Things to Do in Bulgaria
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
More Things to Do in Bulgaria
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.
Founded in 1973, the Sofia National History Museum is Bulgaria’s national museum of history. Housed in the former residence of dictator Todor Zhikov, the museum has more than 650,000 objects, although only about ten percent are on display. The main exhibition is spread throughout five halls. The first covers the development and culture of the people who lived on Bulgarian lands as early as the 6th millennium B.C. The second hall continues that theme, focusing on the end of the 6th century B.C. to the 6th century A.D. In the third hall, visitors see exhibits on the Bulgarian State in the Middle Ages and in the fourth hall, the focus shifts to the period of Ottoman rule, from 1396 to 1878. The fifth hall showcases the Third Bulgarian Kingdom, from 1878 to 1946.
Items on display include a variety of weapons, traditional costumes, furniture, tools and household objects, coins, artwork, documents and photos. The museum courtyard showcases a collection of Greek, Roman and Byzantine columns and monuments from various periods.
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.
Set along Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, Sunny Beach Luna Park is a popular amusement park for Bulgarians and foreigners alike. Dating back to 1958, it is home to a variety of attractions and activities for all ages. Adults can enjoy a plethora of restaurants and bars with live music, as well as a shooting range, outdoor pool with a bar and a sauna and Jacuzzi. Children can stay busy in a 24-hour kindergarten, kids’ pools, merry-go-rounds, kids’ discos, pony riding and more. Visitors of all ages can enjoy attractions like the house of horrors, a 3.6G force experience, a roller coaster with a 360-degree loops and a space jump.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Set in the western part of Sunny Beach along the Black Sea coast, the Action Aquapark was the first water park to be built in Bulgaria. Covering 36,000 square meters, it boasts more than 30 water attractions, bars and restaurants and features a variety of tropical palm trees, Mediterranean shrubs, geysers and fountains throughout the grounds. Popular rides include a free fall slide that lets visitors plunge at up to 70 kilometers per hours, the 18-meter high Kamikadze slide and the 150-meter long Black Hole slide. Those looking for a more relaxing experience will enjoy floating along the 330-meter Lazy River. For the kids, there is a mini-zoo with pigs, goats, ponies, peacocks and emus, and the H2O Adventure Island, with eight slides, climbing tunnels and rope bridges.
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.
Browse orderly shops and stalls of Central Sofia Market Hall (Halite) in search of souvenirs, snacks, and bargains. Pay attention to the structure, opened in 1911, as the market is widely considered to be architect Naum Torbov’s finest work, blending neo-baroque with neo-Byzantine features, in a neo-Renaissance structure.
In the Golden Sands resort town up the coast from Varna, Aquapolis is a 10-acre (4-hectare) landscaped water park with a lazy river, pools, and a number of slides. Besides adults’ and children’s areas, the extreme zone boasts the Kamikaze, a slide delivering speeds of up to 37 mph (60 kph). There are a number of food options on-site.
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