While its hot climate, superb beaches and penchant for the party life attracts countless holidaymakers to Bulgaria every year, there’s so much more to this robust and historically rich country.
Bulgaria’s language and cultural identity are among the most distinctive in Europe, and it all stems from the legacy that has evolved over the centuries into the destination we so adore today.
If you’re seeking an adventure of inspiration and tradition in Bulgaria, it’s best to get some facts locked down ahead of your holiday. The country’s laced throughout with sites of splendour and tales of old, and we’ve compiled the best and the brightest below.
The architecture and fables of Nessebar
It makes sense that we begin our journey in Nessebar. Indeed, the whole city is a UNESCO world heritage site, not just for its architecture, but for the 3,000 years of history that inspired it.
Nessebar straddles the shoreline of the Black Sea, and as such the city boasts some pretty pristine beaches. Yet for pure culture, the city’s hard to top, having been founded in antiquity as a Thracian colony and changing hands over the ages from Byzantines to modern Bulgarians. Those influences have been dotted all over, and the buildings still stand in a medieval style, with dramatic stonework and rich red rooftops.
Streets are narrow and filled with history, with crumbling church ruins and other restored monasteries jostling for a place in your photo album. By the sea stands the cute wooden windmill, and if you’re ready for the party life after a dose of cultural goodness, you’re just up the road from Sunny Beach.
Rila Monastery, high in the mountains
You can take a bus directly from Sofia to this millennium-old monastery, founded by Bulgaria’s patron saint St John. Its elegant design factors some impressive use of stone, where black and white stripes form distinctive arches beneath sublime towers.
Alongside the gorgeous backdrop of mountaintop scenery, the structure is also surrounded by acres of rich green woodland. That forest is a protected site, but you’re free to explore it along beautiful hiking trails that prove Bulgaria’s natural beauty is just as enjoyable as its cultural treasures.
Stray far enough and you’ll be in the lakes, meadows and valleys of Rila National Park, itself a cultural jewel thanks to the inspiration it brings. Deer and birds are easily spotted flitting to and fro here, and winding paths down rugged hills culminate in wide open spaces peppered with mountain cabins. Eagles soar ahead and mountain climbing entices the bold.
Visit Varna’s Stone Forest
This bright town is a resort town favoured by Bulgarians as much as holidaymakers visiting both it and its adjacent Golden Sands beach resort.
Varna boasts museums on archaeology and history well worth your attention, as well as the vast parklands of the Sea Gardens, manicured and marvellous, where the hot sun can be enjoyed between jaunts to the coast.
Varna’s cathedral with its gleaming domes and inspiring stained glass windows is also worth visiting, and it’s packed with tributes and trinkets donated by Russian czars of generations gone by.
For a true taste of local flavour, head to the Aladzha Monastery, which is just to the north-east of the city. It’s a cave complex, all man-made, linked to catacombs and concealing medieval mosaics and frescoes of centuries past.
Head out a little further and you’ll find the mythical Stone Forest, situated in a tiny desert. It’s one of the only deserts in Europe – alongside those in Spain – and the Stone Forest gets its name for the mysterious pocked and mottled columns standing in strange formations.
Yet the entire place is natural rather than man-made, thanks to micro-organisms and oxidisation unlike anywhere else in the world.
For another world-renowned locale, head south of Varna. Here you’ll find the ruins of the Roman baths of Varna, which have stood here since 100 CE. It’s the largest such complex of Roman baths in the world outside of the Italian capital, putting yet another cultural feather in Bulgaria’s burgeoning cap.
Bulgaria’s capitals, past and present
As far as European capital cities go, few can match the quiet grace of Sofia. The city sprawls in all directions with stylish architecture that evokes an almost whimsical glimpse into Balkan life, yet the most appealing part about Sofia for many smart holidaymakers is that it’s actually a pretty cheap capital to visit.
It’s a mix of mosques from the Ottoman age and churches from Christianity’s influence in Sofia, perhaps most dominated by the central minty-green roofs and white, ornate walls of Aleksander Nevski Cathedral.
The massive monument, proud and resplendent in its own plaza around which traffic and pedestrians lazily orbit, was built comparatively recently in the 1800s, in recognition of the valiant souls who made Bulgaria’s independence possible.
Sofia’s history stretches much further back though. In fact, a great way to contemplate the evidence of that is at the St George Rotunda. It’s a series of Roman ruins surrounding a church that stems from the 4th century, tucked in the courtyard of the governmental offices of Bulgaria themselves.
Of course, Sofia wasn’t always the capital of Bulgaria. Head north to Veliko Tarnovo, and you’ll discover the wistful medieval buildings of a community that once served as the capital of Bulgaria in the age of its second empire.
A hilltop city surrounded by forests, Veliko Tarnovo is dotted with impressive statues and monuments to national freedom.
However, the great and monumental Tsarevets Fortress on the hill is perhaps the most iconic of all the former capital’s locales, and its grounds host the remains of hundreds of houses and over a dozen churches, together with many reconstructed towers.
By night, this entire place becomes home to the vibrant Sound and Lights Show, where patterns and performances that please both eyes and ears play out in dramatic flair.
Bulgaria’s cultural character is distinct in Europe, if not the world, and definitely deserves exploration. Have you had the pleasure of exploring it yet? If so, leave some tips for fellow holidaymakers in the comments below.