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six pictures from a Bulgaria road trip

From North to South Bulgaria – a Road Trip to Remember

by Daniela

This road trip in Bulgaria will take you from North to South – from the Danube River down to the Rhodope Mountains. It features some of the most iconic places in Bulgaria and two of Bulgaria’s most beautiful cities: Veliko Tarnovo and Plovdiv. I was recently asked to recommend a one-week itinerary in Bulgaria and I came up with this route. I have created the itinerary based on my extended travels in Bulgaria, after all I’ve been living there for the greater part of my life. This trip will take you to some of my favorite places. I hope you will like it.

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To make this trip you will need a car. You can use public transport, but it won’t be a road trip anymore, will it. As the trip starts in Ruse and ends in Smolyan, you can easily include it as a part of longer Balkan trip. If you want to do this trip on its own, you can fly either to Sofia or to Varna and rent a car and drive to the starting point in Ruse.


Trip summary:

  • 1 night in Ruse
  • 2 nights in Veliko Tarnovo
  • 1 night in Kazanluk
  • 1 night in Plovdiv
  • 1 night in Smolyan

Prepare for your trip to Bulgaria:

  1.  Read here everything you need to know about Bulgaria
  2. Check out what to pack if you are traveling in the summer or in the autumn

DISCLOSURE: This post contains affiliate links. If you book your hotel using the links below immediately after you have visited my page, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost for you.

Each day of this itinerary is shown on the map as a separate layer. You can download the map and use it even offline. Each layer has a link to to the respective day from the road trip. Click on the link to read the details. It’s handy if you are on the road.

Day 1: Sofia to Ruse

  • Distance: 300 km (out of which only 100 km are on a highway)
  • Time: 4 hrs
  • Route: A2, E83, E85

The first day of the road trip is dedicated to getting to Ruse. If you are travelling from Sofia you have two options: one is via Pleven, the other via Veliko Tarnovo. As on Day 2 you’ll be travelling to Veliko Tarnovo, it’s better to take the road via Pleven. Ruse is quite different from the rest of the cities in Bulgaria. It has a more of a ‘European’  look, the Bulgarians would say. Indeed you won’t find in Ruse buildings in the typical for Bulgaria National Revival style, but rather Neo-Classical, Neo-Baroque and Neo-Rococo buildings. And indeed Ruse has a certain flair. It was a thriving city with buzzing economic and cultural life at the beginning of the 19th century. It was the gate where all Western influences entered the country after it gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878.

a beautiful building with a Central European look and a cafe at the side with palm trees in pots in the foreground, Ruse

Ruse

Depending on when you will arrive in Ruse and how much time you will have, I would recommend a walk along the Danube River, visit to the Transport Museum (if you are into old trains) and the Ruse Historical Museum. At the Historical Museum you can see the famous Borovo Silver Treasure (383 – 359 BC) – one of the Thracian treasures found in Bulgaria.


Hotel recommendations in Ruse: Vega Boutique Hotel or City Art Boutique Hotel. Both have free parking, which is convenient if you travel by car.

Day 2: Ruse to Veliko Tarnovo

with stops at the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo and Nicopolis ad Istrum

  • Distance: 130 km (no highway)
    • Ruse – Ivanovo Churches (27 km / 25 min)
    • Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo – Nicopolis ad Istrum (78 km / 1 hr 10 min)
    • Nicopolis ad Istrum – Veliko Tarnovo (23 km / 30 min)
  • Time: 2 hrs (without the stops)
  • Route: E85 (with 2 small detours)
church dug into the rocks with some colourful frescoes, rock-hewn churches of Ivanovo

Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo

Leave in the morning and head to Veliko Tarnovo. The first stop on the way is a very special one – the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo (13 c.) – an amazing complex of churches and cloisters dug into the rocks with beautiful frescoes. The view from the churches over the Rusenski Lom Valley is simply breathtaking. The Rock-hewen Churches of Ivanovo are one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Bulgaria.


After the Ivanovo Churches get back on E85 and head south to Veliko Tarnovo. A few kilometers after the village of Kutsina, take the exit to Nicopolis ad Istrum – the second stop on the way.

Tip: Stop in Byala for lunch. Byala is a small town on the way between Ruse and Veliko Tarnovo famous for the bridge on the Yantra River (Byala Bridge) built in 1865-67 by Kolyu Ficheto (a prominent architect and builder from the National Revival Period).
ruins of columns and a paved street from an ancient Roman city with some green trees at the background

Nicopolis ad Istrum

Nicopolis ad Istrum (101 AD) was an ancient Roman city built by the Roman Emperor Trajan. It isn’t much left today from it, as the Huns destroyed it in the 5th century, however it’s still worth the visit. Nicopolis ad Istrum is on the Tentative List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Leave the ancient Roman city and continue south to Veliko Tarnovo – one of the most beautiful cities in Bulgaria and according to me – simply the most beautiful one.


It’s gonna be late when you arrive in Veliko Tarnovo, so after checking in in your hotel, I recommend to just get out and explore the city. You can have a dinner at one of the restaurants with a view: Ego (ul. “Nezavisimost” 17), Ethno ( ul. “Nezavisimost” 3) or Shtastliveca (ul. “Stefan Stambolov” 79).

Hotel recommendations in Veliko Tarnovo: As parking is pretty tricky in Veliko Tarnovo, most of the hotels have restricted parking opportunities. I would recommend staying in Agusta Spa Hotel, or Meridian Hotel Bolyarski, if you want to enjoy the most stunning views from your room.
Tip: Read my complete accommodation guide for Veliko Tarnovo to choose the best place to stay.
a monument with a sword and 4 horsemen and some houses behind; Veliko Tarnovo Bulgaria, things to do in Veliko Tarnovo Bulgaria

Veliko Tarnovo

Day 3: Veliko Tarnovo and the surroundings

with a trip to nearby Arbanasi

Today you won’t be driving that much, just leave the car at the hotel and get out on the street. Walk all the way to Tsarevets – the medieval fortress that keeps the memories of the glorious past of the city. Veliko Tarnovo was capital of Bulgaria during the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (1185-1396). After visiting Tsarevets (you can buy tickets there) go back to the city and walk along the Samovodska Charshia and then Gurko Street. After that head to the Stambolov Bridge for the most stunning views of the city.

Tip: Get lunch at Lino, if you are visiting in the summer. They have a huge terrace with an amazing view of the city.
lush green hills dotted with spring flowers and a city at the distance with some hilly mountains, Veliko Tarnovo seen from Arbanassi

View from Arbanasi to Veliko Tarnovo

In the afternoon head to Arbanasi – a small village just a few km from Veliko Tarnovo. It has a lovely authentic look. You can visit there the famous Church of the Nativity with beautiful 16th-century frescoes.

Tip: Stay for dinner at Arabanasi. There are quite a lot of restaurants that serve traditional Bulgarian food.

Day 4: Veliko Tarnovo to Kazanluk

with stops at Etarat, Shipka, and Shipka church

  • Distance: 95 km (no highway)
    • Veliko Tarnovo – Etarat (50 km / 50 min)
    • Etarat – Shipka Pass (14 km / 20 min)
    • Shipka Pass – Shipka Memorial Church (17 km / 25 min)
    • Shipka Memorial Church – Kazanluk (13 km / 17 min)
  • Time: 1 hr 50 min (without the stops)
  • Route: E85 (with 1 small detour)

On day 4 it’s time for some serious driving. You’ll be crossing the Balkan Mountains with Shipka Pass at 1190 m / 3904 ft. But before you head to Shipka Pass, get off the E85, and drive south-east for  approximately 1,5 km to Etarat. Etarat is an adorable open-air ethnographic complex – beautiful houses in National Revival Style, crafts shops and treats from 19 c.

a tiny stream with a bridge and a tree and a blue house at the background, Etara Gabrovo

Etarat

After Etarat get back on the road and head to Shipka Pass.  On the top of the pass proudly stands the Monument to Freedom, or the so-called Shipka Monument – a memorial for those who died for the liberation of Bulgaria in the war against the Ottoman Empire in 1877-1878. This is a very special place for all Bulgarians that evokes patriotic feelings. To get to the Monument, be prepared for some (890 to be precise) stairs climbing before you can see an amazing panoramic view of the Balkan Mountains and Sredna Gora Mountains.

a stone monument with a lion in front and a canon on the top of a hill, Shipka Memorial Bulgaria

Shipka Monument

Head further south to Kazanluk and on the way stop at the village of Shipka to admire the beautiful Shipka Memorial Church, which is a part of the Shipka Monastery. The church is dedicated to those who died in the 1877/1878 war and there is an ossuary in the crypt of the church.

red-and-white Russian style church with golden domes and crosses on the top of each dome, Shipka Memorial Church

Shipka Memorial Church

After a short visit to the church get back on the road and head further south to Kazanluk. If you make this road trip in late May – early June, all the rose fields will be in bloom. Kazaluk is located in the Rose Valley, where roses and lavender are grown for the perfume industry. You might not know this, but Bulgaria is one of the biggest exporters in the world of rose oil. You can visit the Rose Museum, which was the only museum in the world dedicated to the rose growing and rose oil production, before they opened the Rose Museum in Beijing in 2016.


Tip: You can take part in the famous Rose Festival, which takes place the first weekend of June each year.
Hotel recommendations in Plovdiv: Hotel Diamond or Grand Hotel Kazanluk, both have free parking. I’ve stayed a few years ago at Hotel Diamond and absolutely loved it.

Day 5: Kazanluk to Plovdiv

  • Distance: 105 km (no highway)
  • Time: 1 hr 40 min (without stops)
  • Route: E871, 641, 64
frescoes with chariots and horses on the inside of a round cupola, the Thracian Tomb in Kazanlak

Thracian Tomb in Kazanlak

In the morning visit one of the most famous attractions in Bulgaria – the Thracian Tomb of Kazanluk (4 c. BC), located just outside of the city, which is the second UNESCO World Heritage Site on this trip.


Tip: If you are fascinated about Thracian history, you can visit some other sites related to that long gone civilization in the so-called Valley of Thracian Kings.  The Tomb of Seuthes III, the Thracian Tombs of Shushmanets and Ostrusha are all located along the E85 between Kazanluk and the village of Shipka.

In the afternoon, head to Plovdiv. The road from Kazanluk to Plovdiv is unbelievably picturesque. You’ll be crossing the Sub-Balkan Valley, Sredna Gora Mountain and Thrace Valley.

Roman amphitheater, Plovdiv, Bulgaria, roman columns

Plovdiv

Plovdiv is the second contender for the most beautiful city in Bulgaria, together with Veliko Tarnovo. The layers of history are visible everywhere in Plovdiv. Do not miss the stunning Ancient Roman Amphitheater and the quaint Old Town.

Tip: Stay longer in Plovdiv to really discover the place. It’s absolutely worth it!
Hotel recommendations in Plovdiv: Hotel Odeon or Chalakova House, for more authentic experience.

Day 6: Plovdiv to Smolyan

with stops at Asenova Fortress, Bachkovo Monastery and Snezhanka TV Tower

  • Distance: 105 km (no highway)
    • Plovdiv – Asenova Fortress (22 km / 30 min)
    • Asenova Fortress – Bachkovo Monastery (10 km / 17 min)
    • Bachkovo Monastery – Pamporovo (54 km / 65 min)
    • Pamporovo – Smolyan (17 km / 30 min)
  • Time: 2 hr 15 min (without the stops)
  • Route: E86 (with 2 small detours)

On the next day head after lunch to Smolyan in the heart of the Rhodope Mauntains. Just outside of Plovdiv stop at the medieval Asenova (Asen’s) Fortress.

A church built on the rocks with some green mountains behind, Assen's Fortress

Asen’s Fortress

Afterwards head to one of the most beautiful monasteries in Bulgaria – the Bachkovo Monastery (found in late 11 c.), famous for its 17th-century frescoes.

a monastery with a church painted in yellow with arches and a round dome, Bachkovo Monastery

Bachkovo Monastery

After visiting the Monastery, head further south to Pamporovo – one of the three biggest ski resorts in Bulgaria. There are two options to visit the TV Tower on Snezhanka Peak (1926 m/6319 ft). Either take the road to the tower from Pamporovo or chairlifts 2 or 4. The view from the 156 m high TV Tower is simply breathtaking. They say you can see the Mediterranean from there on a clear day.

View from Snezhanka TV Tower

It’s gonna be late in the afternoon when you arrive in Smolyan. Take the time to explore the city. The city is pretty long, as it’s spread along the Cherna River. It has two downtowns: the Old Downtown and the New Downtown. The New one is a good example of some Communist Architecture from the 1970s-80s.


A lovely place to have dinner in Smolyan is Bulgarche Restaurant (ul. “Srednogorets”6). They offer traditional dishes from the region and have folklore music and dances shows.

Hotel recommendations in Plovdiv: Kiparis Alfa Hotel in the New Downtown or Plaza Family Hotel in the Old. Last time I visited Smolyan I stayed at Kiparis Alfa Hotel and I loved it.

Day 7: Smolyan and the surroundings

with stops at Shiroka Luka, Buynovski Gorge, Yagodinska Cave, Trigrad Gorge and the Devil’s Throat

  • Distance: 74 km (no highway)
    • Smolyan – Shiroka Luka (24 km / 35 min)
    • Shiroka Luka – Yagodinska Cave (34 km / 50 min)
    • Yagodinska Cave – Devil’s Throat (16 km / 30 min)
  • Time: 1 hr 50 min (without the stops)
  • Route: 866 and 197 (with 1 small detour)

I can’t hide that the Rhodope Mountains are one of my favorite places in Bulgaria. You have to visit them to feel the magic. There are lots of mountains in Bulgaria and they all are different, but nothing compares to the Rhodope. Its beauty is mesmerizing!

a city in the mountains with white building and two flags in the middle of park, Smolyan

Smolyan

The first stop on this route is the tiny village of Shiroka Luka, where the time has stopped a century or two ago. Shiroka Luka is also famous for the school for Bulgarian traditional music.

white houses with wooden window frames and slates roofs and high green birch trees on a hill behind, Shiroka Laka

Shiroka Laka

After Shiroka Luka head into the heart of the mountains to Yagodinska Cave. On the way to the cave the road will take you through the breathtaking Buynovski Gorge. The tiny Buynovska River has cut deep into the rocks. The road is winding and turning, and leaving a space only for one car at some places. Drive with caution through the Gorge!

a tiny road passing through a narrow gorge with a river alongside and a front, Buynovo Gorge

Buynovski Gorge

After visiting the Yagodinska Cave (one of the most famous and beautiful caves in Bulgaria), head back on the same road to the village of Teshel and and the crossing turn right following the signs to Trigrad/Devil’s Throat. The Trigrad Gorge is simply stunning with the vertical rocks hanging above the tiny road. Needless to say, just drive with caution and enjoy the amazing nature!  The Devil’s Throat Cave is like an abyss. There is also the biggest underground waterfall in Europe (42 m high).


Fun: Do you know the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice? Well, Orpheus descended to the Underworld via the Devil’s Throat but on the way back when passing along the waterfall, he was deafened by the roar of water and wasn’t hearing the Eurydice’s steps behind him anymore and it’s there where he turned around. According to the legend Orpheus lived in this part of the Rhodope Mountains.

Well, that was the last stop on this road trip from North to South Bulgaria. Depending on your plans, after this small road trip, you can either go back to Smolyan, or continue to Sofia. If you decide to take this trip as a part of a bigger road trip on the Balkans you can enter Bulgaria from Romania at Ruse, and exit either at Zlatograd-Thermes, Makaza-Nimphea, or Kulata.

Tip: If you are continuing to Greece and crossing the border at Zlatograd-Thermes, stop at Zlatograd – the old village here is simply lovely!

If you have questions about this road trip, or need some tips for the places along the route, leave them in the comments below.

Prepare well for your trip! Pin this for later!

four pictures from Bulgaria with overlay text: 7-day road trip Bulgaria, day-by-day itinerary for Bulgaria road trip

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