10 must-see UNESCO 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.
1. Rila Monastery
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 listed on 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 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 throughout the centuries. Also, at the monastery museum you can view ancient items of the church, like scepters, coin collections, old manuscripts, and printed books.
2. Madara Rider
The Madara rider (Madera horseman) is a unique rock relief, located in the northeast of the country. This historical remnant depicts the image of a horseman with a spear, a wounded lion, fallen at the feet of the horse, and a hunting dog. This impressive image has been carved in a cliff at a To this day, the artist remains a mystery. What’s more, 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 phenomenal 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.
3. Boyana church
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 church was built in stages, beginning in the 10th century, then the13th century and finished in the 19th century. Wall painting on the inside of the building illustrate stories from these periods in exquisite detail. The architecture of the building is remarkable, as it models a typical Greek floor-plan, complete with ornamented facades and decorated ceramic elements.
4. Rock hewn churches in Ivanovo
This unique cliffside monastery complex in the village of Ivanovo unites multiple rock temples. It was named after St. Michael the Archangel and was founded in the early 13th century. The most impressive temple is the one of “St. Mary”, whose beautiful frescoes are well preserved and are known worldwide.
In 1979 UNESCO included to its list the complex of rock churches near the city of Ruse.
5. Thracian tomb of Kazanlak
This ancient Thracian tomb is located in a small park in the town of Kazanlak was included in the UNESCO List in 1983. The original tomb was built around the 3rd – 4th century and belonged to an unknown Thracian ruler. It is now sealed in order to preserve its pictorial and unique murals. However, an exact copy of the tomb was built nearby and is now available for tourist visits.
The worldwide fame of the monument is due to the remarkable murals in the hall and the dome room – one of the best-preserved ancient works of art from the early Hellenistic age. The original tomb can also be visited, but only for a few minutes and under certain conditions. The access to the copy of the Kazanlak Tomb is year-round.
6. Thracian tomb of Sveshtari
The Thracian tomb of Sveshtari has been added to the UNESCO List of Global Heritage in 1985. It is part of the historical and archaeological reserve Sboryanovo, located 8 kilometres northwest of the town of Isperih. The tomb was built in the third century BC and impresses visitors with its architecture and decoration. Here was laid the body of a Thracian ruler from the Getae tribe. The ceiling of the burial chamber is supported by statues of women with raised hands – caryatids, whose faces and hair still preserve the remains of colourful decorations.
7. Ancient city of Nessebar
Situated about 35 km from the main Bulgarian seaside city of Burgas is the ancient town of Nesebar. The archaeological reserve is situated on a small peninsula and is one of the oldest towns in Europe.
Due to its unique combination of ancient history, ancient ruins and Revival architecture, the Ancient Nessebar was included in the UNESCO list in 1983. The seaside town keeps countless evidence of its history, many of which are kept in the Archaeological Museum in the town.
8. National Park Pirin
The National Park Pirin was included in the UNESCO List in 1983.
It is located in the Pirin Mountain, in southwest Bulgaria, and preserves many natural attractions, glacial lakes, pine forests and rich biodiversity. There are two reserves within the park- Bayuvi Dupki – Dzhindzhiritsa and Ulen. Its biodiversity is represented by 1,315 species of higher plants, 2,000 species of invertebrates, 200 species of vertebrates and 159 bird species. There are many hiking routes in the park, which give access to numerous tourist sights. Here stands the oldest tree in Bulgaria – Baykusheva fir, whose age is over 1,300 years. You can learn more about the park and its diversity in the visitor centre, which is located in the town of Bansko.
9. Srebarna Nature Reserve
Due to the rare and endangered bird species which nest or rest here on their way south, in 1983 the lake Srebarna was included in the UNESCO List of Global Natural and Cultural Heritage. The aim is to preserve the unique biodiversity of the lake which has been popular among the Bulgarian and European scientific community since the early twentieth century. The biosphere reserve near the village of Srebarna is located 2 kilometres south of the Danube river and 16 kilometres west of Silistra.
10. The Bistritsa grannies
The grandmothers of Bistrita are the most famous women from Bistrita, famous all over the world for their performances of archaic folklore from Shopluk. In 2005, the Bistrica grandmothers were included in the UNESCO list of masterpieces of the intangible cultural heritage of mankind.
Their songs are characterized by archaic polyphony, dances and customs. The dancers are dressed in folk costumes and dance in a circle, the direction of which is usually counterclockwise. Despite the various steps, one thing is characteristic – the music and dance rhythms are not in sync.
Although the social function of polyphonic singing has changed in recent years, as it is now performed mainly on stage, Bistrita Grandmothers are considered an essential element of the cultural life of the country, promoting folklore among the younger generations.