5 days in Bulgaria – the must-do itinerary for the first-timer
5 days are not enough to explore the country thoroughly but are a great start to discover the best places to visit in Bulgaria
If you are planning a trip to Bulgaria for the first time, you are probably wondering many things – what to see in Bulgaria, where to go and how much time to spend. Well, all of these questions are tough for us who have explored our beautiful country a lot. However, there are some places that are really a must not only for visitors but for Bulgarians, too. And if you are planning a week-long trip, we have some tips for you. Below we will share our suggestions for a 5-7-day itinerary through the most beautiful and interesting places to visit in Bulgaria. And don’t think we will tell you about tourist-only attractions. These places are among our favourite destinations, too, and are all worth visiting if you plan to spend your first 5 days in Bulgaria.
Sofia, our capital, is a popular starting point for first-timers. And is worth exploring as well. So, we will begin our journey from Sofia, the city where we also live.
Sofia – the largest city in Bulgaria
In Bulgaria we have only four international airports, so most likely your journey will begin from Sofia Airport. No matter at which terminal you arrive, you have an easy access to the city. Sofia is a great choice to spend one or two days.
I recommend spending two or three days in Sofia, which is not so big but beautiful and green (in the winter it is often white). But if you have only one day, you can visit the main sites of the city. My favourites are:
Alexander Nevski Cathedral and around
The most famous and attractive building in Sofia, the Alexander Nevski Cathedral (Храм-паметник „Свети Александър Невски") often is a scene for photographs. We have friend photographers who visit the place several times a week to take shots. We like the place, too. The cathedral was built one century ago (1912) and is still one of the most gorgeous and largest buildings in Sofia. I will not be surprised if you spend a lot of time admiring the beautiful building from the outside, but you should go inside, too. Entrance is free but taking photos is prohibited inside.
St. Alexander Nevski is a great temple and a place I strongly recommend you to visit. It is the main cathedral of Bulgarian Orthodoxy.
Saint Sofia church
Church of Sveta Sofia (Света София – Saint Sofia) is the oldest Orthodox church in Sofia (the first church on this site was built in the mid-4th century). It is just next to the cathedral, an old red basilica, really impressive.
In the same area you will see the white building of the parliament. It is not open for tourism unlike other parliament buildings in Europe (most notably the parliament in Budapest).
The Royal Palace, the National Theatre and the City Garden
The area around the National Theatre is the beating heart of Sofia. The park, known as the City Garden, is probably the liveliest in Sofia both in summer and winter. In the summer it is full of young people walking, drinking beer or coffee and hanging out. In the winter it is home to the cosy Christmas market. It is also one of our favourite parts of Sofia and we often go there in the weekends. We even wrote a separate article only about this area – Sofia for Guests and Locals.
The Largo and the oldest mall in Sofia
Here we are in the very centre of Sofia, the Largo area. The Largo is an architectural ensemble of three buildings built in the 1950s by the then Socialist regime. The area was intended to become the new representative centre of the city.
Once the Largo buildings housed the Parliament, the Council of Ministers and TZUM – the oldest shopping mall in Sofia. Nowadays TZUM is still operating as a luxury shopping centre and the other buildings are shared between the Presidency, the Council of Ministers and two ministries.
An interesting point to visit in the area is the St. George Rotunda, located in the inner yard of the President’s headquarters. Next to it you will also see ruins of ancient Roman baths.
Banya Bashi Mosque, the Synagogue, The central Market (Halite), the fountains with mineral water and the Central Bath (now Sofia History Museum)
Going slightly north from the Largo, you will find yourselves between the mosque and Halite market. You won’t miss the two buildings, each one with its special radiance. A hundred metres from there (on the west) is the Synagogue and in the opposite direction Is the former city bath house, now Sofia History Museum. A cute attraction just next to the bath are the hot mineral water fountains.
The Central Bath in Sofia (now Sofia History Museum) used to be a great place in the centre of the city with thermal mineral water. It was built in early 20th century (1913) and used as a city public bath until 1986. Today you can enjoy only the Sofia History Museum inside the bath’s building.
Vitosha Boulevard and the National Palace of Culture
Vitosha Boulevard has become the main promenade of Sofia since it restoration a few years ago. You can take a nice walk there and have fun and rest on the many cafes and restaurants along it. One end of the promenade is next to the Court House, nearby the Largo. The other end goes to the National Palace of Culture (NDK), a prominent congress centre and concert hall, also a home to many exhibitions and cultural events. The building is impressive from outside, but you cannot go inside if you are not attending a particular event.
Plovdiv – the cultural capital of Bulgaria, not only for 2019
If you can choose from where to start your trip in Bulgaria, I would say Plovdiv (Пловдив). The city is almost in the centre of Bulgaria. Easily you can visit most of the famous and interesting sites. In addition, Plovdiv is a great city full of history, nice people, cultural and popular events. Plovdiv is the second-largest city in Bulgaria.
For Plovdiv, one day is almost enough ("The most exciting places in Plovdiv, Bulgaria – the European Capital of Culture 2019"), but if you have more time to spend in the beautiful and old city, you can use it to feel the atmosphere, the people of Plovdiv and to visit some museums (Enjoy Plovdiv the way you wish: How to make the most of your trip to Plovdiv, Bulgaria). A reasonable idea is to taste the local food, to spend some time at central cafes. But our favourite attraction is the great local wine. It’s a great idea to spend some time to taste the unforgettable Bulgarian wine. (Try the local grape varieties like Rubin and Mavrud)
The main street (Главната)
The main street in Plovdiv is the longest pedestrian street in Bulgaria and one of the longest streets in the World. It is a place for pleasant walks and shopping. But if you visit Plovdiv, you definitely have to see the Old town.
The beautiful Old town (Старият град)
The old town of Plovdiv is doubtlessly the most important and impressive destination in the city. Combining at least 4 historical layers, it is a unique ensemble of architecture and life from the antiquity until now. On the top, on Nebet Tepe, you will see the ruins of the first settlements in this area, dating back 4000 years BC. An important landmark is the Ancient Theatre, constructed in the 1st century BC. Nowadays the look of the area is dominated by traditional houses of the Bulgarian Revival period. You wil definitely fall in love with these beautiful colourful houses, narrow cosy streets covered with cobblestones. Many of the houses are turned into museums and others are restaurants and hostel so you could spend hours exploring the Old Town.
Kapana district (Капана)
If you are determined to feel the spirit of contemporary Plovdiv, Kapana district is your place. Renovated a few years ago, this area was tuned into art and crafts neighbourhood with many cafes, restaurants and workshops. Head there for a romantic walk or just a hangout in the evening.
Koprivshtitsa (Копривщица) – where you can explore not only beautiful old buildings but also delicious Bulgarian food
Another historical place loved by both Bulgarians and tourists is Koprivshtitsa. It is an old town that has preserved the architecture and spirit of the times of 19th century, the Bulgarian Revival. You might notice the architecture is quite similar to the Old Town of Plovdiv. However, Koprivshtitsa is very different type of place – a really small town, very cosy, where you can have rest from the city life and enjoy amazing traditional Bulgarian food all around. We have never discovered a bad restaurant in Koprivshtitsa so far, almost everything everywhere is homemade and very delicious.
If you are fascinated by such types of destinations, we have many such places in Bulgaria. Discover more in our article The old Bulgarian streets – 10 of the most romantic places in Bulgaria.
Rila Monastery and/or Seven Rila Lakes
The largest and the most famous monastery in Bulgaria is situated in the Rila Mountains. Rila Monastery has more than 1000 years of history and it is the most important spiritual and literary centre in the country. The monastery keeps the traditions, spirit and feelings inherited from the Middle Ages and Bulgarian Revival.
We have a big and, I think, nice article about Rila Monastery, so if it is interesting for you, check: "Rila Monastery in Bulgaria, the place that keeps 1000 years of history". The place is one of our favourites, so we recommend it as one of the must-see places in Bulgaria!
You can explore Rila Monastery (Рилски Манастир) in two or three hours, so if you wake up early and have a car, you can visit first the amazing Seven Rila Lakes (Седемте Рилски Езера) and then Rila Monastery.
Seven Rila Lakes
The lakes are situated between 2100 and 2500 m above the sea level. They are a group of glacial lakes. The lakes usually freeze in October and melt in June, so you can see real lakes only in the summer. To reach them, you should first drive to Panichishte. From there take the cable car to Rila Lakes hut. Then the trekking path is not difficult. However, I strongly recommend you to check the weather first and wear comfortable shoes and clothes. It is a mountain, after all! You can stay in Rila Lakes hut, but the place is very popular so you have to book in advance. Other options are Panichishte and Sapareva Banya. Sapareva Banya is famous with its thermal mineral springs, hottest geyser in Europe and there you can find nice SPA hotels.
Veliko Tarnovo (Велико Търново) – the capital of the Bulgarian Tsars is beautiful city founded along a ridge above the Yantra river. The strategic and picturesque place had been a capital of the kings of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Tarnovgrad was the second only to Constantinople in trade and culture for two centuries. The Ottomans captured Tarnovgrad in 1393 and the town lost its strategic and cultural importance. The walls were demolished and almost all of the cultural heritage was destroyed and burned.
What to see in Veliko Tarnovo
Nowadays you can visit the ruins of the fabulous Tarnovgrad – the hills of Tsarevets and Trapezitsa . And enjoy the beautiful Old town situated amphitheater like on the hills along the river. The city is very popular tourist destination for Bulgarians as well because of its great historical importance and the preserved attractions. You can enjoy the nice pubs and, because of the many students in Veliko Tarnovo University, lively nightlife. If you prefer to see more historical and religious places, you can visit the nearby Arbanasi village. Set on a high plateau a few kilometers from Veliko Tarnovo, it is popular with a large number of historical monuments (churches, old houses…). Alternatively, you can visit some of the many monasteries in the area. Hotels in Veliko Tarnovo
Other places to visit in Bulgaria
In Bulgaria, we have a lot great places to see. So if you want to do more than this list, just check our posts about Bulgaria. In this article we selected the top destinations that are famous, easily accessible and, of course, very attractive and worth visiting. But there are also many others, for example, we like Belogradchik rocks. The rocks are stunning beautiful, but the transport to the rocks is slow and not easy.
Not to miss in Bulgaria
No matter for how long time you are coming to Bulgaria and what you want to see, do not miss to taste traditional Bulgarian food. Despite Bulgarians are a meat-friendly nation, there are plenty of delicious local specialities both for meat lovers and vegetarians. Read our article about How to taste Bulgarian food safely and love it to learn how to enjoy Bulgarian food to the maximum.
Another must-try thing is Bulgarian wine. Either visit a winery or just buy a bottle from a shop – you won’t regret if you are a winelover. Just have in mind not to buy the cheapest bottle (you will be amused to find wine costing as less as 1-2 EUR a litre). In any case, a bottle costing 5 EUR or more would be a good choice. Here you can see some wines we have tried and strongly recommend.