Backpacking Bulgaria - Bulgaria itinerary using public transport (2023)

Author Carina Klein
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This western Bulgaria travel guide offers detailed instructions on how to reach every place by public transport – be it bus, train or the occasional taxi. Our Bulgaria itinerary includes everything from the best cities in Bulgaria Sofia and Plovdiv to the best hikes in Rila and Bansko.

We have travelled Bulgaria with public transport to compile a comprehensive travel guide for you – including all the best places in Bulgaria to visit with public transport.

Why Visit Bulgaria?

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.

How Much Time Do You Need in Bulgaria?

This depends largely on you, your preferences, and your speed. We say anything in between one and two weeks is a good time window. As a rule of thumb, you’ll be faster using tours than public transport.

Public Transport in Bulgaria

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!

Tours in Bulgaria

If you don’t have a lot of time of frankly can not be bothered to figure out a foreign public transport system, tours from the capital Sofia are a great way to explore western Bulgaria.

We have compiled the best Tours from Sofia here:

Western Bulgaria Itinerary

Suggested itinerary Bulgaria:

  • 1-3 days in Sofia
  • 1-2 days in Belogradchik
  • 1-2 days in Seven Rila Lakes / Panichishte
  • 1 day at the Rila Monastery
  • 1-3 days in Bansko
  • 1-3 days in Plovdiv

Places to Visit Bulgaria

Itinerary Bulgaria: Sofia 1-3 Days

Sofia is a lively, loud and trafficky capital. It's the beating heart of Bulgaria.

Things to Do Sofia

There are plenty of things to do in Sofia articles online so we just introduce our favourites:

Vitosha Boulevard and the Largo

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).

Churches in Sofia

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 Food

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.
  • 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.

Best Hostel Sofia

We liked the vibe at Hostel Mostel. It's cheap, they have a kitchen, the location is great, and it’s easy to meet other travellers.

How to Get to Sofia by Public Transport

It's 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.

As Sofia is the capital, it's also a traffic hub. Of course, there are many international flights.

Picture of Alexander Nevskij church, Sofia
Alexander Nevsky church, Sofia

Itinerary Bulgaria: Belogradchik 1-2 days

Belogradchik is famous for two things: The medieval Belogradchik Fortress and the Belogradchik Rocks.

Things to Do in Belogradchik

Belogradchik Fortress

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.

Belogradchik Rocks

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.

Magura Cave

If you decide to stay longer, there are other highlights in this area like the Magura Cave. The prehistoric wall paintings of Magura are considered the most significant works of art of the European Post-Paleolithic era.

Best Hostel Belogradchik

As of today there is no hostel in Belogradchik so we treated ourselves to a hotel. We stayed at the Family Hotel The Rocks which is right next to the bus station. They have delicious cheap local food and are super helpful organizing taxis and storing luggage.

How to Get from Sofia to Belogradchik by Public Transport

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.

Picture of Belogradchik castle
Belogradchik castle

Itinerary Bulgaria: Seven Rila Lakes / Panichishte 1-2 days

Things to Do in Panichishte

Hike the Seven Rila Lakes

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.

Other hikes in Panichishte

We decided to stay at a mountain hut close to the base station of the lift and it was nice to stay on the mountain to do some additional hiking.

Our favourite was an easy hike past the 7 Rila Lakes lift station towards Zekiritsa.

Mineral springs in Saparewa Banja

The town of Saparewa Banja is known for its Mineral springs (Banja meaning bath). They even have a geyser in the town centre. They offer a plethora of spas in all price ranges.

Best Hostel Seven Rila Lakes

The Malka Yurta Hut has the perfect location to start your Seven Rila Lakes hike as it’s super close to the base station of the lift as well as reachable by car/taxi.

How to Get from Sofia to the Seven Rila Lakes by Public Transport

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.

From Dupniza, 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.

Picture of Seven Rila Lakes
Seven Rila Lakes

Itinerary Bulgaria: Rila Monastery 1 day

Rila Monastery is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. Founded in the 10th century, the Rila Monastery is regarded as one of Bulgaria's most important cultural, historical and architectural monuments.

Best Hostel Rila Monastery

You can sleep in the monastery. We did not do it ourselves but according to thehotflashpacker it’s best to make a reservation for your stay, and it appears this can only be done by telephone to a Bulgarian phone number (+359896872010) where no english is spoken.

How to Get from the Seven Rila Lakes to Rila Monastery by Public Transport

First, you have to go back to Dupniza. We just ended up taking a taxi for 25 Lew (12,50€) directly from our mountain hut because a taxi to Sapareva Banya would not have cost significantly less.

From Dupniza main station, there is one daily direct bus at 2:15 pm.

Itinerary Bulgaria: Bansko 1-3 days

Bansko is Bulgaria’s largest ski resort but it’s also a hiking paradise in summer. It is located on the edge of the Pirin National Park.

Things to Do in Bansko

Hiking in Bansko

There are more hikes than we can mention in Bansko: Muratovo Lake and Vihren Peak - the highest peak in Pirin - are just two of them.

Outdoor action in Bansko

Bansko is the adventure capital of Bulgaria. You can go canyoneering, rock climbing, white water rafting, mountain biking, you name it.

Bansko free walking tour

Bansko offers more than just outdoor action and hiking: It’s “a town of fortified houses, home of visioneers of trade, culture, and unique local cuisine.

Take the train from Bansko to Septemvri

This is the last remaining Bulgarian narrow gauge railway. It covers a total of 125 km (77 mi). The train runs at an average speed of just 25 km (or 15 miles per hour) and the entire route from Dobrinishte to Septemvri takes around 5.5 hours. If you continue to the end of the line in Septemvri, you can catch a fast train to Plovdiv.

Best Hostel Bansko

There is not really a hostel in Bansko but you can treat yourself to a private room in a spa hotel for as little as 22$ a night at Kap House Family Hotel. Unwind and relax in the pool, whirlpool, and sauna which are included in the accommodation price.

How to get from Rila Monastery to Bansko by public transport

First, you have to go back to Blagoevgrad. There is one daily direct bus at 8:00 am.

From Blagoevgrad, you can take a direct bus to Bansko at 10:30 am, 11:40 am, 1:22 pm, 3:10 pm, 3:50 pm, 5:05 pm, 5:25 pm, 5:55 pm, and 6:35 pm.

Picture of a train ride in Bulgaria
Train ride in Bulgaria

Itinerary Bulgaria: Plovdiv 1-3 days

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.

Things to Do in Plovdiv

Roman ruins in Plovdiv

You can visit the Roman theatre and the Roman forum of Philippopolis on the main pedestrian street for free but there is also a big amphitheatre in the old town.

Plovdiv old town

The old town 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).

Plovidv new town

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.

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.

Plovdiv Food

  • Our favourite breakfast spot in town, Mekitsa and Coffee, is located on the main pedestrian street.
  • 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.
  • In Kapana go to Cat and Mouse Beer Bar as well as DeGUSTOstation wine bar.

Best Hostel Plovdiv

We stayed at Pijama Hostel. The location is unbeatable. The beds have power outlets and curtains. The only downside is that there are only two bathrooms for the small hostel.

How to Get from Sofia to Plovdiv by Public Transport

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.

Picture of Plovdiv street art
Plovdiv street art

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Check out the other parts of our Balkans series:

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