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Ski Bulgaria: Bansko and Borovets

Ski Bulgaria? Who does that?

A lot of Brits it turns out, and occasionally the odd North American who has wandered into the Balkans in winter. If you didn’t even know there was skiing in Bulgaria, you’re probably not alone. It’s a fun experience and a terrific value though, as I learned first-hand in Bansko and Borovets.

ski bulgaria - Bansko

 

This time last year I was finishing up the planning on a group ski trip in Europe, 19 of us that were mostly Americans. Why did we fly across an ocean to hit the slopes when there are perfectly fine ski resorts in the USA and Canada? Well, it turns out that it’s far cheaper to ski in Europe than in North America, even at the priciest places, but if you combine that with one of countries featured in my book, The World’s Cheapest Destinations, it’s a bargain off the slopes as well. The two places we visited are two of the cheapest ski resorts in Europe

Every aspect of our trip was a great value. We started out with winter prices on flights to Europe, then had good deals on accommodation, meals, the ski experiences, and lots of drinks. The trip was less than 100 euros per person per day, with skiing, all accommodation, transfers, and a lot of meals and drinks included.

Here’s what we did if you want to follow the same playbook. 

Sofia Then South to the Pirin Mountains

We all met up in Sofia, which as I mentioned in this earlier post, gets more attractive each time I visit: Is Sofia worth visiting? That’s a definite yes.

I got there a few days early and did a Bulgarian wine tasting experience, checked out the cemetery, walked the historic areas, and rode the subway and trams all over the place. Some of the  travelers in my group were too nomadic to be carrying ski clothing around, so Mike and Anne from HoneyTrek hit a Sofia thrift store and found all kinds of bargains for their week in the snow. Reuse, recycle, get what you need where you’re going. 

visiting Sofia Bulgaria

When we came back at the end of the trip we ate at some more great restaurants, hit a speakeasy, and visited the interesting “Red Flat” Soviet-era apartment with everything left as it was during the fall of communism. Sofia is a good city to get around without a car, with lots of parks, good sidewalks, and a terrific public transportation system. 

We stayed at two different hotels. First the Best Western Terminus (usually €50 – €70 double with breakfast) because it was near the bus station we needed to leave from in the morning and then Hotel Leda when we returned (usually under €65 double) as it was in a better area for exploring on foot. 

The ride from Sofia to Bansko by bus took around three hours and the cost is usually the equivalent of €10 in Bulgarian leva. 

The Bansko Ski Experience

ski trip to Bansko Bulgaria

Some in our group were expecting a little ski hill like you find in the Midwest or Southeast in the USA, but Bansko has some challenging terrain and some long enough runs to make your legs ache. The expats who live there say it gets boring after a while if you have a season ticket and it doesn’t offer a huge savings if you’re not skiing every day, so if you’re going to live in Bansko, you might want to just buy as needed. See details here

We were only on the slopes for two days though, so for us the variety was perfect, especially since we got a dumping of fresh powder the second day and had some great conditions. There were a few little hiccups here and there, like my rental bindings being loose on Day 1, causing me to take a few spills and look like an idiot. And on Day 2, one guy’s ski broke in two on the slopes and we had to rent him another set at the base after he got down on one ski. 

It can get a little icy at the top if the clouds roll in and the top lift got closed sometimes because of windy conditions. But we seldom had much of a wait at the lift lines since we were there in late March. 

apres ski bar in Bansko by the gondola

Bansko has a few slopeside restaurants and bars with reasonable prices, then some party-hearty places at the bottom of the gondola when the day is done. That gondola is one of the best things about this Bulgarian ski town: it takes you from Bansko itself up high into the mountains. We had a shuttle up to it from our ski lodge though because that was in the old historic part of town, not the newer area with condos and hotels. 

I got most things set up through our ski chalet company because they provided a nice easy button solution. The big house we rented slept our whole group (with some singles doubling up) and they have their own shed full of ski and snowboard rentals for a reasonable fee. They purchased all the two-day lift tickets for us. They would shuttle us to the gondola in the morning and pick us up at the end. We chose to have them prepare breakfast each morning and a couple of dinners too, which were great. 

Bansko ski chalet dinner

We stayed in the Ginchini Chalet and the company rents out a couple of others nearby. The price was a great value, around $500 per night for the whole lot of us, plus reasonable rates for the meals and ski rentals. See the others at Explore-Bansko.com.

Lift tickets in Bansko are €48 and you can find full rentals for €15 or so. In both cases, the price goes down for multiple days or a week. There are some places in town that rent ski pants and coats if you need to layer up more before you go back to regular travel. 

If you’re not renting a house, search hotels in Bansko here. There are plenty of apartments for rent also, with a glut of condos in the area that are a hangover from a building boom that went bust during the financial crisis period. A lot of the empties are just now getting absorbed.  

Banya hot springs near Bansko

We didn’t ski Bulgaria the whole time we were there and built in a recovery day away from the slopes in Bansko. We took an excursion to a nearby town known for its hot springs one day and had a nice soak and some local food there.

We also hit the local bowling alley one night and played a modified group ping-pong game conjured up by Travis from Location Indie. (Former LI partner Jason of the Zero to Travel podcast was my co-organizer.)

 

Borovets by Way of Rila Monastery

The chalet people were so helpful when setting up everything that I also hired them to transport us over to Borovets. We took a small detour on the way to visit Bulgaria’s most famous site, the UNESCO World Heritage Rila Monastery. 

Rila Monastery visit

This is an impressive building complex on its own, founded by a monk that supposedly slept on a slab of rock for years, winter and summer, before building started in the 10th century. It’s nestled in the mountains in a gorgeous area without much else around: it was designed to be far from civilization. 

We could only stay for a couple of hours, but the first time I came here I was on an adventure tour of the region and ventured out on some excellent hiking trails in this area. You can get fortified at the bakery on site before you take off. 

The Borovets Ski Bulgaria Experience

Borovets trail map of pistes

While Bansko is a living, thriving town full of locals who are there year-round, with buildings that date back to before the Turks invaded, Borovets is somewhat run-down version of your typical ski village that’s mostly full of commercial buildings. While Bansko is now a major digital nomad hub year-round, I get the feeling that most of this town closes up tight after the ski season is done. 

We were actually kind of afraid it was going to close up before we got there in late March as it was starting to get warm outside and some brown spots were showing on slopes near the base when we arrived. We had picked a ski rental place next to the gondola, thinking that would be super convenient, but then the gondola ended up being closed. The official reason was high winds, but it looked to really be because the slopes were too bare in the section it reached. So we had to schlep down the sidewalk in ski boots for several blocks to reach another lift. 

Spring skiing often means that every downside has a corresponding upside. For us it meant seldom being cold in Borovets. It was warm enough to shed some layers and sit in the sun in the afternoon while drinking Bulgarian box wine from the pouch. (Hey, two of us had our birthdays that week…)

sunny spring skiing in Borovets

The two mountains that were open were lots of fun, though the main one closest to town felt more crowded than Bansko did. Borovets is closer to the capital city, so it gets more day-trippers who return to Sofia later. This one also felt like a better choice for beginners, with more easy slopes open late in the season.

This is a good resort for people of different abilities to still hang together because on the main mountain, there’s a cruising run that switches back and forth across. Coming down off that trail, however, are some very steep black diamond runs that will give the speedier skiers some challenges. Then you can meet up again at the bottom to ride the lift up again.  

Ski passes in Borovets are €45 per day and that covers a good bit of terrain on multiple mountains. You have to take a shuttle bus to one of the lifts if all the slopes aren’t open to connect them, however, so it’s easier to get around in the heaviest snow months than during spring skiing time like we experienced. See more details at the official website

Our group took over a whole hotel for our ski Bulgaria stay, which ended up being a tad more expensive than the chalet was but included breakfast and dinner. The advertised hot tub was broken and the sauna levied an extra fee. The staffers were the usual chain-smoking grumpy Bulgarians and it was a bit of a hike to the slopes, though we did have lockers at the ski rental place where we could leave our ski equipment.

This was the Victoria Hotel, which was comfortable enough otherwise and the price was right, but I think if we did it over again we’d stay at the Soviet-era Park Hotel Ela across from the Gondola for the kitsch factor and location. The place had a pellet gun shooting range in the basement, of all things. One day a bunch of us got a day pass to their saunas and whirlpools complex too, which our sore muscles welcomed. 

If you want to splurge, the best hotel in town, Rila Hotel Borovets, has mountain views from the rooms and these views from the terrace bar:

Borovets view from Hotel Rila

One of the guys in our group had never skied before and after a few lessons and four days on the slopes, he was cruising down the intermediate trails just fine. Some were at the other end of the scale—one had even competed in high-level moguls races when he was younger—and they found plenty of challenges here as well. There would be more black diamonds open in mid-winter when you could hit the highest point via the gondola. 

We found bargains galore on food and drink, which you can see more about in this post on travel costs in Bulgaria. Transportation is such a deal that two dads in our group that had to scoot out a day early got a private taxi from Borovets all the way to the Sofia airport for around €70. 

Will I run this group ski tour again?

Maybe next year, if I have enough people interested. I already know who to work with to set it all up.

Bulgaria skiing tour

Or I might hit up the old gang from this trip and we’ll ski in Romania, Slovakia, or even Georgia on a 2025 adventure. If you’d possibly be interested in joining us, go here to get on the notification list. I’m doing one next week in central Mexico and we’re certainly not skiing on that one, so there may be a future warm place tour as well if there’s enough demand.