All About Bulgaria
Over the past two decades, this nation that was once the coziest of all Soviet satellites to Moscow has turned 180 philosophical degrees to embrace Western Europe instead. Though decidedly Slavic, the lovely Eastern Orthodox churches, mosque minarets, Cyrillic alphabet (developed by two Bulgarian saints, by the way), and blocky Soviet-era architectural scars serve as reminders that Bulgaria, one of Europe’s oldest nation-states, has long lain at Europe’s crossroads, a gateway to the east (for the ancient Romans) and to the west (for medieval Ottoman Turks).
Sofia and Central Bulgaria
Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, retains Roman ruins and Ottoman-era mosques, but its tourism scene is dominated by Europe’s largest Eastern Orthodox cathedral. To Sofia’s east—past the pretty town of Koprivshtitsa, all 19th century Bulgarian National Revival architecture—the medieval stronghold of Veliko Tarnovo clings to the steep banks of the loopy Yantra River beneath a castle and its mighty fortifications.
Southern Bulgaria: Thracian Heartland
Just south of Sofia is Bulgaria’s most famous sight, the frescoed and fortified Eastern Orthodox Rila monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Two and a half hours southwest of Sofia by train is Plovdiv, one of the world’s oldest cities. Today a jewel of 19th century architecture, Plovdiv’s deep history passes through the stony medieval street of the Old Town and the largest Roman theater outside Italy to find its roots in the pre-Greek Thracian culture. It is a city of both Orthodox and Catholic cathedrals, a pretty Ottoman-style Sephardic synagogue and the oldest European mosque outside of Spain. Plovdiv is also the jumping off point to visit the thousand-year-old Bachkovo Monastery.
The Black Sea
The white sands of Bulgaria’s Black Sea resort towns have long drawn locals to sip plum brandy on the beach, and the coast became a favorite of Muscovites during the Soviet era (hence the preponderance of 1960s commie-ugly hotels). Avoid the larger towns—Varna and Burgas—in favor of Nessebar or Sozopol, each of which retains older houses and some medieval charm.
When to Go to Bulgaria: Early summer is best all around—though autumn in the forested countryside can be lovely for the colors. Sofia and Plovdiv empty out in high summer, when locals (and other regional Europeans) flock to Black Sea resorts to bask in the broiling sun or to mountain villages to enjoy the cool. Winter is attractive only to skiers.