Exploring Bulgaria's Beauty and History on an Epic Road Trip
As a road trip destination, Bulgaria, in south-eastern Europe, has much to offer. The scenery is beautiful – mountains, forests, beaches. It has a fascinating history and a multitude of cultural influences. Lastly, the people are hospitable and eager to share their traditions and cuisine. In this article, we’ll outline information essential to your road trip. Then we circle the country highlighting some of the top places to visit.
Before we carry on, one of the most important things you’ll need (besides a vehicle) is a Vignette. This allows you to travel on the motorways. These are issued per vehicle category, and for specific periods (daily, weekly, monthly).
Exploring Bulgaria by road offers numerous advantages:
- Flexibility - depending on your time constraints, you’re free to create your itinerary.
- Scenic Routes - roads wind through magnificent landscapes, from mountains to coastal.
- Cultural Immersion - You’ll connect with the locals and may discover places not mentioned in the guidebooks.
The Bulgarian Road System and Rules
The Bulgarian Road network includes a well-maintained system of motorways, such as the A1, A2, and A3. Secondary roads vary in quality, so it is best to drive cautiously. In urban areas, the speed limit is 50 km/h, while on rural roads, it is 90 km/h. On the motorway, the limit is 130 km/h.
Vehicle occupants over 150 cm must wear a seatbelt. Children must use a size-appropriate car seat. Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is illegal, as is using a mobile phone while driving. Headlights must be switched on night and day.
Navigation and Maps
Use online and offline resources, such as Google Maps. Mobile reception might not be available, so download your route beforehand. Traditional paper maps are a good backup and available at service stations and tourist information centres.
Toll Roads and Vignettes
In Bulgaria, certain roads and motorways require a toll payment. For this, a prepaid vignette is required. They are purchased per time period (day, week, month) and must be displayed on your windshield. Obtain a vignette at border crossings, service stations, and other authorised outlets. We advise you to buy the vignette online at Vignettebulgaria.com and you can buy it here.
Destinations to Visit on Your Bulgarian Road Trip:
Next, we’re going to take you clockwise around the country, highlighting some of the amazing areas and landmarks worth visiting. Keep in mind that these represent just a fraction of what is on offer, so we encourage you to do your own research. Sofia is a top destination, and we’ve covered that for you. Here are other recommendations, starting in north-western Bulgaria:
This historical gem built into the surrounding rock formations offers a trip back in time. Dating back to the third century, the fortress sits between the Balkan Mountains and Danube Plain, which it overlooks. Also visit the Magura Cave nearby, rich in cave paintings by prehistoric inhabitants. The above lies just off the E79 motorway.
Central Balkans National Park
This natural paradise lies in the heart of Bulgaria. Characterised by dense forests, bubbling rivers, and impenetrable gorges, it offers a wealth of trails. The park is home to the country’s highest waterfall - Raiskoto Praskalo - and diverse wildlife. Reach it by following the signage along Route 3701.
Once the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, Veliko Tarnovo is dubbed the historical and cultural capital of Bulgaria. On hills overlooking the Yantra River, it features well-preserved traditional architecture matched with cultural artefacts and cuisine. The Tsvarets Fortress, built around 1235, overlooks the town and is a must-see landmark. Reach Veliko Tarnovo near the junction of the E85 and E772.
Thracian Tomb at Sveshtari
Thracian culture covered parts of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey back in 4 BCE. Worshipping nature, they built tombs across the region, of which the tomb at Sveshtari has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To take a tour of the site, you’ll find it southwest of Sveshtari by following Route 205.
Black Sea Coastal Road
The coastal stretch between Varna and Burgas is referred to as the Bulgarian Riviera. Spanning around 160 km along the shores of the Black Sea, it follows the A5/E87. Visit Balchik Dvoretsa Palace just north of Varna, before following the coast southwards. Take a dip at Sunny Beach and be sure to stop in Nessebar to see the mediaeval architecture. After hours on the road, you might enjoy a therapeutic mud bath in Pomorie.
Strandzha National Park
If you’ve had enough civilization for a while - whether old or new - continue into southeastern Bulgaria and the serene forests of Strandzha National Park. Crisscrossed with trails and streams, the park is known to be home to some rare wildlife, including the golden jackal. To reach Strandzha, get onto the E87 south from Burgas, before taking Route 907.
Bulgaria’s second-largest city boasts a rich and varied history dating to the Roman Era. Visit the amphitheatre; before strolling through the Kapana District, where architecture reflects the Bulgarian National Revival in the 18th century. The city's beauty and energetic atmosphere make Plovdiv a favourite among travellers. It lies just south of the A1 motorway in southern Bulgaria.
Pirin National Park
Now in southwestern Bulgaria, Pirin National Park is another of the country’s stunning natural attractions that invite you to explore the great outdoors. In winter, it is transformed into a snowy wonderland, extremely popular with winter sports enthusiasts. Whenever you visit, you’ll be greeted by spectacular scenery. Reach Pirin by travelling southwest out of Bansko. Just driving there makes it worth the trip!
Rila National Park and Monastery
Our final suggestion is the Rila National Park, home to the Rila Monastery and spectacular Seven Rila Lakes. The monastery is another of Bulgaria’s World Heritage Sites and is highly revered in Bulgarian culture. The park comprises mountains, meadows, glacial lakes, and dense forest – a hiker’s dream. Follow Route 842 from Yundola to reach the park entrance.
Practical Tips for a Road Trip in Bulgaria:
To make the most of your Bulgarian road trip, keep these practical tips in mind:
- Accommodation - Bulgaria offers everything from guesthouses to luxury resorts. Plan ahead to secure accommodation that matches your budget and dates.
- Cuisine - Bulgaria’s cuisine is as much a part of the culture as the landmarks you’ll visit. Explore it with gusto to keep up your energy levels.
- Safety - Keep your valuables secure at all times. If possible, do not drive at night. Obey the law, and familiarise yourself with regulations.
- Read this article if you’d like to go on a road trip to Bulgaria with a dog.
Emergency Contact Numbers:
- Police – 166
- Fire/Rescue – 160
- Ambulance – 150
- BULSAR (Bulgarian Black Sea Search & Rescue) – 088 161
- Roadside assistance (Countrywide) – 146
- European SOS – 112
A road trip through Bulgaria is sure to be a captivating experience, a heady mix of culture, history, and natural beauty. It offers freedom, flexibility, and adventure. Do some planning beforehand to ensure that you see all you wish to, according to your interests and budget. You can be sure that long after the trip is over, Bulgaria will be remembered, not only for the sights but for her hospitable people too.