Bulgaria lies on the eastern edge of the Balkan Peninsula. It’s a country steeped in rich history and stunning scenery. And while not on the traditional tourist path, it has many claims to fame.
Bulgaria is famous for being one of the oldest countries in Europe. Its diverse landscape boasts mountains, beaches, mineral springs, and many UNESCO World Heritage sites. Bulgaria is also known for its rose oil, lavender, rakiya, and wine. It introduced the world to yogurt and the Cyrillic alphabet too.
Bulgaria is a beautiful blend of old and new — with boundless attractions and cultural quirks to boot. While by no means an exhaustive list, here are some of the top things Bulgaria is known and famous for.
1. Being the oldest country in Europe
Bulgaria is known for being one of the oldest countries in Europe. While San Marino may have the first, Bulgaria was established in 681 AD and has kept its original name ever since.
Another silver medal goes to Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia. The city was founded over 7000 years ago and is also the second oldest in Europe.
Bulgaria is famous for its capital city, Sofia. The city is a center of culture, business, and tourism.
A blend of past, present, and future can be seen in Sofia’s architecture and ambiance. It has a lively art scene, vibrant nightlife, and a variety of trendy restaurants and cafes.
Balanced by an abundance of green spaces, there is something for everyone in this city.
Bulgaria is one of the world’s top lavender producers. Their ideal climate and rich soil create one of the most high-quality lavender plants internationally.
Used in soaps, fragrances, and essential oils, lavender has calming properties for the skin and the nervous system. The lavender production is also helping lift the local economy and bring some farmers out of poverty.
Buy some freshly dried lavender in one of many tourist shops, or visit the small village of Tarnicheni in late spring to see the picturesque purple fields in full bloom.
Bulgarians are known for inventing the Cyrillic alphabet circa 800 AD. It’s used in several countries, including Russia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria.
Some countries have also widely adopted the Latin alphabet alongside Cyrillic. However, Bulgaria tends to stick to its alphabetic roots, especially in less touristy regions.
5. Beaches along the Black Sea
Bulgaria really has it all — cities, mountains, and of course — beaches! Bordering the black sea, Bulgaria has several small and big resort towns dotting the coastline.
Sunny Beach is a popular spot for tourists looking for nightclubs and an energetic vibe. If you enjoy coastal cities, Varna is the third-largest city in the country. Karadere Beach is a better option for some rest and relaxation.
The second-largest city in the country sits in a valley surrounded by mountain ranges. The ancient city is one of the oldest in Europe and has the ruins and refurbished buildings to prove it.
Check out a concert at the 1st century Roman Amphitheater or walk through Old Town to see the dichotomy between ancient and new architecture. Artsy travelers will want to visit the Kapana District, the center of creativity in Plovdiv.
There is evidence that the Thracian tribes existed in Bulgaria dating back to the 2nd or 3rd millennia BC. Their fearless warriors were even mentioned in Homer’s Iliad.
Aside from their fighting abilities, they were also known for their poetry, ornamental designs, and wine-making which seem to have continued into today’s culture.
The Bulgarian tradition of men dressing as Kukeri finds its roots in Thracian customs. Kukeri costumes are elaborate outfits with masks and noisy bells to scare away evil spirits. Visit around New Year and Lent to see the Kukeri’s parade and dance through villages.
8. Rose oil
Bulgaria is famous for its rose oil. Along with Turkey, Bulgaria is the world’s largest exporter of this essential oil. Rose oil is extracted from a rare local flower, the Bulgarian Rose Damascena.
The essential oil has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Used in skincare products, it is known to calm irritated skins and reduce the appearance of wrinkles. But what strikes me the most is its intensely floral scent that’s simultaneously refreshing and warming on the nose.
There are many festivals dedicated to this flower in early summer. Drive past the Valley of Roses near Kazanlak to see the bright, blooming fields. I highly recommend stopping to smell the flowers and snapping a few photos!
If anyone has been to the Balkans, they’re familiar with Rakiya. The distilled spirit is made of fruit and usually consists of 40% alcohol, with homemade versions even stronger.
Like most Balkan countries, Bulgarians are proud of this local liquor and happy to share it with others when given a chance.
Bulgaria had a thriving wine industry during soviet times. However, most of these wines remained within soviet borders rather than claiming international fame.
Nowadays, Bulgarian wines are building the credit they deserve. The wine is varied, and the country has its own native varietals for an exceptionally low price. If you get the chance to go wine tasting in the Bulgarian countryside, I highly recommend it!
11. UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Bulgaria is famous for its UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Their long, well-preserved history has led to ten current UNESCO sites, with 16 more on the tentative list.
The official sites include the Boyana Church and Madara Rider and the natural region of the Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests.
12. Mineral springs
Editorial credit: Victoria Ray / Shutterstock.com
Bulgaria is known for its mineral springs. The ancient Thracians built their settlements around these springs to enjoy the waters’ health benefits and relaxing properties.
Today, Bulgaria has over 600 hot springs. With an abundance of year-round indoor and outdoor pools, it is one of the top spa destinations in Europe.
Visit Velingrad, which is touted as the spa capital of Bulgaria, or Banya for both skiing and spas in the winter. There’s nothing quite as revitalizing as jumping from snow into an outdoor thermal pool!
13. Being the poorest country in the E.U.
Editorial credit: Belish / Shutterstock.com
Bulgaria has been a member of the E.U. since 2007. While joining the E.U. has helped Bulgaria’s economy and people, it is still considered the poorest nation in the European Union.
The country has the lowest GDP of the members and almost a quarter of Bulgarians live below the poverty line set at 185 Euros in 2020. A combination of poor infrastructure, debt, and a declining population contribute to these issues.
Bulgaria is famous for being the birthplace of yogurt. A common bacterial culture in yogurt, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, is native to Bulgaria. You could even say that Bulgaria introduced the world to yogurt.
Bulgarian yogurt is slightly sour and has a thicker consistency compared to the sweetened, foreign versions. It is widely used in local cuisine as a condiment or main dish.
Tarator, a cold soup with cucumber, walnuts, and herbs, uses yogurt as its base.
This spiral-shaped pastry is made of dough filled with yogurt, cheese, or whisked eggs. It’s flaky on the outside with a warm, soft center.
On special occasions, such as New Year’s Day, your banitsa might come with a lucky charm. Bite carefully and find a coin or a tinfoil-wrapped blessing baked right into your pastry — a good fortune for the year to come.
Banitsa is usually served for breakfast with the classic Bulgarian yogurt. However, if you’ve woken up after a long night of rakiya, locals may serve it alongside ayran. This yogurt drink is mixed with salt and water and considered a miracle hangover cure.
16. Confusing head gestures
Here’s a fun fact I’ve always loved about Bulgaria. Shaking your head means yes, and nodding it up and down means no. So beware of your body language when chatting with locals — and perhaps just stick to a simple verbal response.
I’m not exactly sure why it’s the opposite of most other countries, but it sure does throw you for a loop!
17. Sending songs to space
The Bulgarian singer Valya Balkanska is considered a national treasure.
As part of a time capsule and symbol of Earthly culture, her song Izlel e Delyu Haidutin was included on the Voyager’s Golden Records. These albums were sent to space in 1977.
Bulgaria is known for its mountains. Almost a third of the country is covered in forests and mountain ranges. From the center of Sofia, you can look up and see some of the highest summits of Vitosha, Pirin, and Rila Mountains.
The country also hosts some of Europe’s most affordable ski resorts, attracting tourists from all over the continent. In the summer, you can enjoy hiking, horseback riding, and spa getaways.
Bulgaria has a rough around the edges but charming feel. It’s a country that has yet to be explored by traditional tourists. But don’t let this dissuade you.
It’s the type of place you might walk through a random village, stumbling upon a wedding procession or unique festival. You’ll have no clue what’s happening but will probably love every minute of it!
Bulgaria has it all — cities, mountains, and beaches all within reach. So if adventure and variety call your name, add this destination to your travel bucket list.