Sofia is like an up-and-coming European hotspot, with nightclubs, theatres, museums and more—but with a dash of Soviet-era memories, reminding you that this is a place still only finding its legs.
Much like its surrounding countries (Romania, Serbia), Bulgaria has been shrouded from the world throughout the ages, thanks to centuries of Ottoman rule, followed by a more recent period that saw it hidden for decades behind the Iron Curtain. But that has all changed for Bulgaria. The country has roared into the European Union, opened its door and has become a secret gem for travellers on a budget. While most would think of its ancient heritage, artifacts and architecture as the biggest draw, it’s actually Bulgaria’s stretches of beautiful sandy beaches that line the Black Sea that draw in thousands of sun-seeking tourists every year.
Currency: Bulgarian Lev (BGN)
Government: Unitary Paliamentary Republic
DID YOU KNOW?
- Bulgaria ranks third in Europe, behind Greece and Italy, for the number of valuable archaeological monuments. It is also the only country in Europe to have never changed its name.
- The recognition of the Autocephalous Bulgarian Patriarchate of Constantinople in 927 CE makes the Bulgarian Orthodox Church the oldest Autocephalous Slavic Orthodox church in the world. The Bulgarian Autocephalous status preceded the Autocephaly of the Serbian Orthodox church (1219) by 292 years and the Russian Orthodox Church (1589) by 662 years.
- The Bulgarian army is the only force in the world to have never lost a flag, even though it actively participated in every major war since the end of the 19th century. In fact, the first air-dropped bomb in military history was developed by the Bulgarian air force during the first Balkan War in November of 1912.
- The inventor of the first electronic computer, John Vincent Atanassoff, is of Bulgarian origin. Professor Atanassoff, together with graduate student Clifford Berry, built the world’s first electronic digital computer, at Iowa State University, between 1939 and 1942.
- Some may know that the Bulgarian folk song Izlel e Delio Haidutin was sent in deep space on board the U.S. Space Probe–Voyager I as part of a collection of our civilization’s finest cultural artifacts, as a potential message to alien intelligence.
- Bulgaria is one of only three countries, along with Ireland and Scotland, that counts the bagpipes as a common national instrument.
Bulgaria’s climate is predominately moderate. Summers are hot and dry, with an average temperature of 23°C. Winters are cold, with snowfalls and an average temperature of 0°C.
The valley of the southwestern Rhodope Mountains has a Mediterranean climate, with dry summers and mild, humid winters.
The average January temperature in Sofia ranges from -4°C to 2°C. The July temperature ranges from 16°C to 27°C.
Along the Black Sea, the average January temperature ranges from -1°C to 6°C, and the July temperature ranges from 19°C to 30°C.
Bulgaria gets its name from the Bulgar people, who settled in the area around 200 CE.
In the 7the century, the first Bulgarian state was formed; later, the First Bulgarian Kingdom would take over under the leadership of Tsar Simeon I from 893 to 927. This was a time of prosperity, art, culture, education and literature, and is often called the Golden Age of Bulgaria. However, this period did not last, and neighboring countries and empires would have an impact on Bulgaria for the next 1,000 years.
First came the Byzantine Empire in 1018. The Bulgarians pushed back the Byzantines, but the Mongols soon arrived, followed by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire ruled for more than 500 years. Bulgaria did not break free of the Ottomans until the early 1900s.
Next would follow many wars, including the Balkan Wars and two world wars. After WWII, Bulgaria became a communist nation and a satellite of the Soviet Union. With the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1900s, Bulgaria experienced economic struggles and social unrest. On January 1, 2007, Bulgaria became a member of the European Union.
Bulgaria’s largest and most renowned monastery is located in the Rila Mountains. It’s a major attraction for both Bulgarian pilgrims and foreign tourists. On summer weekends, the monastery is very busy, but in the off-season, it provides much more solitude. Staying over at a nearby hotel or campground, or even at the monastery itself, allows visitors to experience Rila’s photogenic early mornings and late evenings. You can also hike in the surrounding mountains.
If you’re looking for a break from travelling the countryside or basking on the beach, Sofia might be the place for you. Bulgaria’s largest and most grand metropolis, Sofia is an attractive and cultured city with plenty to keep you busy. Museums, art galleries, theatres, fine restaurants—they’re all here. Sofia is also a surprisingly green city, with huge swaths of parkland within the city boundaries, as well as nearby ski slopes and hiking trails along the mighty Mount Vitosha.
Looking to hit the slopes? Then Bansko is your place. It’s Bulgaria’s top ski resort and party destination, with more than 100 hotels, a plethora of après-ski watering holes and discos, and the skiing itself is fantastic. During the summer, a quieter and more traditional Bansko appears, and the area becomes a hiking and mountain biking paradise.
SUNNY BEACY—BEACHES OF THE BLACK SEA
Bulgaria’s most popular seaside resort is the aptly named Sunny Beach, and is the Black Sea coast’s answer to the Spanish costas, with several kilometres of sandy beach for sun worshippers. The beach features activities such as minigolf and parasailing, and multilingual restaurants and pubs abound.
A scaled-down version of Sofia, Plovdiv provides travellers with a slightly more bohemian and mellow version of the bustling metropolis. Despite its laidback vibe, Plovdiv is equal to Sofia in culture and nightlife; art galleries and bohemian cafés line the city’s beautiful cobblestone streets.
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