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5 Days In Bulgaria Itinerary: Ideas On How To See Bulgaria In A Few Days
Written by Marilyn from A Soul Awakening.
Bulgaria has so much to offer. The country is a natural bridge between East and West, providing natural beauty and cultural origins from both regions. From the moment you arrive and find yourself in the nation’s capital Sofia, this becomes evident.
If you only have 5 days to spend in Bulgaria, the following suggestions are truly worthwhile highlights from my own time in Bulgaria (in addition, check out these cool, small town itineraries).
Experience a taste of Sofia’s rich architecture and cultural history, and enjoy traveling the open roads for short drive day trips exploring further afield to find yourself in awe and experience the rich history, wonders, and beauty, that is Bulgaria. What will you decide?
Getting To Bulgaria – Start In Sofia
If you arrived by plane; it’s only a 20 minutes’ drive to Sofia city center by hiring a car or taxi. Alternatively, there is a train service that takes just under half an hour. Or for others traveling by bus is an option, as many bus service providers have connections from other Eastern European cities that travel to Sofia.
There’s a lot to see and appreciate in and around the city center and is best experienced on foot. However, traveling the subway is also an option and an exciting experience in its self. The metro and train services run frequently; however, there is a lack of signage in the metro/train stations to guide you to the correct platform.
Where To Stay In Sofia
Day 1 – Sofia
Here is how you can spend 72 hours in Bulgaria. First stop, a day exploring in Sofia. Here are a few highlights:
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
In the heart of the city center stands the prominent domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. A noteworthy religious landmark in Bulgaria and one of the most significant Orthodox Christian Cathedrals in Europe. Construction of the Cathedral commenced in 1904 with completion in 1916 in honor and memory of the thousands of lives lost throughout the rebellion against the Ottoman Empire from 1877 – 1878.
The Byzantine religious architecture from the 11thcentury is adorned with ornate gold leaf domes and provides sanctuary for 5000 worshippers. It’s worth stepping inside the dimly lit interior, to admire the decorative work of high columns and detailed frescoes.
Church of St Nicholas, the Miracle Maker – ‘Russian Church’
This sweet and ornately designed and colored church, aptly named the ‘Russian Church,’ was built following the liberation of Bulgaria and the end of Ottoman rule.
The 17thcentury Moscow architecture designed church has five golden domes and offers a symbolism of light in itself. At the onset of WWII and seeing the Bulgarian Monarchy being overthrown by the Russian Communist Party, leading to nearly a 50 year period of Communist rule in Bulgaria. During this time, Bulgarian people were unable to attend any church services.
However, the foresight of the then presiding Bishop, Vladyka Seraphim, worked hard and formed a committee that gained him support for those in need. It was during his sermons that he appealed to parishioners to donate to support others who were in need of food, health services, housing, thus becoming known for his gift of being a ‘miracle maker.’
Ivan Vazov National Theatre
Amongst the many beautiful architecturally designed buildings in Sofia, one that is striking is the Ivan Vazov National Theatre. Bulgaria’s national theatre.
The theatre’s neoclassical design is the oldest in the country. You’ll find the Ivan Vazov National Theatre, located and adjourning the large leafy treed City Gardens. There is a choice of cafes’, however, why not grab yourself a takeaway option and relax in the gardens listening to the sounds of the dancing ballerina water fountain.
As you roam the inner city center that is outlined by yellow-painted cobbled stone pavements and the wider city center, take note of the many other beautiful architecturally designed buildings, like the Sofia University, Sofia City Art Gallery, Central Military Club, National Gallery of Theatre and Film that was formerly a Palace and too many more to list.
Also note the many and varied statues, monuments, and art structures dotting the city center. Throughout the city center, you’ll also find several open green spaces public parks – a very inviting place to just be.
Where To Eat In Sofia
For a tasty breakfast, look no further than a local bakery. Many sell freshly baked traditional Bulgarian pastry, Banitza, a traditional breakfast snack.
Made In Blue
For a seasonal taste sensation, make your way to ‘Made In Blue’ on Yuri Venelin 6, in the heart of the city. The unique retro and artsy style décor brings new life to the restoration of an old traditional abandoned home, with the buildings, namesake blue exterior, and a delightful terrace garden.
The cafés quirky, quaint, and welcoming atmosphere feels like home. Yet, you won’t find traditional Bulgarian food, nor Italian, French, or even Turkish style food. The menu offers a mouth-watering selection of tasty homemade dishes, from the Middle East, and other in-season salads.
Diwan Iraqi Restaurant
The aroma of Arabic spices fills the air as you make your way through Sofia’s largest, busiest, and 140-year-old market, Zenski Pazar, (Ladies Market) in Sofia’s Arabic neighborhood –Car Simeon.
After roaming the local markets and experiencing all that the market has to offer you’ll no doubt be feeling a little hungry. Located on a corner close to the market main thoroughfare, just off a small lane, you’ll find a more traditional Middle Eastern restaurant, Diwan Iraqi restaurant.
It’s a simple menu, in a simple setting and simply good value delicious food.
And to satisfy your sweet tooth, make a stop at Confetti, a fabulous traditional homemade Italian Gelataria, and restaurant. The restaurant offers a wide choice of healthy meals in a relaxed atmosphere. They all offer an extensive choice of traditional Italian gelato flavors to seriously decadent ice-cream creations that are more like a work of art.
Strawberry topped salted caramel gelato, with amaretto biscuits and a swirl of amaretto liquor. Hmmm Mmmm treat your taste buds.
Now it’s time to explore further afield, and a great way to travel in Bulgaria is by car. With a car, you can get to these sights – all of them are very easy day trips from Sofia.
Day 2 – Rila Monastery – Rupite Hot Springs- Rupite Village – St Petka of Bulgaria Memorial Temple
These locations are approx. 1 hour apart. You have time to spend a few hours at each location.
Staying in Sofia as a base provides a great opportunity to experience a number of other different and diverse regions within Bulgaria. I did all of these day trips noted below in a hire car from Sofia. That said, there are bus services available (with much longer travel times) or guided day tours are also available.
Take a 1 ½ hour drive south towards the Bulgarian/Greek border along the A3, then exit towards and through the lush green Rila Mountains to visit Rila Monastery. The largest Orthodox Monastery in Bulgaria.
Originally the monastery was built as an education center for students following the religious teaching by the hermit St. John of Rila. Today it is a remarkable cultural and spiritual center of the Balkans and is pictured on Bulgaria’s 1 lev banknote.
Rupite Natural Hot Springs
A car is the only accessible means to visit these lesser-known natural open-air hot springs (aside from local knowledge). Around 1 ½ hour drive south towards the Bulgarian/Greek border along the A3, and following signs to Petrich.
Then note signs to the Ancient City of Heraclea Sintica. The natural springs can be found located approx. 2km from the village of Rupite at the foot of Kozhuh Mountain, an extinct volcano.
RupiteVillage – St Petka of Bulgaria, Memorial Temple
Whilst in the area, take a 5 min drive from the natural hot springs and visit the Memorial Temple; St Petka of Bulgaria.
The non-traditional designed church was built within the grounds now known as the “Vanga Complex”, in 1994 from money provided by the prophet Vanga, born as Vangeliya Gushterova. Local legend claims that during the prophet’s childhood years, she lost her sight in a storm and subsequently had her first vision, unlocking what is said to be her phenomenal prophecies. Originally from the small village of Rupite, it is also claimed that the prophet found the area around the natural hot springs provided a healing energy source that enhanced her intuitive insights.
The prophet Vanga is well known by Bulgarian people and as such the St Petka Memorial Temple attracts thousands of worshipers seeking solace. Together with many tourists from other countries around the world, who come to visit the small museum showing photos of the prophet’s life, and her modest home where she lived her last years and meet with people seeking her help. As you walk the grounds, spend time enjoying the outdoor garden areas, relaxing in one of the gardens gazebos or picnicking on the manicured grass lawns.
The prophet’s grave can be seen at the foot of the bell tower adjacent to the church.
Day 3 – Plovdiv
Well worth taking a scenic drive to experience the beauty of Plovdiv, and spend a whole day here (this is the longest day of the three days).
1 ½ hour from Sofia, in the western region of the Upper Thracian Valley, you’ll find one of the oldest cities in Europe and Bulgaria’s second-largest city – Plovdiv.
Plovdiv’s old center is rich in history and was titled the European Capital of Culture for 2019. Evidence shows early habitation dates back to the Stone Age, along with finds from both the Bronze and Iron Ages. Around 400BC the people known as Thracians founded the land of modern Plovdiv, under the name Eumolpius.
The proceeding centuries show tumultuous change, change and more change with Greek state rule, Roman rule, Slavic settlement, Byzantine rulering Greek Constantinople, various rebellious uprisings and defeats, then the Ottoman rule. Change continued with Bulgaria coming under Russian communism following WWII and the preceding 45 years, until the collapse in 1989. In 2004 Bulgaria joined NATO and three years later joined the EU, however, it retained its national currency – Bulgarian Lev.
With the many changes between friends and foe Plovdiv is now home to a cultural mix, leftover by the various ruling occupations. Today the cities charm, open public parklands together with a blend of Empire ruled architecture throughout its historic past contributes to the cities prosperity.
Plovdiv Old Town with its unique mix of cobbled stoned streets, lined with 150-year-old beautifully restored, painted residences and its well preserved Roman Ancient Stadium, together with Dzhumaya Mosque oozes a charming, charismatic and calming feel.
The Ancient Roman Stadium runs under the main shopping street of the Old Town. Built with fourteen tiers of marble blocks to provide seating for up to 30,000 spectators during the 2ndcentury, is one of the most notable landmarks in the city center.
Across from the ancient stadium in the heart of the pedestrian zone stands Dzhumaya (translated as Friday) Mosque and is one of the oldest and largest in the Balkans. The Mosques’ pink painted minaret stands at a towering 23 meters and the dusky pink brickwork indicates the Mosque being built during the 14thcentury.
Together with the Roman Stadium, the Dzhumaya Mosque, and other ornate architecturally designed buildings in close proximity, makes for a very contrasting 360°view.
Plovdiv’s Old Town center has an array of places to eat, and like other cities and larger townships across the country, it has wonderful outdoor public parklands. Sit a while and watch the locals playing board games, or simply enjoy the surroundings of the lush green lawns and shady trees.
Day 4 – Bansko (Old Town & Ski Resort) –Blagoevgrad Province Day Trip
Taking in the sights of the Old Town, experiencing lunch in a local/traditional mehana, and perhaps taking an opportunity to treat oneself for a day spa treatment.
A 1 ½ hour drive south towards the Bulgarian/Greek border along the A3, and following signs to Bansko, located at the foothills of the Pirin mountains.
In more recent years the township of Bansko has grown to become home to one of Bulgaria’s top tourist destinations for snow skiing and snowboarding. It’s also fast becoming one of Eastern Europe’s more popular ski resort locations.
As a ski resort location, Bansko is ideal during the winter months; however, is also a natural haven for outdoor hiking enthusiast during the warmer months in the Pirin National Park.
Bansko’s location nestled in the Razlog Valley also provides an abundant supply of water reserves flowing from the many tributaries from the Mesta River and the pristine glacial lakes. You can also find plentiful options to enjoy the many hot springs and day spas in Bansko and the surrounding area.
For the history enthusiast, Bansko’s old town will not disappoint. The areas rich and historic past has archaeological evidence showing that inhabitants of the Bansko and the Razlog Valley date back to 100BC and periods of the Roman Empire.
Find yourself walking down the main pedestrian-only thoroughfare of Bansko Old Town and admire the unique architecture, dotted between many stores and a very modern monument located in Vazrajdane square. The monument was built in honor of the Bulgarian philosopher, Paisiy Hilendarski in 1976 and commemorates his ideas for national self-awareness and liberation from the Ottoman occupation.
As you continue past Vazrajdane square, you’ll then notice a high enclosed wall surrounding, a simple and well-maintained garden that surrounds the church of “Sveta Troitsa” – Saint Trinity, a Bulgarian Orthodox Christian church.
The humble exterior can appear deceptive; however step inside from the side entrance and feast your eyes on the ornate, colorful and exquisite interior. Chandeliers light the interior and shine a golden glow on the gold-gilded frames housing icon images.
This humble church was built during the Ottoman rule, taking nearly 45 years to complete both the church and the free-standing clock tower in the garden. During this period the local church founders paid heavy taxes to the Ottoman rulers which extended the construction of the church beyond a normal construction period.
There are many choices of traditional restaurants; known as mehana in the old town. You’ll also find bars, cafés, many creperies, boutique clothing and of course many ski wear stores and traditional ceramic wares and souvenirs.
Day 5 – Sofia
There is just now way you can see all of Sofia in one day – so be sure to use day 5 to explore the parts you missed.
If you have time and are in Bulgaria in June check out the Rose Valley.
During the first weekend of June, the Central Bulgaria township of Kazanlak is blossoming with roses and the annual rose festival and harvest time is underway. The festival boasts a tradition of gathering roses early in the morning by people dressed in traditional clothing, with folk dancers, singers, and musicians performing in the rose fields.
Driving from Sofia to Kazanlak is approx. 2 ½ hours, however, be sure to make a visit to the Damascena Ethnographic complex of Kazanlak, a short drive on the outer regions of the town center. Experience the rose distillation process and the sweet scent of delicate Damascenaroses. Enjoy learning more about the production of pure organic rose essential oil. Stop by the gift shop and buy yourself a gift to take home.
I trust you will enjoy your short 5-day stay experiencing Bulgaria’s capital – Sofia. Soaking up and admiring the city’s beauty, history and the blend of uniquely beautifully designed architecture. Along with sampling some of the regional highlights and treasures.Share