Last updated on November 13th, 2018 at 05:49 pm
When we found ourselves with an unplanned week between our time in Budapest and London we started to look at the Balkans. Having already visited Romania, Croatia, Serbia and Greece we were looking for somewhere new to us. We also had the additional criteria of low cost, good food, easy transportation and a mix of city, nature and historic sites.
After polling fellow travelers and reading multiple travel guides and blogs we decided on the Bulgarian cities of Sofia and Plovdiv with a couple of day trips into the gorgeous surrounding countryside. Not only did this interesting and beautiful country check all our boxes, it far exceeded our expectations and is now on our list to return and explore much more.
While in Budapest we had been chatting with the people at Jayway Travel who are Central and Eastern Europe specialists. They said they would set us up with a perfect customized week covering the best of Sofia, Plovdiv and the surrounding areas. We said “Let’s do it!”
We generally plan our own trips but we know that some of our readers like the ease and peace of mind that comes with booking through professionals. So we will sometimes put ourselves in expert hands like Jayway’s in order to share the experience. In this case we can sincerely say that we highly recommend this boutique tour operator to anyone looking for a completely customized itinerary in Central or Eastern Europe, executed flawlessly from conception to completion.
Whether you go the route of planning your own trip or using the services of a tour operator like Jayway, this is a sample of some of the wonderful things that await you in and around two of Bulgaria’s cities.
Two Bulgarian Cities
Sofia is the capital city of Bulgaria and the second oldest city in Europe. With a long, varied and sometimes volatile history Sofia has many interesting tales to tell. Today, however, the city has a feeling of Phoenix rising from the ashes and finally coming back into it’s own as a vibrant, fun loving urban center.
It is a cultural melting pot with past and present influences including the Thracians, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Ottomans and Russians. This creates an interesting arts and cultural scene and has left some fascinating ancient artifacts. Sofia is also proud of its “Square of Tolerance” where within a small radius can be seen a Synagogue, a Mosque, Bulgarian, Russian and Armenian Orthodox churches and a Catholic church.
Aside from historic sites and architecture the city has a lively atmosphere and a proximity to nature. Any day or night you can walk down the popular pedestrian street of Vitosha Boulevard and see the dozens of restaurants, cafes and bars full of people enjoying life in the city with the majestic snow-capped Mount Vitosha as a backdrop. On a nice day the many parks and green spaces are enjoyed by families, teens, couples, retirees and dog walkers alike.
Some may see Sofia as just a place to fly in and out of on the way to the coast or mountains but that would be a mistake. This eclectic city is well worth a minimum of a couple of days and will have you planning a return visit.
Plovdiv has been designated the European Capital of Culture 2019 and is a fitting choice as you will see. This ancient “City of Seven Hills” (yes there are many more cities than Rome claiming this title) is more laid back than Sofia but it is far from boring.
Artifacts have been found in Plovdiv dating back 6,000 years making it one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world and it was actually named by the Daily Telegraph as the oldest living city in Europe.
Walking through the Old Town of Plovdiv is like stepping back in time with the narrow cobblestone streets and colorful Bulgarian National Revival architecture. Many of these 19th century houses are now open to the public as museums. Here you will also find the Ancient Roman Theater, one of the best preserved in the world, which is still used for cultural and musical performances.
The newer city center is much more lively and modern although you will still find several interesting Roman sites and artifacts here like the remains of the massive Roman stadium from the 2nd century. Sitting atop of this stadium is Plovdiv’s tree-lined main street, Knyaz Alexander I, is one of the longest pedestrian streets in Europe with almost 2 km of shops, boutiques, restaurants, cafes and bars. It’s a perfect place for a meal, an evening stroll or just people watching.
Note: We highly recommend doing a walking tour of both cities on your first day to get a great overview and ideas of where you may want to spend your time as well as some interesting history lessons.
Video of our Bulgaria experience
Day Trips from Sofia and Plovdiv
The picturesque Rila Monastery sits alongside the Rilska River, in the mountains, 117 km south of Sofia. The drive through the Rila mountains and into the Nature Park is stunning and worth a day trip alone. But the 10th century Rila Monastery itself is one of the most important cultural and historical sites in Bulgaria. So much so that it is featured on the 1 Bulgarian Lev note.
The setting is gorgeous and the architecture is quite striking making for some great photo opps. It is still a working monastery although the 100 rooms are nowhere close to being filled. In fact, you can even spend the night with some advance notice. You’ll easily spend a couple of hours admiring the views, architecture, artwork and museum and maybe leaving the crowds to go and sit by the river.
Tip: The Rila Monastery is best reached by car or with a guided tour as there is not much in the way of public transportation to the site.
The UNESCO World Heritage site of the Boyana Church lies just inside the city of Sofia. The church was built in stages between the 10th and 19th centuries and houses one of the most important collections of Medieval paintings. In fact it is known to be one of the most complete and perfectly preserved examples in Eastern Europe.
If you visit both the Rila Monastery and the Boyana Church with a guide as we did through Jayway Travel you will likely be shown the difference in the style of painting. Whereas the Rila paintings strictly follow the style of religious art from that time, the paintings in the Boyana Church portray much more emotion and humanistic focus which was unusual for this type of art.
Tip: In order to preserve this heritage site visits to view the paintings inside the church are strictly regulated to both number of people and duration. If you plan to visit without a guide it’s advisable to book a time slot in advance, especially during busy season.
Koprivshtitsa is a living museum-village showcasing some lovely Bulgarian National Revival mansions. This pretty little town now mainly relies on tourism but back in the late 1800’s it was an important location for the April Uprising against the Ottoman domination and was home to some brilliant artists, poets and revolutionaries.
The town is beautifully situated in the mountains so is also a popular retreat for urban Bulgarians in need of some fresh air and peaceful surroundings. Allow at least a couple of hours to wander the charming cobblestone streets, museum houses and pretty parks. There are also plenty of restaurants to take a meal or refreshment break.
Tip: The Koprivshtitsa is best reached by car or with a guided tour as there is not much in the way of public transportation to the site.
The rose is a symbol of Bulgaria as the country is one of the biggest rose oil producers in the world. The Rose Valley lies about 60 km north of Plovdiv and covers more than 3,000 sq km of land. The oil producing Damascene rose was brought to Bulgaria from the Middle East centuries ago and has been growing in this fertile valley ever since. Today, over 1 tonne of rose oil is produced annually accounting for nearly 70% of the worlds production.
The best time to visit the Rose Valley is from the end of May until the end of June when the flowers are in full bloom and picking is done. It is also the time of the Rose Festival which includes rose picking ceremonies, music and dance and the crowning of the Rose Queen.
If you can’t be there for the prime season it is still worth a drive through the valley for the beautiful scenery and multiple wineries for tastings.
Tip: The Rose Valley is best reached by car or with a guided tour as there is not much in the way of public transportation to the site.
High up in the beautiful Rhodope Mountains, 80 km from Plovdiv are two natural bridges dubbed “Wonderful.” The Roman-like natural bridges were once deep caves which were changed by erosion and earthquake and over time the river running through them washed away the debris leaving the bridges to be seen.
The bridges themselves are indeed wonderful to look at but equally as enjoyable is the location. With the incredible natural beauty of the surrounding forests and mountains and clean fresh air, it’s no wonder that the area is a favorite getaway for locals from the city.
Bring a picnic or have lunch at the chalet and enjoy the peace and beauty of nature all around you. For us it was like being home as the scenery reminded us of our beloved Pacific Northwest, and if you have been there you know that is really saying something.
Tip: The Wonderful Bridges are best reached by car or with a guided tour as there is not much in the way of public transportation to the site.
Bachkova is the second largest Bulgarian Monastery and it sits at the foothills of the Rhodope Mountains, in the village of Bachkova, about 30 km south of Plovdiv. Also known as “The Assumption of the Virgin” the monastery was founded in 1083 but most of the expansions and embellishments date back to the 17th century.
Today visitors can view beautiful frescoes and murals by artists like the renowned Zahari Zograf and gaze upon the impressive 17th-century iconostasis. Pilgrimages are made regularly to the claimed miracle-working icon of the Virgin Mary which is encased in silver and gold.
Tip: Overnight stays are possible at the monastery but be aware that if you are a couple you must be married.
Just 2 km away from the Bachkova monastery is the picturesque site of Asen’s Fortress. The ruins of the Medieval fortress sits imposingly atop a cliff with sheer, almost vertical drops making it virtually impenetrable. Although there is not much left of the original fortress the Church of the Holy Mother of God still stands and houses the remains of some lovely frescoes.
The site has a long and interesting history including occupation by the Thracians, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Bulgarians and Ottomans. But if that is not enough to entice you to visit then the absolutely stunning panoramic view should be.
Note: Asen’s Fortress is best reached by car or with a guided tour as there is not much in the way of public transportation to the site.
These are just a few of the reasons to visit Bulgaria. It is a diverse and beautiful country offering everything from beach holidays to mountain treks and city adventures.
What to Expect from Jayway Travel
If you decide to put yourself in the hands of Jayway Travel, as we did, you can be assured a seamless experience. Here are some of things you can expect from Jayway Travel and reasons why we recommend them:
- Free pre-trip consultation with a travel expert
- Customized itineraries
- Communication with specialists on Central and Eastern Europe
- Choice of using an interactive trip builder or suggested itineraries
- Complete professional service from start to finish
- Hand-picked for you accommodations
- Knowledgeable guides and on-site destination experts
- Convenient in-country transportation
- Traveler mobile phone
- Amazing customer service throughout
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Disclaimer: We want to thank Jayway Travel for hosting us. As always our opinions are 100% our own. This post may contain affiliate links. This means that if you click through one of these links and make a purchase we may make a small commission at no extra cost to you. This is just one of the ways we earn income which enables us to keep this blog going and we truly thank you for your support in whatever form that takes.
Born in England, Sarah developed her wanderlust at a young age as she traveled around Europe with her parents. As a young adult she spent every penny she could on experiences as opposed to possessions. Eventually she found a way to earn a living doing what she loved: traveling, writing and capturing images of the wondrous world we live in. When not on the go Sarah enjoys time in her “sometimes home” of Vancouver.