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, our first European tour will be delving into the hidden history and lesser-known gems of this unique country.
Join 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. We’ll even have an afternoon on the slopes, with skiing and snowboarding opportunities that can be tailored to both absolute beginners and alpine experts.
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 small, 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.
The uniquely curated itinerary will include:
- Hands-on History: We will visit popular UNESCO sights 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: We’ll see the Roman ruins upon which Bulgaria was built, and also take part in a folk festival believed to date back many thousands of years to the time of the ancient Thracian kings.
- Ski Trip: Bulgaria is one of Europe’s up-and-coming winter sports destinations. We’ll hit the slopes for a day in the mountains with professional ski and snowboard instructors.
A $200 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 $1,987—the $200 deposit plus $1,787 final payment—and will cover all fixed costs including accommodations, daily breakfast and dinner, and all the activities listed below.
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Day 1: Welcome to Bulgaria!
Wednesday, January 25
- 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.
Day 2: The Old Capital
Thursday, January 26
- 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.
- 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 traditional 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.
Day 3: The People’s Republic
Friday, January 27
- Ascend into the Balkan Mountains, driving through the historic 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 of the Bulgarian Communist Party, a colossal concrete saucer perched at an altitude of 1,432m. 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.
- Return to Shipka for the night and warm up with a hot drink… or maybe something a little stronger. Talk about the fate of the Buzludzha monument, its meaning, decline, and the current project aimed at potentially restoring the site.
Day 4: Hit the Slopes
Saturday, January 28
- Try a traditional Bulgarian breakfast of banichka (crispy pastries) and boza (a fermented malt drink), before travelling to the scenic ski resort at Malyovitsa.
- Enjoy a day on the slopes with an experienced instructor. Both skiing and snowboarding options are available, with all equipment provided. This activity day will be suitable for those of all experience levels.
- Drive down to the mining town Pernik, where the Surva Festival of Masquerade Games is already in full swing. Join in the fun as the festival spills over into the streets for a night of bonfires, masks, and mulled wine.
Day 5: Ancient Rituals
Sunday, January 29
- Spend all day at the Surva Festival, watching the closing ceremony, where teams of kukeri dressed in masks, bells, and fur costumes perform ceremonies dating back thousands of years. This annual festival is believed to have its roots in the fertility rites of ancient Thrace, and 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.
Day 6: Depart from Bulgaria
Monday, January 30
- We'll head to the airport for our individual flights home, say farewell (and see you soon) to new friends, and bid Bulgaria adieu!
Your Atlas Obscura Bulgaria Journey 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 work to place singles together.)
- Travel insurance for the duration of your visit.
- 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 PhD 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, the medieval fortress and the skiing trip.
- A full briefing packet for each explorer, including country information, final itinerary, logistical and contact information, recommended reading list, and packing list.
- A great group of fellow Atlas Obscura Society members, excited to explore all that Bulgaria has to offer!
This Atlas Obscura Bulgaria trip is conducted in partnership with Darmon Richter, author of The Bohemian Blog.
Please email us at [email protected] with any questions about the itinerary, logistics, and payment.
NOTE: 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.
Payment: You will be charged a non-refundable $200 deposit to hold your space. The final payment of $1,787 will be due on November 5, 2016. 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.
Members Responsible For:
- Transportation and flights to and from Sofia International Airport.
- Baggage charges.
- Additional meals and drinks outside of Atlas Obscura offerings.
- If applicable, applying for an EU visa.