Things to Do in Bulgaria
Rila Monastery, Bulgaria’s largest religious structure, is the most visited site in the country. Its cobblestone courtyard, winding balconies, picturesque mountain views, and brightly colored frescos transport you to a place that is almost otherworldly. The fortress-like complex has been a spiritual center for more than 1,000 years.
The UNESCO-listed Boyana Church is made up of three distinctive sections, which reflect the architectural styles of the 10th, 13th, and 19th century respectively. The Orthodox church is held in high esteem throughout Europe due to its collection of 89 hand-painted frescoes, which depict 240 individual figures in various religious scenes.
Sofia’s landmark cathedral was built to commemorate the lives lost in the Russo-Turkish War. Named after a 13th-century Russian prince, the Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral is a fine example of neo-Byzantine architecture and one of Sofia’s most recognizable symbols. The decadent interior features iconoclasts made from marble and onyx, while the crypt boasts Bulgaria’s largest collection of religious art.
As the sixth oldest city in the world, Plovdiv, Bulgaria can trace its history back to 5,000 B.C. Visitors exploring Plovdiv Old Town (Stari Grad) will be able to experience some of that history for themselves, from the remains of the 2nd century Roman stadium that sit underneath the pedestrian mall in the town center to the 14th century Dzhumaya Mosque, the second oldest in Europe, to the rows of Bulgarian Revival houses that line the cobblestone streets of the Old Town.
The highlight for many will be the 2nd century Plovdiv Roman Theater that sits on a hill on the edge of the Old Town and is still used for concerts and other performances. Other noteworthy sites include the Church of Sveta Bogoroditsa, the Church of St. Constantine and Elena, the State Gallery of Fine Arts, the Zlatyu Boyadjiev House, the Icon Gallery and the Ethnographical Museum, with more than 40,000 displays about life and culture in Plovdiv.
Also known as the St. George Rotunda, Sofia's early-Christian Church of St. George was originally built by Romans during the 4th century, making it one of Bulgaria’s oldest buildings. Today, the church attracts visitors with its medieval frescoes, varied architecture, and Roman-era ruins that surround it.
Founded in 1083, Bachkovo Monastery is one of the largest and most important pilgrimage sites in Bulgaria, and is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed monument. The historic monastery also boasts a magnificent setting, perched in the hills around Asenovgrad and overlooking the Chepelare River.
Just outside of Sofia, Vitosha Mountain reaches an impressive height of 7,513 feet (2,290 meters). As the Balkan’s oldest national park, Vitosha offers plenty to see and do throughout the year. The area surrounding the mountain is also home to the Boyana Waterfall and Duhlata Cave, and close to Pancharevo Lake, making it a favorite among nature lovers.
Focused on the period 1944–1989, when Bulgaria was under Soviet influence, the Varna Retro Museum serves up a dash of Communist chic in the heart of Varna’s No. 1 mall. Over 60 retro cars plus wax models of key characters from the era form the core of the collection, but you can also appreciate everyday objects from cigarettes to makeup.
Also known as Kaleto, the Belogradchik Fortress is an ancient fortress standing on the northern slopes of the Balkan Mountains in Bulgaria. One of the best-preserved fortresses in the country, it dates to Roman times and was expanded over the years by the Byzantines, Bulgarians and Turks. Covering 10,000 square meters and featuring walls over two meters thick and up to 12 meters tall, the fortress was last used for war during the Serbo-Bulgarian War in 1885. Set among spectacular rock formations that served as natural protection, the fortress almost blends in with its surroundings.
Today, the fortress is open to the public as an open-air museum. Visitors can wander through the three fortified courtyards, check out the defensive bunkers and climb up steep ladders to some of the highest rocks around the fortress.
Named after one of Bulgaria’s most esteemed writers, the Ivan Vazov National Theatre has been drawing audiences since 1907. The national theater is also the country’s largest and oldest, and is known for its productions, neoclassical architecture, and history. Cementing its status as a national icon, the theater’s colonnaded façade can be seen on 50-lev banknotes.
More Things to Do in Bulgaria
Set in a grand 19th-century building, the Varna Archaeological Museum houses Bulgaria’s finest archaeology collection. Displays spread over 23,000 square feet (2,150 square meters) and run from Stone Age times to the 19th century. Highlights include some of the world’s oldest worked gold, dating back over 6,000 years.
Called Petrich by some, Asen’s Fortress (Asenova Krepost) is a medieval fortress in Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains. Sitting high on a rocky ridge on the left bank of the Asenitsa River, the fortress was built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great in the 6th century and grew to prominence during the Middle Ages. It fell into ruins after the Ottoman conquest in the 14th century, with only the Church of the Holy Mother of God surviving. One of the oldest remaining Eastern Orthodox churches, the two-story building features a large rectangular tower and mural paintings that date back to the 14th century. Renovated in 1991, it is used today by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
The fortress is also a stop on a hiking trail that takes hikers on to several chapels and, eventually, Bachkovski Monastery.
The Rila Mountains offer outdoor enthusiasts a perfect play land for exploring Bulgaria’s highest mountain. Nestled within the boundaries of National Park Rila, this area is home to the hottest spring in the Balkans, glacial lakes, four nature reserves and endless stretch of scenic landscape. Avid hikers will find easy access to two of Europe’s longest trail routes—the E4 and E8—which pass through some of the Rila Mountains’ 29 peaks. And hikers hoping for a shorter distance can participate in popular one-day excursions, like walks to the Seven Rila Lakes and Mount Musala, which both typically depart from Sofia.
Less intrepid travelers can still enjoy the beauty of this epic mountain range at one of the family-run hotels located in foothill villages like Govedartsi, Mala Tsarkva and Madzhare. Visitors can soak in the medicinal hot mineral waters of Sapareva Banya, a popular public bath, or venture to the Rila Monastery—not only the largest in the country, but also the most-visited site in the nation.
Also known as the Summer Palace of Queen Marie, Balchik Palace (Dvoreca) sits along Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, together with a popular botanical garden. The palace was built for Queen Marie of Romania between 1926 and 1937, when Romania controlled the region. Designed by an Italian architect, the palace is part of a complex that includes several villas, a wine cellar, a monastery, a chapel and several other buildings. Buildings within the complex feature architectural elements inspired by a variety of cultures and religions, including a minaret, a Christian chapel, Thracian, Greek and Roman symbols, and a mix of Bulgarian, Gothic and Islamic designs. The palace rooms open to the public display original furnishings, as well as some local ancient artifacts and photographs of Queen Marie. The nearby botanical garden was established in 1940 and covers 65,000 square meters. It is home to 2000 plant species, including a collection of large cactus species, only the second of its kind in Europe.
The Sofia National Gallery is Bulgaria’s largest art museum, boasting a collection of more than 42,000 pieces. First established in the early 20th century, the gallery moved into the former Royal Palace in 1946, and has since grown to several branches across Sofia, including the Kvadrat 500 and Museum of Socialist Art.
The core structure of St. Sofia Church, one of the oldest churches in the Bulgarian capital, dates back to the sixth century, although it has evolved over time. Excavations have revealed the remains of several earlier churches plus a Roman-era necropolis under and around the Byzantine basilica, and the site is now an underground museum.
Europe’s third largest synagogue was built in 1909 for Sofia’s Sephardi Jewish community. Based on the Leopoldstädter Tempel, Friedrich Grünanger’s design blends Venetian and Secessionist features with Moorish revival architecture. The synagogue is also home to Sofia’s Jewish Museum of History.
Often known as “Vitoshka,” Vitosha Boulevard is Sofia’s main commercial street. Partially pedestrianized, it runs from the historic center to South Park, with most of the action concentrated at the northern end. Vitoshka is home to higher-end stores and cafés, St. Nedelya Church, the huge Communist-era TSUM store, and more.
One of the star attractions on Mt. Vitosha, the massif just outside Sofia, Boyana Waterfall tumbles 82 feet (25 meters) down a stark rock face amid shady forest. It’s a tranquil, unspoiled spot that makes an excellent focus for a walk in the national park. One popular route goes by way of Boyana Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Discovered in 2004 in the center of Sofia, the Amphitheater of Serdica was a Roman amphitheater built in the third and fourth centuries. Just slightly smaller than Rome's Colosseum, the amphitheater was one of the largest in the eastern Roman empire. Seating 25,000 spectators, it lay outside of the city walls of the ancient city of Serdica and hosted fights between gladiators and a variety of wild animals, including crocodiles, bulls, bears, tigers,and lions.
The amphitheater was discovered in the early stages of construction on the Arena di Serdica Hotel and was subsequently built into the architecture of the hotel. About one-sixth of the arena can be seen today on the ground floor of the hotel, which is freely accessible for tourists. Visitors can also see a small exposition of coins and ceramics that were discovered on the site, which are thought to come from the reigns of Emperors Diocletian and Constantine, as well as animal footprints left behind in tiles.
Standing in Knyazheska Garden in the center of Sofia, the Monument to the Soviet Army was built in 1954 to commemorate the liberation of Bulgaria by the Soviet Army. The monument itself portrays a Soviet Army soldier holding a gun above his head, standing between a Bulgarian man and a Bulgarian woman holding a child. Several hundred feet away from the monument are additional sculptures depicting battle scenes, one of which has become a focal point for vandals who have painted it in protest on several occasions, including the anniversary of the Prague Spring and to show solidarity with the Ukrainian revolution.
The monument and surrounding park are also popular with local skateboarders and a skating half pipe and several quarter pipe ramps can be found around the monument. In recent years, the monument has become quite controversial with various groups calling for its removal.
Browse orderly shops and stalls of Central Sofia Market Hall (Halite) in search of souvenirs, snacks, and bargains. Pay attention to the structure, opened in 1911, as the market is widely considered to be architect Naum Torbov’s finest work, blending neo-baroque with neo-Byzantine features, in a neo-Renaissance structure.
The Museum of Socialist Art in Sofia focuses on the art and history of Bulgaria during the communist period from 1944 to 1989. The museum was opened in September 2011 and includes a statue park and indoor exhibition space. More than 70 statues and busts of former socialist leaders, including a giant statue of Lenin that once stood in the center of the city, have found a new home in the park. The statues generally include only the title, creator, and in some cases the town where the statue came from. There is also a red star that once topped the Socialist Party headquarters.
The gallery has art on display that focuses on the socialist period. There are 60 paintings and 25 easel representations. Some of the art depicts life during World War II while other pieces show socialism in the country, including some scenes of happy life under party rule. There is also a video hall for screening documentary films and newsreels from the communist times.
Founded in 1973, the Sofia National History Museum is Bulgaria’s national museum of history. Housed in the former residence of dictator Todor Zhikov, the museum has more than 650,000 objects, although only about ten percent are on display. The main exhibition is spread throughout five halls. The first covers the development and culture of the people who lived on Bulgarian lands as early as the 6th millennium B.C. The second hall continues that theme, focusing on the end of the 6th century B.C. to the 6th century A.D. In the third hall, visitors see exhibits on the Bulgarian State in the Middle Ages and in the fourth hall, the focus shifts to the period of Ottoman rule, from 1396 to 1878. The fifth hall showcases the Third Bulgarian Kingdom, from 1878 to 1946.
Items on display include a variety of weapons, traditional costumes, furniture, tools and household objects, coins, artwork, documents and photos. The museum courtyard showcases a collection of Greek, Roman and Byzantine columns and monuments from various periods.
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