Want to travel to a few different countries in a week? Don’t do that. Go to Bulgaria instead. Part ancient village and part cosmopolitan city, a week long driving tour will take you through such dramatically different spots you could be doing a multi country trip. The regional towns and villages are all little old ladies in headscarves and big blue trucks covered in frost, while effortlessly cool Sofia is brimming with trendy bars and highly aspirational winter fashion. Bulgarians themselves are helpful, direct, and fiercely passionate about their country (get them talking about yoghurt or roasted peppers). The best part is that Bulgaria is so cheap you’ll be able to live like an actual human and not a sad and dirty little travel rat. Here’s where you should go to make the most of what Bulgaria has to offer:
Day 1: Melnik & Yagodinska
If you’re coming from the south, Melnik is a great place to get a first impression of Bulgaria. Cute, compact and full of outstandingly photogenic brick-roofed houses, it’s a cracking place to spend a couple of hours before you kick off the rest of the trip. Fuel up with the first of the dozens of ginormous meals you will eat over the next 7 days. Bulgarians eat a lot and their standard fare is the definition of winter comfort food, try kavarma (meat stew in a clay pot), banitsa (delicious filo pastry pie stuffed with cheese) and feta on fries (self explanatory). You could spend hours eating and drinking in a local tavern or restaurant and spend less than €20. It’s heaven. On the way to your Day 2 destination, stop off at the Yagodinska cave, a delightfully Bulgarian tourist attraction where you can take a guided tour through the stalagmites in Bulgarian with exclusively Bulgarian tourists. There’s a Christmas tree in there and to this day I have no idea why, but it’s very nice.
Day 2: Plovdiv
Plovdiv sounds cute and looks cute and the people dress their dogs in little puffer jackets which takes all the cuteness to its absolute peak. Take a wander through the multicoloured and cobblestoned Old Town and get ready to be befriended by the local artists. If taking photos isn’t your strength, you can imprint Plovdiv permanently in your memory by buying some of the extremely affordable local sketches of the museum or the Roman theatre. Take in the best view in town and another one of those preposterously sized Bulgarian meals at Rahat Tepe before checking out the colourful pedestrian street and all the adorable jacketed dogs.
Day 3: Central Balkan National Park
If you’re sick of adorable things after two days in Melnik and Plovdiv, get ready for a remedy in the form of fog-shrouded forests and the possibility of being attacked by a bear. The Central Balkan National Park is a real stunner, and seeing as you only have a day there you’ll get to see a lot more if it than those motivated exercise people seeing it by foot. If you’ve got a half decent 4wd (you can rent one from Sofia airport for about €35) you can make it almost up to Botev Peak and picnic among the clouds. There are some lovely fluffy horses up there which the bears will probably eat first, so you can relax on that front. Unless you’re on a 10 kilo sack of rice kind of budget, you’ll never have to worry about overspending on accommodation in Bulgaria, but if you’re intent on camping, living al fresco in the national park is the ultimate in peaceful yet freezing solitude.
Day 4: Koprivshtitsa
Ok, it’s more colourful old houses, but Koprivshtitsa really is worth a visit. While Plovdiv is only part old town and part metropolis, entering Koprivshtitsa is like driving through a seam on the time/space continuum and popping out in 1845. Horses and carts are still a common form of transport, and you can really get to know the town by visiting the house museums, the former dwellings of local heroes which have been restored and now hold exhibits. Koprivshtitsa lies in a valley which means it’s icy cold for about three quarters of the year, but never fear, Restaurant Chuchura is the place to go to warm up and guess what EAT SOME MORE. You can safely expect to gain a minimum of 8 kilos (one for each day) while in Bulgaria so you’d better have some elastic waisted pants.
Day 5 & 6: Sofia
I’m not much of a city slicker, but even I grew pretty fond of lively, soon-to-be hipster destination of choice, Sofia. Full of well utilised parks, underground bars, museums and extremely trendy eating spots, it takes a while to run out of things to do. Locals have capitalised on the unpretentiously hip nature of the city, and have crafted tours to match. On day 1 treat yourself on the Balkan Bites food tour, where you sample everything from burgers to traditional yoghurt soup. Payment for the tour is a tip and you don’t have to pay for the food. The New Sofia Pub Crawl is (mercifully) a far cry from the usual traipse through starkly inauthentic Irish bars. Sip raspberry wine in a converted apartment with themed rooms, or look down at the jazz pianist from the rafters of Hambara, a hidden bar that doesn’t advertise at all, but is consistently full. The pub crawl will cost you 20 lev (€10) but you get a decent sized drink at every spot, which means you’re guaranteed to make friends as you bond over pretending to enjoy rakia.
On day 2, if it’s a weekend, hunt for bargains at the Sofia ski market, it’s held every Saturday and Sunday near the Vasil Levsky stadium and, like everything in Bulgaria, is outrageously cheap. You can buy skis for 10 lev (€5) and we bought two pairs of Goretex ski pants, a ski jacket, hat, gloves and a head torch for about 350 lev (€175). While most cold country dwellers dress head to toe like they’ve emerged from the crypt, women in Sofia love colour, fake fur, fake leather, diamantes, pom poms, big hair, perfect make-up and every other accoutrement you could typically find on RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s amazing. Consider this on your shopping excursions, then if it’s snowing, take your pompommed self up to Vitosha mountain to one of Europe’s cheapest ski fields. If it’s too warm for snow, take a hike through more spooky forest. It’s an all-season win.
Day 7: Rila Monastery
Rila Monastery is not only Bulgaria’s most famous attraction, it’s also a top contender for World’s Holiest Building That Looks Like A Gingerbread House. The monastery was founded in the 10th century by a guy who lived as a hermit in a cave, which seems like a shame given how good looking it is. The candy cane stripes provide a welcome break from the usual Victorian cathedral drudgery you see around much of Western Europe, and even the most church-weary traveller is bound to feel a bit emotional watching the morning cloud lift over the turrets while monks shuffle around the courtyard. Admire the beautiful and occasionally terrifying frescoes (there’s a lot of devil stuff) then head just outside the monastery walls to the local bakery. Start your Bulgarian adventure how you began it (by eating) and grab some mekitsa (fried bread with icing sugar) for 50 lev cents a pop. What’s not to love.