In Bulgaria the visitor encounters a country struggling valiantly to adapt and people who remain remarkably hospitable in the face of social and economic chaos. Urban Bulgaria, especially Sofia, is much changed. In the villages though, you can still find folk who drive the donkey to work, eat homegrown potatoes and make their own cheese. The difference is that they settle down for an evening in front of the satellite TV.Of course, what high inflation means for visitors with stronger currencies (that's most of you), is that the ski and beach resorts are ridiculously cheap. And you don't need wads of cash to appreciate Bulgaria's dramatic mountains, haven-like monasteries, churches, mosques, Roman and Byzantine ruins, and the excellent coffee you'll be offered wherever you go.
Bulgaria has a temperate climate, with cold damp winters and hot dry summers. Spring (April to mid-June) is a good time to visit, with mild and pleasant weather and a host of cultural events taking place. Summer (mid-June to September) has reliable weather, perfect for hiking and outdoor festivals but the beaches on the Black Sea coast can get insanely crowded, and accommodation and camping grounds in coastal resorts tend to fill up. The coast is virtually deserted from mid-September to mid-May. The ski season begins in mid-December and can last until April.
At the Koprivshtitsa International Folk Festival, which is held every five years, some 4000 finalists compete for awards. There is a biennial festival in Pernik at which participants, wearing traditional masks and costumes, perform ancient dances to drive away evil spirits and ask the good spirits for a plentiful harvest. Kukeri is another spring festival, most avidly celebrated in the Rodopi Mountains. The Festival of Roses is celebrated with folk songs and dances at Kazanlâk and Karlovo on the first Sunday in June.
Sofia's city centre is an eclectic mix of architectural styles, largely rebuilt after WWII bombings and complete with a yellow-brick boulevard. Like any other major capital city, Sofia has its problems, including drug-related crime and some of the world's nastiest drivers; however, the EU's 'Beautiful Bulgaria Project' is sprucing up historic buildings and energising old neighbourhoods. The city's compactnes and diversity make it a great place to get your bearings before heading off to discover the real Bulgaria.
Mt Vitosha, the rounded mountain which looms just 8km south of Sofia, is a popular ski resort in winter, while in summer a chairlift operates for the benefit of sightseers. Vitosha is accessible by local bus, making it an extremely popular Sunday outing for the locals, so take the trip on another day if you can.
The majestic Rila Mountains south of Sofia are the place to go hiking. The classic trip across the mountains to Rila Monastery can be done in a couple of days, depending on your shoe leather and stopovers. Those packing heavy duty leg batteries can start at the ski resort of Borovets and climb Musala Peak (2925m), the highest mountain in the Balkan Peninsula, on the way to the monastery.
Veliko Târnovo, capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1393), is laced with history. The Yantra River winds through a gorge in the centre of the city and picturesque houses cling to the cliffs. The ruined Tsaravets Citadel, almost encircled by the river, was a vast fortress sacked by the Turks in 1393. The rebuilt Church of the Blessed Saviour at the top of the hill is great squizzing territory. You can look down on the foundations of the ruined Royal Palace, home to 22 successive tsars. Execution Rock is a daunting bluff directly to the north, where traitors were once pushed into the Yantra River.
In 510 BC the Greeks founded Nesebâr, ancient Mesembria, on the site of a Thracian settlement. It was once of great importance to Byzantium as a trading town, although many of the 40 churches built in Nesebâr during the 5th and 6th centuries are now in ruin. Nesebâr ceased to be an active trading post in the 18th century and today lives mostly from fishing and tourism. The town sits on a small rocky peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. Remnants of the 2nd-century city walls rise above the bus stop, and stone and timber houses line winding, cobbled streets.
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