is a very cultural city where you can explore by foot it's hidden wonders. Many people make Sofia a transit stop on their way to Turkey or other Balkan countries around the area. Also it attracts a large number of skiers, which at the season I went, after skiing then flocked to restaurants and bars in the city where there is a young loud atmosphere. It's definitely a place to visit year round and it won't disappoint you.
Sofia Tourism Information Guide
Sofia is Bulgaria’s capital and its largest city. Sofia is located in the western part of the country. The city is located at a strategic crossroads. The route from Western Europe to Istanbul passes through Sofia via Belgrade and Skopje, then through Plovdiv to Turkey. Sofia is relatively close to the capitals of most Balkan countries: Ankara, Athens Belgrade, Bucharest, Zagreb, Ljubljana, Sarajevo, Skopje and Tirana.
It's quite popular therefore to visit Sofia in combination of any of these mentioned. Sofia preserves many valuable monuments to its long and storied past. Visitors exploring the city’s streets can see remnants of The Eastern Gate from the days when Sofia was Serdika and Sredets, dating from the 2nd-4th centuries. The city offers a wide range of activities, from culture and history to night entertainment, restaurants and clubs. All ages will find the city appealing as it's easy to walk around the streets and transport is accessible and easy to get.
Sofia's climate is one of its best attributes. Situated on an open plain only 550m above sea level and ringed in by the Balkan and Vitosha Mountains, summer days in the city are hot and sunny, with temperatures rising to 30ºC during the high season of July and August.
On the other side, Winters are cold and snowy, when temperatures usually drop to around to 3-5°C during the day and freezing at night. January and February are the best time to visit for skiing activities as Sofia sits ideally close to some of the countries best ski slopes.
Spring and autumn are pleasantly mild seasons and both are known for their beautiful colours, which makes it the best time to visit. But Sofia is, indeed, a year-round tourist destination.
Arriving to Sofia from the airport is easy. Sofia Metro Line 1 connects Sofia Airport to the city centre and provides direct connection from the airport to the large residential complexes in close proximity. The trip takes 18 min. There is also public busses (84 and 384) which connect to the city, depending where you go it might be a good option. You need to buy tickets at the airport terminal before boarding the service.
Once in the city, Sofia is easy to walk around if you stay within the city centre. But if you need to get public transport, it's very handy and reasonable. To download the below map follow this link: Sofia Transport Map.
There is a a lot of culture to discover in Sofia, however, there is also scenery and nature and it's very popular as a sport's destination.
The highlights of the city are summarised below:
- Saint Sofia Basilica, founded during the reign of Justinian (reign 527-565), is one of the oldest churches in the capital. It was the city’s major church during the Middle Ages, and under the Ottomans it was used as a mosque. Very close to Saint Sofia is The Memorial Church Saint Alexander Nevsky, now one of the city’s most recognisable symbols. This church was built in 1912. Its bell tower rises to a height of 53 meters, and houses 53 bells, the heaviest weighing 10 tons. One of the most popular tourist destinations in Sofia, the church can hold roughly 5,000 people.
- The oldest church in Sofia is the Saint George Rotunda. It is thought that the church was built in the 6th century, during the reign of Constantine the Great. Also on the outskirts of the city, you can find the Boyana Church, a medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church. In 1979, the building was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
- There is hardly another city in all of Europe that has so many noteworthy Christian, Islamic, and Jewish monuments so close together. In the immediate vicinity, other historical remains are preserved, such as the municipal baths, the marketplace, and The Holy Sunday Church. Adjacent to this church is the Theological Seminary, which houses The National Historical and Archeological Museum. Other points of interest in the city include The Lion Bridge, The Eagle Bridge, The Russian Monument, The Ivan Vazov National Theatre, Banya Bashi Mosque, and the monument to Vasil Levski.
- On the lower slopes of Mount Vitosha, in the Boyana District, you will find the The National Museum of History, with its collection from prehistoric times to the present day. The museum has one of the largest collections anywhere, with over 700,000 items of cultural importance. Close to the museum is The Boyana Church, one of the Bulgarian monuments that is listed among the UNESCO World Heritage sites.
- Opportunities for sport and recreation in the capital are many and varied, outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, modern gymnasiums and sports halls, and parks. During the winter, the ski resort on Mount Vitosha is a favorite with skiers and snowboarders alike, and during the summer it is a favourite place for hikers and picnickers. Mount Vitosha borders on The Vitosha Natural Park, which is the oldest nature reserve on the Balkan Peninsula. There are two ski centers on Mount Vitosha. There are a total of 29 km of ski runs on Vitosha, and the longest is 5 km. The maximum vertical drop is 780 meters. The slopes are suitable for both experienced skiers beginners.
✔️Tip: One of the best ways of discovering the city is by "free walking tour". These tours are organised by locals or foreign students who study in the city and can show you around, explain key aspects of the city, architecture and culture and tell you curious things about it too. They are totally free and only require a donation at the end if you consider it worth it. It's a great way of meeting other travellers as well if you travel solo. For more info check this site: Sofia Walking tour.
For shopping, one of Sofia’s favorite spots for both visitors and residents is Vitosha Boulevard. Here thee are shops carrying world-famous brands, and since it s a pedestrian zone, it a very pleasant place for strolling and relaxation. In general, the capital is a shoppers delight, since Sofia is still one of the major crossroads on the Balkan Peninsula for trade of all kinds
If you go Shopping in Sofia, the experience has improved greatly compared to the last decade. Adding to the benefit, prices are a little lower than in other European cities, though those used to the bespoke ranges of London and New York will struggle to find something similar in Sofia.
The main shopping areas in Sofia centre are on Vitosha Boulevard, Ulitsa Graf Ignatiev and Ulitsa Pirotska. Outlet shops are also popular, with many small shops selling designer labels for less. Most are found around Vitosha Boulevard, which is worth a visit for the view alone, where mountains are framed by verdant green trees and street lights making for a nice walk and good photographic opportunities.
Sofia has several markets worth visiting. The Neo-Renaissance Tsentralni Hali (Central Food Hall) on Maria Luiza Boulevard is a spotlessly clean and well-organised bazaar, open daily and set over three floors. Situated on Stefan Stambolov Boulevard, Zhenski Pazar (Women's Market) is open daily and sells all a woman (or man) could possibly desire. Here, you’ll find everything from food and clothes to homeware and antiques.
Shopping centres are now more popular in the city, Mall of Sofia on Stamboliyski Boulevard is the largest, complete with bookshops, a food court and international brands like Nike and Swatch. CCS, on Arsenalski Boulevard, has six levels of bars, restaurants and a cinema, plus French fashions and Turkish homeware. Following a costly facelift, TsUM, now operates as a Western-style shopping mall, with cafes and shops across three floors.
It's a very easy city to find all kinds of accommodation. From the high-end luxury hotels, to more budget hostels and even Airbnb is quite popular with local hosts taking up the idea more and more. The city is not expensive, however, there are plenty of normal Hotels which offer good prices and conveniently located. These hotels which are not part of any chains or big names, might be a little antique in regards to decoration and style. But it can be curious to stay here as it's like travelling back in time.
Prices are from €25 per night per room within walking distance to the city. Sofia is safe, most Hotels have good security.
However don't expose valuables or personal belongings at the hotel after leaving your room and lock your luggage just to be secure.
Staying in Sofia is ideal for a short stay whilst you are visiting other cities or countries within the region. If you coming to ski then you might want to take a few more days but for general tourism in Sofia 3 nights would be enough.