5 Reasons To Visit Bulgaria Right Now. Number 4 Will Surprise You
Although I was born in Bulgaria, I haven’t been living there for over 10 years now.
At the end of spring 2004, I moved to Germany to study and eventually get a job there with the thought that in a few years I’ll be definitely returning to Bulgaria.
Needless to say that only a year later I’d changed my mind and I knew I’d be staying in Germany much longer than expected.
Living somewhere else and visiting your home country once or twice a year gives you a whole new perspective on how you see it.
You’re no longer really living there, you’re more a visitor or even a tourist and the way you see your birthplace is completely different than the way everyone who lives there sees it.
I started to notice the changes, I started to notice a lot of things which none of my friends or family members have noticed, both good and bad.
Let’s face it, how many of us do actually go sightseeing or visit any tourist spots in their home cities?
I know most of the times I visited one of the largest East Orthodox cathedrals in the world (yes, it’s in Sofia!), I was showing the tourist attractions of the city to my husband, who’s German. You get my point :-)
The way I see and experience Sofia and Bulgaria nowadays is as a “local tourist” really. I know the insides, I know the tricks and the mentality of the people, but I have the perspective of someone who’s been away for a long time and has seen other people, other places, and other customs.
For those reasons my tips here have a little different value than the ones you would find somewhere else, so stick around and make sure you read the whole list.
Here we go:
1 | Since Bulgaria entered EU, prices are rapidly going up
Every time I’m back to Sofia, I notice how much the prices of everything have gone up, but especially after the country was accepted as a member of the European Union, the difference is very noticeable.
When I left in 2004, a 0.5 l of draught local beer cost around 1.00-1.20 lv (about 0.50-0.60€ or $0.60-0.70), nowadays you can hardly drink 0.5 l for less than 2.50 lv (about 1.25 € or $1.45). Same goes for food, accommodation, transportation and cost of living.
Prices will jump even higher the moment the national currency Lev is replaced by the Euro.
That’s why now it’s the perfect moment to visit before there’s another huge price increase.
I guess all of us are looking for the best value for money destination – Bulgaria is still at the top of the list, especially as a European destination, but not for long.
So if you wait too long, you might miss quite an opportunity here – why don’t you pack your bags and book a flight already? ;-)
Still not convinced? Then read on!
2 | Sofia’s highlights can be visited on foot
There are very few capital cities, where the distances are so small that you can actually visit the whole city centre and its highlights on foot.
Even if you get tired, you can always hop on a tram, the underground or take a taxi, which by the way are very affordable (but see 1!).
There is such a variety of sights in the middle of Sofia that you just wouldn’t believe it.
Within walking distance, you’d find several huge cathedrals of the East Orthodox religion, Bulgaria’s most common religion.
Only a few meters from one of the most popular of them, you’ll find Bulgaria’s biggest mosque and a few steps away is the biggest synagogue.
There are smaller churches, some of them dating back to 4th-5th century, there are archaeological sites from the Roman Empire, and there are beautiful monuments and parks and so much more.
There are a number of very interesting museums, galleries, theaters and an opera with an amazing hall and incredible singers. This one is actually something anyone can visit because often opera performances are held in the original language of the libretto, so the lack of knowledge in Bulgarian is no excuse.
One of the most popular tours my husband and I love to participate in is the bar hopping and club crawling. There are some very interesting locations and I’m sure you’ll definitely find something for your own taste.
If you don’t want to explore on your own, you can join a group and even get a tour for free!
3 | Easy to reach
With the building of the second terminal of the Sofia Airport a few years ago, flying to the capital of Bulgaria has become even better.
On the other hand, major airlines have cancelled their direct lines from several cities since then, so you can never know if that very affordable and fast flight you’re checking right now is going to be available next year.
But even if it’s not, Bulgaria can be easily reached by bus or car and since it’s in EU, other citizens of members of EU don’t even need a pass, only their country’s ID card!
For US and Canadian citizens, for example, you do need a passport, but no visa.
So no excuse there either!
Are you packing that bag of yours already or do you need some more reasons?
4 | The food
I’m pretty sure you haven’t heard this one a lot.
You’ve all heard how incredible the Thai or the Indian kitchen for example are, but who knows the Bulgarian kitchen?
Guess what, since the history of Bulgaria is so rich in events and peoples who came across and even stayed a while, the kitchen and the traditions are all a great mixture of different influences.
I was literally shocked when I moved to Germany from the lack of a choice in their restaurant menus (still am!).
When you sit to eat somewhere in Bulgaria, you get at least a couple of national dishes on the menu, a couple of international, some creations from the chef of the house, you can mix them all up with any salad or side dish possible and you basically have (almost) endless possibilities.
The ingredients are so fresh, that my husband even found a cute little snail in his green salad once! And if a baby snail can eat it, it’s not full of chemicals and is good for you too!
To make things even more interesting, there’s always a great selection of beverages, from really cheap but still tasty wines to expensive whiskeys, from the national drink rakia to beer from all over the world and home-made soft drinks.
One warning here, though: Bulgarians drink their rakia, usually around 40% Vol., with their salad, i.e. before they’ve eaten anything, which might seem strange and even dangerous to some people.
I’ve noticed how aperitifs in most countries I’ve visited are actually with less alcohol and during the course of the meal the alcohol percentage increases.
That’s exactly the opposite case in Bulgaria – you start with a high percentage alcohol and end the evening with beer.
I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who hasn’t tried it before to try to keep up with his Bulgarian friends.
You did make some new friends, right? Well, what are you waiting for; the people on the next table seem to be having a really great time, go join them!
5 | The tourist attractions
Although the size of Bulgaria is less than one-third of the size of, for example, Germany, you can find such a variety of natural, historical and cultural attractions, that you just wouldn’t believe it.
To sum it up, Bulgaria has a rich variety of mountains and trails; a sea coast and fine sand beaches; cultural and rural tourism possibilities; a rich history, religious and archaeological sites from the Thracian civilisation, Roman Empire, Christianity and the Communist era.
You don’t believe me?
Check the Top 100 touristic sites of Bulgaria. Because of the small size of the country (only about 111,000 km2), all of them are quite easy to reach.
And have in mind, that even though this is the Top 100, they are not as crowded as other touristic sites I’ve seen.
Plus you can find really authentic souvenirs if you’re into bringing something other than great memories and amazing pictures back home.
My husband still shows very proudly to anyone who asks his hand-made knife with a horn handle, which he bought at the open air ethnographic museum Etar (number 19 in the Top 100 list).
6 | A bonus!
Wait, weren’t there going to be 5 reasons only? Well, I know you’re convinced by now and are packing your bag, but because you’ve read so far, I thought you deserved a little bonus from me in the form of an itinerary suggestion for first-time visitors in Bulgaria.
You most probably want to arrive in Sofia, so stay a day or two to visit her highlights.
Very soon the underground station at the airport will be finished, so you’ll only need about 15 minutes to get to the city centre. (Update: the station at the airport opened on April 2nd, 2015. There were numerous reports from travellers, that the way to the station isn’t marked at all. No signs whatsoever. Be sure to ask someone for directions or check the map here, as this is the fastest, cheapest and most convenient way into the city! ) Alternatively, you can take bus 84 and get off at the Eagles Bridge (that’s “Orlov most” = Орлов мост in Bulgarian).
Or if you’ve booked an accommodation and have an exact address you want to leave your luggage at, take a taxi. All taxis at the airport are legal, you don’t need to worry about it, but still, have a good look that they are from this company – that’s the only company which is allowed to operate at the airport.
What you don’t want to miss in Sofia is very conveniently located just a few meters from the Eagles Bridge:
- Sofia University, founded in 1888;
- parliament building with the bronze statue of the Tsar Liberator on a horse in front of it, which has just been renovated in 2014;
- Alexander Nevski cathedral with its golden domes and marble pillars inside;
- St. Sofia church, dating back to 6th century;
- National Museum of Natural History,
- National Gallery,
- National Theatre and
- National Archaeological Museum are just a few meters away and all worth a visit.
Take a stroll through the newly renovated Vitosha Boulevard and have a coffee break or lunch in one of the numerous cafes or restaurants, but I’d recommend that you don’t shop in this street as prices are very inflated.
If you want good value for money clothes, shoes or souvenirs, head to Pirotska Street instead, which is not far from there and on the way you can also stop at the biggest mosque, biggest synagogue and the beautiful building of Sofia Central Mineral Baths – don’t miss the opportunity to fill a bottle with hot mineral water at one of the fountains especially made for this purpose.
While we’re talking about shopping, make sure that if you exchange any money, you do so at an official bank office and not in an exchange kiosk – you can get ripped off in one of those without even realising.
The most popular trick is the following: the official exchange rate for Euro into Bulgarian Leva is 1 € -> 1.95 lv. What some exchange offices do is they add an extra “1”, so instead of getting 1.95 lv for your Euro, you get 1.195 lv. A nasty trick really and I almost fell for it once but was fast enough to cancel the transaction to the disappointment of the clerk.
Another fair warning at this point is to never ever for no reason whatsoever give money to beggars! No matter how miserable, poor, young or old they appear to be, they might be actually earning more money than you do out of the goodness of people.
In the evening you wouldn’t want to miss the nightlife.
A great place to start your bar tour is the street right behind the statue of Tsar Liberator, which you’ve just visited during the day. The whole street becomes one huge party zone at dark.
For more ideas, a good guide for all kinds of establishments is Zavedenia.BG, unfortunately only in Bulgarian, but I’m sure it’s worth the effort to try to browse it with the help of some online translation tool.
So, you’ve filled your bags with a lot of shiny new things, you’ve filled your belly with some delicious food and beverages, you’ve filled your head and camera with lots of great memories.
And if you run out of places to visit in Sofia, you can always escape the city and go to one of the mountains surrounding Sofia or if you’re a little more adventurous, go a little further outside the capital.
- Rila, the highest mountain on the Balkans;
- ski in Bansko or Pamporovo;
- go to the beach in Sozopol, Balchik or Nesebar;
- visit the largest and most famous closter Rila Monastery, grounded in the 10th century;
- visit the Marvellous Bridges and any of the numerous caves in the magical Rhodope Mountains;
- go to Bulgaria’s second largest city Plovdiv and stroll along the streets of its Old Town with one of the best preserved ancient theatres in the world – the Plovdiv Roman Theatre.
Don’t miss a visit to a typical Bulgarian restaurant („Механа“) while you’re somewhere in the beautiful Bulgarian mountains for some really authentic atmosphere and maybe some traditional Bulgarian dances.
As you can see, there are so many reasons, not just five, to visit Bulgaria. There is so much more to see, you have the Top 100 list above, and I hope once you had the taste of it, you will definitely come again very, very soon.
P.S. If you have any questions about sites you want to visit in Bulgaria or anything you might want to experience there, don’t hesitate to leave me a comment. Or if you’ve already been there, I’d love to hear what you thought of your stay.