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10 best UNESCO World Heritage sites in Bulgaria
UNESCO sites in Bulgaria are scattered throughout the country. Nonetheless, they make it one of the most attractive destinations for people interested in history and culture. Besides these treasures, Bulgaria is proud of its charming nature and rich biodiversity, which is preserved in the parks and reserves of the country. You will uncover many picturesque parks, rivers, and lakes by discovering the UNESCO-recognized locations and customs in Bulgaria.
Bulgaria has been recognized by the World Heritage Convention for both natural and cultural properties. Some of these recognitions are physical sites you can visit, while others are intangible traditions that you have to witness and experience for yourself.
One of the symbols of Bulgaria, the Rila Monastery was founded in the 10th century and is the largest monastery in the country. It was included in the UNESCO List of Global Cultural Heritage in 1983. The monastery is located in the heart of the Rila mountain and has been the guardian of the Christian faith and Bulgarian education and culture since its founding. By far, this is one of the most visited religious sites in Bulgaria.
The monastery complex covers an area of 8,800 square meters; it has nearly 300 rooms, 100 of which are monastic cells. In the monastery, you can see old Orthodox icons and religious documents from throughout the centuries. Also, at the museum, you can view ancient items of the church, like scepters, coin collections, old manuscripts, and printed books. A unique offer of this site is that you can spend the evening in one of the rooms of this religious site!
Getting to the Rila Monastery from Sofia is quite easy. By car, it’s about an hour and a half drive from the city center. You also have the option to take an inter-city bus from the Ovcha Kupel bus station in Sofia, which takes approximately three hours. Finally, you can take a small shuttle bus, which is a bit pricier than the inter-city bus, but is a more direct route and takes two hours.
As the name suggests, Pirin National Park is located in the mountain of Pirin. Breathtaking views, glacial lakes, pine forests, and abundant biodiversity make this national park a true natural gem in Bulgaria.
Two natural reserves are located in the park, one is the oldest in the country, Bayuvi Dupki – Dzhindzhiritsa, and the other is Yulen. These protected areas contain a substantial 1/3 of Bulgaria’s flora species, including 182 medicinal plants, 1,315 species of higher plants, 320 types of lichen, and 165 varieties of algae. The rich biodiversity extends to the animal kingdom, as well. A significant 40% of Bulgarian bird species inhabit this park, as well as the endangered European tree frog and Hermann’s tortoise.
There are many hiking routes and cozy forest huts throughout the park so you can explore its wonders and nature by taking a day trip, or camping out for longer. Additionally, you can learn more about the park and interactive visitor center, which is located in the town of Bansko.
Another ancient cultural recognition by UNESCO in Bulgaria is the Boyana church named St. Nicholas and St. Panteleimon. This unique temple is located at the foot of Vitosha mountain, right outside the capital city of Sofia. A short 15-minute drive will take you to this significant Bulgarian cultural site.
The Boyana church was built in stages, beginning in the 10th century, then the13th century and finished in the 19th century. The architecture of the building is remarkable, as it models a typical Greek floor-plan, complete with ornamented facades and decorated ceramic elements. But the real treasure of the church is hidden behind its walls. Namely, the 240 intricate wall paintings dating back to 1259. These paintings depict biblical figures like Jesus Christ and the four Evangelists, prominent saints, as well as notable Orthodox celebrations. The level of exquisite detail in each of the portraits is striking and will captivate anyone who enters this centuries-old wonder.
The incredible frescoes of the Boyana church are recognized globally and have earned this location its position on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Historians and researchers universally agree that the detailed elements of the frescoes inside the church reveal the great complexity and sophistication of Bulgarian fine art.
Bulgarian grandmas posses a certain type of nostalgic charm. No different are the infamous Bistritsa grannies, veteran singers who keep the tradition and heritage of Bulgarian folk music alive.
Their unique folkloric singing originates from the Shopluk region and is characterized by archaic polyphony, which refers to the vocal “texture” of the women’s voices combined. Shouts, roars and harmonizing to create a resonant, sonic depth all blend together to create this distinct sound. Dressed in traditional folk costumes called nosii, the singing is often accompanied by in dancing in a circle, traditionally in the counterclockwise direction. Despite the intricate dance steps, one thing is characteristic for this ritual — the music and dance rhythms are not in sync.
The Bistritsa grannies are considered a significant element of the cultural life of the Bulgaria. As their generation grows older, they pass on their magical singing tradition to women of the younger generations.
Discovered accidentally by soldiers building an air raid shelter, this ancient discovery dates back to the Hellenistic period in the late 4th century – early 3rd century. Hidden underneath a grassy mound, this burial site unearthed the remains of a man and woman, along with the skeleton of a horse. The identity of the remains is a unknown, but it is believed they were of high significance in a Thracian tribe, likely royalty, or rulers. The name of this site refers to its location rather than the history of origin.
Much like the Boyana church and the rock-hewn churches in Ivanovo, the worldwide fame of this monument is in view of the remarkable murals in the hall and dome room of the tomb – one of the best-preserved ancient works of fine art from the early Hellenistic age. The circular building with a conical roof, also known as a tholos, and the corridor leading to it are both decked with intricate wall paintings of Thracian culture and burial rituals.
The original tomb is now sealed and protected in order to preserve the delicate and dated pictorial murals. However, an exact copy of the tomb was built nearby and is now available for tourist visits year-round. Luckily, you can still visit the original site, but only for a few minutes and under supervision.
The biosphere reserve of Srebarna is a natural wonder of Bulgaria and a winter shelter to rare and endangered species during their south-bound migration. Because of its prime location on the bird’s migration path from Europe to Africa — Via Pontica, the freshwater lake hosts more than 100 species of birds each year.
On the surface of the lake are floating islands of reed grass which serve as nesting spots for the feathered migrants. For a closer look, visitors and bird watchers can observe the animals through lake-installed cameras. In addition to bird watching at Srebarna, you can take in the scenery and serenity of this place and take a stroll on one of the trails surrounding the lake.
The Srebarna Nature Reserve was included in the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and the Man and The Biosphere Programme. The goal is to preserve the incredible biodiversity of the lake which has been gained popularity and admiration in the Bulgarian and European scientific community.
This marvelous cliffside monastery complex in the village of Ivanovo unites multiple temples, chapels, and rock-carved monastic cells. This unique religious site dates back to the early 13th century and is named after St. Michael the Archangel. At that time, these sublime caves and hidden holy sites were inhabited by ascetic monks, looking for a way to connect to God. These monks significantly expanded the already-existing caves into the church complex that is preserved until the present day.
Lining the exterior and interior walls of the church complex are vivid wall paintings. These olden murals depict scenes from the Bible and are recognized as true masterpieces of medieval fine art. The most impressive temple is the one of the Virgin Mary, whose beautiful frescoes are well preserved and famed worldwide.
These remarkable wall paintings and the unique location of the church complex are significant reasons for this location to be included in the UNESCO list of sites offering outstanding universal value.
8. Ancient city of Nessebar
Charming Nessebar’s old town is one of the oldest towns in Europe, nestled on a peninsula on the Black Sea coastline. This ancient city is part of an archaeological reserve and packs history, architecture and culture.
The remains of this city date back to 3200 years when the town carried the name Menebria and was inhabited by Thracians. Later, the town became a Greek colony and significantly expanded its size. The town also served the Roman Empire and became an important trade town under the name Mesembria. Bulgarians settled in the city in 812 and gave it the name it carries to this day – Nessebar.
In the old town of Nessebar, you will find 23 cultural sites and monuments, including the remains of the town’s defensive wall and the ancient church-museums of Christ Pantocrator (pictured) and Saint Sofia. You’ll also see many houses and buildings built between the 18th and 19th centuries in the architectural style of Revivalism.
If you are eager to know more about the history of Nessebar after you walk its cobblestone streets, the local archaeological museum has countless of its historical artifacts.
The Madara rider (Madara horseman) is an astounding rock relief, located in the northeast of Bulgaria, nearby the city of Shumen. This impressive image has been carved on a cliff and depicts the image of a horseman with a spear, a wounded lion, fallen at the feet of the horse, and a hunting dog.
In the details of the carving, you can notice a small object in the horseman’s left hand. Historians argue whether this is a wine pitcher, an animal horn, or the horse’s reins. Due to erosion and weathering of the carving, there is no clear answer to this debate. Another mystery surrounding the Madara Rider is the artist of this fascinating depiction, as well as the exact age of the image. One thing is certain though — this rock relief is the only of its kind in Europe and has survived through the centuries with no alterations.
In 1979, the Madara Rider was included in Bulgaria’s sites on the UNESCO list, recognizing its outstanding universal value. You can see this unique historical site in the village of Madara, 18 km from the city of Shumen. Or, you can its full-size copy in the National Archaeological Museum in Sofia.
Another ancient Thracian burial site discovered on Bulgarian land is the 3rd century tomb of Sveshtari. This incredible chamber is built of large limestone blocks and is the most well-preserved Thracian treasure in the country.
The Sveshtari tomb is part of the historical and archaeological reserve Sboryanovo, which combines 26 Thracian burial mounds and necropolises in the vicinity of the Sveshtari village, about 8 kilometers from the city of Isperih. Inside the burial site, historians found the body of a man, likely a Thracian ruler of the Getae tribe. Close by, remains of a woman were found, likely the ruler’s wife.
The domed ceiling of the burial chamber is supported by 10 statues of women with raised hands, which is believed to be a portrayal of a ritual dance. Even though these statues are carved in incredible detail and the paint in their hair still remains, it is believed that the burial ritual was performed sooner than expected since some of the sculptures remain unfinished.
Not long after its discovery in 1985, the tomb earned a spot on the UNESCO world heritage list because of its unique architecture and decoration.