Three best weekend destinations in Bulgaria
Living in a country for a long time doesn’t necessarily mean that you have travelled through it all
Written by Valentina Giannossi and Minka Paraskevova, edited by Lina Jarad, photos by Ekaterina Totina, Valentina Giannossi and Ilias Iatropoulos.
Most of the time you visit famous places and forget or miss out on other attractions, which in some cases happen to be more beautiful and interesting than the usual ones.
Working, cooking and training in the gym from Monday to Friday is exhausting, so during the weekend, we need to escape from our daily life, take a bus, a train, a flight or our car and our camera and sneakers and leave!
Travel is always a good idea. It is one of the best ways to spend your time, enrich your personal knowledge and keep opening your mind.
In this article, we will suggest three of our favourite weekend destinations from Sofia.
Veliko Tarnovo and Buzludzha Monument
My first choice is Veliko Tarnovo, a town in north-central Bulgaria known as the old capital of Bulgaria, before Sofia. It is often referred to as the "City of the Tsars", or the City of the Kings.
How to reach the town
Veliko Tarnovo is located on the Yantra River and is famously known as the historical capital of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, attracting many tourists with its unique architecture, student life and buzzing atmosphere. It is only 200 km away from Sofia and is easily reachable with public transport or a car. A bus ride will take no more than three hours, whereas a car journey should be around two and a half hours.
Places to stay and eat
Being a popular tourist destination, the town offers a huge choice of places to stay and eat. One of the best accommodations is the Hotel Studio placed in a superb central location with a stylish interior and super friendly staff.
If you want to take a bite, Ego Pub will meet you with a tasty pizza menu. Its views of the river will bring joy and calmness to your day. Another eating place with great food and river vistas is one of the oldest and fine restaurants in the town - Shtastlivetsa. If you like and prefer more traditional dishes, you can pay a visit to Asenevtsi restaurant close by. At the end of the day, you can relax with a drink in the Hipster Art Bar, a quirky and cosy place in the Shamodovska Charshia market area part of the Old town. The bar is popular amongst locals and travellers.
Things to see
The Old town is built on three hills called Tsarevets, Trapezitsa, and Sveta Gora. The old palaces of the Bulgarian emperors and the Patriarchate, the Patriarchal Cathedral, and also a number of administrative and residential buildings surrounded by thick walls could be seen on the Tsarevets Hill. One of the best attractions is a laser light and sound show there which usually costs 25 levs, but on national holidays is free of charge.
Another great thing to see is an open-air miniature exhibition called ‘Bulgaria in Miniatures’, a collection of important landmarks in the country.
If you are a fan of arts and crafts then you should definitely visit Arbanasi village. This is a restored village packed with arts and crafts shops.
Things to do
A great way to walk around the town and learn more about its history is to join any of the free walking tours starting every day at 11 am from the Tourist Office. It continues for two and a half hours and gives a pretty good overview of the city.
If you feel tired of the crowds, take a beautiful and peaceful walk along Gurko street, which offers amazing views of cute little rickety houses. Then continue to Sveta Gora park for some fabulous panoramic views of the town and watch the sunset at Assen’s Monument.
Another place you should definitely visit is Buzludzha Monument, the Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party. It is situated on the Buzludzha Peak, high up in the Stara Planina mountains (Gabrovo district). It was opened in 1981, as a citizen-funded tribute to the socialist movement in Bulgaria, but since the country's transition to democracy it has lain abandoned. Its intact exterior resembles a flying saucer. Its interior, however of mosaics, has suffered a severe deterioration.
There is no public transport to the monument. The best way to reach it is either to hire a car or join an organised tour with professional tour guides. In Veliko Tarnovo you can use the services of Hostel Mostel, which apart from affordable accommodation, organise a 12 hour tour to Buzludzha. On the route, tourists also visit other popular cultural attractions such as the Dryanovo Monastery and the Etar Ethnographic Museum near the town of Gabrovo.
Today Buzludzha has admirers from around the world. Curious visitors travel thousands of miles to see it for themselves, and the monument has often been described as one of the most beautiful and unusual abandoned places on the planet.
Bansko and Rila Monastery
The second choice for a weekend out of Sofia with no doubt will be to visit the mountains and especially the town of Bansko. Buzzing Bansko is Bulgaria’s premier ski resort with the Pirin National Park to the south of the town and the most snow-sure in the country.
In summer, Bansko hosts one of the biggest jazz festivals and gathers huge crowds of visitors in its shady restaurants and green gardens.
How to reach it
There is a regular bus service from Sofia to Bansko. It is also easily reachable by car. The ride is at most two hours.
Places to stay and eat
One of the best places to stay is Spomar Apart Hotel, which is a four star hotel with clean rooms and very helpful staff.
Bansko offers loads of eating places, almost every second house is a restaurant and the quality of food and service is great. Any place you choose, you will be well spoiled.
Things to do
In Bansko you can first enjoy the mountains, exploring them by foot or bicycles and after that you can relax in several resorts equipped with all the amenities such as Spas, massage rooms, saunas, indoor pools and Turkish baths.
In addition, if you are a history fan, you can join a two-hour walking tour in the Old town on the cobbled-stones streets. You will get to know a unique Icon Exhibition, the Museum of Paisii Hilendarski (a national revival historical figure), the House of Nikola Vaptsarov (a famous Bulgarian poet) and the Holy Trinity Church. After that you might want to dip into a four-hour traditional folklore experience and taste traditional local food, and enjoy local crafts. And if you are still inquisitive about the local culture, you can go for the Rare Pets exhibition lasting for three hours, where you will get to know more about raising and breeding rare domestic animals in the area.
If you enjoy extreme sports, you can go for a three-hour rafting experience on the Struma River, or join a one-hour horse riding session in Dobrinishte (a nearby village).
At the end of the day, you can recharge your batteries at a two-hour thermal pool escape.
From Bansko you can book a day tour to the Rila Monastery, undoubtedly the largest and most famous monastery in Bulgaria. It is located on the Rila mount at 1,147 meters above sea level it is surrounded by the small rivers Rila and Drushlyavitsa and is only a 4-hour walk from the Maliovica peak. The highest peak of the Balkans, Musala (2925 m) is about an 8-hour walk from the monastery.
The complex, which is a UNESCO registered site, consists of a four-story building with 300 cells in all, a large courtyard, a church and the tower of the Hrelio despot. The most precious work of art, contained in the church of the monastery, is the iconostasis, carved in wood. The walls were frescoed by Zahari Zograf and other painters. In the church there are many icons, dating back to the XIV and XIX centuries.
The third but not least favorite choice is to spend the entire weekend in Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria and last year’s European Capital of Culture.
How to reach the city
There are regular train and bus services to Plovdiv. A bus ride lasts about two hours, whereas a train journey could take up to three hours. The fastest way is to travel by car, which should not take more than an hour and a half.
Interesting historical facts
Plovdiv is a 8000 years old city, whose past can be traced back to prehistoric times. The first Neolithic settlements within the borders of today's city began in the 6th millennium BC. Since the Copper-Stone Age (IV-III millennium BC), life in the city has not been interrupted, making it one of the oldest permanently inhabited cities in the world. Preserved and preserved are ancient monuments such as the Ancient Theater, the Roman Odeon, the Agora (Roman Forum), the Roman Stadium, the late antique Eyrene Building, the Episcopal Basilica, the small basilica and others.
Places to stay and eat
Plovdiv offers lots of hotel and budget accommodation such as hostels and guest houses. It is a good idea to choose your accommodation closer to the city centre to avoid sporadic public transport at weekends. However, if you find a more remote place to stay, you can use taxis to go around as the city is not huge and the longest distances should not take more than a twenty-minute drive unless there is traffic on the roads, which at weekends is highly unlikely.
In summer, the city temperatures rise up quickly, therefore the city is full of restaurants with shady, green gardens. You can also find a lot of tiny and cosy restaurants in the side walking alleys off the main pedestrian street, such as Restaurant Central or Happy Bar and Grill, or in the Kapana area, a small art district just off the main street and in the foot of the Old Town with lots of arts and crafts shops, wine bars and music clubs. The place is a favourite hanging-around spot for young people. The most visited restaurants in this area are Vertigo and Skapto, both affordable and great for vegetarians. The second place offers the best burgers in the city. In the same area you can find the best Italian restaurant called “Complimenti”.
Things to see and do
You should definitely visit the historical part of the city, the Old Roman theatre and forum, the biggest mosque in the country and the houses from the National Revival Period with its colourful frescoes in the Old town. Similarly to Veliko Tarnovo, the old part is located on three hills and is a UNESCO preserved area. The streets are also covered with cobblestones, so put on comfortable walking shoes. One way to make a memorable visit is to take the two-hour Free walking tour.
The Kapana area is a charming and vibrant place to be. You can either browse arts and craft shops, buy memorabilia, look at art exhibitions or just relax with a drink and have a friendly chat with locals or visitors.
If you are a shopaholic you should definitely walk along the main street, which is full of all types of shops, some of which are quite quirky.
One of the landmarks and favourite places to relax is Tsar Simeonovata Gradina (the city central park) which is full of refreshing fountains with drinking water, ancient trees and colourful flower beds. In one of its ends, you can enjoy the Singing Fountains, which offers a light and sound show with popular classical music.
If you are a cultural buff, you can visit numerous galleries, art museums, theatre, dance or opera shows, or just enjoy live music performances in a musical club or a bar with a glass of your favourite drink.