Visiting Bulgaria for the first time and don’t know what to expect? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Here I share with you some travel tips about Bulgaria, that will make your journey easier and more enjoyable. Bulgaria is at the corner of Europe, both geographically and touristically speaking, and there isn’t sufficient first-hand information that will prepare you for your trip. On the other hand, the fact that Bulgaria remains unexplored is kind of good, I guess, as you can still visit great and authentic places, unspoiled by tourism.
Following the measures to contain the spread the COVID-19 (corona virus) pandemic, Bulgaria closed their borders. As of 1 June the borders of the country are open again for citizens of the EU Member States or of the Schengen States (including San Marino, Andorra, Monaco, and the Vatican). The travelers can freely enter the country and won’t be subject to a 14-day quarantine. If you are a citizen of another country, you won’t be able to enter the country or there will apply some restrictions. More information can be found on the website of Bulgaria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
If you have doubts, or questions, just leave a comment below and I’ll double check it for you, as some info can be available only in Bulgarian.
Safe travels to Bulgaria!
I am a native Bulgarian who has been travelling and living abroad for about 12 years already, so as a tourist in my own country I can easily spot those things that are weird, or you need to know about or understand beforehand, so that you can enjoy your stay in Bulgaria. Some things, believe me, will be quite cultural-shock worthy, others not that obvious, but if you can understand why things work that way, you will love the country!
This post has been last updated on 7 June 2020.
Click on the section that you are interested in below in the table of contents or keep reading further and discover my 25 essential travel tips for visiting Bulgaria.
- 1 Things to know when planning your trip to Bulgaria
- 2 How to prepare best for your trip to Bulgaria
- 3 Essentials you will need for your trip to Bulgaria
- 4 Getting to and around in Bulgaria
- 5 Tips about what to expect when visiting Bulgaria
- 6 Things to know about restaurants and food in Bulgaria
- 7 Things to know about booking a hotel in Bulgaria
Things to know when planning your trip to Bulgaria
Here are some tips about things to consider when you start planning your trip to Bulgaria. In this section I answer questions about visa requirements, Bulgarian currency, when to go to Bulgaria and which places to avoid when visiting Bulgaria.
Bulgaria is in the EU but is not a Schengen country
If you are from an EU-member state country and you are travelling to Bulgaria, it will mean that at the airport you will have to go through passport control. The same is true if you travel by car and enter the country through one of the checkpoints. If you are outside of the EU, you have to check with the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs or your local Bulgarian Embassy/Consulate whether you need a visa to visit Bulgaria. Here you can find a list of the countries that need visa for Bulgaria and what the requirements are.
Although Bulgaria is in the EU, Bulgaria does not use the EURO. The Bulgarian currency is called “lev” (лев), in plural with counting numbers “leva” (лева): 5 leva, 10 leva. Quite often the currency is abbreviated into “lv.” (лв.) when it comes to price lists, prices, menus, etc. The official abbreviation for the currency, which is used by banks and other official authorities, is BGN.
What you should know, in order to avoid any scams, is that the lev has a fixed exchange rate to the euro and it doesn’t fluctuate: 1 EUR = 1.95583 lev. Quite easy, isn’t it? You divide all prices by 2 and you get the price in euro.
All that said about money, the best way to get cash in the local currency is by redrawing from an ATM. I strongly discourage using any exchange offices, in order to avoid any type of scamming. I’m not saying that all exchange offices are scammers, but just go to the bank or use an ATM to be on the safe side.
You can’t pay in Bulgaria with US dollars or with euro. Don’t be fooled by the fact that on the euro banknotes it’s written in Bulgarian “евро”. This is because after the country joined the EU in 2007, Bulgarian became one of the official languages in the union.
Weather in Bulgaria
Bulgaria has continental climate, which means that winters are cold, reaching temperatures of -20°C/-4°F with sometimes lots of snow and summers are hot with temperatures as high as 30-35°C/85-95°F. You know what the best part is about this climate? There are four seasons, so there’s a lovely spring in Bulgaria with mild temperatures and some rain and a golden autumn with an Indian summer. Did I just say snow? Yes! That’s right! You can also ski in Bulgaria, which most people do not know.
Places to avoid in Bulgaria
Once the most iconic places on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, today Sunny Beach and Golden Sands are overcrowded resorts where binge drinking and misbehaving tourists had set up low standards in all types of services provided. Unless you want to be perceived as a walking wallet and get low service, these aren’t places you want to visit. I know prices seem quite low for Western European standards, but visiting those places is not helping the local tourism industry and it’s only contributing to overtourism. I remember going to Golden Sands as a kid, as my parents both were working in the tourism industry. It aches me to see today how some places have been ruined by lack of regulations on national level to control and sustain the development of tourism in the region.
Are you struggling with choosing a place on the coast? Ask for advice in the comments section below and I’ll be happy to help you.
I know that Bulgaria’s marketing as a tourist destination, to put it mildly, sucks, so be aware of the fact that there’s much more to visit in the country than the Black Sea Coast. Bulgaria is an amazing country with beautiful and diverse nature, that just waits to be discovered. So, do your research before you go and ask me for an advice if you can’t find enough information online.
How to prepare best for your trip to Bulgaria
So, you’ve decided to go to Bulgaria and you need to prepare for your trip. Here I’m sharing with you some essential things that will make your stay more enjoyable and will help you understand the Bulgarian mentality.
Learn to read Bulgarian
Before you go to Bulgaria, learn to read the local alphabet. It’s not difficult, but it will help you understand a lot of the signs. Bulgarian language uses the Cyrillic script. It looks a bit like the Latin alphabet but here comes the tricky part: some letters look the same but are pronounced differently. In the big cities and touristy areas, there are usually signs in English or in transliterated Bulgarian, but in the country being able to read Bulgarian will be essential for your trip.
In Bulgarian language there are a lot of international words, which will help you understand what’s written, as long as you know how to read. Let’s say you see the sign “РЕСТОРАНТ” or “СНЕК-БАР”. It doesn’t make sense, does it. If you were able to read, you would find out that the first word is pronounced [res-toh-RANT]. Easy, or not? You are standing in front of a restaurant. The second word reads: [SNEK-bar], well you are looking at a snack-bar. Remember, that Bulgarian is a phonetic language (with some irregularities), which means that you read what you write, hence easy to learn.
Learn some survival level Bulgarian
This is absolutely essential. Don’t presume that everybody speaks English in Bulgaria. This is not the case and I will tell you why. As Bulgaria was part of the communist block, English wasn’t taught at schools widely until the 90-s. It was for the chosen ones and there were only a few select schools where you could learn it, as Western influence was considered evil and wasn’t for everyone. Thus, the generations that went to school prior to the fall of the Berlin wall, speak only Russian and German. Young people today speak English, as the language is widely taught at school.
Here are some survival phrases in Bulgarian to start with:
To learn more Bulgarian phrases, check out these apps:
My advice is, do not go to Bulgaria without a phrase book. You can either download a phrasebook app, or buy a traditional phrasebook. I highly recommend the Lonely Planet one. I have it at home as my boyfriend is Dutch. It has been indispensable for our visits to Bulgaria and he uses it each time. Whatever you choose for, you will be thankful at the end.
Read a bit about Bulgaria’s history before you go
Before visiting Bulgaria, read a bit about its history. It will help you understand most of the cultural differences that you will inevitably encounter on your way while travelling around in Bulgaria. Most of those differences are historically defined. Bulgarians are proud of their history and they won’t miss a chance to tell you how great and powerful Bulgaria was during the Middle Ages, which actually is true.
The oriental influences in the country from architecture, to food and mentality, are due to the 500 hundred years (1396 – 1878) in which Bulgaria was a province in the Ottoman Empire. This is also why there aren’t castles or palaces in Bulgaria, but a lot of monasteries and churches and those beautiful houses in Revival Style.
Being a communist country and a fervent follower of the USSR policy in the years of the Cold War, left Bulgaria with a big communist legacy which you can see not only in the architecture and the monuments but also in the low prices, in the bureaucracy and the shattered economy.
Essentials you will need for your trip to Bulgaria
When you start packing for your trip to Bulgaria, there are a few things that you have to consider.
If Bulgaria is just a stop on your Euro- or Balkan trip, you don’t need to pack anything different or special. Good to know is that Bulgaria uses types C, E and F sockets/plugs so if you are coming from overseas you will need an adapter and/or converter. The standard voltage in the country is 230 V, so if your electric appliance are in the range of 220 – 240 V (as is in the UK, Europe, Australia and most of Asia and Africa), you’ll be fine. However, if you are coming from a country where the standard is 100 V – 127 V (as is in the US, Canada and most South American countries), you will need a converter. The best is to get one of those universal adapter gadgets.
One of the perks to travel in Europe is that there are no roaming costs in all EU-member states, which means that you can buy a SIM card in any European country and use it in the rest. If you are from an EU-member state you don’t need to do anything.
Wifi in Bulgaria
Bulgaria has one of the fastest wifis in Europe and a lot of places (hotels, restaurants, cafés) offer free wifi access. In the big cities there are also a lot of hotspots.
When I travel, I always buy beforehand a travel guide for the country I will be visiting. I can’t stress enough on the fact how important and essential this is.
Here are my picks for you:
Getting to and around in Bulgaria
Airports in Bulgaria
There are four international airports in Bulgaria: Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna and Burgas. Varna and Burgas are mostly seasonal and serve holiday charters. The Sofia Airport is the main airport in Bulgaria. From Europe you can fly with low-cost companies either to Sofia or to Plovdiv. Of course, you can also go to Bulgaria by car, train or bus.
Trains in Bulgaria
Once in Bulgaria, you have a few options to get around, none of them being ideal. You can travel by train to some of the major cities but you won’t be able to reach small places. Like if you want to go to the Black Sea, you can only travel to Varna or Burgas and then you will have to use the bus or a taxi. Besides, trains aren’t comfortable and are quite slow. However, there are parts in Bulgaria where travelling by train is really fun, for example a day trip from Veliko Tarnovo to Tryavna or Gabrovo, but never attempt to reach Veliko Tarnovo from Sofia by train. Here is the website of BDZ – the national railway company.
Buses in Bulgaria
Buses are the preferred type of transportation in Bulgaria. There are a few big companies that operate the major lines between the big cities and a lot of regional companies that operate from the big city hubs. When you inquire about a bus station in the big cities always say where you want to go. In some cities, like in Veliko Tarnovo for example, there are different bus stations that serve regional or national lines.
Taxis in Bulgaria
Taxis are quite affordable in Bulgaria and the preferred transport in big cities and even between cities for short distances. All taxis in Bulgaria are yellow. If they are free, there is s green light on the front shield at the left corner above the passenger’s seat. If the taxi is occupied, the light is red. In the big cities there are taxi stands (special places where taxis are allowed to stop and wait), or you can stop a taxi by waving on the street.
Getting around by car in Bulgaria
If you decide to travel by car in Bulgaria, you should know that there are only 2 completely finished highways and 2 half-finished highways and some bits and pieces of work-in-progress. Be prepared that a lot of roads in Bulgaria are in bad condition and I mean really like with potholes the size of a crater. Be careful when driving in Bulgaria, a lot of drivers do not adhere to the rules, which combined with the lack of proper road markings, can be quite challenging. But this should not put you off from travelling by car in Bulgaria, as some of the most beautiful places can be reached that way only. Just be prepared.
There are no toll roads in Bulgaria, but you will need to buy a vignette. Here are the prices and the requirements on the official website of the road authorities in Bulgaria.
Tips about what to expect when visiting Bulgaria
When in Bulgaria, be prepared for some cultural shock experiences. Here are the most important things you need to know in order to have a pleasant stay in Bulgaria.
Shake your head for “yes” and nod for “no”
This is so confusing. If you don’t know that Bulgarians shake their heads to indicate “yes” and nod for “no”, you can find yourself in pretty weird situations. Even if people speak in English to you, they will still shake their heads to agree with you or nod to disagree or confirm a negative answer. Believe me, learning to do the opposite is amazingly difficult. I find myself quite often in situations in Bulgaria that I don’t use any gestures with my head, simply because it’s confusing, after living for so long in countries where “yes” is a nod. Well, after a while I get used to it and I participate normally in conversations.
Talking about gestures, Bulgarians gesticulate quite a lot and play with the intonation of their voice, so at some point it might seem to you that two people are arguing, but it might be that they are just excited about something.
Bulgarians are fond of their traditions
You will be surprised how fond Bulgarians are of their traditions. Everywhere you’ll go you’ll find handcrafted souvenirs, traditional style restaurants with live folklore music and dancing, and if you happen to be in Bulgaria on one of the major holidays, do not miss the traditional celebrations. This immaterial cultural heritage is one of the hidden charms of Bulgaria. Most of the customs have their roots in pagan rituals but some of them revolve also around traditions with religious background.
One of the most famous traditions in Bulgaria is wearing a martenitsa on 1 March. If you happen to be in Bulgaria at the beginning of March you won’t see a single person without the white and red bracelet or small ornament worn on the clothes. There are many legends about the martenitsa but the meaning of wearing and exchanging martenitsi is that you are wishing health and prosperity for yourself or for the person you are giving it to. After you see the first swallow or stork, or a tree in blossom, you hang the martenitsa on a tree and make a wish. This is why there so many trees with white and red bracelets hanging on. Bulgarians leave their martenitsi not only home but all around the world. It’s funny to walk around in Keukenhof, for example (the famous tulip gardens in the Netherlands) and come across trees with hanging martenitsi on them.
Curious how Bulgarian traditional folklore music is? I’ve created this small playlist for you just to get an impression of how it sounds. There’s also one “pravo horo” to get you in the mood of dancing. But I have to warn you, traditional singing is not for everybody. You will either like it, or hate it. My boyfriend says it sounds like a mass massacre of cats… but I can assure you no animal violence or violence of any kind is used during singing. I personally love it.
Check it out for yourself!
Take your shoes off when visiting a Bulgarian house
You are expected to take your shoes off when visiting a Bulgarian house. It is not only polite to do so, but it’s also hygienic. In many Bulgarian houses there’s a carpet on the floor, and in most of the cases it’s wall-to-wall fitted, so imagine you have to clean those after someone who has walked outside in the rain, or the snow, enters your house. Always take your shoes off, when the floor is carpeted, even if the hosts insist on you not doing so.
Which religions you will find in Bulgaria
The major religion in Bulgaria is Eastern Orthodox Christianity, about 60% of the population according to the 2011 census, 8% are Islam, 10% are irreligious and about 22% didn’t specify their religion in the 2011 census. Although people in general are not religious or practicing religion, religious holidays are quite popular with their traditions and rituals.
National holidays in Bulgaria
On public holidays all institutions and offices are closed. Most of the museums and attractions are open, as well as most of the stores or supermarkets, although with reduced working hours. If you are in Bulgarian during one of the holidays, you should remember that locals use them to travel around in the country and to take long weekends, so some places could be quite crowded. On the other hand, there will be some festivities in most of the places, so it will be fun.
This is a list of the public holidays in Bulgaria:
- 1 January – New Year’s Day
- 3 March – Liberation Day – Bulgaria’s National Holiday
- 1 May – International Labour Day
- 2 May – Easter in 2021
- 6 May – Bulgarian Army Day and Saint Goerge’s Day
- 24 May – Day of the Bulgarian Education and Culture
- 6 September – Unification Day
- 22 September – Bulgarian Independence Day
- 24 – 26 December – Christmas Holidays
Things to know about restaurants and food in Bulgaria
There are a few things that you should know about the eating habits of Bulgarians that might impact your experience.
Restaurant etiquette in Bulgaria
At the restaurants food is not served at the same time to everybody on the table. So, it’s OK to start eating before the rest got their meals, unless you want to wait and eat your dish cold.
In most of the restaurants you won’t see a clear distinction between starters and main courses, so don’t get angry at the waiters when they bring your starter together with the main course. If you want to have your food served in a specific order, just tell this to your waiter.
Why is this so? When most people go out to a restaurant, they will most likely share and mix what they have ordered, thus trying everything that’s on the table.
If you happen to be in a restaurant with live music, do not leave after you have finished your meal, but stay for the party and order some drinks, unless of course you don’t like this type of amusement.
Tips about eating like a local in Bulgaria
If you want to be like the locals, order some French fries with cheese to go with your beer, and never ever drink your beer with a salad, instead order a rakiya (the local strong drink) to go with your salad.
Potatoes are considered a vegetable in Bulgaria. I still can’t forget the face of my boyfriend (who’s Dutch), when he got served during a dinner at a friend’s family a dish with some meat, baked potatoes and rice.
Tipping is not a must, but is appreciated
You can leave a tip in Bulgaria if you are satisfied with the service and the food. The service is not calculated separately in Bulgaria. So, if you were happy with your meal, give some tip, but it’s not compulsory.
A normal practice in Bulgaria is to just leave the tip on the table, after you have received the change back. Also, it’s customary to leave the cash for the bill, including the tip, on the table and leave the place, if you are not expecting any change back, of course.
Things to know about booking a hotel in Bulgaria
Hotels in Bulgaria in general offer a very good quality for money. There are huge resorts at the sea side and cute B&B’s in the countryside. It’s up to you where you want to stay. A quite popular type of hotels in Bulgaria are the small family hotels – these are something between a small hotel and a B&B. They are called “къща за гости” (kushta za gosti) or “house for guests” in English. Hotel prices are also quite affordable in Bulgaria compared to the rest of the countries in the EU.
For the best hotels in Bulgaria, use this search option below on Booking.com. When you click on a hotel you can read reviews of customers and see the hotels’ scores.
I am sure I haven’t answered all your burning questions about Bulgaria. So, go and shoot in the comments below. Anything you need to know, what a questions pops up in your mind. I will be happy to reply to all of them and give you the best travel tips about Bulgaria I can.