With several dramatic mountain ranges, superb beaches, numerous historic towns and a web of working villages with traditions straight out of the nineteenth century, Bulgaria has a wealth of attractions crammed into a relatively compact country. More than anything else, this is a land of adventures: once you step off the beaten track, road signs and bus timetables often disappear, and few people speak a foreign language, but almost everyone you meet will be determined to help you on your way.
Sofia: With its drab suburbs and distinct lack of charming old buildings, Bulgaria’s capital city Sofia can appear an uninspiring place to first-time visitors. However, much has been done in recent years to revitalize the heart of the city. Once you have settled and begin to explore, you will find that Sofia has some good suprises to offer. With its lush public garden and pavement cafes, on a fine day, Sofia springs to life.
Plovdiv: With an easy grace, Plovdiv mingles invigorating nightlife among millennia-old ruins. Like Rome, Plovdiv straddles seven hills; but as Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city, it is far more ancient. It is best loved for its romantic old town, packed with colorful and creaky 19th-century mansions that are now house-museums, galleries and guesthouses.
Black Sea Coast: Bulgaria's long Black Sea coastline is the country's summertime playground, attracting not just Bulgarians but tourists from across Europe and beyond. The big, purpose-built resorts here have become serious rivals to those of Spain and Greece, while independent travellers will find plenty to explore away from the parasols and jet skis.
Rila Monastery: Rising out of a forested valley in the Rila Mountains, Bulgaria’s most famous monastery has been a spiritual centre for 1000 years. Rila Monastery’s fortress-like complex engulfs 8800 sq m, and within its stone walls you will find remarkably colourful architecture and religious art. Visitors cannot fail to be struck by its elegant colonnades, archways striped in black, red and white, and the bright yellow domes of its main church, beneath which dance apocalyptic frescoes. All of this splendor, against a backdrop of mist-swirled mountains, has made Rila Monastery hugely popular among both pilgrims and curious visitors.
Bachkovo Monastery: About 30km south of Plovdiv stands the magnificent Bachkovo Monastery, founded in 1083. Most of the complex dates from the 17th century onwards, with the Church of Sveta Bogoroditsa (1604) as its colourful centrepiece. The church is decorated with 1850s frescoes by renowned artist Zahari Zograf and houses a much-cherished icon of the Virgin Mary. More beautiful murals can be found in the former refectory.
Summer Palace of Queen Marie and Botanical Gardens: At the far western end of the seafront, this palace was completed in 1926 by King Ferdinand of Romania for his English wife, Queen Marie, when Balchik was part of Romania. Size-wise, it is a relatively modest villa, though the architecture – a blend of local, Gothic and Islamic styles topped with a minaret – is unique. Behind the palace are the extensive botanical gardens. The complex also includes a water mill, a winery and the tiny Chapel of Sveta Bogoroditsa. The half-dozen or so rooms on show contain original furnishings, including paintings by Marie, and several photographs of the queen striking dramatic poses on the grounds. Also here is a curious collection of local archaeological finds, including Roman pottery and mammoth bones. In the garden, around 600 species of flora are featured throughout a series of themed terraces, including an impressive collection of cacti.