Europeans have long known Bulgaria for its seaside and ski resorts, but for the American traveler, it is still a bit of a terra incognita. Apart from being a popular summer and winter holiday destination, it also has plenty to offer to history buffs, culture aficionados, and outdoor enthusiasts. Small historic towns and picturesque alpine villages with period architecture, medieval monasteries with vivid frescoes, and nature reserves are all waiting to be discovered.
Even before the Romans, these lands were inhabited by the ancient Thracians who have given the world Orpheus and Spartacus, and archaeological sites and historic monuments from former civilizations dot the countryside. It was the Thracians, too, who first started producing wine and used it in their religious rituals and the vinicultural traditions in these lands are alive and prospering today. The Balkan, Rhodope, Pirin, and Rila Mountains offer numerous opportunities for walking, hiking, and mountain biking and some of the rivers are popular for rafting and kayaking.
With a week to spend in Bulgaria, we suggest splitting your time between the country’s modern capital – Sofia, and its medieval one – Veliko Tarnovo. Sofia deserves at least one full day to explore the historic center and the National Historic Museum for its Thracian gold collection. Worthwhile day-trips from Sofia include the UNESCO-listed Rila Monastery, the city of Plovdiv with its Roman Amphitheater and Old Town, and to hike and enjoy the outdoors in the Vitosha Mountain. North-east of Sofia, Veliko Tarnovo dazzles with its hilltop castle complex and the meandering cobblestone streets of its old quarter.
12 – 14 days will give you time to also tour the ancient Thracian tombs in the Valley of Roses or visit some of Bulgaria’s National Revival towns like Koprivshtitsa, Panagyurishte, and Tryavna which are true open-air museums of period architecture and traditional arts and crafts. Alternatively, spend a few days of multi-activity adventure – hiking, biking, kayaking, or spelunking in the Rila or Rhodope National Parks.