Backpacking Bulgaria: Top experiences
- Hiking between small villages, waterfalls, and monasteries around Veliko Trnovo
- Exploring Plovdiv’s Old Town and Roman ruins
- Wandering around the churches, government buildings, and hot springs in Sofia
- Indulging in some of the best food on the continent for bargain prices
Jump to the list of posts from Bulgaria, or read on for my comprehensive budget Bulgaria travel guide.
Bulgaria itinerary ideas
You can hit the highlights of Bulgaria travel in about two weeks. If you have less time, simply spend fewer days in each place (meaning do fewer day trips).
Start out in Sofia with a couple days to visit the churches and museums. Take a day trip to the spectacular Rila Monastery. Then, hop on a quick train or bus to Plovdiv. Three days is plenty to soak up the town’s history and hit the best cultural attractions before continuing to the Bulgarian mountains, basing yourself in Veliko Trnovo.
Spend a day visiting the sights in the city itself — including the amazing fortress — before heading out on day trips. A few options include an easy walk through the hills to the medieval village of Arbanasi, hiking and waterfall-spotting in Emen Canyon, or visiting the incredible Troyan Monastery. I’d recommend at least three days in Veliko, but the more time you have, the better. It’s one of Eastern Europe’s most pleasant towns and has the largest concentration of Bulgaria tourist attractions.
From Veliko, you can hop on a bus to Varna or Sozopol (via Burgas) to reach the Black Sea coast. Spend your last few days lounging on the beaches, hitting up the beach clubs, or wandering around the Mediterranean-esque city centers — the perfect way to end a Bulgaria vacation before catching a bus back to Sofia for your flight home.
Bulgaria weather and when to visit Bulgaria
Bulgaria’s weather is typical for the region — hot summers, pleasant springs and autumns, and cold, snowy winters.
The Black Sea beach season, and the peak of Bulgaria tourism, is June through August. At these times the beaches will be lively and crowded, but it’s also warm enough to actually enjoy the water. By mid-September, it’s too cold to swim.
Bulgaria can be very snowy in the winter — and even not in the winter. I got caught in a freak, out-of-season, totally unexpected snowstorm in mid-October that virtually shut down the entire Bulgarian mountains region for five days. Road conditions can be hazardous in bad weather (both throughout the winter and when the snow melts in the spring).
The best balance between good weather and reduced crowds is late May and early September.
Language in Bulgaria
The most common language you’ll encounter when you visit Bulgaria is Bulgarian. It’s somewhat similar to Russian, although different enough to not really be mutually intelligible. Some locals may understand you roughly if you speak Russian, but don’t count on it. (For example, “one” is “adin” in Russian and “edna” in Bulgarian.)
The Cyrillic alphabet — the script used in Russian, Bulgarian, and other Slavic languages — was actually invented in Bulgaria. Even if you speak no Bulgarian or Russian, you should learn to read the script before your Bulgaria trip, as you will almost never see the Latin alphabet in Bulgaria.
Few locals speak English outside of the tourism industry. Learn some basic phrases in Bulgarian — especially asking for directions if you intend to use public transportation to get around.
One other Bulgarian communication quirk is worth noting. Bulgarians shake their heads to mean “yes” and nod to mean “no” (the reverse of most American and European cultures). When in doubt, confirm verbally — “da” means “yes” and “ne” means “no.”
Budget for backpacking Bulgaria
Backpacking Bulgaria is easy on $15 a day. Few Bulgaria tourist attractions cost more than a couple dollars. The food is good enough that you could really enjoy yourself on $20 a day. The biggest buster of your Bulgaria budget would be car rental — petrol is very expensive.
Dorm bed at a Hostel Mostel (including breakfast, dinner and beer): 20 leva
Grilled meat plate or entree salad at a local restaurant: 7-15 leva
Beer at a bar: 3 leva
Museum or historical site admission: Free-6 leva
Train ticket from Sofia to Veliko Trnovo: 15 leva
Taxi from Veliko Trnovo train station to the town: 10 leva
Car rental (per day, not including petrol): 60-80 leva
Bulgaria visa requirements
A Bulgaria visa is not required for citizens of most European countries, the U.S., Canada, and Australia.
Entering and exiting Bulgaria by land is straightforward, if often slow. On international trains, customs officers will board the train and stamp your passport on the spot.
Accommodation in Bulgaria
Budget Bulgarian accommodation typically means staying in a hostel. The good news, is Bulgarian hostels are top-notch — led by the incredible Hostel Mostel. For 10 euro a night in Sofia, Plovdiv, and Veliko, you get a (very comfortable) dorm bed, free breakfast, free dinner, and a beer. Other hostels may appear to be cheaper, but when you add in the cost of meals, it ends up being about the same.
If you don’t want to stay in a hostel, the next-best options are simple family-run guesthouses. These are often very charming, and fairly affordable. For example, most top-rated guesthouses in Veliko run about $50 for two people.
If you want a unique cultural experience when you visit Bulgaria, you can often stay overnight in a monastery. A room at Rila Monastery runs about 20 leva. Be prepared for few typical hotel amenities (read: no WiFi) and for a curfew in the evenings.
Food in Bulgaria
Food may be the single biggest highlight of Bulgaria tourism. Yes, really. It may be my favorite cuisine in Europe.
Instead of stodgy, boring Eastern Bloc food, you’ll find a blend of Turkish and Greek influences. A few mainstays include shopska salad, skara (grilled meat), stuffed eggplants, roasted pepper relish, yogurt dips, and — the “second national dish of Bulgaria” — really good pizza. There’s enough variety to keep even the strictest vegetarians happy alongside true carnivores.
It’s not expensive to eat out while backpacking Bulgaria. You’ll spend $3-6 per person on lunch, maybe a little more on dinner.
Drinks in Bulgaria
Coffee is the morning beverage of choice in Bulgaria. That being said, Bulgaria has much less of a cafe culture than its neighbors further west. Most sizable towns have just a couple cafes.
When it comes to nightlife, beer is the most typical drink. You may also encounter rakia, a plum wine similar its cousins of the same/similar names in Greece and Turkey. Bulgarian nightlife is still very male-dominated, and women drinking alone will attract attention.
Activities you can do while backpacking Bulgaria
Bulgaria has great cities and great natural attractions. The best places to visit in Bulgaria — where you can base yourself for day trips — are Sofia, Plovdiv, Veliko Trnovo, and the Black Sea coast.
Plovdiv’s Old Town is full of Roman ruins, small museums, and galleries. Each one charges a small admission fee (under $1). Fun fact: Plovdiv is the only place in the world other than Petra that Nabatean ruins have been found (look in the underpasses!).
Painted monasteries dot the countryside, with a concentration around Veliko. These usually charge an admission fee of $3-$5. They charge extra for photography. You need a car to reach many of them.
Also around Veliko, you can hike to small villages, waterfalls, and other natural attractions during your Bulgaria vacation. None of the hiking trails cost money and you can do them independently. Some trails are not well-marked — best to go with a couple other tourists in case you get lost.
Veliko has a healthy live music scene. Folk bands play at some of the city center bars — a concert for the price of a beer.
Transportation in Bulgaria
Getting around when you visit Bulgaria is cheap and easy. Buses and trains serve all major cities and towns. The trains are slower but cheaper — about $2 an hour, versus $3 an hour for the buses. The buses are modern and comfortable coaches.
Public transportation in the countryside can be sparse, limiting your ability to get to some of the best places to visit in Bulgaria. If you’re planning on doing a lot of day-tripping or thoroughly exploring the central mountains, renting a car is the way to go. On a budget or not comfortable driving? No worries — enough travelers rent cars that you can probably find travel buddies to hitch rides with. Hostel Mostel is the best place to ask.
Safety when backpacking Bulgaria
Backpacking Bulgaria is safe and hassle-free. It’s the easiest country in Eastern Europe to meet other travelers. The biggest danger you’ll face on a Bulgaria vacation is getting lost on a remote hiking trail.
Bulgaria has one of the largest Roma populations relative to white Bulgarians. White Europeans have a lot of racial stereotypes about the Roma. So you’ll hear that Bulgaria is very dangerous — even from white Bulgarians! — because the “gypsies” will rob you blind.
This is pretty much just racism. The reality is that many Roma live in extreme poverty, are denied access to social services, and are unjustifiably arrested at much higher rates than white Bulgarians. So you’ll often see them driven to desperate measures such as begging or peddling junk on trains. But that certainly doesn’t mean they’re dangerous or not worth getting to know.
The Roma seem better assimilated in Bulgaria than in most of the rest of Europe. In fact, one of Bulgaria’s biggest music stars has Roma heritage. But you’ll still likely hear white Bulgarians warn you about the “dangers” of interacting with Roma people during your Bulgaria trip — just ignore them.
Bulgaria travel advice for women alone
When it comes to perceptions of women, Bulgaria has a little more in common with Greece and Turkey than it does with the rest of Eastern Europe.
I encountered minor street harassment nearly everywhere. It was by no means overwhelming, just maybe a handful of cat-calls every day.
More alarmingly, I was followed around a couple times by creepy men in the Old City in Plovdiv. Neither of them ever said a word to me, but they didn’t back off until I went into a shop and waited a few minutes.
I’d still rate Bulgaria tourism as much easier than the rest of the Mediterranean for solo women. As long as you keep your guard up, you’re unlikely to encounter anything worse than mild hassle.
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