Ancient ruins, snow-capped mountains, medieval fortresses and lavish monasteries. In case you hadn’t heard, Bulgaria is breathtakingly beautiful—and in true Atlas Obscura style, we'll be delving into the hidden history and lesser-known gems of this unique country right in the heart of winter.
Travel with Atlas Obscura for five days and five nights of adventure and discovery in Bulgaria, as we explore folk festivals of yore and marvel at otherworldly relics of a communist utopia that never came to be. Immerse yourself in the rich and often tragic history of a country that stands on the frontier between Europe and the Middle East—a country that has seen the rise and fall of three historic Bulgarian Empires, but has also been occupied by the Ottomans, the Nazis, and the Soviet Union in turn.
When we’re not learning about Bulgaria’s complex history—or gawking at the vast and varied Brutalist monuments constructed during its communist period—our small group of intrepid explorers will be taking in jaw-dropping natural landscapes, wandering the streets and markets of picturesque old towns, and feasting on hearty local cuisine. Our adventure will end in Pernik, at the International Festival of the Masquerade Games, where we'll be surrounded by hundreds of costumed bears, beasts, and mystery creatures.
Make no mistake—Bulgaria gets cold in January. With temperatures potentially dropping as low as -4°F (-20°C) on the days we head up into the mountains, you’ll want to make sure you’re dressed for the occasion. However, there’ll be a warm welcome awaiting our tight-knit group each evening, as we check into a range of comfortable hotels along the way. And you might also find that Bulgaria’s national spirit, rakia, works wonders against wintry chills. Your uniquely curated itinerary includes:
- Hands-on History: We will visit popular UNESCO sites and secret, hidden gems alike as we immerse ourselves in Bulgaria's past.
- Age of Empires: Over the course of its long and complex history, Bulgaria has been both slave and master. We will visit the nation’s former capital, home of the medieval tsars who once governed a vast Bulgarian Empire.
- The Ghosts of Communism: We’ll learn about Bulgaria’s communist period, while examining the treatment of its legacy in contemporary culture—from the rise of post-Soviet kitsch to certain sites of communist heritage that locals would rather forget.
- Ancient Tradition and Celebration: We’ll see the Roman ruins upon which Bulgaria was built, and also take part in Surva, a folk festival believed to date back many thousands of years to the time of the ancient Thracian kings.
Atlas Obscura's Journey Into Bulgaria is conducted in partnership with Darmon Richter, author of The Bohemian Blog and Ph.D. scholar of Bulgarian communism. Richter has lived in Bulgaria for five years and has extensive experience running tours all across Eastern Europe, including to Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A $250 non-refundable deposit is required to secure your spot as we have a very limited capacity, and we expect the trip to fill extremely quickly. The trip will cost $1,999—the $250 deposit plus $1,749 final payment—and will cover all fixed costs including accommodations, daily breakfast and dinner, and all the activities listed below.
Welcome to Bulgaria!
- Arrive in Sofia and meet your group of travel companions.
- Guided walk through the capital, taking in some of Sofia’s most iconic landmarks: the National Palace of Culture, the Statue of Saint Sofia, Independence Square, and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
- Take a trip on the modernist-styled metro system and visit Sofia’s controversial communist era symbol, the graffiti-stained Monument to the Soviet Army.
- Enjoy a traditional Bulgarian dinner at Raketa Rakia, Sofia’s first communism-themed restaurant. The bar stocks some incredible vintages of rakia, making this the perfect opportunity to sample the signature national drink.
The Old Capital
- Ring the bells at the Banner of Peace, a musical monument built during the communist period. This varied collection of bells was donated from all around the world and includes uniquely styled designs from countries such as Yugoslavia, North Korea, and Iran.
- Cruise down the highway to Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria’s former capital, and admire the intricate Orthodox murals that decorate the historic Preobrazhenski Monastery.
- Visit the Asen Dynasty Monument, celebrating the three brothers who led a successful uprising against the Byzantine Empire and founded the Second Bulgarian Empire here in Veliko Turnovo.
- Investigate the picturesque Tsarevets Fortress, the hilltop citadel from which Bulgaria’s medieval tsars ruled over their empire.
- Enjoy a sumptuous evening meal complete with a panoramic view across the river gorge.
- Experience the nightlife of this lively student town, before heading back to our striking, Socialist Modernist hotel for a nightcap.
Founders of the Bulgarian State
- Take the highway to Shumen (stopping off at one surprise attraction along the way) to reach the extravagant Monument to the Founders of the Bulgarian State. Bulgaria was established in 681 AD and 1,300 years later, in 1981, this bizarre cubist memorial complex was constructed on a plateau overlooking the city of Shumen.
- Feast on a lunch of dumplings and khachapuri at a hidden Armenian restaurant in the city centre.
- After lunch, cross the mountains to the south to discover a little-known Brutalist monument that gazes out across the plains below.
- Reach the city of Stara Zagora and check into tonight’s hotel. As soon as you’re ready, we’ll head out for food and drink at the city’s premier music venue and grillhouse (their Jack Daniels-glazed ribs are not to be missed).
The People’s Republic
- Ascend into the Balkan Mountains, climbing the dramatic Shipka Pass to reach the stone monument at its peak. Learn about the epic Battle of Shipka Pass, a defining moment in Bulgarian history that unfolded here during the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War.
- Admire the Russian Memorial Church in the town of Shipka, with its exquisite gold domes and iconic Russian orthodox architecture. Discuss the Russian connection, the rise of the Bulgarian Communist Party, and the effect it had on the country throughout the 20th century.
- Sample local rustic specialties at a restaurant nearby, the walls decorated with the owner’s eye-catching collection of communist memorabilia.
- Marvel at the space-age Buzludzha Monument: a colossal concrete saucer perched at an altitude of 1,432 meters (4,700 feet). Opened in 1981, the monument was funded by citizen donations and decorated in rich mosaics to form a glittering shrine to the communist ideal. Since the fall of Bulgarian communism it has stood abandoned, and is now one of the world’s most intriguing modern ruins.
- As the sun sets, we head to Pernik—where we’ll warm up with a hot drink, talk about the fate of the Buzludzha monument, its meaning, decline, and the current project aimed at restoring the site.
- Spend all day at the Surva Festival, watching the annual ceremony where teams of kukeri dressed in masks, bells, and fur costumes perform rituals dating back thousands of years. The festival is believed to have its roots in the fertility rites of ancient Thrace, and each year performers compete to see who can design the most bizarre and terrifying costumes.
- Travel back to Sofia for a final dinner with the group, before winding down from the tour with drinks at an unusual hidden nightspot.
Your Atlas Obscura Trip to Bulgaria Includes
- All lodging in double-accommodation rooms in modern, well-equipped hotels throughout the trip. Single supplement for a private room is available for $299. Otherwise we'll place singles of the same sex together.
- Breakfast daily (either in your hotel, or at recommended traditional breakfast spots).
- A full meal every evening of the tour.
- An experienced tour guide and Ph.D. scholar of Bulgarian communism, able to offer unique insights into the country and its history.
- Private transport throughout the trip, in a comfortable, heated minibus.
- Admission to all proposed activities and events, including museums and the medieval fortress.
- Full briefing information for each explorer, including country information, final itinerary, logistical and contact information, recommended reading list, and packing list.
- A great group of intrepid fellow Atlas Obscura explorers, excited to experience all that Bulgaria has to offer!
Travelers are Responsible For
- Transportation and flights to and from Sofia International Airport.
- Travel insurance.
- Baggage charges.
- Additional meals and drinks outside of Atlas Obscura offerings.
- If applicable, applying for an EU visa.
Feedback from past travelers
"A great variety of the Bulgarian culture, and a wonderful mix of a few well-known Bulgarian highlights (Sofia day tour, Veliko Tarnovo) along with completely obscure gems (Surva, Banner of Peace, arches monument off the side of the road)."
"Thrilling. Adventurous. Cold. Unbelievable. Educational. Cold. Worth everything I put into it and more. Cold."
"A well tailored expedition for those that enjoy exploring and may previously have thought that a packaged tour was a terrible idea."
"The best purchase I have ever made."
For your personal planning of airfare to Sofia International Airport, we'd like to suggest that your flight arrive prior to 10 a.m. on Jan. 24, when our group will start to convene. Regarding a return flight to your home destination, feel free to book for a convenient time the morning of Jan. 29 or after. If you plan to arrive early, we're more than happy to help in arranging your accommodation and suggesting activities in Sofia.
Itineraries and pricing are subject to change. This particular tour has been designed with specific activities and events in mind, whose schedules and availabilities may change in coming months. Though unlikely, extreme weather conditions may also prevent us from reaching some of the more remote locations listed. If any activity or attraction that is advertised is missed or not available, then we will always replace it with another activity or location of significant interest and value.
You will be charged a non-refundable $250 deposit to hold your space. The final payment of $1,749 will be due on October 15, 2017. All reservations will be final after this date and subject to our cancellation policy. By submitting your deposit, you agree to the Terms & Conditions. For travelers wishing to have single accommodations during the trip, an additional $299 will be included in the final payment.
Please email us at journeys@or call us at (646) 961-4857 with any questions about the itinerary, logistics, and payment.