To a large extent, Bulgaria is the undiscovered gem of Europe. Not only is it incredibly cheap and full of places to go, fun to be had, but it is an ever-evolving place where no two days are alike and each morning brings a surprise. Usually a pleasant one, don’t be scared!
There are so many cool things to do in Bulgaria. And today we’re going to talk about the best things to do in Bulgaria that are NOT related to their beaches. Really – there is a lot more to this beautiful country than its beaches.
Sure, beaches in Bulgaria are amazing too – and cheap! – and I’ve visited various of them year after year, but today we’re taking a walk outside the beaten track and we’re checking out some other, lesser known attractions in Bulgaria.
Of course, if you still don’t want to skip up on the beaches and amazing stays, make sure to check my article where I talk about the best All Inclusive resorts in the country.
There are not a whole lot of guidebooks for Bulgaria alone. Some pair Bulgarians up with other Balkan countries and hidden gems like Belgrade. I always thought that it looks a lot like Romania, for example.
You will find a lot of information online, though, and my advice is to look for travel blogs rather than official tourism websites (those are great for general information, but they do not really help you distinguish bland, tourist-y places from what is truly worth visiting).
And since this is one such piece, without further ado, here are 7 must see and do things in Bulgaria (that are not beaches or summer resort-related)
(Also, make sure you don’t miss our insider’s guide to Bulgarian culture before your trip!)
Top 7 Things to Do in Bulgaria
With a country as large and beautiful as Bulgaria, there are plenty of amazing things to do, see and experience.
While visiting the beaches during the season is one of the main attractions here (and we’re regular visitors of the Bulgarian coast, as I’ve shared in my previous article pitting Sunny Beach vs Golden Sands), today I want to focus more on other attractions – so let’s get this started!
Visit the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
This one should be number one on your list and you better check it off as soon as possible before we get to more hipster-friendly sights.
The cathedral is considered the symbol of the city Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, and for very good reason.
While it’s not the oldest church in town, it is the biggest and most impressive. In fact, while building it, they changed the plans twice, so that it can welcome as many people as possible.
You might wonder about the name. No, Alexander Nevsky is not a Bulgarian saint, nor is he in any way related to Bulgaria.
He was, however, the patron saint of the Russian emperor Alexander II who fought for our freedom of Ottoman rule in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78.
The basilica was constructed to commemorate the Russian warriors that fell for our liberation. The relics you will see inside are of St. Alexander Nevsky and were donated by the Russian Orthodox Church.
As for the architecture, it is considered Neo-Byzantine. Originally, the Russian influence would have been much more visible, but the final project was of a cross-domed basilica with gold-plated domes that reminds us of the greatness of the Bulgarian kingdom during the middle ages.
Check Out Other Churches in Sofia
Whether you are an architecture geek, or you just love yourself an Instagram-worthy shot, spend some time exploring the other churches and cathedrals in the capital.
Bulgaria as a whole is a very religious country, so it only makes sense to have lots of beautiful options to choose from.
A few steps away from the St. Alexander Nevsky basilica is the St. Sofia Cathedral. And no, it does not have the name of the city, rather the city got its name from the cathedral.
This one is truly ancient and some say it was sacred ground even before Christianity existed.
Its simple, yet elegant Byzantine style is what impresses us 14 centuries later. It is a spectacular example of Early Christian architecture.
During the Ottoman rule it was converted into a mosque and the 12th century murals were destroyed. You can still, however enjoy the ornamental and floral mosaics that cover the floor.
If you look down through the glass ‘windows’ on the floor you can see the necropolis that the basilica was built over.
Look for the bell! It is on a tree close to the entrance. The cathedral never had a bell tower.
Of course, there are plenty of churches and imposing cathedrals scattered throughout the country, as the one you can see below (in the Shipka village):
The St. Nicolai church (also known to locals as the Russian church) is another stop. In the crypt you will find the grave of a minister that once preached here.
Legend says before he passed away he told people from the church they could always ‘write to him’, which started the tradition of leaving notes with wishes by his grave. The place is very popular with students, since the urban myth goes that he helps with exams.
A few other suggestions: the Rotond (inside the courtyard of the Presidency), the St. Petka Church, Sveti Sedmochislenitsa, the church and park of the seminary.
Rest and Relax by the National Theatre
The National Theatre is the oldest and most important theatre in the country. It was established in 1904.
Throughout its’ history, the building suffered considerable damage on multiple occasions (such as the bombings during World War II), however it was always reconstructed beautifully and is now one of Sofia’s most beloved architectural monuments. It’s striking Neoclassical facade depicts scenes from Greek mythology.
Take your time to take a walk through the City Garden right in front of it. In December you will find a Christmas market here and in summer it is the perfect place to relax with a book and some ice cream in hand.
At night, beer is the beverage of choice and you will find the park buzzing with conversations, guitar music and laughter until the morning.
Things to Do in Bulgaria: EAT!
Some essentials of our cuisine are banitsa, Shopska salad, different stews, kavarma, yogurt…
Starting off with banitsa, it is kind of our national dish (although some might argue). It is a pastry made out of leafy dough, white cheese and eggs and once you try it there is no turning back.
There are also varieties with apple or pumpkin filling, but start off with the basics. You can buy banitsa as a street food – there are plenty of stalls that offer the greasy, cheesy treat for around 2BGN (which is around $1).
The true awesomeness, however, is to be found in the homemade banitsa. Since you don’t have a Bulgarian grandma to make one for you, I always recommend HleBar.
The atmosphere, the organic products and the fact that everything they make tastes just as good as homemade are definite selling points.
As for the rest of our Bulgarian menu, try it at our traditional restaurants – mehana-s. For bread, do not just go for sliced and toasted, but ask for parlenka – a sort of freshly baked flatbread, topped with butter, or cheese, or both.
Visit the Royal Palace and the National Gallery
The relatively small but exquisite palace was built shortly after Bulgaria’s proclamation of independence from the Ottoman Empire (1878) and the selection of the city of Sofia to be the country’s capital.
Even though it was constructed in two stages, the strikes with remarkable stylistic unity, which is what makes it a true architectural gem.
After the Socialist party took power, the palace served as headquarters of the Council of Ministers and as a residence of the new members of the government.
The section now occupied by the expositions of the National Gallery of Art was used as a training center for the members of the Communist Party. In 1953 it became the National Art Gallery.
Here you can enjoy some of the best examples of Bulgarian contemporary visual art. Temporary exhibitions, dedicated to prominent Bulgarian painters or sculptors are also held here.
The ticket price on Thursdays is 2 BGN (usually it is 6), so if you are looking to save some cash, go then. (Make sure to double check this info as it might change before I find out.)
Last but not least, if you are interested in Bulgarian ethnography, make sure to pay a visit to the Ethnography Museum, also in the palace.
If you have an extra day, rent a car and drive to Plovdiv. The city, which many consider even more beautiful than Sofia, is the perfect place to be seen in a day for a quick excursion.
You won’t run out of things to do, but you will not be overwhelmed or miss anything important either.
Start by the Old Town with its’ huge Revival-style houses, cobble-stone covered streets and secret corners, and lazy cats, and legends.
This is also a great place to meet some Bulgarian women – being a foreigner is an advantage, more so than in Sofia where they already have their fair share of foreigners and they’re no longer that exotic.
Then, head to the impressively well-preserved Ancient Theatre. If you are lucky, there might be a concert in there that night. If that is the case, by all means stay for it. There is nothing quite as magical as the music under the stars.
Your next stop is not a stop, but the inevitable stroll along the main street. If you happen to get tired, there is an excellent coffee shop/ice cream parlor just at the beginning, close to the city park.
On the other end of the street begins the labyrinth of tiny streets, known as Kapana (literally The Trap in Bulgarian).
This is our last stop- the creative district of Plovdiv and there is always something going on – alternative theatre, live music, literary readings.
Kapana is also a great place to get unique hand-made souvenirs, as well as grab a cup of coffee (there is even a cafй, copy of the infamous Central Perk of Friends).
And their food and beverages are excellent, so it’s not just the feeling like you are in an episode of your favorite show that will make you love it.
One of the Best Things To Do in Bulgaria Is…
…get off the beaten track!
No bragging, but I gave you some pretty decent ideas there, right? Well, now I want you to keep researching, reading, seeing, exploring, I want you to travel with your eyes fully open, I want you to be ready to ditch the beaten track and to go wandering on your own.
With Google Maps and some basic common sense, what’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like you can end up in Santorini, Greece or in another country… And even if you do, enjoy!
PS: I do recommend getting off the beaten path and explore Ruse (close to Romania’s border), Vidin which is another hidden gem with amazing views and a perfect promenade next to the Danube and, of course, Varna during the off-season (because there’s a lot more to this Bulgarian city than the beaches nearby).