Best of Bulgaria: Readers' Travel Tips
Ski resorts, beautiful vistas, historic churches and a decent dollop of culture – discover Bulgaria's top travel destinations
WINNING TIP: Sea Garden, Varna
The Hotel Capitol has a nice tucked-away position in the city; it's small and stylish. Just over the road is the Sea Garden (a park full of amenities for kids and sports with huge Soviet-era statues and gardens), which is adjacent to the beach. Stroll north through the Sea Garden and go to one of the many clean beaches: walk till you hit the Rappongi, a classy cocktail bar/restaurant with a sandy beach in front. Great value and top quality.
Hotel Capitol, 40 Petko Karavelov,+359 5268 8000, capitol.bg, doubles from €90; Rappongi, Coastal Avenue, +359 8 8290 9090, rappongibeach.com
We stayed with Piste and Peaks in Chalet Diana for our second holiday in Bansko and it was better than ever. You can see big improvements in Bansko and the slopes were very well looked after. The lessons were excellent; the instructors were great with the kids and they really improved over the week. The food was great and the sauna was just what we needed at the end of the day!
18 Hristo Silianov, 0161 408 2089, pisteandpeaks.com
For skiers, Bansko must be the best. A magnificent mountain, with runs of all colours and a village that is like a doughnut: at its core is the old town, wiggly streets with mehanas (bars/restaurants) dating back hundreds of years, surrounded by modern hotels, restaurants and apartments. If anyone comes to Bulgaria and does not visit the Rila Monastery (rilamonastery.pmg-blg.com) they will have missed a world heritage site. Bulgaria is even better when the snow is gone, with its walking, birds and butterflies.Bulgaria, for a British person, is still cheap. The locals are ridiculously friendly. The skiing and snowboarding is good.
Lodge at top of Pamporovo mountain
This was a totally unexpected mountainside gem. This restaurant/cafe is right at the top of the Pamporovo mountain resort in southern Bulgaria. After a hard morning's skiing we walked in to find a roaring fireplace by which we hung up our jackets, gloves and hats so they were warm and dry by the time we left. We settled ourselves at a log table close enough to the fire to feel the warmth and ordered a spit-roast chicken and chips from the menu. A limited number are roasted at lunchtime daily, and this was genuinely some of the best chicken I've ever had, served by friendly staff.
The Rhodopi mountains themselves offered a great number of slopes for beginners, which made up the majority of skiiers on the mountain when we were there. The runs were well graded and signposted clearly, and at the end of the week there were still new (parts of) red and blue runs we were discovering.
It was only on the penultimate day that we first plucked up the courage to tackle the (appropriately named) "Wall" – a steep black run with some fantastic moguls to challenge us. From the top the views were breathtaking. Get there as soon as you can.
You get a sense of both the communist and the royal past at the ski resort of Borovets. The Samokov hotel gives a glimpse of the communist era with its huge, 11-storey building, within which you can find a full-size swimming pool, bowling alley, conference centre and shooting range – entertainment and brutalist architecture for the masses. The sense of a royal past is provided by the Royal Bistria hunting lodge, nestling in the woods. It was built at the end of the 19th century for Bulgarian monarchs. Regardless of whether you are a communist or a royalist, the skiing is good: there are enough descents through pine forest to keep most people amused, and it's cheaper than the Alps. The Rila mountains are beautiful. You get a glimpse of their many lakes on the way up from Sofia and if you don't want to ski, mountain biking and walking are alternatives. Mitropolitska church in Samokov, between Sofia and Borovets, is also worth a stop to see its remarkable wood carvings.
Samokov hotel (+359 750 32032, samokov.com, doubles from €61 B&B)
National art gallery cafe
Arriving two hours late on the overnight sleeper from Istanbul, after five stops for checks by Turkish then Bulgarian border police in the middle of the night, it was bliss to find the National art gallery cafe. There were worn, squashy leather sofas surrounded by a sculpture garden, a warm unhurried atmosphere, and it provided the best hot chocolate I have ever had – pure, smooth, rich, dark nectar that lifted the spirts on a grey October day. The art gallery was not particularly memorable; the hot chocolate was.
1 Prince Alexander Square, Sofia, +359 2 980 0093, nationalartgallerybg.org
A tiny, beautiful Greek-influenced peninsula surrounded by the Black Sea that is the final resting place of St John the Baptist, as well as vampires from the middle ages and hundreds of marinated little fish that are perfect with the local wine. Watch the old ladies boiling up fig jam in the streets, stroll around the traditional stone and wood houses and then relax on the beach safe in the knowledge that a beer will cost you €1 at most. Perfect!
I arrived in Varna from Istanbul, where I attempted to find the great youth hostel promised in my guidebook. Maybe it was the map, maybe it was the late hour, maybe it was the fact that it was dark, raining and not an English-speaking soul was to be found, but after 10 minutes walking around I gave up and checked in to a concrete monstrosity of a hotel. It was expensive and shoddy and next day I found the hostel in about five minutes. My tip? Find two French guys with a car and head up the coast stopping in fishing villages and in rural shops to pick up homemade yoghurt, and soak up the glorious rock coastline of northern Bulgaria. In fact, French guys with a car are optional.
Restaurant near the park. Great food, lovely courtyard, quiet and good prices. This was the first restaurant I ate at on my trip to Bulgaria and I don't think I topped it for the rest of the trip. A really beautiful place to stop for lunch.
47 Primorski Boulevard, +359 5261 1830, monahini.com
Church of Saints Peter and Paul
Match the visual quality of the town with a magnificent aural feast: at the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Veliko Tarnovo, often in the main and the shoulder season, three or four members of the choir sing beautiful hymns for 10-15 minutes. One competed at LLangollen International Musical Eisteddfod 20 years ago.
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