10 of the most beautiful places to visit in Bulgaria by Ellis Shuman – I think it’s quite amazing that Bulgaria is still considered to be off the beaten track for Western tourists, because the country has a bit of everything, and all at very affordable prices. The Mountain slopes of Bansko and Pomporovo attract skiers in the winter and the Black Sea beaches draw the crowds in the summer months. Sofia – the capital – is probably not the most beautiful city you can visit, but once you get out into the countryside and start exploring the gorgeous coastline, I think you’ll fall captive to Bulgaria’s special charm. Here is my choice for the most beautiful places to visit in Bulgaria…
The Black Sea Beaches – Bulgaria’s most famous coastline
A good place to start is the country’s famous coastline. Bulgaria is known for its Black Sea coastline which has long stretches of sandy beaches dotted with hotels, traditional fishing villages and historical sites. Tourists flock to the glitzier resorts of Sunny Beach and Golden Sands, but I personally believe the city beaches in Varna and Burgas are just as beautiful. Looking for some decent accommodation options in this area? I’d recommend the stylish Hotel Sun Apartments a modern boutique hotel with a spa Orchidea Boutique Spa, Sunny Beach, the grand and luxurious Melia Grand Hermitage, or the elegant Ventura Boutique Hotel, Varna which was once named “Building of the Year.”
Nessebar – known as the Pearl of the Black Sea
Often referred to as the Pearl of the Black Sea, the historic town of Nessebar dates back to antiquity when it was founded as a Thracian settlement known as Menebria. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Bulgarians, Crusaders, and Ottomans all took turns fortifying the ancient town, and the narrow peninsula on which it is located. Today a stroll on its cobblestone streets will bring you to remnants of some 40 brick churches, dating back as far as the 5th century. The beautiful town is such an important site it’s recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Stylish and unique accommodation options in the area include Hotel Saint Nikola and Zevs Residence.
Sozopol – a beautiful ancient seaside town
One of the oldest towns on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coastline, Sozopol is a popular fishermen’s village and seaside resort. Located 35 kilometres south of Burgas, Sozopol was known in the 6th century BC as Apollonia, complete with a temple dedicated to Apollo. The town is small enough for a casual stroll. You can walk along the quays as the day’s catch is unloaded or through the old town with its wooden houses calling out in desperation for repair. If you find the sea too deep or rough for swimming, you can always sunbathe on the rocks located along the shore. For charming and comfortable hotel options try Via Pontica 123 Hotel or Laguna Beach Resort and Spa.
Rila Monastery – the most famous monastery in Bulgaria
Known as the Jerusalem of Bulgaria, this picturesque Eastern Orthodox monastery in the forested mountains less than two hours south of Sofia is definitely worth a pilgrimage visit. Named for St. Ivan of Rilski, a tenth-century hermit who lived in a nearby cave, the monastery has been built, burnt, and rebuilt over the centuries, with the latest construction dating to the 1800s. Enter the courtyard and you will be stunned by the perfect harmony of the church, with its graceful arches in bold stripes of black and white set under a row of sculpted gargoyles, tiled roofs, and five domes reaching towards the sky. In the distance are the peaks of the Rila Mountains, complimenting an oasis of serenity perfect for religious hermits and modern visitors alike.
Plovdiv Old Town – a spectacular architectural and historical reserve
Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria, has something that Sofia does not – an old town on a hill. The city was founded some 6,000 years ago and developed on seven hills, but one of them was destroyed at the beginning of the 20th century. The Old Town towers over the city centre with structures from different eras, including a remarkably well-preserved Roman amphitheatre. The Old Town is best known for its Bulgarian Renaissance architectural style, with colourful houses displaying the National Revival’s unique exterior characteristics on every corner. Walking up the hill is a delight, with the many galleries and house museums all worth a visit.
Belogradchik – an ancient and important beauty spot
Belogradchik Fortress is a manmade construction set against a stunning outcrop of rocks. The combination is so unique and picturesque, that it seems to have been lifted straight out of a Disney fairytale. What’s even more unique than the fortress is the surrounding countryside. The Belogradchik Rocks, named in 2009 as Bulgaria’s candidate to be selected as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, are a stunning arrangement of strange-shaped sandstone and conglomerate rock formations.
Lake Atanasovsko – a salt pond and a wellness attraction
Lake Burgas is a beautiful bright pink lake just west of the city of Burgas. Unlike most other pink lakes around the world, the lake’s colour is not solely caused by high salt levels. Although there is a lot of salt in the lake, it is also influenced by the farming of brine shrimp in the water. The colour of the lake tends to vary depending on where the fishermen and salt miners are currently active. There are multiple basins in the middle of the south side of the lake that are used for salt mining. These basins often have the most vivid colours, ranging from dark red to a soft pink. Unlike other pink lakes, it is possible to swim in Lake Burgas. In fact, it is encouraged, because the mud that the lake contains is said to have medicinal properties. Some of the locals believe it has anti-ageing properties and can heal certain ailments, because of this it’s a well-known wellness attraction in Bulgaria.
Koprivshtitsa – another beautiful architectural and historical reserve
Walking the narrow alleyways of the village of Koprivshtitsa, some two hours east of Sofia, you’ll feel that you’re being transported back to the momentous months of 1876, when the Bulgarians valiantly fought against their oppressive Ottoman rulers. Inside the colourful houses, representatives of Bulgarian National Revival architecture of the 19th century, local patriots plotted their rebellion leading up to the first shot being fired in the ultimately unsuccessful April Uprising. The village is full of memorials and museum houses displaying ethnographical treasures, old weapons and farm implements, national costumes, artwork, and jewellery.
Veliko Tarnovo – one of the oldest cities in Bulgaria
This was the historic capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire between the 12th and 14th centuries, Veliko Tarnovo is located in central Bulgaria and is a popular tourist attraction. The reconstructed Tsarevets fortress bears no resemblance to the medieval palaces of the Bulgarian tsars who ruled from the hilltop until their defeat by the Ottomans in 1393. Still, one senses Bulgaria’s former greatness when walking through the gates of this picturesque stronghold.
Melnik – a charming wine town
Melnik is known for two reasons. It is the smallest city in Bulgaria and it is home to some of the best wineries in the country. It will take you minutes to walk up the town’s one main street, but you’ll sit for hours at a local tavern, your head spinning under the intoxicating spell of the rich red wines. If you manage to get up from your seat, the nearby pyramidal Melnik Rocks and the Rozhen Monastery are worth a visit.
Pomorie – a wonderful seaside resort
Pomorie is picturesque seaside resort town located in Burgas Bay, on the eastern seaboard of Bulgaria. The town sits on a narrow rocky peninsula with spectacular views of the coastline to the north and south. While it attracts many Bulgarian tourists each year, it is something of a well-kept secret that most foreign tourists don’t know about. The town has two distinct sections — the old town centre to the east and the newer, more touristy section to the west/southwest. The old town centre is a charming location with many small hotels, authentic shops and small restaurants. The eastern tip of the peninsula has a couple of small beaches that are usually less crowded compared to the ones to the north or southwest.
Sunset Resort is located to the southwest of the town. It is a modern resort that is adjacent to South Beach, which is the largest beach in the town. This is a more touristy part of the town, but a fantastic location to stay if you are looking for a resort with modern amenities. Pomorie Lake is one of the “must-see” locations in Pomorie. Located to the north of town, it is a stunning saline coastal lagoon that is home to dozens of bird species. Medicinal mud is produced at the lake and visitors can enjoy a restorative mud bath. Other attractions in the area include the Museum of Salt, the Sunset Aquapark, the Pomorie Museum of History, and the street markets in Kableshkovo (held every Thursday). There are also two local wineries worth visiting — Winery Messembria and Stratsin Winery.
The Evksinograd Residence – a former royal summer palace
The Evksinograd Residence is one of the most romantic buildings in Bulgaria. Located 8 kilometres north of Varna, this 19th-century palace was often used as a holiday home for royalty. The building was built after Prince Battenberg visited Varna in 1880 and was so impressed by the local nature that he had to have a property in the area. Construction began two years later adjacent to an old monastery and the building was finished by his success, Bring Ferdinand.
The exterior of the mansion is very similar to French mansions of the 18th century. It is ornate, romantic, and quite beautiful. The interiors are luxurious, with marble fireplaces, French chandeliers, large dining halls, antique furniture, and rare paintings. Expect to see a lot of gold and silk! The grounds surrounding the park are no less decadent. French park architects were designed to layout the 800-acre park. They planted many rare species of plants, some of which are alive today. At one stage, there were more than 500 species of flowers in the grounds and greenhouses. A winery was added to the palace in 1891 and still produces excellent wines today. It produces Chardonnay, Riesling, Traminer, Muscat Ottone and Vratsa Muscat wines.
Tourists can visit the palace, explore the parks and even sample the wines. It is also possible to stay in the palace complex and there is a restaurant on the grounds. It is a beautiful building that is sure to delight.
Seven Lakes – a group of stunning glacial lakes
One of Bulgaria’s main tourist attractions is a group of glacial lakes located high in the Rila Mountains. The appropriate time to visit the lakes is in the summer months, as even in June the lakes can be frozen, with the terrain alternating between deep snow drifts and patches of brilliant wildflowers. The lakes are located one above the other in a mountain valley, interconnected by streams and waterfalls. Access to the lakes is not easy, although riding a ski lift shortens the distance up the steep mountainside. Legends say the lakes were formed by the tears of a female giant, crying for her beloved.
Belogradchik Fortress – a unique ancient fortress
Belogradchik Fortress is an ancient fortress built located in northwest Bulgaria on the northern slopes of the Balkan Mountains. It is close to the Bulgarian town of Belogradchik, which is home to about 5,000 people. The fortress was established as a surveillance post when the region was controlled by the Roman Empire. It was extended in the 14th century by the Bulgarian tsar Ivan Stratsimir to include fortified garrisons. The fortress was captured by the Ottomans in 1396, who made it even larger to repel the hajduk insurrectionists in the area.
The final set of changes occurred in the 19th century. The size of the fortress was expanded yet again and European elements were added by the French and Italian engineers who were assisting the Ottomans during its redevelopment. The way that the fortress runs between the huge sections of natural rock is quite awe-inspiring and there are some incredible scenic views from the top of the fortress.
Tevno Vasilashko Lake – a beautiful natural gem
Tevno Vasilashko Lake is one of the most spectacular locations in Europe. It is a magnificent glacial lake surrounded by rugged mountain peaks located in Pirin, Bulgaria. The lake has a unique saturated blue colour that reflects the huge mountains nearby. Tevno lake is the largest of a series of glacial lakes in the area called the Vasilashko Lakes. The other lakes are Fish Vasilashko Lake, Upper Vasilashko Lake, Rainbow-shaped Vasilashko Lake, and Upper Todorino Lake. They are all beautiful lakes, but Tevno Vasilashko Lake is easily the most impressive. There are tour operators who offer one-day trips up the Vasilashki glacial valley, visiting 3 or four of the lakes. It is a magical journey that showcases an incredible part of Bulgaria.
Dolen village – a pretty and charming alpine village
Dolen Village is an alpine village located in the western Rhode mountains (about 26 kms from Gotse Delchev). It is one of the most romantic villages in Bulgaria, with narrow cobblestone roads, stone walls, and authentic buildings designed in the Bulgarian Revival style. The village was founded in the 16th century by Bulgarians escaping the Ottomans who had invaded the country. It flourished in the 18th century, as multiple industries in the area became prosperous.
Many of the houses have stone foundations, with timber walls and overhanging top stories. Inside, there are usually ornate ceilings and elaborate carpentry on display. The locals have added wonderful gardens to most homes, so walking the streets is like being a part of a beautiful fairy tale. It is an experience you won’t forget.
Pirin National Park – impressive nature formations
Most travellers don’t realise how picturesque the natural environment is in Bulgaria until they see the Pirin National Park. It is a 403.56 km2 park that in southwestern Bulgaria. It encompasses most of the Pirin Mountains — a vast mountain range covering through the southwestern part of the country. Pirin National Park has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1983 and the park is a part of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves. The park is home to more than 100 glacial lacks, with the largest being Popovo Lake. There are also many stunning glaciers located throughout the mountains.
There are hundreds of different animal species in the park, including the wonderful boreal owl, white-backed woodpecker, fire salamander, agile frog, red deer, and Eurasian three-toed woodpecker. If you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of one of the rarer animals in the park, like the lesser spotted eagle, golden eagle, or peregrine falcon. Visiting the park is a special experience that you will never forget.
Varna – one of Bulgaria’s most popular holiday resorts
Varna is one of the major tourist destinations in Bulgaria. It is easy to see why — it is a beautiful city that has wonderful beaches, excellent restaurants, and lovely green spaces. Varna is often referred to as the sea capital of Bulgaria, as many Bulgarians flock to the city in the warmer months. There are many picturesque beaches with fine golden sand and crystal clear water in Varna. There are also a couple of good surf breaks available if you prefer to surf or body board. Rapongi Beach is perhaps the best beach in Varna, as it is well maintained and doesn’t get too crowded. You can also travel north to the resort of Sunny Day or to Siruius Beach, which are both stunning locations that are popular with tourists. There are plenty of other activities to enjoy in the city, including many excellent clubs, restaurants, and bars along Kraybrezhna Aleya. You will find this part of the city quite charming and beautiful at night.
Kamchia Biosphere Reserve – a protected area of ecological importance
There are many beautiful national parks located within Bulgaria. However, the Kamchia Biosphere Reserve stands out because of its massive size and pristine natural environment. This reserve is a 1,200 hectare (2,965 acre) UNESCO-listed biosphere located on the northern coastline of Bulgaria. It has a varied landscape ranging from vast floodplains at the mouth of the Kamchia river through to long beaches adjacent to the Black Sea coastline.
Established in 1977, it contains many primaeval forests and spectacular natural waterways. The reserve is located 20 km south of Varna and surrounded by the villages of Bliznatsi, Staro Oriahovo, and Shkorpilovtsi. Kamchia is the perfect location for hiking, camping, boating, or relaxing on one of the many vast beaches. It is a peaceful location that gives visitors a chance to feel at one with nature and explore the stunning natural environment of Bulgaria.
Zheravna – a beautifully preserved architectural reserve
Located in the rolling hills of Balkan Mountain Range is the magical village of Zheravna. The village is an architectural reserve consisting of more than 200 houses built during the Bulgarian National Revival period in the 18th and 19th century. Walking through the village is like travelling back in time. You will marvel at the wonderful buildings with their detailed carpentry, red ceramic roof tiles, and elaborate timber decorations.
Many of the buildings have been converted into guest houses, so it is possible to stay in the town. The interiors of the guest houses are just as lovely as the exteriors, featuring wooden carvings and ornate carpentry performed by craftsmen hundreds of years ago. There are plenty of nature walks surrounding the village, plus several museums and an art gallery.
Accommodation recommendation disclaimer
Ellis Shuman and his wife, Jodie, lived in Sofia for two years 2009-2010. During that time they maintained a very active blog, Ellis and Jodie’s Bulgarian Adventures, detailing their travels. Ellis is the author of Valley of Thracians, a suspense novel set in Bulgaria. The book is available at Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions. Ellis writes frequently about Bulgaria, Israel, and other interesting things at his blog.