Bulgaria: Experience visiting Sofia, Plovdiv & Rila
You know what’s even more exciting? When you unexpectedly able to visit a country/place that has never been in your list or never crossed in your mind before. In my case, I had the opportunity to visit Bulgaria, a country that I never thought of visiting, never imagined how life’s like there and haven’t done any research about it before.
Turkish Airlines flights to Bulgaria
I travelled to Bulgaria from London since I was there at the time I received the invitation. I flew from London Heathrow Airport Terminal, transit at Istanbul Atatürk Airport before flying straight to Sofia Airport. The journey all together took approximately 7 hours including transit.
Flight duration: London to Istanbul (3h35m) and Istanbul to Sofia (1h20m).
Flight duration: Kuala Lumpur to Istanbul (11h40m) and Istanbul to Sofia (1h20m).
Briefly about Bulgaria
Bulgaria, officially the Republic of Bulgaria (Bulgarian: Република България) is a country in the Balkans, located on the west of the Black Sea. This country is bordered by different countries: Romania to the north, Serbia to the northwest, the Republic of Macedonia to the southwest, Greece to the south and Turkey to the southeast.
Capital city: Sofia.
Currency: Lev (BGN) | Check XE Currency for the latest currency exchange rate.
Electricity: 230 volt / 50 hertz.
International airports: Sofia (SOF), Varna (VAR) and Bourgas (BOR).
Time zone: UTC+2 (EET), UTC+3 (EEST) and Summer (DST).
Driving side: Right.
Population: 7,050,034 as of December 31, 2017.
Official language: Bulgarian.
Main ethnic groups: Bulgarian, Turks and Romani.
Climate: Average temperature in winter is between -6°С and 3°С meanwhile 18°С and 30°С in summer.
Hailed as the 16th largest country in Europe, Bulgaria boasts with four major and popular cities for foreign visitors which is Sofia (capital & modern city), Plovdiv (art city), Bansko (Ski resort) and Varna (beach spot). It is interesting to know that even though it is not as well travelled as other Europe countries Bulgaria has various offerings for the visitors from sublime beaches, great histories, winter sports opportunities in the mountains and unique architectures. Sounds like a great opportunity to escape from the massive tourist crowds, yeah?
Exploring Bulgaria with ViyaTravel
Their services include a tour, hotel booking, transfer and more. Visit their official website or contact them (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you wish to explore Balkans and they can tailor their services according to your specific requests (itinerary, transportation and others).
On this 5D4N trip, a group of Malaysian travel agents and media members and I were brought around two countries, which is Bulgaria and Republic of Macedonia. Our group was led by an experienced English speaking guide who has a wide knowledge of the countries. He explained each thing we saw/visit, responded to our enquiries and most importantly always make sure our safety throughout the tour.
Travel tips in Bulgaria
1. Money: you’re encouraged not to use Euro. Kindly exchange enough amount of Bulgarian Lev. Some shops accept Euro but the rate is going to be slightly higher than using Bulgarian Lev. Shops generally accept credit card depending on where you are. All in all, always bring some cash with you as it helps to make things easier.
6. Immigration: Malaysian citizens don’t need a tourist visa to visit Bulgaria. You can stay up to 90 days in the country.
Where I stayed in Bulgaria
This hotel boasts around 105 rooms including classic and comfort rooms, business apartments and executive apartments. They have a restaurant, lobby bar, summer garden, secured parking area, gym, sauna and steam bath. Last but not least, you can enjoy a free WiFi facility throughout the property.
Day 1: Sofia
I arrived in Sofia at 8.30AM. The immigration process was smooth. I got asked a few questions by the officers like the purpose of my visit, how long I am going to be in Bulgaria and where I stay. After the immigration, I went straight to claim my luggage and meet with the other participants and ViyaTravel team. Oh, the arrival gate at Sofia Airport is pretty straight forward. You landed, pass through immigration, claim your luggage and walk to the exit gate. All done in less than 30 minutes if there is no issue and no huge crowd of visitors arriving at the airport.
So, let us see what you can visit in Sofia.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Built between 1904 and 1912, this cathedral is located in the heart of the capital city of Sofia. It is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world and the second largest on the Balkan Peninsula. I learned that it was built to honour the memory of the Russian soldiers who gave their lives during the Russo-Turkish War in 1877 – 1878. 10,000 people inside at one time. I am amazed by its stunning gold-covered dome, large ornate interior, murals and statues.
Important reminders and information:
1. Loud noise/speak is not allowed.
2. If you want to take photo/video inside, you need to pay 10 lev (photo) and 30 lev (video). You’ll receive a sticker from them as a ‘licence’ to take photo or record video.
3. Entrance fee: free.
4. Operation hour: 7am – 6pm.
5. There will be a mass ceremony held in the cathedral. However, it is still open for public.
This national library was previously named as Vasil Kolarov. According to what I have discovered on the Internet, the current name of this national library is taken after the creators of Glagolitic alphabet and famous Bulgarian saints, Saints Cyril and Methodius. Being the current largest public library in the country, it houses one of the richest Ottoman archival collections.
Good to know: The construction of this public library was proposed in 1878, which is after the independence from the Ottoman empire, by a teacher named Mikhail Bobotinov for the development of culture and education in Sofia.
Important reminders and information:
1. Nearby metro: Sofiiski Universitet.
2. Operation hours: 8.30am – 6.00pm (Monday – Friday), 9am – 5pm (Saturday) and closed on Sunday.
3. Website: SS Cyril and Methodius National Library.
Ranked as the top university in Bulgaria, Sofia University was founded in 1888, which is ten years after the liberation of Bulgaria), making it the oldest higher education institution in the country that mainly has 16 faculties with three departments including Faculty of History and Philosophy, Mathematics and Physics, Law and others.
Ivan Vazov National Theatre
Built by Viennese architects Helmer & Fellner in 1909, Ivan Vazov National Theatre is the oldest and most authoritative theatre in the country. It is also considered as one of the most iconic landmarks in Sofia that it appeared on banknotes and popularly known for its drama productions. This theatre can have a well-equipped main stage with around 750 seats, a smaller 120-seat stage and additional 70-seat stage on the fourth floor. If you’re lucky, you could also enjoy some outdoor live music around the area.
Old Sofia City Rotunda Church
If you aim to visit the oldest building in Sofia, make your way to the Church of St George, which is an early Christian red brick rotunda. This church is literally hidden by buildings. Do you know why it is located in such a way? It helped to keep the church out of sight during the communist era when the government was seeking to discourage Bulgarians from practising religion. Not only that, but another interesting story about it is it was also served as a mosque during the Ottoman rule.
Step inside to view the detailed medieval frescoes that had painted over by the Ottomans when it was converted to a mosque. Today, this church is surrounded by Bulgarian Presidency, the Ministry of Education and other offices.
Operation hours: 8.00am – 6pm everyday | 11.00am – 5.00pm for tourists.
Muslim visitors can drop by here to perform their prayer meanwhile this mosque is also open to non-Muslim visitors who wish to admire its interior architecture, get to know more about Islam and speak with Muslim community here. They provide robe for all visitors who need to cover themselves.
This area is an ideal spot to experience the life and spirit of the city. From here, you can also enjoy the view to the Vitosha mountains, located on the outskirts of Sofia.
Day 2: Plovdiv
|Countryside view along the way to Plovdiv|
You can see various beautiful artworks and musicians around the city. As been told by our guide, Plovdiv was a significant place for the Turks during the war period and that’s why you can see a lot of its remnants here including their traditional houses and Muslim populations.
Plovdiv, I can say, is still unknown among foreign travellers (glad to hear that it has started appearing on most Balkan itineraries). It has all the ‘delicious’ ingredients for a city break – a cobblestoned Old Town, vibrant art and culture scene and lively culinary experience. If you have extra days in Bulgaria and feel like exploring further from Sofia, this one of the oldest cities in Europe is definitely worth to explore.
So, what is worth to visit here when you have a limited time?
Stroll around the Old Town to see the colourfully painted houses, which reminiscing the National Revival period where Bulgarian architecture and literature flourished. Most of the buildings are now stand as a museum that showcases some of the interesting histories in the Revival era.
Please take note that the streets are covered with cobblestones and a little bit hilly. A pair of comfortable footwear and a few amounts of walking (and maybe sweat) needed to explore the area. To get an idea of what is best for you to visit, simply visit the information centre located in the central area of the old city. They will provide you with a map, answer your enquiries and maybe give you some insightful tips.
Uh, did I mentioned that there is a cool vintage shop located in this area? It is located near the Old Pharmacy Hippocrates. Go check it out.
Tip: There is a postbox nearby the information centre office. You could by a postcard and stamp from the souvenir shop then post it right away.
If you wonder how the Plovdiv asymmetrical house looks like, visit House of Georgi Danchov. Proudly standing as a cultural heritage site of national significance, the construction of this building started in the middle of the 18th century and has undergone several refurbishments as well as changed several owners.
If you have extra time and budget, feel free to enter this house to take a look at its impressive decorative detailing and enthralling stories.
Operation hours: 9.00am – 5.30pm / 9.00am – 6.00pm from April until October.
Entrance fee: 10 lev (adult) and 4 lev (children)
Regional Ethnographic Museum
To those who are eager to learn and seek more knowledge about Plovdiv’s tradition, population, cultural and economic environment, you shouldn’t miss this museum.
Housed in a midnight-blue building with an undulating tiled roof, it showcases over 40,000 historical artefacts and the most significant ones are those of copper utensils, pottery, ancient weapons, religious items and various costumes from all the Bulgarian ethnic territory. During some days, you will see people selling handicraft around the building.
Operation hours: 9am – 6pm (Tuesdays to Sundays in summer) / 9am – 5pm the rest of the year.
Entrance fee: 5 lev
Just like the famous city in Italy, Rome, Plovdiv was built on seven hills and interestingly many ancient ruins are still visible around the city. One of it is the Roman Theatre. This ancient theatre was built around 90 AD, when the city was an important Roman frontier town called Philippopolis. I learned that in the 1970s, people only discovered this theatre after a landslide uncovered it and restored to its former magnificence.
Our local guide told us that this theatre is believed to be a venue for a show of a fight between gladiator with animals by looking at the level of the seats in the first row, which is higher than the stage. As for now, it serves as a venue for major events in Plovdiv like operas (Opera Open Festival generally happen in July or July), plays and rock concerts. Take a chance to enter the theatre area, sit on the marble seats and imagine that those were first used around 2,000 years ago for many different occasions *goosebumps*.
Standing as the main mosque in Plovdiv, Dzhumaya Mosque (previously called as Muradiye) building was previously a church and been replaced during the reign of Sultan Murad II during the Ottoman period. Therefore, the building has an interesting mixture of architectural elements from Byzantine and old Bulgarian technique.
Same as Banya Bashi Mosque in Sofia, Muslim visitors can visit this mosque to perform their prayer while the non-muslim visitors are welcome to visit during outside of praying time. Wear decent attire or you can use the robe provided at the mosque. The interior of Dhumaya Mosque is just stunning, which is decorated with floral ornament wall-paintings.
Did you know that the longest pedestrian (vehicle-free) street in Europe is in Plovdiv? Yeah, you’ve read it right. The street stretches for 1,750 meters from the banks of the Maritsa River to a huge piazza (a setting for Bulgarian traditional dance called Hora). Along the street, you can shop, eat gelato and enjoy busking performances
Day 3: Rila
Listed as a World Cultural Heritage of UNESCO, Rila Monastery houses the coffin with the relics of the founder of the monastery, St. Ivan of Rila, historical remnants from the past, various artworks from the 14th to 19th centuries. Feel free to visit the museum to see and learn about its significant histories or simply admire the beautiful architectural designs of this monastery.
History museum entrance: 8 lev (adult) and 1 lev (student).
Guide: Only the in-house guide allowed to guide and provide information to the visitors at Rila Monastery.
Photography: photo or video is not allowed in the museum and church
Besides Bulgaria, I also visited the Republic of Macedonia on this trip. I have spent two nights in Bulgaria and explored Sofia and Plovdiv within a short amount of time. I know it’s not sufficient to explore all major places in Sofia and Plovdiv but I am glad that I’ve seen the essence of both cities. If you have more extra days, you can explore both cities at a relaxing pace.