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Bulbous onion domes crown the Bulgarian capital at Sofia, bolstering their way majestically above the sea of Ottoman minarets and brutalist Soviet creations below. Snow-tipped peaks and craggy Balkan Mountains spike the country’s heart; ski fields draped over their ridges; wild forests hidden in their valleys; rustic villages glistening in hues of red brick and white-washed stone from atop their high plateaus. And in the east, Bulgaria takes on a different veneer once again: Shimmering sands thread their way from Varna to Sunny Beach; the lapping waves of the Black Sea give way to cruise ships and jet setter yachts and colossal tankers alike, and thumping party towns packed with Brit pop pubs and full English breakfasts erupt on the shore. There are few countries as versatile, as welcoming, as wondrous and enticing as Bulgaria in all of Eastern Europe—a land adorned with sun, sand, sea, snow, culture, history, gastronomy and mystery, all in equal measure.
From Austrian-style chateaus between the rising foothills of the Bansko and Chepelare ski resorts, to pool-peppered hotel resorts and private villas spilling down to the scintillating coastal stretches of the Black Sea, the accommodation options of Bulgaria vary hugely depending on your chosen holiday and season.In the summer, huge crowds flock from the capital and the inland mountains for the resort towns of Varna, Burgas and Sunny Beach. Each of these is chock full of hotels and guesthouses, primed perfectly for the package tourist. If you’re looking to save some lev for the beaches and bars, then consider bedding down somewhere like X Hostel, which offers seaside accommodation and oodles of partying opportunities at just a fraction of the cost.In the capital at Sofia, luxury abounds, with hotels like the Kempinski and the Radisson Blu Grand offering the height of modern amenities in close proximity to attractions like the Alexander Nevski Cathedral and the Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church.In the winter, accommodation in Bulgaria’s ski resorts bursts into action, with Bankso below the ridges of the Pirin Mountains taking centre stage with its own Kempinski, the Park Hotel and oodles of cheaper homestays within walking distance of the pistes.
In a mouth-watering fusion of eastern and western flavours, the Bulgarian national kitchen offers up a curious mix of staples—from the Turkic-come-Bulgarian kebab, to Greek Salads, aromatic grills and cold meat cuts aplenty. What’s more, the range of must try dishes and the character of restaurants varies hugely from region to region, with salty seafood joints taking centre stage along the Black Sea coast, traditional Bulgarian folk eateries like Vodenitzata and Checkpoint Charly dominating the capital, Hemmingway’s adding a curious boho-come-Caribbean vibe to downtown Plovdiv and the ubiquitous sports bars and English pubs dotting the resort towns of both Sunny Beach and snow-dusted Bansko alike.
Just like the food, the menu of activities in Bulgaria alters immensely depending on your destination in the county. In the east and along the Black Sea coast, the sand stretches of Sunny Beach, Byala and Albena attract huge crowds of revellers and sun-seekers in the summer months, while fascinating historical sites, like the Varna Roman Baths and the Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral, mirror the capital’s wealth of museums, galleries and majestic architectural relics. Elsewhere, the city of Plovdiv ticks over to the jazzy tunes of its summer festivals, crowned by medieval bulwarks and the ancient relics of Rome. In recent decades, the rugged backcountry and mountains here have also come to play a huge part in the sphere of Bulgarian tourism. Bankso is fast becoming the ski resort of choice in Eastern Europe as a whole, trumping its Polish and Slovakian counterparts with an offering of budget slopes to rival even the Alps. Oh, and then there’s the hiking too, between the rugged peaks of the Balkan Range, atop the dusty hills of the coast and the ridges of Vitosha Mountain closer to the capital.
Naturally, deciding on the best time to visit Bulgaria depends entirely on what it is you’re after from this enthralling Balkan state. For sun and sand, travellers would do well to arrive no earlier than May, and plan to leave before October, when many of the resorts shut up shop for the low season. During this time, expect temperatures in the high 20s and low 30s throughout and plenty of Black Sea sun besides. Bulgaria’s ski season typically starts in late December and tapers off a little earlier than in the Alps, around the middle of March as temperatures begin to rise.