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There are still plenty of authentic destinations left to explore in Europe without the crowds and overinflated prices — one is the Balkan Peninsula country of Bulgaria, which offers ancient history, stunning landscapes and mouthwatering cuisine. New TPG Contributor David Hoffmann (of the popular David’s Been Here web series) shares his recommended attractions, restaurants, hotels and redemptions to help you plan the perfect Bulgarian getaway. (All photos by the author, except where noted.)
Situated at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Bulgaria’s history spans thousands of years and several civilizations — Thracians, Celts, Persians, Romans, Slavic tribes, Byzantines, and Ottoman Turks — each bringing cultural influences and magnificent structures that still remain. Modern-day Bulgaria offers an eclectic mix of old-world charm, modern infrastructure, ancient relics and bustling beachfront, a budget-friendly destination ideal for history buffs, nature lovers, beach bums and gastronomes.
Thirty percent of the country is mountainous terrain, with the remaining 70% a mixture of river valley plateaus and rolling hills. If it weren’t for its eastern border along the Black Sea, Bulgaria would be completely landlocked by Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Romania. The Danube River provides a natural boundary with Romania to the north, and the Balkan Mountain range runs east to west, creating a natural divide between the northern and southern parts of the country.
Bulgaria has a temperate-continental climate, which means there are four distinct seasons. Winters are snowy and freezing, and summers are hot and dry. To avoid temperature extremes, plan your visit in May or September when the weather is mild. If you plan to ski, December through April is your best bet.
Americans will likely fly into Sofia Airport (SOF), which is located about 3 miles from the city center. Major airlines that fly into Sofia include Air France, British Airways and Lufthansa. National carrier Bulgaria Air offers service from several major European airports, including Amsterdam (AMS) and Athens (ATH); budget carrier easyJet offers service from London Gatwick (LGW); and Wizz Air begins service in late July, 2015 from many airports in Europe, including Barcelona (BCN), Madrid (MAD), Milan (MXP) and London Luton (LTN).
American AAdvantage: One-way from 20,000 miles (economy), 50,000 miles (business) and 62,500 miles (first) on British Airways.
Delta SkyMiles: Round-trip from 60,000 miles (economy) and 125,000 miles (business) on Alitalia or Air France.
United MileagePlus: One-way from 30,000 miles (economy), 57,500 miles (business) and 70,000 miles (first) on United with intra-Europe flights on Aegean, Austrian, LOT Polish Airlines, Swiss or Turkish. One-way from 70,000 (business) and 110,000 (first) when flying Austrian, Lufthansa or Turkish across the Atlantic.
Should Sofia be your destination, you can take a taxi for about 10-15 leva ($6-9), depending on traffic; or hop on Line 1 of the Sofia Metro, which just opened an airport extension outside SOF’s Terminal 2 in April 2015. A single-ride ticket costs 1 lev (57 cents), and tickets can be purchased from the metro station’s cashier desks or ticket machines.
It’s easy to travel the country on Bulgarian State Railway trains, which are punctual and inexpensive; just be sure to specify a seat in a non-smoking carriage when you book online or at the train station. Buses are also budget-friendly and are usually the fastest way to get from one major city to another. As a general rule, purchase bus tickets at least an hour in advance at the bus station. Note that the Sofia Airport Metro connects with Bulgaria’s national railway system at the Iskarsko shose Metro Station.
However, if you plan to rent a car — like I did — you’ll find several rental car company kiosks inside SOF’s Terminal 2, including Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Europcar, Hertz and Sixt. Be aware that for the most part, the roadways are well paved and have good signage, but on occasion you’ll be sharing the road with industrial vehicles (e.g., tractors, trailers, etc.), small herds of goats and cows and the occasional farmer on donkey-drawn carriage.
Places to Visit
Serdika was a thriving city at a strategic crossroads between Western and Eastern Europe; these days, Serdika is known as Sofia, and is a fascinating mix of old and new. Ancient sites that shouldn’t be missed include the 4th-century St. George Church Rotunda, the 6th-century St. Sofia Church and its preserved Roman necropolis, the Neo-Byzantine Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and remains of the ancient Serdika fortress. Most of the modern action takes place along Vitosha Boulevard, a pedestrian-friendly promenade lined with shops and restaurants.
Where to eat: Boom! Burger (15 Karnigradska Street) offers top-quality meats and and a casual vibe. For a trendy dining experience, try Motto (18 Aksakov Street) or its sister restaurant Spaghetti Kitchen next door. Stick around after dinner for drinks.
6,000 years’ worth of human-inhabited history make Plovdiv a veritable living museum. Start in the city center to stroll the main street, Knyaz Alexander I. Check out the ancient stadium and the nearby Roman Forum. Meander the cobblestone streets of the Old Town to admire the Museum-Houses before heading up to Nebet Hill for panoramic views. Save the best for last: the Roman Theatre. Still in use today, it plays host to a variety of performances throughout the year, including the annual International Folklore Festival.
Where to eat: You’ll find succulent grilled meat skewers at Restaurant Dayana (2 Dondoukov Street), and go to Restaurant Megdana (11 Odrin Street) for a hearty dinner and Bulgarian folk dancing.
Veliko Tarnovo is home to one of Europe’s grandest medieval monuments, the Tsarevets Fortress. Plan to spend half a day exploring its thick stone walls and bastions; wear good walking shoes and bring a hat, also start early as possible to avoid the mid-day heat. On select nights, the city puts on an impressive sound and light show over the fortress. To see it you must either be on a terrace with a direct view of the fortress, or buy tickets to see the show from a designated viewing deck.
Where to eat: Ego Pizza and Grill (ul Nezavisimost 17) overlooks the Yantra River, and Shtastliveca (Stefan Stambolov 79) features an assorted menu of salads, appetizers and traditional Bulgarian fare.
Black Sea Coast
There are several towns to visit along Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast — my top picks are Varna and Burgas. Both have beaches, decent shopping, great restaurant and nightlife scenes, as well as several nearby day-trip options to ancient Roman sites as well as the seaside towns of Balchik, Nessebar and Sozopol.
Where to Stay
Located near the city center along Bulgaria Boulevard, the Hilton Sofia is a short taxi ride away from all major attractions in the capital. Amenities include a fitness center and an indoor pool, as well as the on-site Seasons Restaurant, which features a decadent Sunday brunch menu. Rates start at €82 ($91) or 30,000 HHonors points per night.
Another excellent choice in the center of Sofia is the Sofia Hotel Balkan, a surprisingly grand SPG Category 2 property with high ceilings and elegant décor. You can enjoy all-day dining as well as a fitness center and a sauna. Rates start at €75 ($84) or 3,000 Starpoints per night.
The Best Western Prima Hotel in Varna is relatively light on beauty, but it’s only steps from the beach and the gorgeous marine gardens. You’ll also have a complimentary continental breakfast each day and the convenience of being walking distance from area shopping and dining. Rates start at €42 ($47) or 12,000 Best Western Rewards points per night; the Best Western Rewards Rate is €38 ($42).
Almost every city in Bulgaria has a selection of charming Airbnb options. Plovdiv, for instance, boasts several central modern apartments for rent ranging from $65 to $75 per night. Plovdiv offers an array of Airbnb rentals as well, from spacious countryside villas ($200 per night), to city center apartments for $52 per night. Check out Maximizing Points and Miles with Airbnb and VRBO, and keep in mind that Airbnb is a Membership Rewards partner, allowing you to redeem points for Airbnb gift cards in amounts of $100 or $250.
Credit cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Citi ThankYou Premier Card don’t charge foreign transaction fees, making them ideal to use on overseas vacations. To see more cards without these fees, check out Top Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees. With great travel benefits, 2x points on travel & dining and a 50,000 point sign up bonus, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card for those looking to get into the points and miles game. Here are the top 5 reasons it should be in your wallet, or read our definitive review for more details.
With great travel benefits, 2x points on travel & dining and a 50,000 point sign up bonus, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card for those looking to get into the points and miles game. Here are the top 5 reasons it should be in your wallet, or read our definitive review for more details.