Travel Bulgaria: Find the Best Places to Visit on a Road Trip

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Large domed cathedral with gold and green cupulas
St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Bulgaria

In the heart of Eastern Europe lies a country that often flies under the radar when it comes to travel destinations – Bulgaria. This road trip through Bulgaria offers a unique tapestry of experiences, from the ancient city of Plovdiv to the bustling capital, Sofia, the serene Rila Mountain, and the coastal charm of Varna.

Our road trip to Bulgaria started when we crossed the Romanian border into Bulgaria, stopping first at Varna. For simplicity, we have organised this road trip from Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, where you can rent a car to explore more of this interesting country.

As the wheels of your road trip adventure start turning, you’ll discover a land steeped in rich history, vibrant culture, and breathtaking landscapes.

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Why Travel Bulgaria

An imposing statue with piercing eyes
Statue of Tsar Samuil, Sofia

Bulgaria stands as a testament to the blending of ancient traditions and modern charm in the heart of the Balkans. As you hit the road, leaving the bustling cityscape behind, the journey unfolds like a well-scripted story, filled with surprises at every turn.

Embarking on a road trip through Bulgaria is like delving into a hidden gem, waiting to unveil its secrets to those who venture off the beaten path.

As the engine hums with anticipation, picture yourself weaving through picturesque landscapes, absorbing the rich tapestry of history, and discovering the lesser-known wonders that Bulgaria has to offer.

Pick up a rental from Sofia International Airport (the capital city of Bulgaria) for the 10km drive to the city centre.

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Navigating Bulgaria’s Roads with Wisdom

Bulgaria unveils itself as an ideal destination for those seeking a road trip adventure.

From Plovdiv’s ancient charm to Sofia’s cultural vibrancy, from Rila’s spiritual retreat to Varna’s coastal allure, the road trip becomes a seamless tapestry woven with memories.

You’ll find driving on the national roads of Bulgaria easy, although secondary roads are often less maintained. We found that Bulgarian drivers are not as aggressive as those in Romania, but they do enjoy speed.

We recommend you obtain an International Driver’s Permit before you leave, as it is a requirement in Bulgaria.

Vignettes (Tolls) are compulsory for all motor vehicles (except motorcycles) in Bulgaria to drive the national roads. You can purchase an electronic vignette, which is available immediately.

When you use your eSim, you’ll have data for your MapsMe or Google Maps for navigation.

TravelKiwis’ Self Guided City Walks are the perfect companion, providing a roadmap to the heart of European cities. With the wisdom of a seasoned traveller and the convenience of a well-planned route, these walks ensure that every twist and turn of Bulgaria’s road trip becomes an enriching experience.

Download your Self-Guided Walking Guide for Sofia.

Tips for Travelling Bulgaria

An ornate monastery early in the morning
Inside the grounds of Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Language: Cyrillic alphabet and Bulgarian spoken.

This would have to be one of the hardest places we have visited for trying to understand the local written language. Looking at street signs, menus and general information, there was no way we could decipher what was being said.

Bulgarians are proud that the Cyrillic alphabet was created in the 9th century during the First Bulgarian Empire.

Thankfully, English is spoken in the places we visited because of travellers visiting to learn more about Bulgaria.

But the weirdest thing was:

Mannerism: Nod for No – Shake your head for Yes. Very confusing, and we know we got this wrong a few times.

Currency: Bulgarian lev (BGN). The lev is divided into 100 stotinki.

Plugs: Bring a power adaptor to charge your devices.

Schengen Zone: Bulgaria and Romania will join the EU’s passport-free Schengen air and sea travel zone in March 2024. Until then, you will still be processed at the border. For now, no Visa is required for a 90-day visa.

Sofia: Where East Meets West

A small narrow church amongst the trees
The Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker

Our road trip kicks off in Sofia. Beyond the imposing Soviet architecture and the opulence of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia is a city of contrasts, seamlessly blending tradition with modernity.

The city is easy to walk in, and most of the best places to visit in Sofia are close to each other.

We met Gia, one of our Instagram followers, and her son for coffee along the famous Vitosha Boulevard. The street is lined with shops and cafes, and Vitosha Mountain stands as a silent guardian over the capital.

Four people enjoying a coffee
Gia and her son generously showed us around Sofia.

The Vitisha Mountains are not just a backdrop but a playground for adventure enthusiasts. Vitosha offers a natural escape just a stone’s throw from the city, whether you’re into hiking, skiing, or just savouring the breathtaking views.

Our coffee chat gave us plenty of tips on what to see in Sofia, including a walk to The National Palace of Culture with its fountain show. We also had a recommendation to taste local food at the Under the Linden Trees restaurant.

Get your Self-Guided City Walk of Sofia

Sofia: A Tapestry of Culture and Contrasts

Men high stepping in a parade ground
Presidency Building, Changing of the Guard, Sofia

We spent three nights in Sofia staying at an Airbnb within walking distance of Vitosha Boulevard. It meant we could revisit a lot of the places to see in Sofia more than once.

These are Five Places to Visit in Sofia we enjoyed:

  1. St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is an architectural masterpiece that stands as a testament to Bulgaria’s rich Orthodox heritage. See the imposing Monument of Tsar Samuil on Oborishte Street as you walk to the cathedral. Stare into his eyes if you dare!
  2. National Palace of Culture – Iconic building hosting concerts, plays, exhibitions & other events in a huge, art-filled space
  3. Ivan Vazov National Theatre – for its architecture
  4. Presidency Buildingfor the changing of the guard every hour
  5. Central Market Hallhas three levels selling jewellery, clothing, trinkets and food.
An ornate theatre
Ivan Vazov National Theater

Here, we take a detour to mention TravelKiwis Self Guided City Walk of Sofia, a gem that can truly enhance your exploration. This self-guided tour isn’t just about landmarks but about uncovering the hidden stories that give Sofia its unique character.


Rila Monastery: A Spiritual Oasis in the Mountains

Frescoes painted on an inside wall
Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Heading south from Sofia is the impressive Rila Monastery. The monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a masterpiece of Bulgarian medieval architecture. The intricate frescoes that adorn the walls and the serene mountain backdrop create an atmosphere of tranquillity and awe.

Travel Insight: Want to avoid the crowds? Plan your visit early in the morning or during the quieter seasons.

Rila Mountain & Monastery: A Spiritual Sojourn

No road trip is complete without a brush with nature, and Bulgaria’s Rila Mountain provides just that. As you wind your way through the scenic roads, the Rila Monastery emerges like a fairytale castle against the mountainous backdrop.

Sure, you might find the basic facts about Rila Monastery in every guide, but let’s uncover the hidden gem – the peaceful courtyard adorned with vibrant frescoes that tell stories of saints and sinners.

It’s not just a religious site; it’s a spiritual sojourn that leaves an indelible mark on every traveller.

Plovdiv: Where History Meets Contemporary Cool

Medieval tower and village
A sunrise view of Sahat Hill and the clock tower overlooking Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Leaving Sofia behind, our road trip ventures towards Plovdiv, a captivating blend of antiquity and modernity.

The Old Town’s well-preserved Roman amphitheatre is a testament to the city’s ancient roots. Yet, as you stroll through the Kapana District, you’ll find yourself in a vibrant, artsy enclave that encapsulates Plovdiv’s contemporary flair.

Fun Fact: Did you know that Plovdiv is one of Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, with a history spanning over 8,000 years?

These layers of history make Plovdiv more than just a stopover – it’s an immersive journey through time.

We spent three nights at a small Airbnb near the old town, meandering the cobblestoned streets, enjoying the Tsar Simeon Gardens Park, sampling local food and enjoying the sunset.

Exploring Plovdiv: Unveiling Layers of History

View over an ancient amphitheater with ballet dancers practicing
Local ballet troupe practising at the Roman Amphitheatre, Plovdiv

Plovdiv, a city that time forgot, whispers tales of ancient civilizations in every cobblestone. Tucked away in the Thracian Valley, this historic marvel effortlessly marries the old with the new.

The city is situated around six hills; climbing them is a great way to see Plodiv.

Atop of Sahat Hill is one of the oldest clock towers in Eastern Europe. Nebet Hill, with its old fortress ruins, is perfect for watching the sunset while enjoying a beer.

A lady celebrating the sun setting over a city
Maura farewelling the sun on Nebet Tepe, one of 6 hills surrounding Plovdiv.

Located just a few minutes walk from the main street in Plovdiv, Kapana is the district of Plovdiv, which keeps rising and becoming the most trendy area.

As Bulgaria’s first dedicated creative district, Kapana is a charming arts and cultural destination where cobblestone streets give way to restored buildings with art galleries and speciality shops. Patrons flock to sidewalk patios at an array of bakeries, diverse eateries, and gastropubs that serve everything from classic regional foods to French cuisine.

A street lined with cafes and trees
There are lots of cool cafes in Plovdiv

Here are Five Places to Visit in Plovdiv we enjoyed:

  1. Kapana for the cafes and speciality shops
  2. Nebet Hill for the stunning sunset
  3. Tsar Simeon Garden Park, with its singing fountains
  4. Finding Sculptures around the Plovdiv like Miljo and Tsanko Lavrenov
  5. The ancient Theatre of Philippopolis is still used today.
A lady whispering in the large ears of a statue
Maura shares a secret with Miljo, one of Plovdiv’s sculptures.

Stop at Bachkovo Monastery and Asen’s Fortress

An old style monastery
Bachkovo Monastery, Bulgaria

A day trip from Plovdiv is the second largest monastery in Bulgaria – Bachkovo Monastery, an 11th-century Eastern Orthodox monastery combining the Byzantine, old Georgian and Bulgarian traditions.

Bachkovo Monastery is a cultural landmark of Bulgaria for its architecture and painting, which are typical of Eastern Orthodox culture.

The drive is picturesque, and getting there allows you to stop at the town of Asenovgrad, aka “the little Jersuleum”, because of the number of chapels and churches. You can also visit the medieval ruins of Asen’s Fortress overlooking the Asenitsa River.

Varna: Coastal Charms and Ancient Ruins

Deck charis on a beach with water lapping the seashore
Relaxing on the beach at Varna

Our road trip concludes in Varna, where the Black Sea beckons with its azure waters and golden beaches. But there’s more to Varna than meets the eye – ancient ruins that stand as silent witnesses to centuries gone by.

Three large bids flying above the rising sun
The sunrises over the Black Sea at Varna are beautiful

While the typical travel guide may mention the Archaeological Museum and the Roman Baths, we headed to the beach for a 5-night stay. It’s not every day you get to swim the Black Sea, eat fresh seafood, and mix with the locals.

Is Nessebar worth visiting?

Tiered layer of bricks making up the building style
Buildings of old at Nessebar

Along from Varna is Nessebar on the Black Sea’s rocky coastline.

The old town, with its cobbled streets and Byzantine-era ruins, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Nessebar covers many centuries of varying architecture, but we loved the wooden buildings from the 19th century.

Old wooden houses
Wooden buildings of Nessebar

Places to Add to Your Bulgaria Itinerary

Bankso – Adventure in the Shadows of Pirin Mountains

Bansko is a town nestled at the foot of the Pirin Mountains. While Bansko is renowned for its ski slopes, it also offers a summer allure. Imagine strolling through the cobblestone streets, surrounded by the rugged beauty of the mountains and savouring local delicacies in traditional taverns.

For more information on things to do in Bankso, we suggest reading All Season Bankso from fellow blogger A Social Nomad.

Veliko Tarnovo – A Citadel of History

Situated in northern Bulgaria is the medieval fortress of Tsarevets and the old town of Veliko Tarnovo. Once Bulgaria’s capital and a central trade route, it’s a perfect stay away from Sofia or Plovdiv.

Koprivshtitsa – A Journey to Revival Architecture

A day trip from Sofia or Plovdiv. This charming town is a living museum, preserving the spirit of Bulgaria’s National Revival period. The colourful houses, with their wooden eaves and flower-filled courtyards, transport you back to a bygone era. It’s not just a town; it’s a step back in time.

Etar – two hours from Plodiv is the Ethnographic Complex of Etar. This open-air museum showcases the cultural aspect of Bulgaria.

A Journey Beyond the ordinary: Crafting your own Tale

Two storey yellow building with fountain in foreground
Sofia Regional Historical Museum (previously The Central Mineral Baths), Sofia

As we wrap up our road trip through Bulgaria, with its ancient cities, majestic mountains, and coastal charms. Bulgaria invites you to peel back the layers and discover the narratives that make it truly unique.

As we weave the narrative of this vibrant country, it’s a journey to the creative city of Plovdiv, the cultural tapestry of Sofia, the serene beauty of Rila Mountain and Monastery, and the coastal charm of Varna.

Ultimately, our road trip is not just about covering miles but about uncovering a new destination to explore. Bulgaria unfolds its wonders to those willing to venture off the beaten path.

So, fellow traveller, what stories will you uncover on your road trip through Bulgaria?

Perhaps it’s time to grab the steering wheel, hit the road, and let the next chapter of your adventure unfold.

For the seasoned traveller, TravelKiwis Self-Guided City Walks offer a unique way to delve deeper into the cities of Europe. Navigate the enchanting streets with the freedom to explore at your own pace, unlocking the secrets that often elude the hurried traveller.