I can’t believe our website is just over one year old and we’ve yet to write a comprehensive post about all of the best places to visit in Bulgaria! After all, Stephanie and I both know this country extremely well, having called it home since 2017 and 2018 respectively.
We’ve taken dozens (literally) of road trips within Bulgaria and we’ve explored many nooks and crannies of this beautiful country. Here are our favorite places to visit in Bulgaria – from our adopted home city of Sofia to some lesser-known hidden gem towns in Bulgaria.
Want to reference this post later? Pin it!
Here are the best places to visit in Bulgaria that we’ve gathered from our years of living here!
Obviously, on a blog called Sofia Adventures, we’ve got to give space for our eponymous city! We both call Sofia home because it’s quite simply our favorite city in Bulgaria. From the multi-story murals spanning across city walls to the Roman ruins in the subways, Sofia is always finding new ways to surprise and delight.
A few of the most crucial sights to see in Sofia are as follows. Obviously, you can’t miss seeing the beautiful golden domes and teal accents of the stunning Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the symbol of our city. Head inside for a truly mesmerizing experience and observe the beautiful traditions of the Orthodox faith, and don’t miss the crypt icon museum which most tourists overlook. Don’t miss the stunning Russian Church either, just a block away from Alexander Nevsky and much smaller in scale but equally lovely in an entirely different architectural style.
Some other crucial sights to see are the beautiful burgundy Neoclassical Ivan Vazov National Theater in the heart of one of Sofia’s most loved parks, the City Garden. Find the oldest church in Sofia, the Rotunda of St. George, hidden from invaders and occupiers throughout the centuries and preserved in beautiful condition despite dating back to the 4th century.
See the ruins of the ancient city of Serdica hidden in the subway and in the Arena di Serdica lobby, visit the beautiful Sveta Nedelya Church and the Banya Bashi Mosque on the so-called “Square of Religious Tolerance,” and peep the beautiful Sofia Synagogue and the Central Market Hall nearby. You won’t want to miss the unique Vienna Secession architecture of the Sofia Central Mineral Baths (now, unfortunately, a museum and not a bathhouse, but you can fill up on some free water on Ekzahr Yosif street on the side of the building).
I think of Sofia as the Goldilocks of cities: not too big, not too small. It’s big enough that it has all the things you need, like an international food scene and great public transportation. But you can also walk a loop through all the most important city center sights in less than a day and still have the better part of an afternoon to chill out in one of Sofia’s coolest bars or its best restaurants and understand why even Rick Steves admits that Sofia is Bulgaria’s most livable city.
It’s basically part of Sofia, really, but Mount Vitosha is so unique and beautiful that it deserves an entry of its own. What is so incredible about Sofia and one of the main reasons I ended up moving there is that there is a gorgeous 2,290 meter mountain quite literally in our backyard, in the backdrop of our beautiful cityscape.
There are countless ways to enjoy Mount Vitosha: a sunset hike, a quiet sunrise meditation, the viewpoint at Kopitoto, a hike to the summit of Cherni Vrah, a tasty but simple meal in one of the mountain’s many small restaurants, or skiing or snowboarding down the slopes in winter.
It’s so easy to get to Vitosha. A number of cable cars run on weekends, bringing you up to the summit with beautiful views such as the Simeonovo-Aleko lift. Just check to make sure it’s running first (you can check here but the site is in Bulgarian) – I’ve gotten all the way to Simeonovo, saw it wasn’t running due to “strong winds,” and had to scrap my plans. But I ended up eating meatballs at IKEA instead, so it wasn’t a total loss.
Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv is starting to compete with Sofia for popularity, especially now that it has been designated the European Capital of Culture for 2019. While I love living in Sofia, I will begrudgingly admit that Plovdiv is a little more tourist-friendly as the things to do there are quite easily defined.
The Old Town in Plovdiv is a photographer’s dream, and architecture and design enthusiasts will relish the opportunity to step inside these Bulgarian National Revival architecture homes and see back into the life of wealthy 19th and 20th-century Bulgarian families.
The Hindilyan House is particularly exquisite, as is the Balabanov House. One of my favorite buildings is the Ethnographic Museum, which is housed in one of the most beautiful buildings in the Old Town. It’s one of the most Instagrammable places in Plovdiv, but it’s also an extremely interesting peek into Bulgarian culture and tradition.
But the real gem of the UNESCO site that makes up Plovdiv’s Old Town is the stunning Roman Amphitheater of Philippopolis, one of the best-preserved amphitheaters in the world.
It is two millennia old and still in incredible condition, even used for shows and events to date. It’s incredible and every single time I see it I am even more in awe.
Besides that, you need to check out the area around the Dzhumaya Mosque and the Roman Stadium (different than the amphitheater), where several art installations including a funky painted car and several other pieces of interactive art have cropped up to celebrate Plovdiv’s 2019 Capital of Culture title.
Lastly, finish up your splendid walks around Plovdiv with a coffee or craft beer at one of the bars and cafés that line the magical streets of Kapana, Plovdiv’s artsy district that is beloved by hipsters, digital nomads, and local Plovdivians alike. I love the Monkey House (coffee and craft beer) and Cat & Mouse (craft beer) the best. There’s also lots of street art here to discover so don’t forget your camera!
Sometimes bestowed titles as grand as the prettiest town in Europe or the best kept secret of Europe, Veliko Tarnovo is a tiny town that seemingly everyone falls in love with it.
Built atop the steep banks of the Yantra River which snakes like a horseshoe through much of the town, the beautiful architecture of the traditional houses of the city is simply jaw-dropping. The people who live in Veliko Tarnovo truly love their tiny, historical town and its visible in all of the little details that make this town look so well-loved and cared for.
Veliko Tarnovo is nicknamed the “City of the Tsars” as it was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Veliko Tarnovo was built on three hills, the tallest and most important of which is Tsaravets.
On Tsaravets, you can still see the beautiful remains of the historic fortress (and the weirdest church I’ve ever seen). The fortress has definitely seen finer days and is in a bit of disrepair, but it is still absolutely gorgeous and offers some stunning views over the whole of Veliko Tarnovo city.
But there are other reasons to visit Veliko Tarnovo – the lively and surprising street art scene, where a seemingly mundane staircase to nowhere gets turned into a work of heart. It is the origin of one of my favorite Bulgarian restaurants, Shtastliveca, which has become a small chain of a few restaurants spread throughout Bulgaria now. There’s a big handmade movement in Veliko Tarnovo where artisans are preserving local crafts and producing beautiful, authentic Bulgarian souvenirs and saying no to generic crap bought en masse from China.
And there are some surprisingly fun nightlife options in this sleepy little town. Trust me, you want to end your night at Tequila Bar!
An easy day trip from Veliko Tarnovo, Arbanasi is a cute village that it feels like time forgot.
Best known for its monasteries and churches, Arbanasi may seem like a quiet place to visit in Bulgaria but you’d be surprised that there is actually a wealth of things to do in Arbanasi that are worth your time!
One of the cutest towns in Bulgaria, Koprivshtitsa is often referred to as a “museum city” for its picturesque architecture that has kept much of its 19th-century style in tact. It’s one of the best places to visit in Bulgaria for architecture and just all-around charm, and you won’t find many foreign tourists here.
You’ll find a handful of museum houses that preserve a slice of life from days past that are well worth paying a few leva to enter. Its stunning mountain surroundings are really breathtaking, bonus points if you see some majestic as hell Bulgarian horses eating grass casually on the way out of town.
Often nicknamed Bulgaria’s UFO, Buzludzha is a mountain in Bulgaria that also houses the Monument House of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Unfortunately, in the wake of the fall of communism, Buzludzha has been abandoned and not well taken care of over the years. Intrepid explorers would trespass into Buzludzha, snapping beautiful photos of the decaying interior. Since May 2018, a security guard has been stationed there 24/7 to prevent break-ins, so while it was never legal to enter Buzludzha it’s now virtually impossible.
Luckily, the inaccessible interior of Buzludzha may eventually become open to all again, with the promising Buzludzha Monument project aiming to preserve the space and use it to educate future generations.
We’ve been to Buzludzha four times between the two of us, so we’ve written the most comprehensive guide to visiting Buzludzha out there!
Seven Rila Lakes
One of my favorite hikes in all of Bulgaria, there’s no place more beautiful than this series of seven glacial lakes. The Rila Lakes are less than 100 kilometers away from Sofia so it’s a popular day trip for locals and tourists alike.
Hiking around the Seven Rila Lakes will take about 3-5 hours depending on your speed and the route you choose, although that does not include the wait times for the ultra-slow chair lift. Alternately, you can walk from the lift station to where it drops you off, but you’ll need to add a few more hours to your hike, and it’s not a particularly beautiful hike to be honest, mostly just trees obscuring your view.
The Rila Lakes are simply absolutely incredible (check out our full guide on how to visit the 7 Rila Lakes here). It’s a must-do on any trip to Bulgaria in the summer season, whether you’re a seasoned hiker or just interested in a short walk (you can skip the hard uphill portion up to the last two lakes if you want an easier walk).
One of the most popular tourist sights in Bulgaria, you won’t want to miss a visit to Rila Monastery during your time in Bulgaria. I don’t know what’s more beautiful: the vibrantly painted church itself, or the open terraced monastery where the monks live that forms a walled community encasing the church itself.
The Rila Monastery is a symbol of Bulgaria and one of its most popular sights, so you’ll often have to contend with some crowds, but it’s truly the most spectacular Orthodox monastery I’ve ever seen so it’s well worth it.
Best known for Shipka Memorial Church, this is just a small detour from Buzludzha and we think it’s an essential place to visit in Bulgaria if you’re road tripping around the interior.
Shipka Memorial Church is an Instagrammers dream, yet it’s blissfully maxi-dress-free, for now!
You’ll also find a beautiful lavender and sunflower field just by the turn-off for Buzludzha on the outskirts of Shipka if you’re traveling in the right season (we were there at the very end of June and it was gorgeous)
Belogradchik Rocks are a distinctive rock formation that can be found in the upper northwest corner of Bulgaria, a patch of odd rock formations that span 30 kilometers long, with stones as much as 200 meters high. The rocks look somewhat similar to what you’d find in Meteora, Greece.
But the coolest thing about Belogradchik is the fortress you’ll find nestled in the rocks, which looks like it could be a set piece out of Game of Thrones (but luckily it isn’t, because it means you can enjoy it basically all to yourself!). We’ve written a guide to visiting Belogradchik Fortress if you are keen to check out this little-known gem in Northern Bulgaria.
Burgas is an important city on the Black Sea coast, but its coolest draw is its pink salt lakes!
The pink color of the Salterns is entirely natural, derived from the microscopic brine shrimp who live in the super saline water. A small portion of the lake is essentially a free mud spa, a much larger part is a functioning salt factory. It produces 40,000 tons of salt annually, making it the largest salt producer in Bulgaria.
Get in your bathing suit, dunk yourself in the pink waters, cover yourself in mud, dry off in the sun, then walk 100 meters to the Black Sea to wash yourself off – this is a spa day the Bulgarian way, and it won’t cost you a dime!
The largest city on the Bulgarian Riviera, Varna is home to some beautiful beaches of its own but it also has a vibrant city culture! The streets remind me of Odessa: a classically beautiful beachside city with a ton of culture and heritage.
While we love wasting away the day at a Varna beach bar, there are plenty of more active things to do in Varna. You can explore the Varna Necropolis and Roman baths, admire the Dormition of Mother of God Cathedral, or check out the interesting Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship Memorial that is a reminder of a bygone era.
Alternately, staying in Varna is a great base for exploring the unique landscapes around the city, including the desolate north coast of Bulgaria where some of the prettiest beaches can be found or the impressive Pobiti Kamani, one of the only ‘deserts’ in Europe and full of strange stone formations.
There are a number of caves in Bulgaria and this one is especially beautiful. It has many large atria that make it quite spacious and not at all claustrophobic, although those who are afraid of heights may want to avoid the ladder to climb up to see some of the stalagmites and stalactite formations up close.
The Saeva Dupka cave is really beautiful, with glittering mineral formations from calcification and several elaborate structures that have silly names given to them by the local guides.
Dyavolski Most is better known as Devil’s Bridge and it’s located outside of the small village of Ardino in Southern Bulgaria. It was built during the Ottoman era, which is why it may resemble another famous Balkan bridge, the lovely Stari Most in Mostar.
Getting here is not easy as you’ll need to rent a car and it’s nearly three hours from the nearest big city, Plovdiv, but it’s well worth it if you’re a lover of photography and off the beaten path destinations. It’s the only place on this list we’ve yet to visit personally but we hope to rectify that soon!
The beautiful Krushuna waterfalls are not particularly high or awe-inspiring, but they have such a beautiful color and cascade pattern that they are definitely worth a visit.
These waterfalls were formed by calcium travertines – a fancy word for calcium deposits, meaning these waterfalls formed in a similar fashion to other places you may have seen photos of like Semuc Champey of Pamukkale in Turkey.
It’s easy to combine a visit to Krushuna with other gems like Troyan Monastery or Saeva Dupka Cave.
One of the best-kept secrets about Bulgaria is just how delicious the wine is! But word is starting to leak in Melnik, which is becoming well-known for its potential for wine tourism, as the region keeps on winning awards for its high-quality and innovative wines.
Besides its wine route, Melnik is known for its unique sand pyramids, its gorgeous typical Ottoman style homes including the traditional museum house of Kordopulov, and the nearby Rozhen Monastery which is worth a side trip.
Bulgaria Travel Resources
We’ve included all the links we have about the destinations listed in this article, so go back through this post if you’re looking for information on a specific location.
If this will be your first time in Bulgaria, we have some resources to help make your first trip here a breeze. Check out our guide on how to plan your trip to Bulgaria, which goes over everything from visas to ground transportation to budgeting your trip.
You may also want to check out our overview of Balkan currency, which describes Bulgarian leva (easy – it’s pegged at 2:1 to the euro!) and what to tip in Bulgaria.
Finally, Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
No trip preparation is complete until you have a valid travel insurance policy. Bulgaria is a safe place to travel, but unexpected things can happen anywhere. You want to be able to get your stuff replaced if it’s lost or stolen, or if you get injured you while you’re enjoying hiking or taking a scenic drive throughout the region.
For travel insurance, I use World Nomads.I’ve been a happy customer of theirs for almost three years, and I’ve never had an issue when making a claim. I’m happy to refer them to anyone I meet.
Originally from California, Allison has been living in Bulgaria for the last two years and is obsessed with traveling around the Balkans. She has been published in National Geographic, CNN Arabic, Matador Network, and the Huffington Post. She loves befriending dogs, drinking coffee, geeking out about wine, and cooking food from around the world.