Things to Do in Bulgaria
As the sixth oldest city in the world, Plovdiv, Bulgaria can trace its history back to 5,000 B.C. Visitors exploring Plovdiv Old Town (Stari Grad) will be able to experience some of that history for themselves, from the remains of the 2nd century Roman stadium that sit underneath the pedestrian mall in the town center to the 14th century Dzhumaya Mosque, the second oldest in Europe, to the rows of Bulgarian Revival houses that line the cobblestone streets of the Old Town.
The highlight for many will be the 2nd century Plovdiv Roman Theater that sits on a hill on the edge of the Old Town and is still used for concerts and other performances. Other noteworthy sites include the Church of Sveta Bogoroditsa, the Church of St. Constantine and Elena, the State Gallery of Fine Arts, the Zlatyu Boyadjiev House, the Icon Gallery and the Ethnographical Museum, with more than 40,000 displays about life and culture in Plovdiv.
Perched on a mountaintop overlooking one of Bulgaria’s oldest towns, Tsarevets Fortress is—both geographically and statistically—the top attraction of Veliko Târnovo. Dating back to the 12th century, the imposing fortress is known for its medieval architecture and royal legacy.
Set in a grand 19th-century building, the Varna Archaeological Museum houses Bulgaria’s finest archaeology collection. Displays spread over 23,000 square feet (2,150 square meters) and run from Stone Age times to the 19th century. Highlights include some of the world’s oldest worked gold, dating back over 6,000 years.
Standing in the middle of a farm field a few kilometers outside of Sozopol, the Castle of Ravadinovo (In Love with the Wind) might be something out of a fairy tale. Mystical and exotic, the castle made of stone covers about 30,000 square meters, including the grounds. All around the castle grounds, you will find flower gardens and landscaped lawns, as well as a variety of statues, small bridges, fountains and ponds. The castle is best visited in the summer when the castle walls are overgrown with ivy and the gardens are in full bloom. Talkative parrots, colorful peacocks and elegant swans are also prevalent throughout the grounds. Inside the castle you will find an art gallery, wine cellar and several large halls for events.
Also known as Kaleto, the Belogradchik Fortress is an ancient fortress standing on the northern slopes of the Balkan Mountains in Bulgaria. One of the best-preserved fortresses in the country, it dates to Roman times and was expanded over the years by the Byzantines, Bulgarians and Turks. Covering 10,000 square meters and featuring walls over two meters thick and up to 12 meters tall, the fortress was last used for war during the Serbo-Bulgarian War in 1885. Set among spectacular rock formations that served as natural protection, the fortress almost blends in with its surroundings.
Today, the fortress is open to the public as an open-air museum. Visitors can wander through the three fortified courtyards, check out the defensive bunkers and climb up steep ladders to some of the highest rocks around the fortress.
Just outside of Sofia, Vitosha Mountain reaches an impressive height of 7,513 feet (2,290 meters). As the Balkan’s oldest national park, Vitosha offers plenty to see and do throughout the year. The area surrounding the mountain is also home to the Boyana Waterfall and Duhlata Cave, and close to Pancharevo Lake, making it a favorite among nature lovers.
Sofia’s landmark cathedral was built to commemorate the lives lost in the Russo-Turkish War. Named after a 13th-century Russian prince, the Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral is a fine example of neo-Byzantine architecture and one of Sofia’s most recognizable symbols. The decadent interior features iconoclasts made from marble and onyx, while the crypt boasts Bulgaria’s largest collection of religious art.
Rila Monastery, Bulgaria’s largest religious structure, is the most visited site in the country. Its cobblestone courtyard, winding balconies, picturesque mountain views, and brightly colored frescos transport you to a place that is almost otherworldly. The fortress-like complex has been a spiritual center for more than 1,000 years.
One of the star attractions on Mt. Vitosha, the massif just outside Sofia, Boyana Waterfall tumbles 82 feet (25 meters) down a stark rock face amid shady forest. It’s a tranquil, unspoiled spot that makes an excellent focus for a walk in the national park. One popular route goes by way of Boyana Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As the largest and one of the oldest monasteries in Bulgaria, the Rozhen Monastery sits amongst the Pirin Mountains as a living symbol of the area’s history and spirituality. Archaeological evidence suggests the structure dates as far back as the 13th century, when it was also mentioned in Greek texts. Destroyed by armies and fires throughout the years, the monastery was most recently restored by wealthy citizens in the 18th century.
With its unique six angle shape, the monastery and residential buildings surround a beautiful courtyard and small church. Frescoes and stained glass windows dating back to the 16th century line the walls of the church’s interior. The “Nativity of the Mother of God” also has an impressive display of carved, wooden altars and iconostases. It continues to be stand as a center of Orthodox Christianity and one of the greatest preserved medieval structures of Bulgaria.
More Things to Do in Bulgaria
Founded in 1083, Bachkovo Monastery is one of the largest and most important pilgrimage sites in Bulgaria, and is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed monument. The historic monastery also boasts a magnificent setting, perched in the hills around Asenovgrad and overlooking the Chepelare River.
Also known as the Summer Palace of Queen Marie, Balchik Palace (Dvoreca) sits along Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, together with a popular botanical garden. The palace was built for Queen Marie of Romania between 1926 and 1937, when Romania controlled the region. Designed by an Italian architect, the palace is part of a complex that includes several villas, a wine cellar, a monastery, a chapel and several other buildings. Buildings within the complex feature architectural elements inspired by a variety of cultures and religions, including a minaret, a Christian chapel, Thracian, Greek and Roman symbols, and a mix of Bulgarian, Gothic and Islamic designs. The palace rooms open to the public display original furnishings, as well as some local ancient artifacts and photographs of Queen Marie. The nearby botanical garden was established in 1940 and covers 65,000 square meters. It is home to 2000 plant species, including a collection of large cactus species, only the second of its kind in Europe.
One of Bulgaria’s premier ski resorts, Borovets was purpose-built in the 1980s, although it has its origins way back in the 19th century when a hunting palace was built there for the Bulgarian Royal Family. Today it is a low-rise, largely wooden Alpine-style resort with all modern amenities; it sprawls over the northern flanks of the Musala ridge in the Rila Mountains at an altitude of 1,300 meters (4,265 feet), with the highest runs up at 2,600 meters (8,530 feet).
The ski season lasts from December through to early April and the resort has 24 runs stretching over 58 km (36.25 miles) of marked pistes, ranging from easy blues to extremely challenging black runs, many through scenic pine forest. Borovets also offers two terrain parks for snowboarders as well as 35 km (22 miles) of groomed cross-country trails for Nordic skiers. Ski lifts are modern and efficient, with a mix of gondolas, chair and drag lifts; night skiing is available daily until 10pm. The resort’s family-friendly credentials include two snow parks for toddlers, ski schools, equipment hire, shops and plenty of cafés, restaurants and hotels that cater for kids. Non-skiers are well taken care of with swimming pools, spas, ski-doo snow safaris and horse-and-carriage rides and the late-night après-ski scene is jumping, with bars and clubs open until the wee hours.
The UNESCO-listed Boyana Church is made up of three distinctive sections, which reflect the architectural styles of the 10th, 13th, and 19th century respectively. The Orthodox church is held in high esteem throughout Europe due to its collection of 89 hand-painted frescoes, which depict 240 individual figures in various religious scenes.
Also known as the St. George Rotunda, Sofia's early-Christian Church of St. George was originally built by Romans during the 4th century, making it one of Bulgaria’s oldest buildings. Today, the church attracts visitors with its medieval frescoes, varied architecture, and Roman-era ruins that surround it.
The Rila Mountains offer outdoor enthusiasts a perfect play land for exploring Bulgaria’s highest mountain. Nestled within the boundaries of National Park Rila, this area is home to the hottest spring in the Balkans, glacial lakes, four nature reserves and endless stretch of scenic landscape. Avid hikers will find easy access to two of Europe’s longest trail routes—the E4 and E8—which pass through some of the Rila Mountains’ 29 peaks. And hikers hoping for a shorter distance can participate in popular one-day excursions, like walks to the Seven Rila Lakes and Mount Musala, which both typically depart from Sofia.
Less intrepid travelers can still enjoy the beauty of this epic mountain range at one of the family-run hotels located in foothill villages like Govedartsi, Mala Tsarkva and Madzhare. Visitors can soak in the medicinal hot mineral waters of Sapareva Banya, a popular public bath, or venture to the Rila Monastery—not only the largest in the country, but also the most-visited site in the nation.
Named after one of Bulgaria’s most esteemed writers, the Ivan Vazov National Theatre has been drawing audiences since 1907. The national theater is also the country’s largest and oldest, and is known for its productions, neoclassical architecture, and history. Cementing its status as a national icon, the theater’s colonnaded façade can be seen on 50-lev banknotes.
Called Petrich by some, Asen’s Fortress (Asenova Krepost) is a medieval fortress in Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains. Sitting high on a rocky ridge on the left bank of the Asenitsa River, the fortress was built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great in the 6th century and grew to prominence during the Middle Ages. It fell into ruins after the Ottoman conquest in the 14th century, with only the Church of the Holy Mother of God surviving. One of the oldest remaining Eastern Orthodox churches, the two-story building features a large rectangular tower and mural paintings that date back to the 14th century. Renovated in 1991, it is used today by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
The fortress is also a stop on a hiking trail that takes hikers on to several chapels and, eventually, Bachkovski Monastery.
The core structure of St. Sofia Church, one of the oldest churches in the Bulgarian capital, dates back to the sixth century, although it has evolved over time. Excavations have revealed the remains of several earlier churches plus a Roman-era necropolis under and around the Byzantine basilica, and the site is now an underground museum.
Often known as “Vitoshka,” Vitosha Boulevard is Sofia’s main commercial street. Partially pedestrianized, it runs from the historic center to South Park, with most of the action concentrated at the northern end. Vitoshka is home to higher-end stores and cafés, St. Nedelya Church, the huge Communist-era TSUM store, and more.
Focused on the period 1944–1989, when Bulgaria was under Soviet influence, the Varna Retro Museum serves up a dash of Communist chic in the heart of Varna’s No. 1 mall. Over 60 retro cars plus wax models of key characters from the era form the core of the collection, but you can also appreciate everyday objects from cigarettes to makeup.
Europe’s third largest synagogue was built in 1909 for Sofia’s Sephardi Jewish community. Based on the Leopoldstädter Tempel, Friedrich Grünanger’s design blends Venetian and Secessionist features with Moorish revival architecture. The synagogue is also home to Sofia’s Jewish Museum of History.
Plovdiv Roman Theater (Ancient Theater of Philippopolis) is one of the world’s best preserved ancient theaters, originally built during the reign of Roman Emperor Trajan. Incredibly, the theater lay undiscovered for centuries and was only found in the 1970s after a landslide revealed its remains. Its restoration is considered one of the greatest achievements in conservation in Bulgaria.
Sitting between two hills in Plovdiv Old Town, the Roman Theater combines stylistic features of Hellenistic and Roman theaters and has several walls and steles inscribed with Byzantine Greek. The benches are made of marble and many are engraved with the names of municipal districts, indicating where patrons should sit. Facing south toward the Rhodope Mountains, the theater is still in use today, hosting both theatrical plays and musical shows during the summer months. Possibly the most recognizable landmark in Plovdiv, the theater also offers excellent acoustics and splendid views of the city and nearby mountains.
The Sofia National Gallery is Bulgaria’s largest art museum, boasting a collection of more than 42,000 pieces. First established in the early 20th century, the gallery moved into the former Royal Palace in 1946, and has since grown to several branches across Sofia, including the Kvadrat 500 and Museum of Socialist Art.
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