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.
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.
3. Rila Monastery
Known as the Jerusalem of Bulgaria, this picturesque Eastern Orthodox monastery in the forested mountains less than two hours south of Sofia is definitely worth a pilgrimage visit. Named for St. Ivan of Rilski, a tenth century hermit who lived in a nearby cave, the monastery has been built, burnt, and rebuilt over the centuries, with the latest construction dating to the 1800s. Enter the courtyard and you will be stunned by the perfect harmony of the church, with its graceful arches in bold stripes of black and white set under a row of sculpted gargoyles, tiled roofs, and five domes reaching towards the sky. In the distance are the peaks of the Rila Mountains, complimenting an oasis of serenity perfect for religious hermits and modern visitors alike.
Belogradchik Fortress is a manmade construction set against a stunning outcrop of rocks. The combination is so unique and picturesque, that it seems to have been lifted straight out of a Disney fairytale. What’s even more unique than the fortress is the surrounding countryside. The Belogradchik Rocks, named in 2009 as Bulgaria’s candidate to be selected as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, are a stunning arrangement of strange-shaped sandstone and conglomerate rock formations.
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.
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!
10 . 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!