Why You Need To Go To Bulgaria
I had zero expectations for Bulgaria. I’d never met a Bulgarian, I’d never met anyone who’d been to Bulgaria and I’d never read or seen anything about the place. I was going in blank, and that was actually nice for a change.
I did have high hopes, however. After a forgettable experience in Turkey, I needed a place to make me smile again, and while the bus ride over the border was of the I-want-to-punch-someone-in-the-face variety, somewhat of a fitting farewell gift from the Turkish, I still had hopes that Bulgaria would be different.
I freakin’ love Bulgaria. As I think back over my three weeks in the country, I struggle to remember any negative experiences at all. My only regret is that I couldn’t stay longer and explore.
What’s so great about it? I’ll tell you.
It’s so cheap
It’s one of the cheapest countries I’ve ever been to, and since the country has abandoned its plan to adopt the euro it’s likely things will stay that way. Average salaries are around $600/month and things in the country are priced accordingly. That means $2 for a cab ride, $4 for a restaurant meal and $5 for a movie ticket.
My hostel in Plovdiv was beautiful; we had real beds instead of bunks, ultra-fast wifi, and a daily breakfast of salami, ham, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, cheese, fruit, toast, jam, muesli, tea and coffee (most hostels just give you bread and jam). All up it cost me around 45 euro for five nights. Gin and tonics at the bars rarely cost more than $3. Getting connected with a sim card with internet cost me around $5. I managed to get great Airbnbs, bang in the city centre in both Plovdiv and Sofia, for around $20-$30 a night. If you’re looking for an affordable place to travel in Europe, it doesn’t get much better than Bulgaria.
The internet is lightning quick
According to Bloomberg, Bulgaria has the 8th fastest internet in the world – faster than the US, and definitely faster than New Zealand. For someone who works online this certainly had me smiling every morning. If you’re travelling in Bulgaria and decide to take a lazy day of Youtubing, take comfort in knowing you won’t be punching your phone waiting for videos to load (in HD, too!).
Bulgarians are awesome
On my first night in Plovdiv I met up with a Couchsurfer and we headed out for some traditional Bulgarian food before hitting up Fabric – a grungy little bar in Plovdiv’s centre. A few of her friends were there and invited us to sit with them, and we spent the night sipping cheap black russians and chatting the night away. They all spoke great English, welcomed me enthusiastically to their country and were super laid-back and friendly – exactly my kind of people.
As it turned out, this hospitality would continue for the remainder of my visit. Making friends was effortless in Plovdiv, and while I planned to only stay a couple of days I ended up staying in town for two weeks. During my stay I was invited out every single night – to a dinner, a jazz bar, a club, a party – everyone doing their best to ensure Plovdiv left a smile on my face (it did). On my final night in Plovdiv I decided to do it easy, so I headed to one of my favourite bars for one last drink, alone. Yet during the walk home I bumped into two friends who refused to let me head home early for the night. Until the final hour, I was in good company in Plovdiv.
After Plovdiv I only had three short days in Sofia, the capital, but even there it was more of the same. Just friendly, awesome people, everywhere I went. I love Bulgaria.
It’s a little off the grid
Other than Sunny Beach and Varna on the east coast, not many people seem to visit Bulgaria. I probably wouldn’t have either, had I not been trying to run away from Turkey just next door. But as I’ve learned, places like this are always the most fun to explore – few hustlers, low prices, and a genuine look into the country without a sparkling tourist façade. The free walking tours in Sofia and Plovdiv only collected around 6-8 people per day (in bigger cities, you can get up to 30 or 40+) and even the free Sofia food tour, where we ate for free in some of Sofia’s hippest joints, only had about 12. The foreigners you do meet will generally be Erasmus students or people just passing through. If you’re looking for somewhere in Europe that isn’t crawling with tourists a la Paris and London, Bulgaria could be the perfect choice.
Like all places Bulgaria has its shady areas but I wandered around alone during early mornings and late nights and never felt in danger once. Walking home alone past midnight in Plovdiv and Sofia felt safer than most big cities, especially as the streets were generally calm and well lit. Even around 2am I regularly saw girls walking home alone – usually a good sign that the streets are considered safe. Of course you should take your usual precautions and avoid the rough parts of town, but for the most part you can rest easy in Bulgaria.
Everyone speaks English!
Well perhaps not everyone, and perhaps not perfectly, but most will speak enough to understand you and indulge in small conversation. I also met many Bulgarians who spoke near perfect English which was a quite a surprise to me, especially after coming from Turkey where English is almost non-existent. I had been prepared for a big language barrier on my arrival, so it was nice to find I was understood by almost everyone I came into contact with, whether it be in a hostel, a store, a restaurant or coffee shop. Of course, you should still make an effort to learn a little Bulgarian, too.Nazdrave!
While not known for their food, Bulgaria makes some pretty delicious stuff. You can start off your day with a few pieces of banitsa, a greasy, delicious, crispy baked pastry filled with something awesome (usually egg, onion or potato). Follow up with a few gallons of ayran – a traditional Bulgarian yoghurt drink (best yoghurt in the world!) Next you might want to indulge a few gulps of tarator, a cucumber, garlic and yoghurt soup. Then get serious and prime yourself with a classic shopska salad – Bulgaria’s trademark cucumber, tomato, onion, cheese and parsley mix, enjoy their very chunky oversized skewers of traditional barbecued meat, eat a few loaves of bread with spreads of Bulgarian lyutenitsa, a tomato and capsicum spread, indulge in a couple of famous Bulgarian kyufte, or stuffed meatballs, and of course, don’t forget a few rounds of rakia, their trademark drink to end the night. Need pics? Here you go.
It’s not Tokyo, but it’s not Phnom Penh, either. Most of your Western comforts will be available if you want them, from McDonalds to H&M to a nice steak dinner at a fancy pants restaurant. I was surprised that it only took me a couple of days before I found an actual juice bar; one that juices real vegetables with a real juicer (more than I can say for France). Bulgaria tends to have a reputation as rather poor and backward in this department, and it is not a rich country by any means, but I found it to be refreshingly modern, at least in the major cities. If I were forced to live here for a year, I’d have no problems at all.
Damn, they go hard in Bulgaria. The drinks are cheap, they smoke like chimneys and the bars are widespread. Yet despite all that, the drinking culture doesn’t seem to be a bingey, ‘get f*cked up as fast as possible’ type gig; it’s more of a ‘enjoy your drinks and enjoy the night until the early morning’ type thing. I quite like it. Whatever your flavour, just know you’ll never be drinking alone in Bulgaria.
Most importantly, Bulgaria is just a beautiful country. After being part of several empires, there is so much history here and you will notice this instantly in the architecture and layout of the cities. Plovdiv is considered the most ancient city in Europe, and the free walking tours in both Plovdiv and Sofia will open your eyes to how many layers of history are hidden here. There is a calm and laid-back energy in Bulgaria, one that makes it easy to visit and easy to like. The people are humble and polite, the streets are calm and it is easy to simply wander and enjoy the country for what it is. I had only planned on staying a few days before moving on, but ended up staying for almost three weeks and still wasn’t quite ready to leave.
I’ll end this post with a massive thank you to all the Bulgarians who showed me love and made my visit something to share and remember. I only hope if you ever visit New Zealand, we manage to do the same for you.
In the meantime, if you’re currently planning a Eurotrip and looking for recommendations, Bulgaria officially has the Bren on the Road stamp of approval.