My whole time in Bulgaria was kind of a happy mishap.
It started with a 2-weeks Europe trip with my bestie. Then I decided to stay on without any plans, just to compensate for the last 2-years of not traveling due to pandemic. Before I knew it, my 90-days free Schengen visa was almost due and I ended up in Bulgaria! The best part is, I got the chance to work at a hostel right in the heart of Sofia.
Founded in the 7th century, Bulgaria is one of the oldest countries in Europe and the only country that has not changed its name since it was first established. However, travellers often overlook this Balkan nation on standard European travel routes, making it one of the least explored destinations. If you are looking for somewhere unconventional and inexpensive in Europe, Bulgaria boosts stunning mountainous landscapes, impressive monasteries and cathedrals, a beautiful coastline along the Black Sea, and remarkable preserved ancient Roman ruins.
Getting in and out
There are four international airports in Bulgaria: Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna and Burgas. Most international flights fly to Sofia Airport, whereas within Europe you can fly with low-cost airlines either to Sofia or to Plovdiv. After experiencing significant flight delays, I was fully refunded for the €150 I had paid for my flight from Vienna to Sofia with Austrian Airlines.
It is also easy to catch international buses or trains from neighboring countries like Serbia, Greece, Romania, or North Macedonia.
Bulgaria is part of the European Union, but not part of Schengen Area, yet. That means Bulgaria is an incredible place to consider if you are a perpetual traveller who need to get out of the Schengen Zone!
Bulgaria’s visa rules are different for every nationality. For Malaysians, you can stay in the country for 90-days without applying for tourist-visa. If you possess a valid Schengen visa or are granted entry into the Schengen area visa-free, the same rule of 90 days out of 6 months should apply. If you have questions about your specific nationality, please refer to Bulgarian MFA website.
In Sofia, metro or trams are the cheapest and reliable transport to get around the city. From the airport, there is a metro station which links directly to downtown in about 30-minutes for less than €1.
There are buses and trains serving all major cities and towns. I suggest that you save the Cyrillic names of places in your phone since most of the signages at the bus station are written in Bulgarian.”
To help orientate and learn more about the cities in Bulgaria, join the free walking tours which are guided by local volunteers!
Bulgaria is another Eastern European country which uses its own national currency: Bulgarian Lev (BGN or Lev). Luckily, the Lev seems to have a fixed rate against the Euro at 2lv to €1, making the mental conversion pretty easy.
Depending on how much you are willing to splurge, backpacking Bulgaria can be as budget as €20 a day. Only a few tourist attractions cost more than a couple Euros and a decent meal in Sofia is about 7-15lv (€4-€8). Hostels in Bulgaria usually include breakfast and cost about 10-€13 for a dorm bed per night.
Working at the hostel had helped me to save on accommodation and food in Sofia, allowing me to spend more on food while travelling out of the city.
You can visit Bulgaria all year round, and there is always something to do. The climate is continental, with freezing winters and incredibly warm summers. Knowing that the coast would be crowded, I skipped visiting it during my trip in early July. Instead, I went for hikes and explored a few old cities with little tourists around. I do suggest going to Bulgaria for your next skiing trip to escape from the norm.
Sim Card/ Wi-Fi
One of the perks of travelling in Europe is that there are no roaming costs in all EU-member states, which means that you can buy a SIM card in any European country and use it anywhere in the region. Surprisingly, Bulgaria has one of the fastest Wi-Fi in Europe and nearly every restaurants or cafés offer free Wi-Fi access.
Budget accommodation typically means staying in a hostel. The good news is, Bulgarian hostels are super backpacker-friendly. For as low as €10 a night in Sofia or Plovdiv, you get a dorm bed, free breakfast, free vegetarian meals, and sometimes even a free beer or lemonade! Staying in a hostel also allows you to meet like-minded travellers who prefer off-beaten destinations and a great place to exchange less-known places to explore.
Many does not know this: Bulgarian yoghurt is the best in the world. This Balkan cuisine has actively embraced yogurt, which has become a national icon and is considered a staple food.
It is not expensive to eat out in Bulgaria. A meal typically cost about €4-€8, less if you know where to find local eatery. Start your day with a big breakfast from little bakery shops which can be found in every neighborhood with typical pastries, such as banitsa, kifla or milinka. For lunch try tarator (a yoghurt soup) in summer and a shopska salad. For dinner, order a kebapche (grilled minced meat with spices) with potatoes. An interesting thing to note is that, Bulgarians like to know the weight of the food they are paying for, especially when it comes to meat dishes.
Join Balkan Bites for a free walking food tour in Sofia to learn about the history and customs of Bulgarian cuisine.
If you dislike buying bottled water, you will be delighted to know that tap water is safe to drink all over the country. Bulgarian mineral water is known for its healing properties and there are fountains all over the country where you can fill your bottle.
In a country like Bulgaria where English isn’t widely spoken, you have to rely a lot on body language. Quite possibly the most confusing cultural difference in Bulgaria: you nod for No and shake your head for Yes. When in doubt, just confirm verbally — “da” means “yes” and “ne” means “no.”
Few locals speak English outside of the tourism industry. Learn some basic words in Bulgarian, or write down the common phrases in Cyrillic, or simply use Google Translator. Locals will always appreciate the gestures of foreigners trying to learn their language.
Like in most destinations, the same common sense safety tips apply to solo female travelers in Bulgaria.
A common and unpleasant observation is people going through the trash bins on horse-pulled carts full of garbage. They’re harmless, although not a pretty sight. Another familiar sight is seeing drunkards sitting around the parks as early as 5pm. Beware of pickpockets, especially at tourist attractions or on public transportation, and keep your valuables in a cross-body purse or a money belt. Always be careful when crossing streets, as drunk or reckless drivers are a huge problem.
The Bulgarian nightlife actively maintains a male-dominated atmosphere, with women drinking alone attracting attention. As long as you keep your guard up, you’re unlikely to encounter anything worse than a handful of cat-calls.
This is one of those fun facts about Bulgaria that most people aren’t aware of: 80% of the world’s rose oil is produced in this Balkan country. Most of the roses in Bulgaria are grown in Kazanluk (Rose Valley) and it takes 10,000 roses to fill a single 5ml bottle! On top of that, Bulgaria is also one of the world’s leading lavender oil producer, generating close to 150-tons of lavender oil per year, surpassing France.
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