Bulgaria is a beautiful country, with a sprinkling of mountains;it is small in size but rich in ancient culture, scenic splendour,friendly people and old-fashioned warmth and hospitality. Situatedin the southeast of Europe, on the Balkan Peninsula, Bulgaria isnot as much a tourist destination as its Greek and Turkishneighbours despite the popularity of its reasonably priced BlackSea resorts, which are scenically captivating with their fine,sandy beaches, sunny climate, and safe seas.
Although better known for its sea resorts, the essentialcharacter of Bulgaria can really be found in its spectacularmountainous regions. The six very different mountain ranges in thecountry vary from high, snow-covered peaks to gentle green slopesand forests, harbouring thermal springs and mineral spas, andvalleys where the air bears the fragrance of flowers and herbs. TheValley of Roses lies in the heart of the country and is one of thelargest producers of rose oil in the world, giving credence toBulgaria's soubriquet, 'Land of Roses'.
At the foot of the Vitosha Mountains lies the laid back capitalcity, Sofia, which is home to a great number of architecturalmonuments and museums. On the other hand, the rugged heights of theRila and Pirin mountains form a spectacular setting for skiresorts, as well as the famous Rila Monastery and the majesticlandscape 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 in Europe.
As varied as the different mountain ranges are the people whodwell in them, with 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 anda delight in their pastoral environment.
Bulgaria's history is displayed across the country in its oldtowns, ancient Thracian relics, decorated churches and monasteries,and in the rustic settlements that have preserved the traditionalbeliefs of its people. One of the country's biggest assets forvisitors is its variety, but whatever aspect one chooses toexplore, there is always the assurance of a warm welcome.
Bulgaria is a country rich in both natural and culturalattractions and from a sightseeing perspective it caters to alltastes. Popular things to see and do in Bulgaria include myriadoutdoor activities and opportunities for ecotourism, and thecountry's mountain scenery is unsurpassed. In addition to thisnatural splendour, Bulgaria has a rich history and folklore andvisitors can enjoy a wealth of archaeological sites, religiousinstitutions, museums and ethnographic attractions.
The capital city, Sofia, boasts a number of the most popularsightseeing attractions in Bulgaria, including the Boyana Church,Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, St George Rotunda, the SS Cyril andMethodius National Library, and the St Sophia Church. Looming overthe city is another great Bulgarian tourist attraction, the VitoshaMountain, which provides a natural playground for visitors andlocals alike in all seasons.
Bulgaria is half covered in mountains and it is the craggybeauty of its many ranges that most characterises the country inthe global imagination. The more delicate, flowery mountains in theRhodope range, which is scattered with picturesque villages, iscomplemented by the rugged splendour of the Pirin and Rila mountainranges. Some of the most popular attractions in the mountainousregions are the 10th-century Rila Monastery, the Pirin NationalPark, the folk centre of Momchiloutsi village, and a number ofancient Thracian sites. This is, of course, in addition to thenatural wonders of caves, hot springs, alpine lakes and denseforests.
Bulgaria's tourism tends to be dominated by its many beach andski resorts but these holiday centres, enjoyable though they are,should only serve as a doorstep into the country, which has a lotto offer travellers, and is often overlooked as a great Europeandestination.
Situated in the highest reaches of the Pirin Mountains, PirinNational Park encompasses rugged alpine peaks that rise 8,202ft(2,500m) into the atmosphere with more than a hundred glacial lakesspread at their feet. The magnificent landscape is made up of oldforests, waterfalls, caves and areas of limestone that are home tonear-extinct flowers like the edelweiss and Pirin poppy. Boastingan abundance of rare and endemic species of plants and animals,this unique national park is listed as a UNESCO World Cultural andNational Heritage Site.
Alpine mountaineering and skiing are popular activities inPirin, as is hiking. The park boasts numerous, well-maintainedhiking trails which wind through stunning scenery. There are alsolittle wooden huts with bunk beds for hikers to sleep in on thetrails. The hiking trails are generally pleasantly uncrowded but ifyou want to spend the night in one of these rustic huts then it isbest to book it in advance. The popularity of the park with outdoorenthusiasts, together with the cultural heritage of the surroundingmountain settlements and stunning scenery, make Pirin National Parkan attractive tourist destination which usually rates highly on aBulgarian travel itinerary.
The St Sofia Church, also called the Hagia Sophia Church, is theoldest Eastern Orthodox church in the city, dating from the 4th to6th century, and is regarded as one of the most significantexamples of early Christian architecture in the Balkans. In the14th 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 andplaces of worship, dating back to the days when the site was partof the necropolis of the Roman town of Serdica. As a result,several tombs have been discovered under and around the churchwhich are incredibly interesting for history buffs.
During the Turkish rule the church was converted into a mosque,but was abandoned after two successive earthquakes destroyed one ofthe minarets almost 30 years later, and it was again converted intoan orthodox church. Local legends credit St Sofia's miraculouspowers for its protection over the centuries, surviving occupationsand natural disasters to remain a spiritual inspiration to thecity.
The rotunda church of St George is considered to be the oldestbuilding in Sofia, dating back to the 4th century, and is situatedamid the remains of the ancient Roman town of Serdica. The StGeorge Rotunda is famous for its exquisite architecture and layersof medieval frescoes that were discovered under a covering ofplaster.
The church currently functions as a museum and the magnificentdome is protected by UNESCO. It is located in a square enclosed bythe Presidential Buildings and this makes the contrast between theancient and the modern quite striking. There is a fair amount ofinformation on the history and significance of the site availableat the entrance, which is worth reading. There is a pleasantrestaurant next door to the site where you can enjoy a meal withviews of the church, and if you linger for a while you might wellsee the guards marching by.
Visitors must ensure that they are dressed appropriately andconservatively as people with bare arms or legs will not be allowedentry into the church.
One of the finest examples of 20th-century architecture inSofia, and one of the most iconic buildings in the city, themagnificent Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built between 1882 and1912 to honour the Russian soldiers who died fighting to liberateBulgaria from Turkish rule in the war of 1878 under Tsar AlexanderII. 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 theMonument of the Unknown Soldier.
The impressive five-nave basilica houses an interior just assplendid, with mosaics, stained glass windows, marble andwoodcarvings as well as frescoes that cover the walls and domes.The underground crypt houses the Icon Museum featuring iconpaintings from across the country that represents masterpiecesranging from the 9th to the 18th century. For those who fall inlove with the Bulgarian icons, there is often a local artist whopaints and sells replicas in the little museum gift shop. There isalso a souvenir market very close by.
The cathedral is an active place of worship, so services andevents may disrupt sightseeing, but entry to the main building isfree.
The National Ethnographic Museum in downtown Sofia has one ofthe richest collections of cultural artefacts on the BalkanPeninsula, representing the traditions, arts, crafts and lifestyleof the Bulgarian people from the 17th to the 20th century. Themuseum 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 you are lucky, and the place is not crowded, one of the staffmembers may give you a personal tour. This is the best possibleplace to find out about local folklore and to gain an understandingof the traditional clothes (the embroidery on the borders serve apurpose in Bulgarian mythology), customs and beliefs. It is also apopular cultural and educational centre.
The National Ethnographic Museum is located in the same buildingas the National Gallery, the old Royal Palace, and you can buy ajoint ticket to see both of these worthwhile attractions if youprefer. A great museum shop on the premises sells crafts and othertraditional items from all over Bulgaria - a useful place to shopfor presents for those waiting at home.
Rising above the capital city of Sofia, Vitosha Mountain is oneof the symbols of the capital and is the most visited mountain inBulgaria. Starting where the suburbs end, the whole mountain hasbeen designated a national park - the oldest in the Balkans - andis home to deer, bear, wild boar, fox and a variety of rare birds.Vitosha is known for its 'stone rivers', or moraines, piles of hugerounded granite boulders carried and deposited by glaciersthousands of years ago, as well as for its restorative mineralsprings.
Vitosha is popular during all seasons and the well-known resortof Aleko is the most established winter ski resort in the area,offering modern hotels and ski facilities within easy reach of thecapital. Although you could spend a good portion of your holidayenjoying this mountain and staying in its resorts, you can just aseasily head up the mountain for a hike one afternoon and experiencesome beautiful views of the city below. There is a cable-car andseveral bus routes which can take you part of the way up Vitosha.There are several great picnic sites to enjoy if the weather isgood and an excursion up the mountain is a lovely activity for thewhole family.
The biggest and most famous of Bulgaria's monasteries issituated in the northwestern part of the Rila Mountains and is oneof the most significant monuments on the Balkan Peninsula. RilaMonastery was founded by a hermit, St John of Rila, in the 10thcentury, and eventually became a monastic complex that played animportant role in the spiritual history of medieval Bulgaria.
Having survived fire, abandonment and plunder, the monasteryfascinates visitors with its exquisite architecture, rich muralsand icons and valuable museum collection, including oldmanuscripts, jewellery, textiles, church treasures and a librarycontaining thousands of books. The Rila Monastery is a UNESCO WorldHeritage Site and a must-see attraction for anybody visitingBulgaria.
Photography is not allowed inside the Monastery, and althoughthe monastery does provide shawls to borrow for those who areunderdressed, it is best to go prepared in respectful andconservative clothing when you visit this religious site.
In the heart of the Rhodope Mountains lies the picturesquevillage of Momchilovtsi, a popular cultural and ethnographic centrethat has preserved its original folklore, traditions and crafts.The Centre for Traditional Bulgarian Arts and Crafts provides aunique 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 famousski resort of Pamporovo, which is only four miles (7km) away, andthe surrounding mountains and rivers offer superb hiking,spelunking, trout fishing, and hunting. The village is set inbeautiful surroundings and many use a holiday here as a retreatfrom the bustle of city life; like a number of other areas inBulgaria, Momchilovtsi is known for its clean air and is oftenpromoted as a good spot for health and rehabilitation holidays.There are 24 churches and chapels in the village and its immediatevicinity, including the famous SS. Constantine and Helen Church,built in 1836. The village offers a number of guided walking tourswhich help visitors make the most of the local scenery and nearbyattractions.
Just 13 miles (about 20km) west of Varna, Pobiti Kamani (thePetrified 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 abouthow they were formed.
Regardless of their origin, however, Pobiti Kamani's columns areunique, and make for a fascinating, photo-filled excursion fromVarna. Needless to say, visitors and locals come up with their own,more mystical explanations for the phenomenon, and many feel thatit is a magical place.
Occupying an area of 27 square miles (70 sq km), the PetrifiedForest is a wonderful place to spend the day, exploring the strangeterrain, and enjoying a picnic in the sun. It is best to go inApril or early May, when the weather is idyllic, but even if it isnot sunny the landscape will intrigue visitors. You have completefreedom to wander about the area at your leisure and it is a greatexcursion for the whole family.
The Boyana Church complex - located on the outskirts of Sofia -is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of Bulgaria's mostimportant tourist attractions. The first of the three buildingsthat make up the Boyana Church complex was built in the 10thcentury, but it is the second building - constructed in the 13thcentury - that is the obvious tourist draw card.
Containing frescoes painted in 1259, the second Boyana Churchbuilding is nothing less than the site of the most importantcollection of medieval eastern European art in the world. Thepaintings, which conform to a Byzantine aesthetic, are almostperfectly preserved and offer visitors a rare insight into thelong, proud history of Bulgarian art and culture. The churchcomplex also houses the National Museum which boasts a richcollection of historical and cultural artefacts. It is recommendedthat visitors hire one of the professional guides available to givethem a tour of the church and museum as they greatly enrich theexperience.
Bulgaria has a temperate-continental climate, which is typicalfor Central Europe.There are four distinct seasons: summer is long,hot, and generally considered peak tourist season; autumn is also apleasant time of year popular with tourists for its rich, autumncolours and the fact that it is less crowded; winter is long andcold, but opffers great skiing opportunities; while spring is warmand lovely for all of the blossoming flowers.
Bulgaria is generally a sunny country with between 2,200 and2,500 hours of sunlight every year. It can rain throughout the yearand thunderstorms are common in the summer months. Snow fallsabundantly between December and March, especially in themountainous areas. There is a marked difference in weather betweenthe mountains and the milder, southern regions near theMediterranean sea. Summer temperatures, between June and August,average around 75°F (24°C); whereas winter temperatures, betweenDecember and February, average around 32°F (0°C). Bulgaria is ayear-round tourism destination because it attracts off-seasonvisitors for skiing, but the most popular time to visit issummer.
The official currency is the Lev (BGN), which is divided into100 stotinki. Bulgaria has strict currency regulations. If youenter Bulgaria with cash of any currency amounting to theequivalent of BGN 8,000 or more, you must declare it to customsofficials. Foreign currency may be exchanged in banks, hotels, orat one of the numerous bureaux de change; however, due to a commonpractice of misleading rates of exchange it is better to go tobanks to change money. A receipt called a bordereaux is issued whenexchanging currency, indicating the amount that will be given, andit must be kept until departure. Major international credit cardsare increasingly becoming accepted by tourist hotels, upmarketshops,and restaurants, travel agents and car rental agents, butBulgaria is still largely a cash economy. There are ATMs in themain cities and at Black Sea resorts.
Bulgarian is the official language, which uses theCyrillic alphabet, but English, German and French are spoken inresorts, hotels, and restaurants.
Electrical current is 230 volts, 50Hz. Europeantwo-pin plugs and schuko plugs are in use.
Citizens of the US do not need a visa to visit Bulgaria for aperiod of up to 90 days. Passports must be valid for at least threemonths beyond period of intended stay.
British Citizens do not need a visa to visit Bulgaria for aperiod of up to 90 days. A passport valid for at least three monthsbeyond period of intended stay is required.
Canadians do not need a visa to visit Bulgaria for a period ofup to 90 days. A passport valid for at least three months beyondperiod of intended stay is required.
Australians do not need a visa to visit Bulgaria for a period ofup to 90 days. A passport valid for at least three months beyondperiod of intended stay is required.
South Africans need a visa to enter Bulgaria, except for staysof up to 90 days for holders of a Schengen visa. A passport validfor at least three months beyond period of intended stay isrequired.
Irish nationals do not need a visa to visit Bulgaria. A passportvalid for the period of intended stay is required.
Citizens of the US do not need a visa to visit Bulgaria for aperiod of up to 90 days. Passports must be valid for at least threemonths beyond period of intended stay.
New Zealanders do not require a visa for a maximum stay of 90days. A passport valid for at least three months beyond period ofintended stay is required.
Visitors must have proof of sufficient funds or onward or returntickets in addition to other documents needed for the nextdestination. Immigration and entry regulations are very strictlyenforced. Passports of all visitors should be valid for at leastthree months after leaving Bulgaria. We recommend that passports bevalid for three months after intended period of travel. Visarequirements vary from country to country.
Bulgaria poses few health risks and there are no vaccinationsrequired for entry. Vaccinations for hepatitis A and hepatitis Bare, however, always recommended for travellers, and a typhoidvaccination is recommended for travellers who may be eating anddrinking outside of hotels and restaurants and travelling off thebeaten track. Similarly, a rabies vaccination is recommended fortravellers who will be spending a lot of time outdoors or who willbe exposed to animals.
Travellers should note that medical treatment can be expensiveand payment is expected immediately. Facilities in local hospitalsare basic and specialised treatment or equipment may not be freelyavailable. Medical insurance, with provision for emergencyevacuation, is therefore vital. Travellers from the UK should alsohold a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) in case of emergencymedical treatment.
Tips of 10 percent of the bill are customary for most services,including restaurants, while hotel porters and taxi drivers expectvisitors 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 ofyoung pickpockets are active in city centres and the Black Seaholiday resorts. Car theft is also relatively common.
Foreigners should be aware that traditionally a shake of thehead means 'yes' and a nod means 'no', although allowances areoften made for visitors; it is useful to clarify the answerverbally to avoid confusion. Family values are extremely importantin Bulgaria, so treating seniors with deference is important.
Relationship building is important in Bulgaria, and initialmeetings may be used as an introduction, after which morebusiness-related meetings can be planned. Face-to-face meetings aretherefore preferred over communication by email, fax or phone. Theuse of English in business is increasing, however the services of atranslator might be required, and presentations should include theuse of visuals where possible. Introductions include firmhandshakes, and the exchange of business cards. Dress should beconservative business attire and punctuality is expected. Businesshours are generally 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday.
The country dialling code for Bulgaria is +359, followed by therelevant city code. The city code for Sofia is (0)2. The outgoingcode is 00 followed by the relavent country code (e.g. 0044 for theUnited Kingdom). Betcom or Bulgarian Telecommunication Companyphone booths require a special card available from kiosks.Telephone offices are also available and are attached to postoffices. Bulgaria is one of the few countries in Europe that has nopeak or off-peak call times. The country has mobile operators, andseveral Internet Service Providers. Internet cafes can be foundacross big cities.
Travellers to Bulgaria, aged 17 and older, do not need to paycustoms duty on 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250g of tobacco; 1litre of spirits and 2 litres of wine; 50g of perfume or 100g ofeau de toilette; and gifts. Allowances are larger for goodspurchased within the EU. Prohibited items include arms andammunition, narcotics and pornography.
Bulgarian Tourism Office, Sofia: +359 2 987 9778 orwww.bulgariatravel.org.
Bulgarian Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 3870174.
Bulgarian Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7581 3144
Bulgarian Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 789 3215.
Bulgarian Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 3423720/1.
Bulgarian Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 2 6286 9700
Bulgarian Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1 660 3293.
Bulgarian Embassy, Canberra, Australia (also responsible for NewZealand): +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.
South African Embassy, Sofia: + 359 2 939 5015
Australian Consulate, Sofia: +359 2 946 1334.
Irish Embassy, Sofia: +359 2 985 3425.
Australian Consulate, Sofia (also responsible for New Zealand):+359 2 946 1334.