Bulgaria is a hidden gem in Eastern Europe, mostly popular amongst independent backpackers and nature lovers. Because I truly admire the ancient sites and history, diverse landscapes and vibrant culture, I dedicate this blog post to my recent road trip in Bulgaria. Contrary to my 2-week itinerary in Sicily (read about this experience by train here), my Bulgarian itinerary is perfect for a 12-day roundtrip by car.
Day 1: Belogradchik – a majestic citadel carved in stone
We began our adventure with a daytrip form Sofia to Belogradchik. Belogradchik is a small town at the foothills of the Balkan Mountains. Belogradchik fortress is the main touristic highlight, which offers an introduction in Bulgaria’s century-old heritage.
If you don’t mind driving a total of six hours, it’s a beautiful daytrip from Sofia. However, hiking the region may be easier and include more advanced paths if you stay overnight.
Day 2: Veliko Tarnovo – the former capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire
After we met my cousin in Sofia, we were planning to see my aunt in Shumen. On our way there, we stopped in Veliko Tarnovo. The medieval fortress of Tsarevets was once the stronghold of the Second Bulgarian Empire. It offers impressive architecture and panoramic views of the Yantra River.
One could easily spend a full day in Veliko Tarnovo. But we quickly continued because my aunt was already waiting for us in Shumen.
Day 3: Preslav and Shumen – a glimpse into Bulgaria’s ancient past
My aunt made us discover more archaeological treasures. First, we visited the Golden Church of Preslav, also called Round Church. It was built with a distinct round design and decorating elements, which were unusual for Old Bulgarian churches between the 9thand 10th century.
Second, we got beautiful views of the surrounding countryside from the Shumen Fortress, a 2,600-year old ancient stronghold.
Last, we walked around the Founders of the Bulgarian State Monument, also called Monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria. This cubist symbol was built in 1981 to commemorate 1,300 years after the First Bulgarian State. If you’re missing some exercise, you can walk up the 1,300 stairs to reach the monument, which is located on the plateau above the city of Shumen.
Day 4: Madara and Pliska – exploring the first Bulgarian capital
Before leaving my aunt and Shumen behind us again, we drove to Madara. This little village is famous for the Madara Rider, a UNESCO medieval art piece with inscriptions carved on cliffs. It’s the oldest Bulgarian official document from the 8th century. On a little hike in the mountain, you’ll also come across different caves and a rock chapel.
At the Pliska Museum of National History and Archaeology, we travelled back in time. It’s inside a strong stone fortification, which surrounds an impressive archeological site.
When we arrived in front of the Great Basilica outside of these walls, we had no doubt anymore that Pliska had once been a thriving metropolis. You’ll get an impression of the significance of Pliska in Bulgarian history in my reel on Instagram. But also the photos of this restored basilica look unreal.
Day 5: Aladzha Monastery and Cape Kaliakra – nature and spirituality combined
We spent two nights in Varna, as the base for more explorations in the surrounding area. First, we left the city and moved north along the coast to visit the mystical Aladzha Monastery. It’s a network of caves and chambers, which was once inhabited by hermit monks.
Afterward, we drove to Cape Kaliakra. The dramatic cliffs and panoramic views hold a rich history of battles and legends.
Day 6: Varna and Stone Forest – mysteries by the black sea
Before leaving town, we discovered Varna’s beautifully preserved Roman Baths.
Then, we witnessed the Stone Forest, a natural phenomenon of ancient stone pillars. They create a surreal landscape. It’s a pity that Bulgaria doesn’t fully exploit tourism.
Day 7: Nessebar – an architectural star on the Black Sea
Nessebar has got a charming old town on a peninsula, which feels like a living museum. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. The narrow cobbled streets are lined with well-preserved medieval buildings, ancient churches, and traditional wooden houses.
Day 8: Sozopol – where fig wine waits you in front of ancient ruins
From Nessebar, we visited Sozopol on a daytrip. The Old Town is characterized by its charming cobblestone streets, traditional houses, and quaint fishing harbor. The picturesque seafront town is renowned for fresh seafood delicacies and fig wine.
Day 9: Stara Zagora – uncovering Thracian treasures
Next, we headed inland to Stara Zagora, a city with a rich Thracian heritage. The Roman Forum of Augusta Traiana is a well-preserved archaeological site that is open for walks. The Opera House and many art galleries would probably have been worth a visit as well. But we continued to Plovdiv the same day.
Day 10: Plovdiv – where the past and present coexist
Plovdiv is probably the most beautiful city where ancient ruins and modern attractions blend. In the well-preserved Old Town, you can admire colorful 19th-century houses and visit the impressive Roman Theater. Kapana is a trendy neighborhood filled with art galleries, craft shops, and lively cafes.
Day 11: Vitosha – nature’s playground near Sofia
Vitosha Mountain is located just outside Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria. It offers plenty of outdoor activities, such as hiking, biking, or skiing, depending on the season. You may enjoy breathtaking views from the summit of Cherni Vrah, the highest peak in the mountain range, or explore stone rivers.
Day 12: Sofia – a vibrant capital steeped in history
We concluded our journey in Sofia, a city that seamlessly combines its rich historical past with a modern urban vibe. The iconic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a magnificent Orthodox church that dominates the city skyline. The St. Sofia Orthodox Church is a brick building with an underground crypt that date back to the 4th-6th centuries AD. Sofia is named after it – meaning ‘holy wisdom’. The Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker is a Russian Orthodox Church with colorful tiled exterior and gilded onion domes. It was built above the Saray Mosque destroyed by Bulgarian forces during their liberation from Ottoman rule in 1882.
The rest of the day, we strolled through the streets of the city center, explored coffeeshops and the vibrant Vitosha Boulevard, lined with shops, cafes, and restaurants. You may wanna check out some cafes and restaurants recommended by the Colorful Sisters over here.
Conclusion: Bulgarian is a totally underrated destination!
Whether we were exploring ancient ruins, sampling regional delicacies, or simply enjoying the scenic beauty, this road trip was an enriching and memorable experience. From the Thracians and Romans to the Byzantines and Ottomans, the country’s history is etched into its architecture, museums, and archaeological sites. Moreover, Bulgaria offers breathtaking natural wonders at every turn.
My only advice: Skip other destinations packed with tourists. Pack your bags, buckle up, and embark on a Bulgarian exploration!