Perry and I spent the majority of August in Bulgaria and came to love it so much, we felt like unofficial ambassadors by the time we left.
Despite being part of Eastern Europe, still recovering from a Communist hangover of muted cultural expression and developing economic infrastructure, Bulgaria stands out.
There is a lot to like when it comes to the 16th largest country in Europe and here is a run down of my six favorite reasons.
Even this history nerd was completely wowed by the historical significance of Bulgaria and how the three cities we visited (Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna) felt like living museums with ancient sites out in the open for the public to enjoy. While Sofia and Varna have outstanding past in their own right, Plovdiv is the true elder statesman-- with a 4,100 year history, it is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe.
In ancient times, Bulgaria was known as Thrace, and its inhabitants were peers of the Greeks. Thracians were known for their gold work and wine making abilities which makes them my kind of people. Some famous Thracians include Spartacus and Meda of Odessa (ancient Varna), wife of Phillip II, and stepmom of Alexander the Great.
In Varna's history museum, the oldest gold jewelry in the world is on display. Uncovered in a nearby necropolis, one royal leader was buried adorned with gold weapons, jewelry and even a penis sheath! They have also discovered evidence of just how much Thracians loved wine, with carvings referencing a cult of the Greek god Dionysus.
The Roman era is also on magnificent display. Sofia (known as Serdika in those days) combines Roman ruins with the flavor of the Ottoman era, literally, because the resourceful Bulgarians (and Turks) erected buildings and mosques using the remains of Roman structures.
But Plovdiv outshines them all in the history department. Philippopolis, as it was known back in the day, was named after Philip II of Macedon and that era has been cleverly integrated into the modern, everyday life of the city. From the cafes and parks overlooking the Roman stadium to the Roman theatre that is used regularly for concerts and plays, who needs new when the old will do?
If you are a history fan like me, it's the biggest reason to put it on your list.
2. BEAUTIFUL SPACES
Coming from Bucharest, a city with infrastructure deficiencies, Sofia offered a sharp contrast with lots of modern high rises, clean streets and a brand new train station mixing in with its pretty parks and cultural buildings (theaters, libraries, churches).
Much older than Sofia, Plovdiv's beauty is more rustic up close. However, if you climb one of the seven hills that surround the city, you are rewarded with lovely scenic views. The Old Town's cobble streets and colorful wooden buildings make for pleasant walking.
Varna has the scenic advantage of being on the Black Sea, but not content to rest on its laurels, the city has also created beautiful parks and seafront walking trails to allow residents and visitors alike to enjoy the geography to its fullest extent.
3. OUTDOOR ADVENTURE
From waterfalls to caves, mountains and the sea, Bulgaria's natural landscape offers a multitude of activities to keep any rugged adventurer happy.
In Sofia, we took a cable car to a point just under the summit of Vitosha Mountain where we climbed to the peak using a steep and challenging short cut. We took in the amazing views while we ate our lunch and decided to walk the flatter, but longer route back down which was relaxing and filled with pretty fields of flowers, streams and even a few paragliders.
Vitosha also houses Vitosha Nature Park with plenty of hiking trails and the spectacular Boyana Waterfall.
In Plovdiv, the Seven Hills that dot the city provide decent hiking options.
Located on the Black Sea, Varna has great aquatic activities like sailing and swimming. Or, you could just relax on the sandy beaches.
4. DELICIOUS FOOD & WINE
Did I mention it's really healthy too? If salad and meat is your low-carb meal of choice, get thee forthwith to Bulgaria.
Bulgarians start every meal with salad, and my favorite was the Shopska-- always a huge portion of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers and shredded sirene, a salty sheep's cheese similar to feta. It is topped with a light dressing of olive oil, vinegar and parsley.
Since we visited in the peak of summer, the vegetables were always straight-from-the-garden fresh, but it is the cheese that I still can't forget. So delicious, I'm drooling just thinking about it. Whether it was made myself or ordered it in a restaurant, I ate Shopska salad every day in Bulgaria!
Post salad, they bring on the grilled meat where the combination of cultures is very much at play. A common platter includes sausages, kofta (a type of meatball) and Shish kebab, all of which can be made from either lamb, beef, pork or chicken.
If you aren't going low carb, feel free to indulge in the fresh pita bread which is plentiful and delicious.
Bulgaria shares a number of cuisines with the Middle East and Greece including burek (thin flaky dough, filled with cheese or meat) and moussaka (eggplant casserole). Desserts and sweets aren't as common, but you do see baklava (my fave) and halva, a fudge-like confection made from nut or seed butters like sesame (tahini).
Last, but not least, the wine in Bulgaria is fantastic. They are famous for Mavrud, a dark ruby varietal that was consumed during Thracian times. Try the plummy goodness of Vinica or Zagreus brands. Soli is a Bordeaux-like red and I recommend one by Eduardo Miroglio. But since I was there during the steamy summer, I mostly consumed chilled Rose, because at $2/glass, why the hell not? If you are interested in trying these, here is a link for a Bulgarian wine importer in the US.
5. UNIQUE CULTURE & FRIENDLY PEOPLE
Located in the Balkans, and at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, Bulgaria has a unique confluence of cultures. Ancient Greek and Roman influence ultimately fused with the local Thracian and Slavic Bulgar peoples between 500 and 1300 AD until the area fell under the rule of the Ottomans (Turks) for over 500 years (1300's-1878). The most recent culture to leave an imprint on Bulgaria are the Russians, who liberated the Bulgarians from the Turks in 1878.
While you can see and taste these influences everywhere, the Bulgarians definitely have their own unique culture that they are very much trying to promote and make up for lost time.
In addition to the great cuisine, this influence can be spotted in art and architecture. Everywhere we went, there were murals, frescoes and sculptures.
Fortunately, many Bulgarians speak English, which is great because the Bulgarian language is not easy to speak. Although we did get the hang of reading it after spending a week in Belgrade, Serbia (also users of Cyrillic) before our three weeks in Bulgaria.
In fact, Bulgarians gave the world the Cyrillic alphabet, developed in the First Bulgarian Empire in the 9th century AD by Slav monk brothers Cyril and Methodius. Don't make the mistake of asking Bulgarians why they use the 'Russian' alphabet!
Nevertheless, it was Bulgaria's traditional music that offered one of the most unexpected and memorable nights on the road.
We had been walking around Plovdiv for hours and came across the Roman Theatre just as the sun was setting. It was filled with people waiting for a performance to start and we decided to sit down since it was free. Little did we know, we had accidentally happened upon the International Folk Festival where we witnessed performances by musicians and dancers dressed in national costume from Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Serbia, Hungary and Mexico.
They were all excellent, but the hometown crew saved the best for last. The crowd went wild.
Bulgarian folk music is a hugely popular and extensively practiced art that fuses Eastern and Western influences. The music has a distinctive sound and uses a wide range of traditional instruments including the gadulka, gaida, kaval and tupan! Folk dancers wearing the national costume dance to the music, a combination of fast and slow beats. Many Bulgarian dances are line dances, where they dance in a straight or curved line, holding hands.
The biggest surprise was how well we were treated by the friendly and English speaking Bulgarian people! From the waitstaff at restaurants (especially Happy Grill), to the stylist that colored my hair, to the supermarket cashier that remembered I had left behind my credit card, we were the recipients of smiles and a great deal of kindness.
But what really stands out in terms of people experiences were our outstanding Airbnb hosts, especially the lovely Irina in Varna. We met her out for tea and cake one night so she could tell us about her days working with Cirque du Soleil. We had such a great visit, we met for drinks on the beach a few days later. From travel stories to our favorite podcasts, our conversations with Irina rank up there amongst our favorite experiences on the road.
We lived better in Bulgaria than we did in any other country at the lowest cost. Yes, you read that right. We stayed in the nicest apartments in Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna, ate out practically every meal and pursued countless tourist activities for a mere $83/day for two of us.
Even if you wanted to splurge on a luxury hotel or resort, you would still pay less than just about anywhere else in Europe. But why, when you can live like a local and have a grand time with money to spare?
We were completely charmed by all that Bulgaria has to offer and surely it will only grow in popularity as a tourist destination. In my opinion, now is the time to go as it has just the right amount of infrastructure to make travel comfortable while still being incredibly affordable.
Whether you are a history buff, wine lover, adventure junkie or relaxation seeker, you will find what you are looking for in Bulgaria. Throw in plenty of friendly English speakers and excellent food and Bulgaria is a must see on any budget travelers itinerary.