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The Independent Woman's Solo Bulgaria Travel Guide
by Naddya Wagner

Bulgaria is still one of the few European countries, where prices are affordable, infrastructure is good enough for independent travelers and it is safe to visit on your own.

The East European country is easily accessible. Its small area offers a large diversity of sights and activities and it is fairly easy to explore from border to border. The land’s rich history left ruins and temples dating back to the 4th century BC, villages and little towns where time has stopped at least 200 years ago, beautiful nature, interesting traditions and delicious food.

The main highlights of the capital city Sofia are easily walkable and transportation is reliable and cheap.

And if you get tired of exploring, you can always relax at the spa, learn about wine production and vine growing during a wine tour or go shopping.

Bulgaria travel guideBulgaria's wild coast

What to see: Bulgaria's landmarks and offbeat destinations

When you’re in Bulgaria, you’ll notice that big cities are very different than little towns and mountain villages. So let’s find out what you can do and see in each, shall we?

Sofia: rich history, modern vibe, great shopping and restaurant scene

In the capital city Sofia most landmarks are just a short walk away from each other. Still, plan at least a full day of exploration, as the rather small area of the city center is fully packed with sights from several different eras.

Try to get to the main building of Sofia University, founded in 1888. In the underpass right next to it you’ll find the Tourist Information Center. Grab a map and start exploring.

  • The parliament building with the bronze statue of the Tsar Liberator on a horse in front of it
  • Alexander Nevski cathedral with its golden domes and marble pillars inside
  • St. Sofia church and the underground necropolis, dating back to 6th century
  • The archaeological excavations of the ancient Serdica city walls, dating back to 6th century.

When you reach the ancient Serdica ruins, take a look around and you’ll see temples of several religions. The Eastern Orthodox St. Nedelya Cathedral is at one end of the excavation site and the Banya Bashi Mosque at the other end, The Sofia Synagogue and the modern building of the St. Joseph Catholic Church are a block away.

Nearby you’ll also find the colourful building of the Central Bath. It now hosts the History Museum of Sofia. The collection is very impressive and even more so is the interior of the building. When was the last time you saw an exhibition of icons displayed in what used to be a therapeutic pool?

Don’t miss the opportunity to fill a bottle with hot mineral water outside at one of the fountains especially made for this purpose.

If you’re tired of sightseeing and want some shopping that is good value for money, you’ll find clothes, shoes and souvenirs in Pirotska Street, starting just across from the mosque. For a stroll and a coffee break or lunch, head to the pedestrian section of Vitosha Boulevard. Just skip the shops there, as prices are inflated.

bulgaria travel guideSt Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia by Plamen Agov, studiolemontree.com GFDL via Wikimedia Commons

Bulgaria’s other cities also offer a lot to the independent traveler

Enough about Sofia, you might not want to leave after such an intense visit, but there’s more to Bulgaria then just the capital.

Go to the second largest city,Plovdiv, and stroll along the streets of its Old Town with one of the best preserved ancient theatres in the world – the Plovdiv Roman Theatre. At least visit one of the Bulgarian Revival-style houses, which host different galleries and museums.

For a totally different vibe and travel back to another historical period, visit Veliko Tarnovo. It is Bulgaria’s old capital and is known as the city of the Czars. On a hill above the city you can’t mistake the Tsarevets Castle. Stay the night and if you’re lucky, at dusk there will be a magnificent light and sound spectacle at the fortress walls.

Tired of exploring? Why not spoil yourself a little bit! Velingrad is currently known as the spa capital of the Balkans. The numerous hotels in the city offer a huge variety of wellness and beauty therapies for any budget. Surrounded by the beautiful Rhodope Mountains, the mineral water oases will make you want to stay for a long time.

Bulgaria travel guideThe beautiful bridges of the Rhodope Mountains by Naddya Wagner

Mountains, monasteries, ancient temples and cute little towns

For every season there are numerous activities you can indulge in.

For mountain lovers there are easily accessible trails for every physical level. The Rhodope Mountains offer easier trails and breathtaking views of caves, rock formations and cute little villages, tucked between the hills. For more extreme trails, head to Rila or Pirin.

Rila Mountain is the home of the largest East Orthodox monastery – Rila Monastery, built in the 10th century. If your itinerary allows it, try to spend a night in one of the cells. (Staying in a monastery is an experience and probably the safest place imaginable for any solo female traveler.)

All the mountains also offer ski slopes of different difficulty levels, mountain biking trails and rafting tours.

For history and archaeology buffs there are plenty of ancient temples, burial sites, fortress ruins and rock formations to explore. The Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak, Perperikon, and Belogradchik Rocks are only a few. Or if you prefer the atmosphere of an old town with colourful Bulgarian houses, head to Koprivshtitsa, Melnik or Tryavna. Sit in one of the countless cafés and enjoy life’s slow pace, so typical of the countryside.

Then visit the open-air museum Etara near Gabrovo to learn about traditions and handicrafts and buy the most authentic souvenirs you'll find in the country.

Don’t miss a visit to a typical Bulgarian restaurant while you’re somewhere in the beautiful mountains for some atmosphere and maybe even some traditional Bulgarian dances.

Bulgaria travel guideRila Monastery, Bulgaria in winter - Bulgaria is glorious any season by Naddya Wagner
Bulgaria travel guideMelnik, Bulgaria's smallest - but warmest - town by Naddya Wagner
Bulgaria travel guideHaskovo Historical Museum by Bin im Garten, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Foods and drinks you must try before leaving

Bulgarian cuisine is an experience for all the senses. Don’t try to count calories, just enjoy every single meal - I’m sure all the sightseeing has made you hungry.

Start your day with a big breakfast to give you enough energy to explore. You can find little bakery shops in every neighbourhood with typical pastries, such as banitsa, kifla or milinka.

For lunch try tarator (a yoghurt soup) in summer or teleshko vareno (veal soup) in winter and a salad (shopska salad is the best).

For dinner, order a kebapche or three! And if you prefer to skip the meat, then kashkaval pane (breaded and pan-fried with Bulgarian yellow cheese) is the right choice for you.

Bulgarian wines are world-renowned and a great accompaniment to any meal. If you can’t finish an entire bottle by yourself,  just order a glass or two. White wine lovers shouldn’t miss Dimiat, which is indigenous to Bulgaria, and red wine lovers should at least try Mavrud and Shiroka Melnishka loza (broadleaf Melnik vine).

Whether you’re drinking wine or not, order mineral water. Bulgaria is rich in mineral waters and beyond enjoying them in the pool, but should also bring them to the table.

Bulgarian travel guideBulgarian food from the Rhodope Mountains by Bin im Garten CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Customs which might take a visitor by surprise

While many things might appear the same as in the Western world, there are of course several local customs you might want to be prepared for in advance.

For example, Bulgarians shake their heads for “Yes” and nod for “No”. If unsure, ask for a spoken confirmation of the answer.

In many typical Bulgarian restaurants, the horo Bulgarian dances are performed after dinner and as a solo traveler, you might just be pulled in to dance with them. Don’t be afraid, they’re not trying to make fun of you, but rather include you into the fun.

The Bulgarian alphabet is Cyrillic and signs are not always translated into English. More often the names are simply transliterated in Latin letters and the end result can be confusing at best, if not totally insane and meaningless.

While in many religious temples and sites visitors are expected to cover their heads, when entering a Bulgarian church you have to take off your hat or cap. Anything else you do wrong will be ignored, but this one you shouldn’t forget.

Women's safety tips for Bulgaria

As in most destinations, the same common sense safety tips for any solo female traveler apply in Bulgaria.

You should of course avoid dark alleys when coming back to your accommodation at night. Streets and sidewalks are often in poor condition, so it’s much wiser to catch a taxi.

Beware of pickpockets, especially at tourist attractions, markets or on public transportation. Always be careful when crossing streets, as drunk or reckless drivers are a huge problem.

Avoid contact with stray dogs and other stray animals. They might seem harmless and cute to you, but can get aggressive or carry diseases.

A common and unpleasant occurrence is people going through the trash or horse-pulled carts full of garbage driving through the city. They’re harmless, although not a pretty sight. The same goes for beggars: don’t make the mistake of feeling pity and giving them money. They’re organised and it’s quite possible that they earn more money than you.

When exchanging cash, only use a bank and not an Exchange kiosk. The official exchange rate for Euro is fixed at around 1 € = 1.95 leva but Exchange kiosks often scam tourists by giving them 1.195 leva for their Euros (did you see the extra “1” there or did you miss it too?).

Paying with a card or withdrawing cash from an ATM is safe, but always check that the card slot of the machine wasn’t tampered with, and have an emergency number at hand to call and block your card if needed.

Useful tips for hassle-free travel to Bulgaria

There are four seasons in Bulgaria, so check the weather forecast and dress accordingly. If you’re headed to the mountains, have in mind that temperatures drop at high altitude in summer, but often you can get a sunburn in winter.

Avoid dressing provocatively, especially when going out. 

If there’s one thing you should bring with you, it’s a travel AC adaptor. In Bulgaria electricity is 220V / 50 Hz and the plug used is the same as in most of Europe. But I’ve never seen adaptors being sold, so bring your own if your home country uses a different plug.

Bulgaria travel resources

Accommodations in Bulgaria

Places to eat in Sofia

  • Pub Dondukov: a great place to meet people and make new friends over a few beers
  • Made In Blue: a modern twist to traditional Bulgarian and international dishes in a cosy house
  • Chevermeto: traditional Bulgarian cuisine, accompanied by a show of traditional dances

Outside the capital you’ll want to follow the crowd and order from a place with at least a few occupied tables. Keep in mind that life goes at a different pace in the countryside and at times your food might take a really long time to be prepared and served. On the bright side, it’ll always be fresh. 

Transportation in Bulgaria

  • Taxis in Sofia: make sure you check the sticker with the prices at the window of the car. Currently, the price is under 1 leva per km. Taxi scams in Sofia are very common, so if you notice anything disturbing, get out of the car as soon as possible.
  • Sofia Metro: whenever possible, use the subway. It’s the fastest, safest and most reliable way of transportation. Don’t buy your tickets in advance, as their use is time limited to about half an hour. Instead, if you’re spending several days in Sofia, buy a magnetic rechargeable card.
  • Intercity Buses: Etap is a reliable company and their routes cover most of the country.

This is a guest post by Naddya Wagner. Naddya blogs at NTripping | Trips & Stuff, a place where you can find inspiration, travel ideas, tips and tricks to make the most out of your trips. Download your copy of Traveller’s FREE Phrasebook of the 3 Most Necessary Words Every Respectful Traveller Must Know in 36 Languages to help enhance your travel experience right away. Connect with Naddya on Google+, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.