If you’re dreaming of heading to the Bulgarian Riviera on the Black Sea, you might be overwhelmed by the sheer number of Bulgarian beach towns to choose from. Even though I have personally planned (and executed) three wonderful Bulgarian beach trips, and I’ve explored five Bulgarian beach towns, I still get overwhelmed! So if you’ve narrowed your decision down to Nessebar or Sunny Beach, you’re almost there!
I love (and I mean LOVE) both towns, but you still have to decide which one to base yourself in. Here are thirteen points to consider to help you decide whether Sunny Beach or Nessebar is the right town for your vacation.
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Choose Nessebar if…
Here are four reasons you should choose Nessebar over Sunny Beach.
…you want to eat your meals with a Black Sea View
There are tons of delicious restaurants in Nessebar that have great decks perched with views of the Black Sea. Because Sunny Beach is flatter and has more development on the beach, it’s harder to find as good of a view in Sunny Beach, whereas Nessebar has dozens of places with amazing views to pick from.
…you love visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Bulgaria is blessed to have ten (yes, ten!) UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and Nessebar is truly a special one. From UNESCO’s description:
Situated on a rocky peninsula on the Black Sea, the more than 3,000-year-old site of Nessebar was originally a Thracian settlement (Menebria). At the beginning of the 6th century BC, the city became a Greek colony. The city’s remains, which date mostly from the Hellenistic period, include the acropolis, a temple of Apollo, an agora and a wall from the Thracian fortifications.
Among other monuments, the Stara Mitropolia Basilica and the fortress date from the Middle Ages, when this was one of the most important Byzantine towns on the west coast of the Black Sea. Wooden houses built in the 19th century are typical of the Black Sea architecture of the period.
…you want to stay in a traditional Bulgarian Revival-style house
I love Bulgarian revival style architecture, and Nessebar has far more of it than Sunny Beach (which honestly might not have any at all). If you want to stay at a guest house or small family-run hotel in a historic building, you have to choose Nessebar.
…you want to feel as though you’re staying in a real town
Nessebar feels more like a town than just a vacation spot, especially when you head to the newer part of the city. If you want to feel like you’re in a tiny city instead of a beach resort, pick Nessebar.
Choose Sunny Beach if…
Here are four reasons you should choose Sunny Beach instead of Nessebar for your trip.
…you want a real kitschy beach vacation
If your plan is to have a beachy, beach vacation, complete with long beach naps and drinks under umbrellas, head to Sunny Beach. There are beach chairs and umbrellas to rent for as far as the eye can see. Walking through the boardwalk on the way you just get excited to be At. The. Beach!
…you love a festive, vacation atmosphere
I’m the first to admit that I don’t always like other tourists (or other people), but in Sunny Beach, I love having people around who are so clearly relaxed and just having fun. It both helps me unwind and keeps the positive vibes up. While Nessebar has other tourists there in droves, they’re mostly exploring the history of the town.
Don’t get me wrong, they should be! But if you want to be somewhere that always feels like a festive, special day, then pick Sunny Beach!
…you plan on exploring Sunny Beach’s nightlife
Sunny Beach at night is…a trip. While I personally stay away from some of the seedier establishments, it’s still fun just being out and walking around at night. Karaoke shows, carnival-style games, and great drink specials make it a great black to be after the sun goes down!
…you want to stay in a beach resort hotel
While Nessebar has some cute traditional guesthouses, choose Sunny Beach for the true beach resort hotel experience. They line the beach for kilometers, with different amenities and levels of comfort. There are some great all-inclusive resort hotels in Sunny Beach, but even the ones that are slightly less nice can be super fun.
Choose either Nessebar or Sunny Beach for…
Here are five things you’ll find in either city
…fabulous warm, green seas to swim in
I lived in Philadelphia for ten years, and my biggest pet peeve with Northeast American beaches is that the water is WAY too cold to enjoy swimming most of the summer! However, that’s just not a problem here. The Black Sea is the perfect temperature for swimming all summer.
Seriously. I’d rather swim in the Black Sea than the Mediterranean Sea, Adriatic Sea, Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, or the Pacific Ocean. I am a total beach bum, and the Black Sea is some of my favorite water anywhere in the world.
…soft, sandy beaches
Don’t get me wrong, I like rocky beaches, too. But when I want to just relax on a beach for a few bliss-filled days, I’m extra happy if the sand is soft enough to walk on.
You’ll find wonderful sandy beaches in Bulgaria up and down the coast, but both Sunny Beach and Nessebar have this covered!
…traditional Bulgarian food
Since we live in Bulgaria, we usually spend our meals exploring the great Italian food, seafood, Greek restaurants, and international cafes that are in Sunny Beach to cater to international tourists. However, you should definitely experience Bulgarian cuisine while you’re here!
Both Nessebar and Sunny Beach have great local Bulgarian options. Want to know what to try? Check out our guide to the best traditional Bulgarian food.
Both Nessebar and Sunny Beach are full of shops. I have a suspicion that you can find slightly better deals in Sunny Beach, but both towns have great local souvenir shops, wine shops, and all kinds of fun beach paraphernalia for sale. If you have some extra Bulgarian leva burning a hole in your pocket, you’ll be able to find something fabulous to spend it on here!
If you want to stick to locally-made goods, check out our guide to the best Bulgarian souvenirs.
…easy day trips to the area’s best attractions
If you want to spend some of your vacation time here swimming in a pink lake, watching an amazing retro-style floor show, or spending a day at a water park, there are tons of great things to do as day trips from either Sunny Beach or Nessebar. Because the two towns are so close together, whatever you can see from the one you can easily see from the other!
How to See Both Sunny Beach and Nessebar in One Trip
Even though I’ve always stayed in Sunny Beach, I’ve always been able to visit both Sunny Beach and Nessebar on my trips. That’s because the towns are close and easy to travel between!
My personal preference is to base myself in Sunny Beach and take a day trip to Nessebar while I’m there. That way I get the best of both worlds!
I have a guide for how to get between the two cities coming soon, but until then just know you can take a water taxi for about ten leva each way. You can also take the public bus for less than two leva each way!
Another option that I’ve done myself is to drive and park.
The only option I would avoid is taking a taxi, as the price will be outrageous unless you book through your hotel. Unless there are at least four of you, a taxi will be the most expensive option per person.
Where to Stay in Sunny Beach or Nessebar
We are in the process of writing a complete Sunny Beach and Nessebar hotel guides, but in the meantime, we have several recommendations for Sunny Beach on our guide to the best Bulgarian Beach Resorts.
If you’re not looking for something all-inclusive, we personally like to use Booking.com. Make sure to book as early as possible. Sunny Beach is extremely popular with international tourists, and the great hotels can sell out.
What to Pack for a Bulgarian Beach Vacation
If you’re planning a trip to Bulgaria, you’ll want to pack all the normal essentials, but here are a few things we strongly recommend bringing that may not have crossed your mind. For more, check out our complete Bulgaria packing list.
– A physical guidebook, in paper or on Kindle. We love Lonely Planet Bulgaria & Romania for this region and strongly recommend it to supplement blogs. Blogs are great, but a combination of a blog and a guidebook is key to having the best access to information easily at your fingertips.
– A water bottle with a filter. While generally, the tap water in big cities in Bulgaria is drinkable, such as in Sofia and Burgas, we generally recommend using a water bottle with a purifying filter to reduce your plastic consumption and ensure you won’t drink any funny-tasting water on your stomach that could make your trip unpleasant! We recommend the GRAYL water bottle – it filters water perfectly in an instant so that you can even drink from lakes, bad taps, etc.
– Motion sickness pills. Bulgarian train and bus rides can be hot and cause motion sickness! If you have a weak stomach as we do, save yourself and bring some non-drowsy motion sickness pills.
– Wet wipes, hand sanitizer, TP & other Balkan transit needs. Bathrooms in the Balkans on trains and buses tend to be… how can we say it?… not so well-stocked. Save yourself the disappointment and bring a mini-rescue pack of wet wipes & hand sanitizer.
– Travel safety items. We think Bulgaria is very safe to travel, but at the same time, it never hurts to be prepared! Some people like to carry money belts, but neither Allison or I use these.
Instead, we both carry the same PacSafe anti-theft backpack. It has locking zippers, slash-proof construction with metal mesh hidden in the fabric, and tons of other smart security features — all while being cute and stylish enough to be our everyday bag. We recommend it highly for both male and female travelers, as it’s neutral enough to be unisex. We also strongly recommend travel insurance! Our recommendation is at the bottom of the post.
More Bulgaria Travel Resources
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.
Don’t forget to check out our Bulgaria packing list which has details of everything you’ll want for your trip.
We have a guide to the best Instagram spots in Sunny Beach and Nessebar so you can take incredible photos of your trip! You’ll also want to set aside time to visit the stunning Pink Lake just outside Burgas.
Next, check out our guide to avoiding taxi scams in Sofia. We don’t have taxi guides yet for Varna and Burgas, but the information about common scams and how to avoid them is the same.
You will also want to check out our overview of Balkan currency, which describes Bulgarian leva and what to tip in Bulgaria.
Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance!
Finally, make sure you always travel to Bulgaria with a valid travel insurance policy. The country is a very safe place to travel, but accidents or theft can easily ruin your trip if you don’t have the travel insurance coverage to recover the losses. Recently my aunt fell on a train in France and needed surgery, but luckily her travel insurance covered the costs in full. Thank goodness!
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.
Pin this guide to choosing between Sunny Beach or Nessebar for your trip to Bulgaria!
Stephanie has been living in and traveling around the Balkans for the past three years. She’s written for National Geographic Online, appeared on CNN Arabic and in the New York Times, and ridden more Balkan buses than is good for a person.