This travel guide introduces the highlights and hidden gems of western Bulgaria. It offers detailed instructions on how to reach every place by public transport – be it bus, train or the occasional taxi. This itinerary includes everything from cities like Sofia and Plovdiv to hikes in nature. Additionally, we share our favorite bars and restaurants.
Bulgaria is much more than your typical family and party holiday in Golden Sands or Sunny Beach along the Black Sea coast. Four mountain ranges – the Balkan and Rhodope mountains as well as the Rila and Pirin mountains in southwestern Bulgaria – make this county a hiker's paradise. Vibrant cities like Sofia and the European Capital of Culture 2019, Plovdiv, with a plethora of cultural offers are in no way inferior to their western European counterparts for a city trip.
The country is cheap and easy to travel with public transport. Many locals and travellers alike prefer the buses to trains but I found the trains to be a great alternative. Buses and trains do not only run between big cities but also between smaller cities and villages so that you can reach every part of the country. We paid 3-8 € for our tickets, even the first-class train ticket we bought on the train was not more expensive.
We found the bus times online to be rather unreliable (maybe because we travelled in 2021?) so we would recommend going to the station and asking around. The bus stations in Sofia and Plovdiv are a bit confusing to be honest because they are quite big and with several terminals but after walking around and asking several people we always found the right bus.
Tip: An app that helps you translate written Bulgarian text is a lifesaver because you sometimes don't find any people or if you do they can't or won't speak English with you!
Sofia is a lively, loud and trafficky capital. It's the beating heart of Bulgaria. Our favourite place is Vitosha Boulevard. The pedestrian street leads from the National Palace of Culture to the Largo with many cafes, bars and restaurants along the way. The Largo with its Socialist Classicism architecture is interesting but don't forget to explore the hidden gems in the area. One level underground, you can find the Sveta Petka church and the ruins of Serdica (Sofia's Roman name). Tucked away in one of the Socialist buildings, you can find the Saint George Rotunda church. Speaking of churches, of curse you shouldn't miss Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
Sofia is also the place to best experience Bulgarian cuisine. The women's market is a must to try traditional products like yoghurt and to buy local fruits and vegetables. At the Hadjidragana Tavern, you can try traditional Bulgarian dishes like tarator or shopska salad. But there is also a modern side to Sofia cuisine. The Sense Hotel has a rooftop bar with a great view. Ul. Tsar Ivan Shishman and the surrounding area is a food lover's paradise: Here, you can find everything, including instagrammable places like Made in Blue.
How to get here? As Sofia is the capital, it's also a traffic hub. Of course, there are many international flights. But it's also easy to catch international buses from neighbouring countries like Serbia, Greece, Romania, or North Macedonia. You can either walk to the centre or take one of the trams, which run very frequently.
The hike to the Seven Rila Lakes is one of the best hikes we have ever done. The landscape is stunning and seems to get better with every turn and every new lake you discover. Don't be fooled by reports online that the lift makes this hike easy. It certainly makes it easier (and is a lifesaver for unathletic people like us) but it doesn't make it easy. You still have to conquer around 600 vertical meters (1970 ft) to reach the viewpoint with all seven lakes in a row. Two words of warning: There is absolutely no shade on the trail and you can only buy food next to the lift. If you don't mind drinking from springs you can refill your water bottle along the path.
We decided to stay at a mountain hut close to the base station of the lift and although the accommodation itself was mediocre it was nice to stay on the mountain to do some additional hiking.
How to get here from Sofia? To get to the Rila Lakes, you have to go to Dupniza first. This is fairly easy. We found buses from and to Sofia run often, indeed much more often than listed online.
International buses from Thessaloniki also stop here, so this can easily be your first activity in Bulgaria.
We took the bus from Plovdiv which was kind of an adventure, to be honest. You need to go to the bus station we marked on the map, not the main bus station. Our bus to Dupniza stopped somewhere along the main road. The bus driver just kicked us off and told us to walk towards the Lidl when we looked completely lost.
Next, you have to take a bus to Sapareva Banya. After asking around with little success and even more confusion we saw the bus to Sapareva Banya go by and made a run for it so we have no idea about the schedule or the exact route. From here, we took a taxi to our mountain hut but you can also take a taxi from Sapareva Banya.
Belogradchik is famous for two things: The medieval Belogradchik Fortress and the Belogradchik Rocks. The Belogradchik Fortress, also known as Kaleto, is located on the north slopes of the Balkan Mountains. It is unique because it uses the Belogradchik Rocks as a base for three separate fortified yards.
Make sure to visit the viewpoint we marked on the map for some great views of the fortress. When you take the footpath back to town we marked on the map, you will walk amongst the Belogradchik Rocks (keep your eyes open for caves!). The Belogradchik Rocks are a group of strangely shaped red sandstone and conglomerate rock formations. Just let your imagination run wild – some of the rocks are shaped like animals or humans. At the end of the path, you will find an amazing viewpoint with the Belogradchik letters.
If you decide to stay longer, there are other highlights in this area like the Magura Cave.
How to get here from Sofia? Don't listen to people when they tell you, you can only reach Belogradchik on a tour. You have to spend 1 or 2 nights in town if you do it by public transport but it's possible. There is one direct bus per day from Sofia to Belogradchik at 4:30 p.m. (in 2021). Unfortunately, that's too late to visit the fortress on the same day. It's easy to visit the fortress on the next day and afterwards take the train back from the nearest train station in Oreshec. We only paid 15 BGN (7,50 €) for the first class train ride and 10 BGN (5 €) for the taxi ride so this is option is very viable and still cheap. You can also spend another night in Belogradchik and take the direct bus back to Sofia at 6 a.m.. If you're lucky to visit on a Sunday, the direct bus back runs at 3 p.m.. Steph by Step wrote a great detailed guide.
While this city is not exactly in western Bulgaria, it is a great addition to the capital Sofia. With the longest pedestrian street in Europe and less traffic than Sofia, it's a lot quieter. It was the European Capital of Culture in 2019 and it's easy to see why. With a history of more than eight millennia, there is a lot to explore. You can visit the Roman theatre on the main pedestrian street for free but there is also a big amphitheatre in the old town.
The old town itself is worth a visit with its many churches like St. Konstantin and Elena Church and alleys to explore and wander around. You can visit many of the luscious baroque buildings like the ethnographic museum or the Hindliyan house which is so richly decorated it even possesses a fountain with rose water instead of just plain water. Nebet Tepe Hill offers great views of Plovdiv with its seven hills (although not all of them are present anymore). You can get amazing traditional food, a cold beer and a view at Rahat Tepe – make sure to get their Patatnik which gets served in a huge iron pan.
The new part of town has a lot to offer as well. It's beautiful to stroll up and down the main pedestrian street from the main square all the way to the river. Our favourite breakfast spot in town, Mekitsa and Coffee, is located on this street. The real highlight of the new town is Kapana. During the day you'll find some of the best street art you've ever seen but this area truly comes alive at night. There are so many bars and restaurants that we couldn't possibly list them all. Two of our favourites were Cat and Mouse Beer Bar as well as DeGUSTOstation wine bar.
How to get here from Sofia? It's easy enough to get here from Sofia: Just go to the main bus or train station and take the next mode of transport you fancy – during the day they run often and they are very cheap (we paid 5 € for our last-minute train ticket). In Plovdiv, you can either take a pleasant walk to the city centre (you reach the main square in about 20 minutes) or you can take one of the many buses. They are only 1 BGN (0,50 €) and run every couple of minutes – we found the information on google maps concerning lines, routes and times to be very accurate.