Bulgaria's storied location between East and West has given it plenty of Instagram-ready sights, but this is a soulful and quietly cosmopolitan land too, steeped in traditions that invite you to power down for a bit and savor the moment. Bulgaria invites you to indulge in thermal baths where Roman emperors once luxuriated...to enjoy fresh mountain air or discover the world of Bulgarian wine...even to simply smell the roses—sometimes literally! Bulgaria's many natural splendors are the starting point to some of the best slow tourism experiences you will find in Europe.
Spas and healing travel
Ah, spas! Bulgaria is second only to Iceland in Europe for natural mineral springs and has been renowned for its healing spa waters since antiquity. In fact there are more than 550 natural water sources and some 1,600 thermal springs located around the country, many with nitrogen-rich thermal waters and usually with a low mineral content. The chance to indulge in the healing natural waters at a Bulgarian spa—whether you have fitness and weight loss goals in mind or simply wish to take some time out and relax—really shouldn't be missed. The country's abundance of thermal waters was recognized early on by the ancient Thracians—who were renowned as healers—and the myriad springs, which come in the form of hot springs as well as warm and cool springs, were famous as "The Holy Springs of Thrace" throughout the Roman Empire, too. Mineral springs in the southern part of the country are influenced by the Mediterranean climate, while spa waters in mountainous regions feature crystal springs. Some Bulgarian spas along the Black Sea coast have naturally curative mud and peat deposits: at spa resorts like Tuzlata (near Balchik) and Pomorie (close to Sunny Beach) you can slather on the therapeutic black firth mud to give your skin and general well-being a healthy, revitalizing spa boost.
Velingrad is considered to be the Spa Capital of Bulgaria, while also in the southwestern part of the country Sandanski is another popular spa resort area. There and at spa holiday spots along the Black Sea coast, Bulgarians draw on the country's storied natural herbs and flora—the former are so abundant that some 15,000 tons are exported each year—for use in aromatherapy treatments and other state-of-the-art spa experiences. Of the country's recognized balneological, or spa resorts, some of the best-known are located inland on the same sites where Roman emperors came to "take the waters," usually on plains close to mountain—a prime example being Hisarya, north of Plovdiv. Here you can visit the Roman Bath Museum and enjoy the healing waters and any number of mud treatments and restorative spa rituals at modern, sophisticated spa hotels and resorts. You will find that many Bulgarian spas have excellent accommodations, in addition to expert spa personnel and diverse spa "menus" featuring everything from mineral baths and massage to reflexology, aromatherapy, apitherapy (using honey), dieting and anti-stress programs and more—with the healing waters at their core, a Bulgarian wellness holiday is one of the best things you can do for your body, mind and soul!
From Coastal Nature to Mountains' Majesty
With a diverse natural landscape that encompasses soaring mountain peaks, crystal-clear lakes of alpine glacial and other varieties, lush river valleys, spectacular stretches of Black Sea coast and more, Bulgaria is truly the place to bask in the great outdoors, making it a natural candidate for ecotourism holidays. The long Black Sea shore is synonymous with relaxing holidays by golden sand beaches, and with water temperatures averaging from 22° to 26° С in summertime, the tanning as well as the swimming is easy! But the presence of coastal lakes, traditional villages, mineral springs and remarkable heritage sites like Nessebar mean your seaside escape can be as slow-paced or high energy as you wish. Golf enthusiasts can enjoy hitting the links at three world-class golf courses inland and by the coast, including the gorgeous Thracian Cliffs Golf & Beach Resort with its Gary Player-designed course, the BlackSeaRama Golf and the Lighthouse Golf & Spa Resort. Hiking, fishing and horseback riding are also options to take your seaside vacation to the next level.
The Bulgarian countryside is also the perfect setting for rural tourism, an increasingly popular way to get acquainted with Bulgarian customs and folkways in green, serene surroundings that are anything but ordinary: for example, the village of Bozhentsi, near Veliko Tarnavo, is an architectural reserve. By staying in a traditional village house, you may find yourself helping to pick vegetables from the garden or forest herbs, preparing cheese and yogurt or even making wine! Depending on which village you choose, there could even be lessons in icon painting, embroidering and folk dancing, but wherever you go you will find that sharing meals (made with all that freshly-prepared food) with your host is customary with rural tourism holidays. In the Rhodope Mountains, villages like Kovachevitsa, Shiroka Laka and Leshten offer plenty of variety for sojourns with a rustic flavor, literally—sampling Cheverme (whole roast lamb on a spit) and Patatnik (a tasty potato dish of the Rhodopes) will definitely add some sizzle to your Instagram posts! And when you're not feasting, there is a multitude of Bulgarian country customs that will surely help you work up an appetite—whether it's watching a Haydouk Attack performance (a reenactment of an attack by brigands) in Bansko or taking in a traditional dance on live coals (called Nestinarstvo) in the villages of the Strandzha Mountains.
Bulgaria's rich biodiversity is almost unmatched in Europe, making it a paradise for the increasingly popular pastime of birding.. Elsewhere, just south of the Danube by the village of Srebarna, a 600-hectare biosphere and nature reserve is one of Europe's preeminent locales for bird watching—in fact Srebarna's nature reserve is where you can observe Bulgaria's only colony of Dalmatian pelicans. There are also purple herons, glossy ibises and great white egrets among the upwards of 200 species of both native and migratory birds. The Rusenski Lom Park, in the vicinity of the UNESCO-listed rock churches of Ivanovo, is a popular destination for bird-watching. And nearby these iconic churches another natural wonder awaits—the spectacular Orlova Chuka cave.
Nearly forty percent of the country is forested with the famous beech forests, mainly in the central heartland, and Bulgarians love taking walks in their beautiful hills and mountains. With three national parks—Pirin, Rila and Central Balkan—and no fewer than 11 natural parks, hikers in Bulgaria are truly spoiled for choice. The Seven Rila Lakes, south of Sofia, are pristine glacial lakes with mirror-like surfaces located one above the other in increasing altitude, reaching as high as 2,500 meters above sea level. Pirin National Park, in southwest Bulgaria, tempts with more breathtaking glacial lakes and pine forests. The Belasitsa mountains, along the country's southern perimeter, offer exceptional mountain hiking as do the renowned Rhodope mountains, a very scenic backdrop for hiking and mountain biking, horseback riding and more. The Rhodopes are also home to unique cultural heritage, from medieval castles and monasteries to traditions you can taste in the form of authentic Rhodope cuisine featuring Cheverme barbecue and unique potato dishes too. Whether you call them hiking trails or eco-paths, overall their total length extends over 37,000 kilometers. The Vazov eco-trail, named after Bulgarian writer Ivan Vasov, is one of the most popular trails, crossing the Iskar River and also passing the Skaklya waterfall—you can typically walk its entire length in under two hours! The Dryanovo eco-path is near the secluded Dryanovo Monastery and the Vratsa eco-path is part of its namesake natural park.
You can always find a place to recharge your batteries or even get that adrenaline going almost anywhere in the varied Bulgarian countryside. Whether it's kite-surfing along the Black Sea coast or bungee jumping at Prohodna cave, a karst cave with a pair of striking geological features known as "God's eyes" that open to the sky, Bulgaria is staging ground for some of Europe's most varied adventure tourism options. You might choose to explore the mountains or even Black Sea coastal areas on horseback; guided equestrian trips are easy to organize in settings both sandy and sylvan. Whitewater river rafting on the rapids of the Struma is famously fun, while the Iskar and Kresna gorges are great spots for kayaking (water levels reach their peak in June). Like to rise above it all? If you go paragliding over Sopot, with the Valley of the Roses and the steep slopes of Troyan mountain beneath you, you'll be soaring through one of the best paragliding spots in Europe. But sometimes it's the simple pleasures, like rose picking. Bulgaria is one of the world's leading producers of rose oil, and every May and June you can join the locals as they pluck the most fragrant of the silky pink rose petals in the Valley of the Roses—volunteering in the fields never smelled so sweet!
Slow, healthy, flavorful Bulgarian cuisine
Bulgarian gastronomy is an odyssey of history and organic ingredients. Centenarians are commonplace here, with many Bulgarians living to be over 100 years old. Expert nutritionists credit the longevity to their largely natural diet consisting of items such as traditional Bulgarian yogurt (kiselo mlyako), white cheese, kashkaval (yellow cheese), tarator (a cold cucumber soup with kiselo mlyako), organic black rye bread, dry sliced cured pork (Fillet Elena), natural herbal honey and sunflower seeds. This healthy style of eating, along with organic fruits and vegetables, ensures regularity and naturally rids the body of toxins.
When you dine in Bulgaria you taste a confluence of many cultures: hints of Balkan cuisine with many spices from paprika and thyme to garlic and spearmint, garden fresh salads and the simultaneous heat treatment of many items. Even the names entice: chuski byurek are fried peppers stuffed with eggs and sirene, a white brined cheese. Kebapches are long pieces of grilled meat (beef and pork) seasoned with black pepper, salt and cumin. Those pair nicely with sarma, or stuffed cabbage leaves, or the famous Shopska salad, made with diced tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, peppers and sirene and whose colors evoke the Bulgarian national flag. Come summertime, you must try tarator, a refreshing cold cucumber soup with yogurt, dill, crushed walnuts and spices. Bulgarian breakfasts mean buhtas (fritters) and mekitsas a deep-fried pasty with yogurt cooked into the dough. There is also yogurt in banitsa, a traditional layered pastry dish in both sweet and savory varieties. And in Sofia and larger cities, gourmet trends are afoot that offer delicious contemporary twists on classic Bulgarian dishes.
Wine and wine routes
Remember that Bulgarians nod their heads to indicate no and shake them when they mean yes. So if your host asks if you would like to try a glass of pink-tinted Cherven Misket (a renowned Bulgarian white wine) or Mavrud (a luscious ruby red) make sure to shake your head to ensure your next pour! Winemaking is inseparable from Bulgaria's long culinary tradition, having been included by the ancient Thracians in their religious rituals and in the cult of the wine god Zagreus (Dionysus was also worshipped from early on). Bulgaria today has five distinct wine regions and in addition to Mavud some famous varietals are the raspberry-hued Gamza, the light red Pamud, oak-aged Rubin, Dimyat, a fine white from the Black Sea region, and Shiroka Melnishka, a medium deep red with a spicy finish. You can savor Bulgarian wines at restaurants throughout the country, while closer to the vineyards you can enjoy the slower pace of informative (and delicious!) wine tastings at wineries that are often located along well-developed wine-culinary routes .