Bulgaria wasn’t on our radar. At all.
It’s like the kid who somehow slips by during kickball and is chosen second to last. But then blows everyone away with some sick moves that end up carrying his team to victory. (Sorry about the far-fetched comparison.)
But seriously, Bulgaria wowed us in more ways than one.
Jammed into this tiny country there are mountains, rivers, lakes and beaches. There are many things to in Bulgaria and the Bulgarian people have a deep culture unlike anywhere else in Eastern Europe.
Where to Travel in Bulgaria
This capital city has changed many times over the years. You can see the former communist buildings towering over the city, but it continues to change to a modern feel.
Things to Do in Sofia
1.Free Walking Tour of Sofia
One tip that we’d give any new (or seasoned) traveler is to take a free walking tour as soon as you reach a new city.
Abundant in Europe and gaining popularity all over the world, free walking tours are a perfect way to orient yourself in any new city and see places you may otherwise pass by. They are usually led by young people who have a passion for their city and are excited to share their favorite spots, quirky stories and little-known facts with visitors to their country.
We have gone on probably close to 24 free walking tours, so we know the mediocre from the fantastic. The very best walking tour we’ve taken was in Medellin, Colombia, and while it’s hard to top that one, the walking tour in Sofia is a close second.
It is put on by an organization call Free Sofia Tour and it is popular, though, so be prepared for a large group. Our guide was a theater student and a wealth of knowledge about her city. As with all free walking tours, tips are welcome at the end.
2. Free Food Tour in Sofia
You read that right. And yes, I’m serious. Free food. Two words that are music to my ears when strung together. If you're in Sofia and don’t take this tour, we think you might be a little crazy.
Wander through the city with Balkan Bites and learn about Bulgarian cuisine while sampling some traditional dishes as well as stopping into some trendy restaurants around the city and trying their inventive fare.
Be sure to arrive early, because there are limited spots on this tour and they do fill up.
Insider tip: If you're a coffee-lover traveling in Bulgaria, you'll definitely want to check out this list of top cafes and coffee in Sofia!
Hotels in Sofia
Couple Stay/Mid-range: Thracia Hotel Sofia - Located in the city center, the Thracia is easily walking distance to many of the city's main attactions. They have spacious rooms and a free breakfast.
Budget Friendly/Social Atmosphere: Hostel Mostel - A seriously wonderful hostel. With an inviting common area, affordable tours and activities and comfortable apartments as well as dorms for every type of traveler, this hostel was hands-down one of the best we stayed at in Europe. Oh, and FREE breakfast AND dinner?! And all for just $23 USD for a private room per night? Heck yes.
Take a day tour from Sofia to the Rila Monastery. Situated in the Rila Mountains this Eastern Orthodox Monastery was built in the 10th century. The artwork in and around the main church will blow your mind!
Let me start by saying that after spending a year living in Korea, then traveling in Asia for another 5 months, we were “templed out”. (And that goes for churches and mosques too.) So when we arrived in Sofia and heard about the Rila Monastery, we were skeptical. It was quite a drive (2 hours from Sofia) and was going to push our budget.
But the pictures did look pretty. And so I (very sweetly) convinced my dear, practical Benjamin that the combined 4 hours of driving and unexpected splurge would be worthwhile. I’m not always right abut this stuff. But this time I was.
Situated in the Rila Mountains, this Eastern Orthodox Monastery was built in the 10th century. The artwork in and around the main church will blow your mind! On the outside of the church there are many stories dipicted from the bible and other stories that we had no idea what was going on. The frescos inside the chapel are stunning.
There are little places to eat around the church so you won't go hungry. Make sure to get the donuts.
Dispite being a long day trip, the Rila Monastery was totally worth the trip and price. If you're looking for other worthwhile cities or attractions in Europe, check out this massive list of places to visit in Europe.
Are you going from Sofia to Plovdiv? Try riding on FlixBus. We rode with FlixBus throughout Eastern Europe and loved how comfortable and cheap they are.
After a blissful 3 weeks in Turkey, our first stop in the Balkans was the charming town of Plovdiv. With an unlikely blend of modern architecture, ancient ruins within the city limits and a youthful vibe, this small city begged us to stay a few extra days.
Things to Do in Plovdiv
1. Free Walking Tour of Plovdiv
Take the free walking tour of Plovdiv and learn about how this city was an thriving ancient Roman city and explore the Staria Grad (old town) for an additional history lesson.
2. Stroll through the "Trap"
Be careful not to get lost in the Kapana or the "Trap". Just a block or two east of the main street, Kapana is a maze of small streets and home to various craftsmen and becoming a very trendy area in Plovdiv. There are lots of street art too.
3. Great View of the City
To get a great view of the city, stroll up to the Nebet Tepe Park. It's an ancient ruin that could date back to 4000 BC.
Hotels in Plovdiv
Couple Stay/Mid-range: Guest House Old Plovdiv - Excellent staff, great location, and a great value.
Budget Friendly/Social Atmosphere: Gramophone Hostel - Located in the heart of the old city, offering privates and dorms, and they have an on-site bar.
Are you going from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo? Try riding on FlixBus. We rode with FlixBus throughout Eastern Europe and loved how comfortable and cheap they are.
Have you ever heard of this city? Nah? We hadn’t either, until another traveler let us in on this little-known town in hushed tones. We were on our way to Romania and Veliko Tarnovo was on the way, so we figured, why not?! Well, we’re sure glad we made the stop because it’s super stinkin’ cute.
Things to Do in Veliko Tarnovo
1. Visit the Tsarevets Fortress
Towering over the city is the Tsarevets Fortress which is fun to explore during the day (Adults: 6 Bulgarian Lev ($3.68 USD) Students 2 Bulgarian Lev ($1.23 USD)) but on certain nights of the week performs a light show with colorful lights and lasers dancing to music.
2. Feel tiny around the Monument of the Assens
The Monument of the Assens is hard to miss because it is smack in the middle of town, but it’s an impressive statue. The Yantra River creates a peninsula perfect to showcase this massive 4 horseman statue.
3. Secret View of the City
Get an secret view of Veliko Tarnovo by walking up next to Na Tambo tatoo parlor (Stefan Stambolov Road) and walk out on a skinny ledge created as an art installation.
Hotels in Veliko Tarnovo
Couple Stay/Mid-range: Hotel Studio
Budget Friendly/Social Atmosphere: Hostel Mostel - Tucked away on a quiet street near the heart of the city, Hostel Mostel has an excellent common area to meet other travels and fast WiFi. They offer privates rooms and dorms with comfy beds.
How to Travel around Bulgaria
We mainly took buses, like FlixBus, around Bulgaria because we found them to the be cheapest way to travel. You can book your travel in between cities at your hotel or at the bus station. We did over hear a hotel owner saying that Sofia is one of the cheapest airports to fly into in all of Europe.
Foods try in Bulgaria
- Shopska Salad – each country in the Balkans does its own take on this salad, but we especially loved the Bulgarian version. Named the national dish because the salad colors are the same as the Bulgarian Flag. How can you not love the combination of fresh tomatoes, onions, cucumber and cheese?!
- Tarator - Bulgarian cold salad consisting of cucumbers, yogurt, dill and spices
10 Items to Pack for Traveling in Bulgaria
- Durable Backpack - We carry 40 liter backpacks everywhere we go. Both of our big bags are made by Deuter and we love them
- Packing Cubes - A backpacking staple, these cubes help keep your clothes organized in your bag.
- Microfiber Towel - Always good to carry around a fast drying microfiber towel just in case your hotel/hostel doesn’t provide them.
- Portable Battery Pack - It’s the worst when you arrive to a new city and your phone is dead. Keep it charged with an Anker Battery Pack, this one can charge your phone up to 7 times.
- Bamboo Sunglasses - Tree Tribe polarized sunglasses not only look great, but for every purchase they plant 10 trees.
- Steripen - Say goodbye to bottled water. You can sterilize your water right out of the tap with this UV light. We have used ours for years and have never gotten sick off the water.
- Kindle Paperwhite - Download all your travel guidebooks onto your Kindle. You no longer have to carry around heavy books that take up space in your bag, and the Paperwhite verison lights up in the dark.
- Collapsible Cups - If you’re like us, you will be drinking wine in Europe and these come in handy for picnic lunches.
- Lush Solid Shampoo bar - No more worrying about liquid limits. One all-natural bar will last me up to 3 months and they smell great!
- GoPro - One of the best ways to capture your travels. They are lightweight, take great pictures and video and they are waterproof up to 10 meters without a case!
Before you book your trip, think about this:
We never travel without travel insurance. It’s never fun to think about losing your stuff or the possibility of a delayed flight, missing a connection, or heaven forbid you get injured while traveling. It’s best to know that you’ll be covered if anything goes wrong.
We have a whole article dedicated to figuring out the best travel insurance for you, but one company we really like is World Nomads. Get a quote in a couple minutes by filling out your information below:
European Train Travel
How are you traveling around Eastern Europe? One way to travel around Europe is by train and the best way to save money on trains is to buy Eurail Pass.
Now to be honest, we didn’t take many trains in Bulgaria because the buses and ride-sharing were cheaper. However, if you are traveling to multiple countries fairly quickly or traveling to Western Europe, purchasing a train pass might be your cheapest bet. Check out the Eurail Pass prices here.
European Air Travel
Another great thing about traveling in Europe is airfare is so much cheaper than in North America. One of our favorite sites to book flight is Skyscanner.
It’s so easy to use and we found some our cheapest flights using their “Show Whole Month” feature, where you can select your route and it tells you the cheapest days of the month to fly.
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