Bulgaria is undoubtedly a hidden gem destination. Somehow it’s mostly associated with the ill-reputed mass resort town of Sunny Beach or at most as an alternative cheap skiing destination. Yet the Balkan country has everything for a perfect road trip.

Steeped in rich and complicated history, Bulgaria has been home to Thracians, Greeks, Romans and Ottomans who all left their legacy, not to mention the more recent decades of communist rule. It’s home to varied nature, from stunning mountain ranges with glacial lakes to fine sand beaches on the Black Sea. The locals are friendly, the cuisine is one of Europe’s most interesting (not dissimilar to Greek or Turkish) and there is a huge number of wine varieties. And importantly, it’s one of Europe’s most affordable destinations, so you can really enjoy the country to the maximum. 

It’s also the right size for a road trip. Large enough to offer a range of landscapes but not too big to make you have to choose just small parts of the country. The following tried-and-approved list of my favourite travel spots for Bulgaria will help you plan an itinerary that can be done by car in around 10-14 days (depending how quickly you like to travel). You can also manage by trains & buses although this gets more complicated for the smaller places on this list.

Anyway, here are my recommendations. Happy travels!

Bulgaria Road Trip Itinerary

Bulgaria Road Trip Itinerary Map

 

Sofia

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia

Being Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia is likely to be your starting point for a Bulgarian road trip. While the city didn’t stand out to us as particularly distinguishable, it has plenty to offer visitors. There is so much history ingrained here, characterised by the recently-discovered Roman ruins found at the Serdica Ancient Complex. Just around the corner is the Banya Bashi Mosque, a nod to the century-old Ottoman rule. Then there’s plenty of Communist-era architecture, most remarkably the Largo – former Communist Party HQs – with its signature Stalinist Empire style. As you make your way East through the City Garden, you’ll arrive at the dazzling St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Sofia’s most remarkable landmark, the domed cathedral was built in honour of the Russian soldiers who liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in 19th Century. 

As a bonus, Sofia is also extremely affordable for a capital city in terms of accommodation, transport and food. For the latter, head to Vitosha Boulevard. It’s the main commercial artery of Sofia and is a long and pleasant pedestrian street with ample restaurants, bars and shops lining it.

For an interesting traditional experience, head up to Restaurant Vodenitzata. Here you can enjoy classic Bulgarian dishes accompanied by traditional dancing and the old pagan ritual of firewalking. No, you don’t have to take part. As a bonus, you get some of the best views of the city. For even better views, drive up to Vitosha Mountain about 45 minutes away. It’s a nearby ski resort offering panoramic views and walks in the nature.

If you feel like some adrenaline, Bulgaria is one of the cheapest places for trying out a skydive. So if you ever had this on your bucket list, you can book the exhilarating experience with Skydive Sofia, an hour’s drive from the capital and on the way South to Rila Mountains.

Seven Rila Lakes

Kidney Lake Rila Seven Lakes

2 hours’ drive South from Sofia you’ll find the Rila National Park, a mountain range no less stunning than the Alps. The Rila Mountain Range is home to 120 glacial lakes, and the most famous of them are the Seven Rila Lakes that are a must-visit on your Bulgaria trip. The 7 lakes are interconnected and cascading one above another, offering panoramas capturing a few of the lakes in the same view.

After making your way up a twisting road, leave the car by the chairlift station (for navigation: “Lift to the 7 Rila Lakes”). The ski lifts (€9/adult return) take you on a wonderfully tranquil 15-minute ascent over the deciduous forest up to the Rila Lakes Chalet at 2,150m, giving you a taste of the beautiful panoramas ahead. 

From there, you have a few hiking options depending on your fitness levels and time available. We opted for the easier route taking in 5 of the 7 lakes and around 3 hours of hiking. Although you’ll probably want to stop every couple minutes to enjoy the views. A longer route with more climbing takes you to the other 2 lakes but to be honest we really didn’t feel like we’ve missed out. Coming in early June, the mountains were still partially covered in snow adding to the impossibly beautiful contrast to the glacial waters, the green meadows and the violet wildflowers. The paths up are generally well-maintained and not particularly strenuous. Stopping for a picnic in the fresh mountain air at the kidney-shaped Babreka Lake was probably the highlight of our entire trip! I’ll let the picture do the talking.

Kidney Lake, Seven Rila Lakes

When to visit Seven Rila Lakes

The lakes are beautiful all-year-round, so it depends if you prefer to see them covered in snow. Summer months offer the best chance of fair weather, and having gone in June we still caught the snow lying in the shadier areas. So perhaps May-June are best for this and the long days. 

As with most mountain climates, the weather here is particularly impulsive. One moment you might be basking in sunshine and suddenly before you know it you’re caught in a summer thunderstorm, all the while Sofia remains cloudless. So while you might just need shorts and t-shirts, definitely bring layers and waterproofs even if it seems a beautiful day when you’re setting out. And get there as early as possible as clouds are more likely to build in the afternoon.

Rila Monastery 

 

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

If you’re anything like me, you may have seen enough churches, cathedrals and monasteries to grow numb to the idea of detouring for an extra 1 ½ hours’ return drive to see yet another. But Rila Monastery is one of those that’s genuinely worth it. Surrounded by a gorgeous backdrop of the Rila Mountains, the impressively huge monastic complex is nestled in the vividly green Rila valley.

The monastery was founded way back in the 10th century by a Christian Orthodox hermit, survived centuries of Ottoman rule before being destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the 19th century during the Bulgarian Renaissance to its current grand form. At first you’re greeted with a fortress-like residential part featuring 300 chambers. If you want to feel like a monk you can even stay in one as we found an Airbnb listing. Within the multi-storey structure is the main church, beautifully decorated with black-and-white stripes, impressive mural paintings and frescoes. 

It’s free to walk around the complex unless you want to see the museum or climb up the Hrelyova Tower. Ideally get there early ahead of the day tours from Sofia i.e. before noon / 1pm and wear appropriate clothing or else you’ll be turned away (so wear long dress or trousers). If you fancy a snack, I can vouch for the Bulgarian fried donut things (mekitsi) sold on site.

If you have time, on the way back you can stop at Stob Pyramids, a very unusual rock formation reminiscent of Cappadocia. It’s a nice 20 minute walk from the parking. 

How to get to Rila Monastery

It’s just under 2 hours driving from Sofia. Don’t combine in a day with the Seven Rila Lakes as you won’t have enough time to really enjoy both, instead I suggest staying in a town nearby for a night. If using public transport, get a bus from Sofia to Dupnica then change to the not-so-frequent bus to Rila Monastery. There are also shared shuttles and day tours available from the capital.

Koprivshtitsa

Koprivshtitsa, Bulgaria

This hard-to-pronounce mountain town in the heart of Bulgaria is one of the Balkans’ most memorable and unique places – the picture above doesn’t do it justice. Yet despite being only 2 hours’ reach from the capital Sofia, Koprivshtitsa has managed to stay largely under the radar for international tourists.

Most renowned for its traditional, colourful houses, Koprivshtitsa offers the sort of quaint, relaxed atmosphere that makes it feel like a place where time stands still. In a good way. It’s the type of place where getting lost in its windy cobbled streets doesn’t feel tiring, as just about every house and street looks unique. Shades of red, blue and yellow mix with intricate hand-painted details and wooden carvings, a well-preserved example of the Bulgarian Revival period that followed liberation from Ottomans. Even the local grocery shops look fancy. Talking of the Ottomans, Koprivshtitsa prides itself as one of the places where the first shots of the successful rebellion against century-old Ottoman rule were fired, and dedicates a number of monuments to the occasion.

Walk around the open historical house museums scattered across the town – you can buy the combined museum ticket for next to nothing from the Tourist Information Centre on the main square. And definitely walk up to the impressive Georgi Benkovski Monument offering magnificent views of the town and the surrounding valley.

Surrounded by the wooded Sredna Gora mountain range, the area offers ample hiking, mountain biking and horse riding trails and the altitude means it rarely gets as baking hot as the rest of Bulgaria in the summer months.

Koprivshtitsa Panorama

How to get to Koprivshtitsa

This is easiest done by car, being a 2-hour mostly scenic drive from the capital Sofia or 1.5 hours from Plovdiv. Alternatively you can catch a 2-hour train from Sofia – just keep in mind the local train station isn’t in town and a quick shuttle is required from the city.

 

The Rose Valley of Kazanlak

Kazanlak Rose Valley Fields

The fairly unassuming town of Kazanlak in the heart of Bulgaria comes to life in early summer during the annual Kazanlak Rose Festival. In fact the Rose Valley, on the edge of Balkan mountains, is known as the rose oil capital of the world, producing over half of the world’s scented liquid. 

Backed by picturesque mountainscapes, the Rose Valley is quite a sight to behold. If you simply want to enjoy wandering in the fragrant rose fields of every colour, you can rock up at the Damascena Ethnographic Complex about 20 minutes drive West from Kazanlak. It’s free to walk around.

If you want to experience something more special, come for the week of Kazanlak Rose Festival. Throughout the week, local women dress up in traditional dresses and take part in morning rose picking rituals, before further parades and celebrations in towns throughout Rose Valley. The best part is, you can take part. You just need to get yourself a ticket in advance either directly from the Tourist Information Center in Kazanlak or by emailing culture.tourism.kz@abv.bg. Center 

In Kazanlak itself, you’ll find everything rose including things that you never knew existed – from rose ice cream and coffee to rose-infused spirits. Of course there is also the Rose Museum focused on the history of local rose oil production.

If you like unusual sights, drive 30 minutes North up to Buzludzha Monument. Atop a mountain peak you’ll find a huge starship-like monument typical of the outlandish communist-era architecture.

When to visit Kazanlak

The blooming season lasts from around mid-May into early to mid June and the main Kazanlak Rose Festival events (including picking the Rose Queen) take place on the 1st weekend of June. Be sure to check when exactly the Kazanlak Rose Festival takes place in the year you want to visit.

How to get to Kazanlak Rose Valley

Kazanlak is under 2 hours’ drive from Koprivshtitsa and Plovdiv, making it a good stop between the two, or as a day trip if you’re basing in Plovdiv for a few days. It’s 3 hours’ drive if coming directly from Sofia.

Plovdiv

Plovdiv Panorama, Bulgaria

 

Known as the “city on seven hills”, Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s most characterful and picturesque city. As Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city, the signs of past cultures are very evident, with Thratians, Greek, Romans and Ottomans all leaving their imprint. Beautiful Ottoman-era townhouses line the hilly cobbled streets in the Old Town, while the streets of central Plovdiv reveal well-preserved ruins of a Roman Stadium. Meanwhile, the Roman Amphitheatre is still used for live events today and if you’re coming in summer try to coincide your stay with one. No wonder it’s been chosen European Capital of Culture in 2019.

There is plenty else to enjoy in Plovdiv – walking up some of its 6 hills (still couldn’t figure out the 7th!) each with an impressive view, enjoying the lively nightlife in the trendy Kapana district or shopping on Europe’s longest pedestrian street. For foodies, Bulgarian food is one of Europe’s best and Plovdiv has a strong culinary scene. 

Being centrally placed, there are plenty of day trip options like the rose oil capital Kazanlak, the Rhodope Mountains to the South or the quaint mountain town of Koprivshtitsa.

Plovdiv Old Town

How to get to Plovdiv

Bulgaria’s 2nd city is served by Plovdiv International Airport offering flights across Europe. It’s a 1 ½ hour drive directly from Sofia (with great train & bus connections) and is perfectly placed for any Bulgaria road trip itinerary.

Sozopol

 

Sozopol Old Town

To really get a full taste of Bulgaria, it would be a shame not to enjoy the country’s Black Sea coast. And while many might head for the infamous party resort that is Sunny Beach resort, just across the Burgas Bay is a small and charming town of Sozopol. Antipodean to the ghastly Sunny Beach, Sozopol is one of Bulgaria’s oldest settlements. Ancient Greeks settled here in 610BC calling it Apollonia Pontica after the God Apollo, eventually being renamed Sozopolis. 

Sozopol’s biggest draw is undoubtedly its historic Old Town. Traditional wooden houses with bay windows line the narrow steep cobbled streets, and a real artistic vibe creates a romantic atmosphere especially in the warm sunny evenings often accompanied by live music. Then there’s an impressive selection of waterside seafood restaurants. Our favourite pick was Restaurant Neptune, thanks to its magnificent views of the sea from atop the cliffside.

Of course, there are plenty of sandy beach options both in town and nearby. I’d recommend getting out to the long sandy Kavatsite Beach just South of town. Or if you feel like driving further, there are a plethora of beautiful, quaint beaches near Sinemorets.

Sozopol Sunset from Neptune Restaurant

When to visit Sozopol

It’s no surprise that the coastal town is best enjoyed in summer. The beach season opens in early June, building up to August when Sozopol is really buzzing with tourists. It’s also a popular weekend destination for Bulgarian city dwellers. So if you want to avoid the crowds my tip is to come here on weekdays, in June-July or indeed September when day temperatures are still up in the 20’s and the sea is very swimmable.

How to get to Sozopol

The hidden gem town is just 30 mins by car from the city of Burgas (and its international airport). There are regular hourly buses from the city. Driving from Plovdiv it’s 3 hours, add another hour for Sofia.

 

Veliko Tarnovo

Tsarevets Fortress, Veliko Tarnovo

Known as the “City of Tsars”, Veliko Tarnovo is remarkably rich in cultural and historical heritage sites. The old cliffside capital is characterised by the hilltop medieval fortress, Tsarevets. The castle offers picturesque views of the city carved by the Yantra River below, and it’s worth climbing the Baldwin Tower for the best panorama. The red rooftops of the Old Town spread down the hill, inviting you to explore its cobbled streets.

After visiting Tsarevets, make your way down the pretty Gurko Street to Stambolov Bridge before enjoying what the Old Town has to offer. You might also want to take a funicular up to the Trapezista Hill, site of another once-important fortress.

At night, the fortress is lit up and the city tells the history of Tsarevets through light and sound.

How to get to Veliko Tarnovo

Being on the way between Sofia and the Black Sea coast, Veliko Tarnovo is a great option for a stopover on your road trip. It’s 2 ½ to 3 hours from Sofia and also 2 ½ – 3 hours to Burgas / Sozopol.

 

What’s the best time to visit Bulgaria?

I’d suggest from late May to September to really get a full taste of both the mountains and the seaside. As always, August tends to get busier especially on the seaside, and can be particularly hot although you’re not safe from extreme heat at any time in the summer.

Driving in Bulgaria

We had no issues driving in Bulgaria. The main national highways are in a good condition, while the smaller roads can be hit and miss with a good chance of coming across potholes. Besides speed cameras you’re also faced with road police, so my top tip is to use Waze App for navigation in Bulgaria as other drivers are quick to mark the latest spots where the police have hidden with their speed camera detectors. Drivers can be on the aggressive side – so watch out for careless overtaking especially if you see a fancy BMW or Mercedes.

Some of the road signs are only in Cyrillic which can complicate directions, but with a navigator app like Waze this shouldn’t be an issue.


 

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