If you’re not keen on a four-hour drive from Sofia to the Black Sea, don't despair; there are plenty of far more interesting options closer to the capital, including Rila Monastery (1.5hrs) and the Pirin Mountains (2hrs) in the southwest, and Central Balkan National Park (2hrs) directly east. Trains may be slow and a little shabby but they do provide an authentic means of traveling like a local, as well as avoiding planet-sized pot holes. The three-hour rail journey to Veliko Tarnovo is certainly memorable prior to continuing southwest to Plovdiv, from where it’s just a two-hour drive back to Sofia.

1. Arbanasi

Set on a hillside, just 3km from Veliko Tarnovo, the village of Arbanasi was once a major trading center for traditional arts and crafts. During the 17th and 18th centuries, wealthy merchants erected stone houses to resemble mini fortresses, and it’s these examples of Bulgarian Renaissance architecture that form the open air museum that you’ll find today, with frescoes, churches and over 80 stone houses.

2. Bansko

Although a thriving ski resort, Bansko also has plenty to offer in summer with architectural and cultural landmarks, including the belfry on the Holy Trinity Church and pine forest trails around Pirin foothills. Whenever you visit, disappear into one of Bansko's stone built taverns (mehanes) for hearty fare and good company washed down by a drop of Churchill's favourite wine, Melnik.

3. Gela

Visit Gela at the start of August and you’ll be treated to the strains of Bulgarian bagpipes ringing out from the foot of the Rhodopes’ most impervious peaks. Considered, by some, to be the birthplace of legendary musician Orpheus, as well as boasting one of the Balkans’ sunniest spots, Gela is simply charming and well worth a visit, especially if you fancy a 7km stroll from nearby Shiroka Laka.

4. Plovdiv

Bulgaria's second largest city straddles Maritsa River and has made use of the seven surrounding hills since as far back as 4000 BC. The archaeological ruins on top of Nebet Tepe hill give some indication of the importance the Roman Empire placed on Plovdiv and the 6,000-seater amphitheatre in the Old Town is one of the world's best preserved. Stroll down Strumna Street for traditional craft workshops.

5. Razlog

At the foot of the Pirins, Razlog has become an increasingly popular destination for snow lovers and summer hikers and is the gateway to Rila National Park. Traditional heritage is a large part of life in Razlog with the Kukeri pagan festival in January and ‘Pirin Sings’, a traditional folklore celebration, in August, important dates on the Bulgarian calendar.
Rila National Park

6. Rila National Park

Within the western reaches of the Rila Mountains and featuring Bulgaria's prime symbol of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Rila Monastery, this is one of the country's largest protected areas with beech, fir and spruce forests giving way to glacial lakes and alpine meadows. Aside from hiking trails, Rila is a key nesting site for vultures and eagles and provides sanctuary to wolves, jackals and brown bears.
Shiroka Laka

7. Shiroka Laka

Come for the traditional Rhodope architecture and stay for the pine fresh mountain air – Shiroka Laka village is blessed with a bounty of both. Staying overnight at a small spa hotel is one of the best ways to truly capture the essence of southern Bulgaria with easy access to the Smolyan Lakes and the Canyon of Waterfalls guaranteeing a good night’s rest on the banks of the Shirokolashka River.

8. Sofia

Cosmopolitan café culture rules, especially along Vitosha Boulevard; however, catch sight of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and you’ll understand the role of the church in Bulgaria's capital. A generous gathering of museums and galleries make Sofia ideal for a rainy afternoon although the city's parks and gardens, and the slopes of nearby Vitosha, look inviting during a break in the clouds.
Trigrad Gorge

9. Trigrad Gorge

The home of the mighty Devil’s Throat Cave and countless tales of yore, Trigrad Gorge has become one of the standout highlights of the Rhodope Mountains. A circular walking trail across the Trigrad Cliffs takes in the gorge in all its natural limestone karst glory with chances to spy wall creeper birds on the cave’s rocky crags certain to get twitchers in a flap.

10. Troyan

Situated in central Bulgaria, Troyan is home to the country’s third largest monastery as well as the National Crafts Museum where you’ll find examples of traditional handmade pottery, woodcarving and metalwork. Joining a wood carving workshop provides a hands-on approach to folk culture, although staying the night in a nearby rural guesthouse can be equally as enlightening.
Veliko Tarnovo

11. Veliko Tarnovo

Set on three hills and one river, Veliko Tarnovo is awash with medieval and Roman heritage alongside green spaces marked with monuments to independence and Mother Bulgaria. Under the authority of Bulgarian tsars, VT became a fortified cultural epicenter and many of the churches and palaces, including the stronghold, Tsarevets Fortress, offer insight into the might of Bulgaria in the Middle Ages.

12. Yagododina

This remote Rhodope village is best known for the nearby Buinovo Gorge which features one of Bulgaria’s best loved cave systems – the Yagodina Cave – famed for its variety of subterranean marble rock formations, including some truly impressive cave pearls. Yagodina has several small family-run lodgings with numerous forest trails and Roman roads leading direct from wood carved front doors.


Small group mountains and monasteries tour (10 days):
Sofia > Rila Monastery > Gorno Draglishte > Melnik > Rhodope Mountains > Trigrad > Asenovgrad > Bachkovo Monastery > Plovdiv > Kazanlak > Veliko Tarnovo > Troyan > Central Balkan National Park > Sofia
Self guided walking and spa vacation (8 days):
Plovdiv > Smolyan Lakes > Canyon of Waterfalls > Shiroka Laka > Rhodope Mountains > Devin – Plovdiv
Small group traditional crafts vacation (8 days):
Apriltsi village > Troyan > Staro Stefanovo village > Chiflik village > Veliko Tarnovo > Central Balkans > Sofia
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Bulgaria or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Sample driving times in Bulgaria

Drive on the right in Bulgaria and be aware that some road signs, especially in more remote rural areas, will only be written in Cyrillic.

Sofia – Bansko: 2 hours Sofia – Plovdiv: 2.5 hours Plovdiv – Burgas (Black Sea): 2.5 hours Sofia – Rila Monastery: 2 hours
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Detelina Petkova] [Train: niki georgiev] [Fresco church interior Arbanasi: Dennis Jarvis] [Bansko: Alex Alishevskikh] [Gela: infobgv] [Colourful buildings - Plovdiv: Dennis Jarvis] [Kukeri - Razlog: Klearchos Kapoutsis] [Rila lakes: Aleksandra A] [Shiroka Laka: taver] [Interior - Alexander Nevsky Cathedral: Jorge Láscar] [Trigrad Gorge: Evgeni Dinev] [Troyan Monastery: Donald Judge] [Veliko Tarnovo: Andrey] [Yagodina cave: Phoenixfund-bg] [Sofia: Ruben Holthuijsen] [Lovers Bridge, Sofia: Deensel]