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Why Visit Bulgaria? Here are 8 Reasons

A lot of experienced travelers don’t know much about Bulgaria, even though it’s one of the best—if not the best—values in Europe. Besides that, why visit Bulgaria? Well it also has far more green space than most of the other more crowded and populated EU countries and you won’t be bumping into thousands of package tourists.

I’ve been talking about the reasons to visit Bulgaria for ages now though because you get so much for your money there and it’s a terrific destination for a lot of other reasons.

Why visit Bulgaria?

I first visited Bulgaria back in 2012 and I’ve been back three times since. I can’t say that about too many countries I’ve visited and I’m sure I’ll be back again.

The first time I went it was on a press trip of sorts, a nature and hiking tour with an adventure company, and I ended up writing this article in Perceptive Travel: From Red to Green in Bulgaria. That was a reference to them shaking off communism and embracing outdoor and adventure tourism. It was also a reference to the “farm to table” eating style that wasn’t a trend: it’s just what they’ve always done and continue to do, outside of Sofia at least.

On that first visit, I went in with very few preconceptions and was happily surprised on a daily basis. Sure, it was rough around the edges then and still is in a lot of respect 12 years later. That’s part of the appeal though. You don’t share any stretch of sidewalk anywhere with hundreds of package tourists disgorged from a tour bus or river cruise ship. Which leads us to the the first point:

In Bulgaria, you can still feel like an explorer

When you start moving on a backpacker circuit these days, it’s easy to feel like you’re shuffling along a path so well-worn that it might as well be a moving sidewalk in an airport. Around you are hundreds, maybe thousands of people doing the same things you are, posting the same photos, just like thousands of people did before you got there.

In Bulgaria, if there are a dozen foreigners in one restaurant it’s an anomaly. In my four visits there, I can only remember seeing a collection of tour buses at two sites: the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia and the UNESCO World Heritage Rila Monastery pictured below. 

Rila Monastery UNESCO World Heritage site

With the strange alphabet and language, lack of famous sites, wide open spaces, and relatively removed geography, Bulgaria just doesn’t get the big crowds. Coming here still feels like an adventure.

Good “slow food” for great prices

The trend of seeking out “slow food” destinations and “farm to table” restaurants gets a big chuckle here. That’s just the way everyone eats, all the time. Every house has a grape vine trellis and a little garden plot. Supermarkets are far outnumbered by open village markets and roadside veggie stands. People eat what’s in season and  they then pickle all the veggies for the winter, just like they always did.

Despite eating a staggering amount of dairy—especially white cheese and yogurt—this is a much healthier looking population than the one in the country of my birth (the USA) or my adopted one (Mexico). You can see sample travel prices in Bulgaria here, but take my word for it that you’ll double-check your exchange rate calculations the first few times you see a menu.

Bulgarian food at a typical restaurant

Beer and wine prices are some of the lowest in Europe and what you get is often good quality, certainly better in the beer department than where I just was in Spain last week. Rakia (liquor distilled from grapes, plums, apricots, or other fruit) is a great value, in a wide variety of flavors.

The dining experience can be a lot of fun too, especially in the mountains where you’ll dine in wood-beamed buildings with colorful textiles and maybe some roaming musicians, a fireplace crackling in the corner. In the summer months, you’ll probably eat outside under shady trees, water from a stream or fountain trickling past, pure water that you can drink without worry. 

One Third of Bulgaria is Protected Green Space

hiking to a monastery in Bulgaria

In much of western and central Europe, there’s very little old growth forest left and a lot of woodland has been replaced by an expanding population. In Bulgaria they still complain about the Ottomans cutting down their trees way back when and lament how the Soviets would have cut down more if it hadn’t been so much trouble and distance to transport the logs.

I’m used to seeing a lot of deforestation in developing countries, especially where some people still cook over a wood fire, but here the mountains here are a rolling carpet of green and you constantly pass dense forests while on the roadways. This means…

Impressive Hiking Options in Bulgaria

I was a guest of Odysseia-In Tour Company in Bulgaria on my first trip to the country. When you take a look at what’s offered on their Bulgaria Hiking site, it’s hard to believe you can do all this in a country most people can’t even find on a map. There are four major mountain ranges, two of them a short hop from Sofia, and you can do multi-day hikes staying in organized mountain huts with cafes (often around $15 per night) or staying in villages guesthouses.

You can hike around glacial lakes, visit painted monasteries, see ancient castles, pass roaring waterfalls, and take in the panoramic vistas. Besides the great experience, reaching nearly 3,000 meters, the prices are excellent. Around $100 per person or less for a guided tour with accommodation and 2 meals a day. Check out this hiking tour as an example.

And yes, you can set up snowshoeing or mountain biking if you’d like. Or a kayaking/rafting trip. Or rock climbing.

If you stay in Bansko, you’ve got beautiful hiking options nearby, including one of the most pictureque mountain regions I’ve been to, just a short bus hop from the center. Walk for a little while and you get scenes like this:

hiking the Pirin Mountains near Bansko

It may be the cheapest digital nomad spot in the world

If you do see more than 12 foreigners in one place in Bulgaria, it’ll probably be in a co-working space. Bansko is no Chiang Mai and Sofia is no Medellin, but there are hundreds of remote workers congregating in these places, enjoying the unbelievably low living prices and the long list of outdoor options nearby. If they start missing the beach, they can head south to Greece by road or head to Albania or Turkey and not have to travel very far.

The internet speeds are good, the transportation system is decent (downright great in Sofia, actually), and the food is fresh and delicious. You might want to hold off on shopping for clothes or electronics, but the selection has improved drastically on those fronts from my first visit 14 years ago. Then you’ve got places like this you can walk to!

hikes in Bulgaria

How cheap is it to live there? Well, I met people paying less than 600 euros a month for a good-sized apartment in a nice area of Sofia when I was there and they said what they were paying was pretty normal. My Airbnb in Sofia was $32 per night, two blocks from a subway line.

If you go live in Bansko, you can pay half that or less. I know, because I got cheap rent twice in Bansko, paying less than €260 the first time and €300 even the second time, even though I was only staying for a month. And that was through an agency.

I met people staying in that mountain town long-term that were paying €200 for a studio or €225 for a one-bedroom after signing a longer lease. It’s a ski town, after all, so the landlords are happy to take that amount to have it occupied all year instead of just for three months and with extra upkeep from the in and out of vacationers.

If you want to buy something, there are probably 100 condos for sale right now for €50,000 or less. It’s hard to even spend US$100K on anything there unless you buy a whole building or get a large multi-bedroom condo in a building with a pool and spa.

Some digital nomads buy an apartment in Bansko, Varna, or Plovdiv just to have a place to leave their things when they travel and have a home base for a few months a year. If you belong to some kind of home exchange program, you could then use that property to set up free stays elsewhere.

There’s even a whole nomad village going up in the mountains in an old abandoned hotel that’s being converted to condos. The person spearheading it is the guy who founded the Bansko Nomad Fest, which I’ve attended twice. See more about Semkovo here

Are you a working traveler? A traveling worker? Join the Nomadico community and get my weekly update on Substack.

Two great cities that are mostly undiscovered

Tell people you’re headed to Sofia and they probably won’t have much of a frame of reference. Tell them you’re headed to Plovdiv and you’ll get a blank stare, even though it’s the second-largest city in the country and it looks like this:

Plovdiv pedestrian street

Sofia is really growing on me and it’s a place where I could definitely live for two or three months—as long as it’s not the middle of winter. I spent a few days there before my Bulgaria ski trip last year in mid-March though and it was already quite pleasant. You’re fairly far south in the Balkans so it’s seldom miserably cold.

It meets one of my main criteria for a place to live: you don’t need a car. It’s one of the easiest cities I’ve ever been to for getting around. There’s an integrated metro, tram, and bus system that will get you almost anywhere.

Plovdiv is smaller and more mellow, with a population of 700,000 or so counting the suburbs, and warmer weather. So if you go live there, it might be the middle of summer that you’d want to avoid. It has some good restaurants, good wine from nearby vineyards, and so many Roman ruins that there’s a set of them in the H&M store on the main drag!

Both these cities have lots of green spaces, with a park every few blocks it seems.

Cool Towns Like Veliko Turnovo

If I could return to one spot in Bulgaria and linger for a while on vacation though, it would be Veliko Turnovo. Under different conditions, this is the kind of place that normally gets trampled in the blink of an eye. Just from the look and feel, you would expect it to be overrun with hostels and backpacker cafes in the tradition of Chefchaouen, Luang Prabang, Hoi An, or Hampi.

Then the adventurous independent travelers with more money would follow, and it would suddenly get on the radar of the glossy magazines. It would, that is, if more people knew about it and the town weren’t so far off the beaten track. It is on the train line from Istanbul to Bucharest though, so explore that option like I’ve told a few friends heading that way to do. They ended up loving the castle, the hikes, the homey restaurants, and going, “I can’t believe I’ve never heard of that place. It was amazing!”

Here’s what it costs to stay in a hostel there and my hotel with the great view below I stayed in back in 2012, Hotel Gurko, costs around 85 euros double with a full breakfast in peak summer months, less in the off-season.

Veliko Turnovo view

Yes, I’ve posted that shot on this blog multiple times because it takes me back to one of my favorite balcony views ever. I was in a happy place. The shot at the very top is from that town too, its castle from when there was a real king here ruling a wide swath of territory. 

That’s just one example though: you could find 10 or 15 interesting towns to explore if you spent some time there and bought a guidebook. Most of them haven’t been covered much in the travel press and the Instagrammers haven’t flocked to any of them like sheep, so you can feel like an adventurer instead of a follower.

I wish I could have stayed in the hot springs town of Velingrad last time, but maybe on a future trip. I only saw it from the window when I rode the slow train from Bansko to Plovdiv

The Best Ski Deals in Europe

After talking about it for years, I finally got a group together and went skiing in Bulgaria last year. Follow that link to read the details. The short version, however, is that we rented a Bansko ski chalet for 500 euros a night that slept 19 of us and our lift tickets were €45 per day. In Borovets we rented out a whole hotel for about the same and it included breakfast and dinner! Lift tickets there were €40. 

In both cases, the gondola leaves right from town at the base and if when we went out to bars nearby we were paying $2.50 or $3 for a large beer. Renting ski equipment is €12 to €20 per day in both places, the latter being for a premium ski or snowboard package.

cheapest places to ski in Europe - Bansko

Yes, there are some drawbacks to traveling in Bulgaria, like almost anywhere. It’s not easy being a totally independent traveler here and canvassing the countryside unless you’ve got both a good phrase book or translation app and a good guidebook. Once you get beyond the main gathering places, you wont’ find many articles (in English anyway) about the more obscure places. It can pay to go on an organized tour for adventures or multi-place hiking trips, like I did that first trip. 

The young people are all learning English, but in some villages it’s mostly old people who are not, plus the alphabet takes some effort to figure out unless you already know Russian. Like many countries that were behind the iron curtain for decades, you see a fair bit of ugly architecture and buildings falling apart from the “fast and functional” construction of that era.

There’s one other recent drawback too for the non-Europeans: Bulgaria is now part of the Schengen Zone. Previously we could stay in the EU for three months and then pop over to Bulgaria and it wouldn’t count against our 90-day limit in 6 months. That’s not true anymore, so you have to count your time there along with all the other EU destinations. (Insider tip: Albania, Montenegro, and Bosnia are still good non-Schengen escapes nearby.)

Those negative factors are outweighed by a lot of positives though and my highlights here are just a few reasons to visit Bulgaria. You’ve also got coastal beaches on the Black Sea, remnants of the ancient Thracian culture, vineyards to visit, and much more. Go find your path!

Bulgarian grandmas in a village

Joining the grandmas in traditional dress on my first visit


Friday 14th of June 2024

Thank you for including all the details. Your above information will definitely helpful for all the travelers. I really enjoyed your post. You include all the points and I really agree with them.

Tony P.

Friday 7th of June 2024

I agree, Bulgaria is a fantastic value! I haven't been to the Black Sea coast but lots of mountain towns and hiking trails. The English proficiency is getting pretty good in the cities. It's tougher in the villages as you say. Good round-up.