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Half covered in mountains, and home to a sandy, sunny coast, Bulgaria is a small, beautiful destination on the Balkan Penisula that is rich in ancient culture, scenic splendour, friendly people and old-fashioned warmth and hospitality. Hikers will find some of the finest trails in Europe, while sun chasers can delight in something a little more low-key than Greece or Turkey, as the country doesn't draw as many tourists.
Though better known for its reasonably priced Black Sea resorts, the essential character of Bulgaria lies in its spectacular mountainous regions. The seven very different mountain ranges in the country vary from high, snow-covered peaks to gentle green slopes and forests. Some harbour thermal springs and mineral spas and, in others, the valley air bears the fragrance of flowers and herbs. The Valley of Roses is in the heart of the country and is one of the largest producers of rose oil in the world, giving credence to Bulgaria's soubriquet, 'Land of Roses'.
At the foot of the Vitosha Mountains lies the laid back capital city, Sofia, which is home to a great number of architectural monuments and museums. On the other hand, the rugged heights of the Rila and Pirin mountains form a spectacular setting for ski resorts, as well as the famous Rila Monastery and the majestic landscape of the Pirin National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Crossing the entire country is the Balkan Range, a 329-mile (530km) chain that offers some of the best hiking on the continent.
The people who dwell in the different mountain ranges vary just as much, with their distinctive regional customs, crafts, festivals, and folklore adding colour to the Bulgarian landscape. Small, picturesque villages welcome guests with typical, warm-hearted Bulgarian hospitality, sharing traditional cooking and a delight in their pastoral environment.
Bulgaria's history is displayed across the country in its old towns, ancient Thracian relics, decorated churches and monasteries, and in the rustic settlements that have preserved the traditional beliefs of its people. One of the country's biggest assets for visitors is its variety, though whatever aspect visitors choose to explore, there is always the assurance of a warm welcome.
Bulgaria is a country rich in both natural and cultural attractions that, from a sightseeing perspective, caters to all tastes. Popular things to see and do in Bulgaria include myriad outdoor activities and opportunities for ecotourism, and the country's mountain scenery is unsurpassed. In addition to this natural splendour, Bulgaria has a rich history and folklore, and visitors can enjoy a wealth of archaeological sites, religious institutions, museums and ethnographic attractions.
The capital city, Sofia, boasts a number of the most popular sightseeing attractions in Bulgaria, including the Boyana Church, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, St George Rotunda, the SS Cyril and Methodius National Library, and the St Sophia Church. Looming over the city is another great Bulgarian tourist attraction, the Vitosha Mountain, which provides a natural playground for visitors and locals alike in all seasons.
Bulgaria is half covered in mountains and it is the craggy beauty of its many ranges that most characterises the country in the global imagination. The more delicate, flowery mountains in the Rhodope range, which is scattered with picturesque villages, is complemented by the rugged splendour of the Pirin and Rila mountain ranges. Some of the most popular attractions in the mountainous regions are the 10th-century Rila Monastery, the Pirin National Park, the folk centre of Momchilovtsi village, and a number of ancient Thracian sites. This is, of course, in addition to the natural wonders of caves, hot springs, alpine lakes and dense forests.
Bulgaria's tourism tends to be dominated by its many beach and ski resorts but these holiday centres, enjoyable though they are, should only serve as a doorstep into the country, which has a lot to offer travellers, and is often overlooked as a great European destination.
Situated in the highest reaches of the Pirin Mountains, Pirin National Park encompasses rugged alpine peaks that rise 8,202ft (2,500m) into the atmosphere with more than a hundred glacial lakes spread at their feet. The magnificent landscape is made up of old forests, waterfalls, caves and areas of limestone that are home to near-extinct flowers such as the edelweiss and Pirin poppy. Boasting an abundance of rare and endemic species of plants and animals, this unique national park is listed as a UNESCO World Cultural and National Heritage Site. Alpine mountaineering and skiing are popular activities in Pirin, as is hiking. The park boasts numerous, well-maintained hiking trails which wind through stunning scenery.
The St Sofia Church, also called the Hagia Sophia Church, is the oldest Eastern Orthodox church in the city, dating from the 4th to 6th century, and is regarded as one of the most significant examples of early Christian architecture in the Balkans. In the 14th century the church gave its name to the city of Sofia, meaning 'holy wisdom'. The church was built on the site of several earlier churches and places of worship, dating back to the days when the site was part of the necropolis of the Roman town of Serdica. As a result, several tombs have been discovered under and around the church, which are incredibly interesting for history buffs.
The rotunda church of St George is considered to be the oldest building in Sofia, dating back to the 4th century, and is situated amid the remains of the ancient Roman town of Serdica. The St George Rotunda is famous for its exquisite architecture and layers of medieval frescoes that were discovered under a covering of plaster. The church functions as a museum and the magnificent dome is protected by UNESCO. It is located in a square enclosed by the Presidential Buildings and this makes the contrast between the ancient and the modern quite striking. There is a fair amount of information on the history and significance of the site available at the entrance, which is worth reading.
One of the finest examples of 20th-century architecture in Sofia, and one of the most iconic buildings in the city, the magnificent Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built between 1882 and 1912 to honour the Russian soldiers who died fighting to liberate Bulgaria from Turkish rule in the war of 1878 under Tsar Alexander II. It is one of the biggest cathedrals on the Balkan Peninsula. The famous religious monument is situated in the centre of Sofia, on the tree-lined square of the same name, which also contains the Monument of the Unknown Soldier. The cathedral is an active place of worship, so services and events may disrupt sightseeing, but entry to the main building is free.
The National Ethnographic Museum in downtown Sofia has one of the richest collections of cultural artefacts on the Balkan Peninsula, representing the traditions, arts, crafts and lifestyle of the Bulgarian people from the 17th to the 20th century. The museum contains a wealth of exhibits from around the country, amounting to over 50,000 items including national costumes, jewellery, art works and musical instruments. If visitors are lucky, and the place is not crowded, one of the staff members may give them a personal tour. This is the best possible place to find out about local folklore and to gain an understanding of the traditional clothes, customs and beliefs.
Rising above the capital city of Sofia, Vitosha Mountain is one of the symbols of the capital and is the most visited mountain in Bulgaria. Starting where the suburbs end, the whole mountain has been designated a national park (the oldest in the Balkans), and is home to deer, bear, wild boar, fox and a variety of rare birds. Vitosha is known for its 'stone rivers', or moraines, piles of huge rounded granite boulders carried and deposited by glaciers thousands of years ago, as well as for its restorative mineral springs. Vitosha is popular during all seasons and the well-known resort of Aleko is the most established winter ski resort in the area.
The biggest and most famous of Bulgaria's monasteries is situated in the northwestern part of the Rila Mountains and is one of the most significant monuments on the Balkan Peninsula. Rila Monastery was founded by a hermit, St John of Rila, in the 10th century, and eventually became a monastic complex that played an important role in the spiritual history of medieval Bulgaria. Having survived fire, abandonment and plunder, the monastery fascinates visitors with its exquisite architecture, rich murals and icons and valuable museum collection, including old manuscripts, jewellery, textiles, church treasures and a library containing thousands of books. The Rila Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must-see attraction for anybody visiting Bulgaria.
In the heart of the Rhodope Mountains lies the picturesque village of Momchilovtsi, a popular cultural and ethnographic centre that has preserved its original folklore, traditions and crafts. The Centre for Traditional Bulgarian Arts and Crafts provides a unique opportunity for visitors to attend courses to learn about, and participate in, traditional crafts like folk dancing, weaving, woodcarving, cooking, music and various artistic handicrafts. In winter it is a popular base from which to visit the famous ski resort of Pamporovo, which is only four miles (7km) away, and the surrounding mountains and rivers offer superb hiking, spelunking, trout fishing, and hunting.
Just 13 miles (about 20km) west of Varna, Pobiti Kamani (the Petrified Forest) makes for an interesting and worthwhile daytrip. The origin of the stone columns, which measure up to 23 feet (seven metres) in height, and 10 feet (three metres) in girth, remains a mystery, with geologists holding differing opinions about how they were formed. Regardless of their origin, however, Pobiti Kamani's columns are unique, and make for a fascinating, photo-filled excursion from Varna. Needless to say, visitors and locals come up with their own, more mystical explanations for the phenomenon, and many feel that it is a magical place.
Located on the outskirts of Sofia, the Boyana Church complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of Bulgaria's most important tourist attractions. The first of the three buildings that make up the Boyana Church complex was built in the 10th century, but it is the second building (constructed in the 13th century) that is the obvious tourist draw card. Containing frescoes painted in 1259, the second Boyana Church building is nothing less than the site of the most important collection of medieval eastern European art in the world. The paintings, which conform to a Byzantine aesthetic, are almost perfectly preserved and offer visitors a rare insight into the long, proud history of Bulgarian art and culture.
Bulgaria has a temperate-continental climate, which is typical for Central Europe. There are four distinct seasons: summer is long, hot, and generally considered peak tourist season; autumn is also a pleasant time of year and is popular with tourists for its rich, autumn colours, and the fact that it is less crowded; winter is long and cold, but offers great skiing opportunities; while spring is warm and lovely for all of the blossoming flowers.
Bulgaria is generally a sunny country with between 2,200 and 2,500 hours of sunlight every year. It can rain throughout the year and thunderstorms are common in the summer months. Snow falls abundantly between December and March, especially in the mountainous areas. There is a marked difference in weather between the mountains and the milder, southern regions near the Mediterranean Sea. Summer temperatures, between June and August average around 75°F (24°C); whereas winter temperatures, between December and February, average around 32°F (0°C). Bulgaria is a year-round tourism destination because it attracts off-season visitors for skiing, but the most popular time to visit is summer.
The official currency is the Lev (BGN), which is divided into 100 stotinki. Bulgaria has strict currency regulations. Travellers who enter Bulgaria from non-EU countries must declare amounts over EUR10,000 to customs officials. Foreign currency may be exchanged in banks, hotels, or at one of the numerous bureaux de change. Bulgaria is mostly a cash economy, though credit and debit card use is increasing. There are ATMs in the main cities and at Black Sea resorts.
Bulgarian is the official language, which uses the Cyrillic alphabet, but English, German and French are spoken in resorts, hotels, and restaurants.
Electrical current is 230 volts, 50Hz. European two-pin plugs and schuko plugs are in use.
US nationals: Citizens of the US do not need a visa to visit Bulgaria for a period of up to 90 days. Passports must be valid for at least three months beyond period of intended stay.
UK nationals: British Citizens do not need a visa to visit Bulgaria for a period of up to 90 days. A passport valid for at least three months beyond period of intended stay is required.
CA nationals: Canadians do not need a visa to visit Bulgaria for a period of up to 90 days. A passport valid for at least three months beyond period of intended stay is required.
AU nationals: Australians do not need a visa to visit Bulgaria for a period of up to 90 days. A passport valid for at least three months beyond period of intended stay is required.
ZA nationals: South Africans need a visa to enter Bulgaria, except for stays of up to 90 days for holders of a Schengen visa. A passport valid for at least three months beyond period of intended stay is required.
IR nationals: Irish nationals do not need a visa to visit Bulgaria. A passport valid for the period of intended stay is required.
NZ nationals: New Zealanders do not require a visa for a maximum stay of 90 days. A passport valid for at least three months beyond period of intended stay is required.
Visitors must have proof of sufficient funds or onward or return tickets in addition to other documents needed for the next destination. Immigration and entry regulations are very strictly enforced. Passports of all visitors should be valid for at least three months after leaving Bulgaria. It's recommended that passports be valid for three months after the intended period of travel. Visa requirements vary from country to country.
Bulgaria poses few health risks and there are no vaccinations required for entry. Vaccinations for hepatitis A and hepatitis B are always recommended for travellers, though. Similarly, a rabies vaccination is recommended for travellers who will be spending a lot of time outdoors or who will be exposed to animals.
Travellers should note that medical treatment can be expensive and payment is expected immediately. Facilities in local hospitals are basic and specialised treatment or equipment may not be freely available. Medical insurance, with provision for emergency evacuation, is therefore vital. Travellers from the UK should also hold a Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC), which replaced the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) for UK citizens. The GHIC allows UK citizens access to state healthcare during visits to the EU. The GHIC is not valid in Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein or Switzerland, nor is it an alternative to travel insurance.
Tips of 10 percent of the bill are customary for most services, including restaurants, while hotel porters and taxi drivers expect visitors to round up the bill for good service.
Most visits to Bulgaria are trouble-free. Violent crime is rare, but criminal groups target casinos and nightclubs and groups of young pickpockets are active in city centres and the Black Sea holiday resorts. Car theft is also relatively common.
Foreigners should be aware that traditionally a shake of the head means 'yes' and a nod means 'no', although allowances are often made for visitors. It's useful to clarify the answer verbally to avoid confusion. Family values are extremely important in Bulgaria, so treating seniors with deference is important. Visitors should remember that covering their faces with garments such as burkas is illegal in public places, including governmental buildings, streets, parks, and on public transport. Though not illegal, homosexuality is less tolerated than in the UK, and the LGBT community keeps a low profile. Visitors should avoid taking photos of potentially sensitive areas such as military bases; authorities treat all drug-related offenses very seriously.
Relationship building is important in Bulgaria, and initial meetings may be used as an introduction, after which more business-related meetings can be planned. Face-to-face meetings are therefore preferred over communication by email, fax or phone. The use of English in business is increasing, however the services of a translator might be required, and presentations should include the use of visuals where possible. Introductions include firm handshakes, and the exchange of business cards. Dress should be conservative business attire and punctuality is expected. Business hours are generally 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday.
The country dialling code for Bulgaria is +359. Travellers can purchase local SIM cards for their phones; free WiFi is available in major cities such as Sofia, Varna, Nessebar and Plovdiv.
Travellers from non-EU member states, aged 17 and older, do not need to pay customs duty on 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars, or 250g of tobacco; 1 litre of spirits and 2 litres of wine. Visitors arriving with goods purchased within the EU who are older than 17 do not need to pay customs duty on 800 cigarettes or 200 cigars, or 1 kilogram of tobacco; 10 litres of spirits and 90 litres of wine, though no more than 60 litres of sparkling wine.
Bulgarian Tourism Office, Sofia: +359 2 987 9778 or www.bulgariatravel.org.
Bulgarian Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 387 0174.
Bulgarian Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7581 3144
Bulgarian Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 789 3215.
Bulgarian Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 2 6286 9700
Bulgarian Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 342 3720/1.
Bulgarian Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1 660 3293.
Bulgarian Embassy, Canberra, Australia (also responsible for New Zealand): +61 2 6286 9700
United States Embassy, Sofia: +359 2 937 5100.
British Embassy, Sofia: +359 2 933 9222.
Canadian Consulate, Sofia: +359 2 969 9710.
Australian Consulate, Sofia: +359 2 946 1334.
South African Embassy, Sofia: + 359 2 939 5015
Irish Embassy, Sofia: +359 2 985 3425.
Australian Consulate, Sofia (also responsible for New Zealand): +359 2 946 1334.
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