High mountain ranges, deep forests, buzzing cities and a cultural crossroads for millennia – Bulgaria is perfect for seekers of wild places and warm welcomes. Stretching from Macedonia and Serbia in the west to the Black Sea in the east, Bulgaria has wild mountains, dashing rivers, wave-lapped beaches and everything in between. Add to this beautiful villages, good food and a wealth of historical sites, and it’s no wonder that this small nation – just a fifth the size of France – sees many of its visitors return time and again.
Offering so much more than the sum of its Soviet legacy, this is very much a European destination in the ascendancy.
What to see and do in Bulgaria
Explore the street markets of Sofia and the antiquities of Plovdiv. Eclectic, laid-back Sofia is often overlooked by people dashing for the coast, but with its onion-domed churches, Soviet monuments, Roman ruins and fantastic flea markets, this is a place well worth your time. Once you’ve felt the pulse of Sofia, hop on a train east to Plovdiv, Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city, and enjoy its cobbled streets, 19th century wooden mansions and striking Roman amphitheatre.
Strandzha and the southern coast. Taking centre stage in Kapka Kassabova’s superb book, Borderlands, Strandzha Nature Park (the largest protected area in Bulgaria) is a remote, mountainous border region that few tourists make the time to visit. A myth-laden, forested knot of hills on the country’s southern edge, this is a place to not only look for bears and wolves, but also to visit Scythian burial sites, pre-Christian places of worship and half-forgotten villages where ancient rituals remain at the heart of people’s lives.
Hike or ski in glorious peace and quiet. Bulgaria is strewn with regional and national parks, many of which are barely visited. In summer, hike through the thick forests of the Rhodope, Pirin, Strandzha, Rila, Belasica or Balkan ranges. In winter, enjoy reliable powder and unique apres-ski at prices well below the rest of Europe.
Wildlife in Bulgaria
Bears have a strong, relatively stable population in Bulgaria, with an estimated 400 to 700 individuals. Most of these inhabit the Rhodope -Rila ranges, whose deep forest cover and trackless mountains form the ideal ursine habitat. In these same hills you might also spot Red deer, Balkan Chamois or wild boar.
Wolf numbers have been in sharp decline here in recent years, with the population now standing at around just 1500 individuals. Considered a pest and afforded no legal protection, sadly they remain actively hunted. However, viable packs remain in several areas, notably the Rila, Rhodope and Strandzha ranges, where sightings are regular. You may also see jackals and otters in these areas.
Birdlife abounds in Bulgaria. While the mountain ranges play host to a broad diversity of species, the Black Sea coastline is bang smack on the Via Pontica, Europe’s second busiest bird migration route. Among the species you can spot here are Chukar, Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans, Black, Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Pygmy Cormorants, Imperial and Lesser-spotted Eagles, Long-legged Buzzards, Levant sparrowhawks, Masked shrikes, Nutcrackers, Wallcreepers, Paddyfield and Olive-tree Warblers, Isabelline and Pied wheatears, Semi-collared flycatchers and Rosy starlings.
Rewilding and Conservation in Bulgaria
Bulgaria is one of the most biodiverse countries in Europe, and subsequently an excellent country to spot wildlife. There are also several notable rewilding programmes here.
You might not think that a project focused on vultures has much to do with deer or wolf populations, but everything in nature is interrelated. Work to restore heavily-hunted Red and Fallow deer populations has led to an increase in available prey for the wolf population, thus removing the number of wolf attacks on livestock. In turn, this has meant an increase in the populations of carrion-eating birds such as vultures. Now, Greece’s breeding colony of Egyptian vultures are flying north into Bulgaria to feed, thus increasing the chances that they will soon start to breed in Bulgaria too.
In the past, Bulgaria’s Brown bears were more often seen ‘dancing’ on the end of a chain than roaming in the wild, but thankfully these old practices are dying out. As the population of bears in the Rhodope has increased, bear watching has become a reliable source of income that has helped replace the cruelty of bygone days. They days of communism were also tough for wildlife here, as Bulgarian writer Kapka Kassabova writes “communism was in a rush, it had no time for bourgeois things like the past or the environment.” Thankfully those days are now a long way in the collective rear-view mirror and things are far better balanced.
The Rhodope mountains offer a mosaic of habitats, with large swathes of broadleaf forests (mainly oak), deep valleys and steep mountains enabling wildlife to maintain their populations with minimal risk of human intervention. The vision of Rewilding Europe for the Rhodope mountains includes creating connected corridors with other ranges and reserves, as well as creating no-hunt zones.
Travelling to Bulgaria
Although Bulgaria is one of our furthest destinations to reach by train from the UK or Western Europe, the journey can be simply organised and undertaken in great comfort. We’ve outlined one travel option below.
From London, catch the mid-morning Eurostar to Paris, followed by travelling from Paris to Munich on the German ICE or French TGV high-speed service, then the overnight sleeper to Budapest. We’d then suggest a break in romantic Budapest – home to fabulous hotels, great restaurants and lashings of culture. From here, take the afternoon Intercity train to Belgrade, arriving in the early evening. Take the next day to get a feel of the city before the overnight sleeper whisks you on to Bulgaria. You’ll arrive into Sofia after a hearty breakfast on the train.
This is real travel: stopping, exploring and enjoying the places you’ve probably always flown straight over.
On the way home we can vary your route – maybe Vienna and Cologne or Brussels will be your stops this time? Or even hop on the spectacular Belgrade to Bar (Montenegro) route, and catch an onward fast ferry to Bari in Italy. Then you’ve any number of high speed and sleeper routes to return you safely home.
Wild Bulgaria Tours
Explore the deeply forested Rhodope mountains in southern Bulgaria. See protected wildlife, visit hot springs, hike, bike and meet locals in both characterful homestays and first class hotels.