Most travelers are unaware that Bulgaria is one of the best travel values in Europe and its capital, Sofia, is one of the cheapest cities to visit.
The country has more green space than most European countries and is still considered off-the-beaten-path for tourists with its affordable prices. Sofia is not the most beautiful city, but once you get outside the city you’ll find gorgeous countryside (left) and coastlines.
Anywhere you go here feels like an adventure; it’s rare to see more than a dozen foreigners anywhere except at the UNESCO World Heritage Rila Monastery. Bulgaria hasn’t yet attracted big crowds of tourists with its strange language and alphabet and somewhat isolated geography. One-third of the country is green space, so you’ll see lush verdant terrain and dense forests, not deforestation.
It’s not easy being an independent traveler in Bulgaria, and you definitely need a good guidebook and phrase book. Usually you’ll find someone in tourist areas who speaks English, but once you get out of those areas it becomes challenging. As with many countries that were behind the Iron Curtain for decades, there's unattractive Soviet-style architecture, but overall the country is a breath of fresh air. Once in Sofia, you can join a free city tour or hike or bike tour with Sofia Green Tour, a nonprofit organization that depends on donations and sponsors.
One place you can’t miss is the tranquil and serene setting of the Rila Monastery (left), approximately a 2.5-hour trip from Sofia.
The country's most visited site, this picturesque Eastern Orthodox monastery – known as the "Jerusalem of Bulgaria" – is nestled 1,000 meters high in the forested mountains. Most Sophia hostels can arrange your transportation to the monastery, or you can book a guided tour. The monastery offers very basic rooms for overnight stays if you decide to visit more of the beautiful surrounding countryside and its many hiking trails.
Bulgaria has three major mountain ranges, and two of them are just minutes away from Sofia. You can do multi-day hikes around glacial lakes, castles, waterfalls and painted monasteries, and stay at village guesthouses or mountain huts with cafes. In a country most can’t even find on a map, one can arrange mountain biking or kayaking or rafting trips at a fraction of the cost of most countries.
Bulgarian restaurants serve only fresh ingredients; open village markets and roadside veggie stands outnumber supermarkets here. People here eat a staggering amount of dairy products, especially cheese and yogurt, yet they're much healthier looking than us Americans. Restaurant and food prices are very affordable – you’ll do a double take at your exchange-rate calculations when you see a menu. Local wine and beer and rakia (liquor distilled from plums or grapes or other fruit) is cheap.
One of the best hostels is Hostel Mostel, a 20-minute walk from the train/bus station in Sofia. A dorm bed costs around 10 euros and includes breakfast (hams, cheeses and breads) as well as a free pasta dinner and pint of beer. Or you can splurge on a double room for 35 euros. Mosel is centrally located in the city with free internet, tea and coffee, and airport pickup with a friendly staff. The free breakfast and dinner means you can dramatically cut your daily expenses.
Vitosha National Park is a short taxi ride from the center city. Here you can take a relaxing ride on the Dragalevtsi chairlift. The lift stops just above the tree line, where you’ll find several hiking trails to continue up the mountain peaks. The historic Dragalevtsi Monastery is only a short walk at the base of the lift near the café.
Bulgaria is full of talented tattoo artists, especially in Sofia. Tattoo studio Inky Dragon is one of the most recommended studios in Sofia. Every year tattoo artists throughout the country participate in the World Tattoo Convention to compete in this event in the city of Bourgas.
If you plan to visit Bourgas, there's a seven-hour train departing from Sofia. The website BGrazpisanie.com has updated info on train and bus schedules; you can also purchase tickets here for travel everywhere in Bulgaria.
Spring is a great time to visit to experience the many festivals around the country as well as cheaper prices. July and August and December–February are peak tourist months. There's an extensive network of buses, trolleys and trams in the Sofia that allow you to get around easily.