Regular readers will know that Bulgaria features at the top of nearly every survey into the cheapest destinations in Europe. But there’s more to the eastern European country than its price tag. Allow us to introduce you to the reasons Bulgaria really should be your next holiday.
1. It’s cheap as chips
First things first, let’s address the cost. Sunny Beach, one of the country’s most popular beach resorts on the Black Sea, has been named the cheapest beach getaway in Europe for the fourth time in four years by the Post Office. Using a basket of holiday essentials, including a three-course meal for two with a bottle of wine (just £19.53 here), as a barometer, Sunny Beach was way out in front of second place, the Algarve. This came as no surprise to us.
2. Its beaches are more than Sunny
But what of the beaches? Sunny Beach sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? “It’s cheap and cheerful, with some fairly rough and ready communist-era constructions,” said Telegraph Travel’s Adrian Bridge, following a visit to the resort of Varna, just north of Sunny beach. “But there are some nice cafes and restaurants. We drank a couple of beers (£1.30 for two) and ordered fresh fish from the Black Sea.”
3. It has cute, coastal towns
Approximately a third of Bulgaria’s 378km Black Sea coast is made up of golden, sandy beaches. Along it you will find some charming coastal outcrops, such as Nessebar, the “Pearl of the Black Sea” and a Unesco World Heritage site.
4. And surprisingly epic mountains
Bulgaria’s beauty does not stop at beaches. Indeed, it barely starts, given the country’s remarkably picturesque mountains. Take the Rila range, Bulgaria’s highest and rife with tempting hikes. Its ancient Thracian name means “well-watered mountain”, which would explain why it’s peppered with glistening lakes.
5. Not quite heaven on earth, but close
Mount Musala is the highest summit, at 2,925m. As Paul Bloomfield, writing for Telegraph Travel last year commented: “OK, heaven isn’t a place on earth. But if it were, you might reasonably place it about 40 miles south of Sofia. Because the peak of Musala is as close to the abode of angels as you will find between the Alps and the Caucasus.”
6. The Pirin National Park is alright, too
Protected by Unesco, Pirin is a mecca for hikers.
7. There are more than 120 monasteries
One of the most popular is the Rila Monastery, which resides in the Rila mountains. Founded in the 10th century, the Unesco-protected site was destroyed by fire at the beginning of the 19th century, after which it was rebuilt and now represents “a masterpeice of the creative genius of the Bulgarian people”, according to Unesco.
8. It has relics of its Communist past
It’s not all glitz and glamour though, Bulgaria, as a former member of the Eastern Bloc, also boasts a healthy dose of Stalinist architecture. Sofia, the nation’s capital, is home to the Largo, a gloriously communist ensemble of three Socialist Classicism buildings, commissioned in 1951 and finished in 1957. A statue of Vladimir Lenin was replaced in 2000 by one of St Sophia.
9. Including this remarkable mural
The House Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party, built on the peak of Buzludzha, a mountain in the Central Balkan Mountains, is another doozy. Opened in 1981, it commemorates the early beginnings of the Bulgarian Communist Party on a hillside in 1891. The interior of the now-derelict building is truly a sight to behold.
10. It also boasts stunning cathedrals
Beyond the brutalism of the Communist-era, how about the serenely imposing domes of the St Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia? The building is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world, the second largest on the Balkan Peninsula and it can hold 10,000 people. A rib of St Aleksander is displayed in a case to the left of the altar.
11. Bulgaria goes way back
As evidenced by its two prominent Roman amphitheatres, Bulgaria has a Roman past (post-Thracian and Persian). The theatre at Plovdiv, built in the second century AD is one of the world’s best preserved and is still today used for shows, accommodating up to 3,500 spectators.
12. You need to try its fully wholesome dishes
With so much to see you’re going to need some Bulgarian fuel. Behold kyufte, Bulgarian meatballs. Residents are also fond of fresh fish, especially along the Black Sea coast, gyuvech, a spicy vegetable stew, and ritual breads such as pogacha or kravai.
13. And drink its firewater
The country’s national drink is raika, a fruit brandy made most commonly from fermented grapes or plums. Though shop-bought offerings are likely to be around 40 per cent ABV, watch out for home-made bathtub brews that could stretch to 80 per cent ABV and knock you on your proverbial.
14. There is skiing to be done
Bulgaria is also home to some of eastern Europe’s finest – and cheapest – ski resorts. Bansko is most popular (and often features at the top of surveys considering the continent’s cheapest ski breaks). “Bansko is an old town, set on a flat valley floor in the scenic Pirin National Park, that has been catapulted into the 21st century by installation of modern lifts on its slopes and construction of a lot of new lodgings, many near the base of the new access gondola to the slopes,” says Chris Gill and Dave Watts for Telegraph Ski and Snowboard.
15. And parties to be had
“Held on a mountain top, above fields full of cows and wildflowers a three-hour drive from Plovdiv, this tiny, family-run festival gets everything right,” writes Natalie Paris, our festivals expert, of the Meadows in the Mountains festival. “The people are the kind who offer massages and face paint to new friends, the music is under the radar but essential, and the setting as isolated as you could wish for.” What’s stopping you?
16. You might see actual bears
This should really be at the top of the list, but there bears in Bulgaria. You might see bears. There are said to be around between 400 and 700 brown bears in the wild, according to the Balkani Wildlife Society, split between the Rilo-Rhodopean and Central Balkan regions. There are tour operators that specialise in bear-spotting trips.
17. Very few castles are this rugged
This remarkable fortress, Belogradchik Fortress to be precise, is found on the north slopes of the Balkan Mountains and dates back to Roman times. It was last used in warfare during the Sebo-Bulgarian War of 1885. Visit from the nearby town of Belogradchik.
18. And even fewer caves this cavernous
Don’t let the 30,000 resident bats put you off a visit to Devetashka cave on the banks of the river Osam. The natural chamber has been continuously occupied for tens of thousands of years but was only discovered in 1921. At times it is 100 metres high and is home to a wealth of stalagmites, stalactites and speleothems, whatever they are.
19. Oh, and it has excellent 4G
For what it’s worth.