I always highlight that Bulgaria is a budget-friendly destination to visit and travel around. The best that Bulgaria has to offer, you can enjoy without breaking the bank. From hiking to the top of the Balkans, visiting ancient cities, to attending a festival where people walk barefoot on fire, in this article, I share the best things to do in Bulgaria for free.
So keep reading to discover what not to miss experiencing when visiting my home country Bulgaria:
Table of Contents
Bulgaria’s National Parks
There are 3 national parks in Bulgaria: Rila, Pirin, and Central Balkan. Visiting them all is free and a must for all nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts.
Rila National Park is the biggest one in Bulgaria. He is home to Musala, the highest peak in Bulgaria and on the Balkans standing at 2, 925 meters above sea level. On the territory of the park, you can also visit the famous Seven Rila Lakes – one of the most beautiful places in all of Bulgaria.
The national park is one of the largest and most valuable protected areas in Europe. The four nature reserves on the territory of the park are included in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves under UNESCO Man and Biosphere Programme.
In the area of the park, you can find rare and endangered wildlife species, self-regulating ecosystems of biological diversity, and historic sites of global cultural and scientific significance.
The name Rila is derived from the Thracian word roula, meaning ”lots of water”.
View from Musala peak to Ice Lake and shelter
Encompassing the larger part of the Pirin Mountains, Pirin National Park has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Its highest peak is Vihren peak (2, 914), second-highest in Bulgaria, and third highest in the Balkans.
In the area of the Pirin Mountains, there are more than 1, 300 plants – rare, endemic, glacial relicts, and endangered. The oldest tree in Bulgaria Baikushev’s pine, (1, 300 years old) is also located in Pirin! While visiting, you can come across wild goats, falcons, and eagles. Pirin is famous for its 118 glacier lakes.
Pirin National Park
Central Balkan National Park is in the heart of Bulgaria. The highest peak here is Botev, rising at 2 376 meters above the sea level. Situated in the park, Paiskoto praskalo waterfall /literally translated to ”heavenly spray”/ is the highest waterfall in Bulgaria and in all of the Balkans – 125 meters.
Forests occupy 56% of Central Balkan National Park and it’s home to 59 species of mammals, 224 species of birds, 14 species of reptiles, 8 species of amphibian, and 6 species of fish, as well as 2387 species of invertebrates.
View from Ambaritsa hut to the Central Balkan ridge
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you already know how much I love hiking. And I especially love hiking in the Bulgarian Mountains – our mountains are incredible and in no way yield the Alps, for example.
Of course, if you want to come hiking in Bulgaria that also won’t cost you a thing. As I mentioned in the previous part, there is no entry fee to Bulgaria’s National Parks or any other mountains – although, in my opinion, it might be a good idea a symbolic price to be asked for.
Rila, Pirin, and Central Balkan National Parks are not the only places where you can go hiking. They are, of course, some of the most popular hiking destinations and are truly breathtaking. However, one-third of the territory of Bulgaria is covered by almost 40 mountains, so there are a lot of mountains to choose from. They are diverse in area, height, relief, and biological world. All the mountains in Bulgaria offer lots of opportunities for hiking and different sports.
Rhodopes Mountain is one of my favorites, and Vitosha is Sofia’s own mountain.
If you’re really up for an adventure in the Bulgarian Mounatins, then here are a few suggestions for you:
Kom – Emine trail:
Kom – Emine is the longest hiking trail in Bulgaria. It’s approximately 650 kilometers long and goes through the ridge of Stara Planina, crossing Bulgaria from West to the East. During the Kom – Emine trail more than 100 peaks are being hiked. The average time to complete the whole trail is around 2 – 3 weeks. You can do the trail on a bicycle, too.
”If I fall to fulfill my greatest dream for a world tour, then I will settle for a trip along the ridge of our fascinating Stara Planina, from end to end. And I believe it will be very fun and useful wandering because we know our country not better than Asian and African deserts because we live in our homeland as indifferent foreigners.”
On Kom peak, where the Kom-Emine trail starts
This is the longest European hiking trail. The part of it that’s crossing Bulgaria passes five mountains: Vitosha, Verila, Rila, Pirin, and Slavyanka. The trail starts in Sofia’s neighborhood Dragalevtshi and finishes at Gotsev vruh – the highest peak in Slavyanka mountain, rising at 2, 212 meters above sea level. The average time to complete the whole trail is between 7 and 12 days, depending on your tempo and fitness level.
E4 passes by the beautiful Tevno lake in Pirin Mountain, overlooking Kaminitsa peak
Another European hiking trails that pass through Bulgaria. E8 in Bulgaria is a trail that goes through part of Rila Mountain and the entire Rhodopes with a total length of about 450 km.
Ortsevo village, which offers a stunning view of Pirin Mountains. It’s on the E8 route.
Another one of the things to do in Bulgaria for free is camping. In Bulgaria, you can pretty much put your tent wherever you want without being charged for that.
That doesn’t apply to campsites, of course, as well as you might be asked to pay a fee to put up a tent near to a mountain hut.
In Bulgaria, you can camp for free in the mountains, on lots of beaches, at the dams, in forests, etc.
Camping on Belmeken peak in Rila Mountain.
Enjoy the beaches
Bulgaria has a 354 km long coastline. It begins at the Romanian border in the North and ends at the Turkish border in the South.
The coast is lined with many resorts, some of which provide their own private beaches. There are also lots of beaches where they charge you for the use of an umbrella and a lounge. However, you don’t need to pay for this. Just stretch your towel, put up your own umbrella, and you’re all set to enjoy the beach.
To really enjoy the Bulgarian beaches, I recommend visiting the wild beaches instead of the beaches in the big and popular resorts. Check out Irakli, Kara Dere, Krapets, Veleka, Silistar, Kamchiiski dunes, and the beaches in the village of Varvara.
I also highly recommend visiting Bulgaria’s Northern Black Sea cost – here you can find some stunning beaches, as well as high rock massive, sea caves, and old lighthouses.
You can camp at all of these beaches, but if you’re not into that, there are also campsites and bungalows where you can stay.
Go to Monuments
One of the best free things to do in Bulgaria is visiting as much as you can monuments. Bulgaria has a very long history and rich culture that is represented by dozens of monuments and memorials located throughout the entire country.
Here are a few monuments in Bulgaria that are worth checking out:
Perhaps the most famous Bulgarian monument of all. The Buzludzha Monument is an abandoned building on top of the Buzludzha peak in the Central Stara Planina. It is the biggest ideological monument of the totalitarian regime in Bulgaria.
The monument was erected in 1981 as a home for the Bulgarian Communist Party. Even if you’re not planning to visit this part of Bulgaria, a day trip to Buzludzha from Sofia or another city in Bulgaria is a must for the fans of abandoned buildings and thrill-seekers. The monument is closed to the public, but there’s still a way to get in at your own risk and responsibility.
One of the most important monuments in Bulgaria is Shipka aka the Monument of Freedom. The monument is dedicated to the heroic Shipka battles during the Russian-Turkish War and is situated on Shipka peak at 1, 326 meters above sea level and you can reach it after climbing up 894 steps.
It’s one of the most popular places where Bulgarians spend the 3rd of March – The National Liberation Day.
P.S. You can visit Buzludzha and Shipka in a single trip. They are part of the Shipka-Buzludja National Park Museum and the distance between them both is only 12 km.
Apriltsi Memorial Complex
Situated in Panagyurishte, the Apriltsi Memorial Complex was constructed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the April Uprising.
Founders of Bulgaria Monument
Located in the city of Shumen, the Founders of Bulgaria Monument was built to commemorate the 1300th anniversary of the First Bulgarian Empire. The monument is situated on a plateau overlooking the city.
Defenders of Stara Zagora Memorial Complex
When visiting Stara Zagora don’t miss the memorial complex ”The Defenders of Stara Zagora” who was built in 1977 in order to commemorate the men who were fighting in the National Liberation War. The monument is impressive by its size and is located on a hill, from where you can have a nice view of the city and the surrounding areas.
The monument represents the Samara flag, which is one of the most important military symbols.
The Defenders of Stara Zagora Monument
Monument to the Tsar Liberator
One of the free things to do in Sofia includes checking out the Monument to Tsar Liberator located on Tsar Osvoboditel (Liberator) boulevard just across the street from the National Assembly of Bulgaria. It was built in honor of the Russian Emperor Alexander II who liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman rule during the Russo-Turkish War.
Events and Festivals to attend in Bulgaria
As already mentioned, Bulgaria is a country with rich culture and unique traditions which you can see represented through many festivals and events.
There are hundreds of festivals and events in Bulgaria each year. Some of the most famous ones are the Nestinari Festival and the International Festival of Masquerade Games. These two are free to attend along with many music and movie festivals.
Here are a few events and festivals to attend for free while visiting Bulgaria:
Nestinarstvo, which represents fire dancing, is one of the oldest traditions in Bulgaria. Nowadays the festival is preserved only in three villages in Strandzha Mountain – Bulgari, Brodilovo, and Kosti.
The culmination of the festival happens after sunset when people would build up a massive fire and dance traditional Bulgarian folklore dance – horo. At this stage of the festival, nestinari in a state of trance enter the ring of fire and start dancing on it.
The festival is part of UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The festival is best preserved and could be attended in the village of Bulgaria every year on the 3rd of June.
The International Festival of Masquerade Games ”Surva” is the biggest festival of that kind in Bulgaria and in the Balkans. The festival promotes ancient Bulgarian customs and Bulgarian folklore traditions. During the festival, participants would put on scary masks and costumes to chase away the evil spirits.
The Surva Festival is held in the town of Pernik every last Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in January.
Bagpipe Contest Gela
This festival aims to promote authentic Rhodope folklore and preserve the local traditions. It’s held in the village of Gela in the Rhodope Mountains every year at the beginning of August. Dates are being confirmed yearly.
Name days are taken very seriously in Bulgaria, but Yordanov day is a little bit different than the other name days that we celebrate in the country. Yordanov day is celebrated on the 6th of January and is famous and unique for the male horo in the icy winter waters. This Bulgarian ritual is best preserved in the town of Kalofer, but it’s being practiced in other places in the country, too.
In essence, on Yordanov day a priest throws a cross into a river or lake and all willing men jump after the cross in a competition to retrieve it. People believe that whoever catches the cross first will be happy and healthy throughout the year.
This is a unique festival celebrated only in Bulgaria. Every year on the 30th of June, locals will head to the Bulgarian beaches or mountains to wait for the first sunrise of July. The event usually involves music, dances, games, and sleeping under the stars.
Welcoming July morning 2020 at Vitosha Mountain
For one night per year, many museums in Sofia and all around the country are free to visit. Usually, this event takes place on the weekend closest to 18th May (International Museum Day).
A to JazZ Festival
The International A to JazZ Festival is one of the symbols of music in Sofia, spreading the jazz spirit in the city annually. It usually takes place in June.
And one Bulgarian festival that is not at all famous, but I wanted to include it because it’s my favorite one – The Blueberry festival.
The Blueberry Festival
The Blueberry Festival is held in the mountain of Stara Planina, and more specifically at Ambaritsa hut. Ambaritsa is situated at 1 520 meters above sea level and from the hut, you can enjoy some stunning views of the ridge of Stara Planina. The Blueberry festival lasts for 3 days and it includes a lot of music, games, and of course, blueberries (and mekitsi). If you happen to be in Bulgaria on the last weekend of July, make sure to join me at the festival.
I attended the festival for the first time as a volunteer in 2016, and have been one each year ever since. Usually, during the festival, you can find me at the bar.
Other Bulgarian festivals that are absolutely worth to be seen but not free to attend include the Rose Festival in Kazanlak and Zheravna National Costume Festival. Please also note that the list of events and festivals to attend in Bulgaria doesn’t end here. For the purpose of this article, I have gathered the events and festivals that I find most interesting.
If you’re interested to learn more, check out these 7 unusual Bulgarian customs and traditions.
Visit Historical and Museum cities
Bulgaria’s rich history and culture are preserved throughout the country by declared historical and museum cities and architectural reserves. Visiting those and wandering around won’t cost you a thing, but of course, if you want to check out some museums or other attractions, a fee might apply.
Here is a bit longer list of historical and museum cities & villages to visit in Bulgaria:
Koprivshtitsa is a small, historic Bulgarian town lying on the Topolitsa river among the Sredna Gora Mountain. The town is best known for its authentic Bulgarian architecture and as one of the center’s of the April Uprising in 1876.
The town of Koprivshtitsa is home to many architectural monuments from Bulgarian National Revival times, collections of ethnographical treasures, national costumes, and typical Bulgarian jewelry are among the town’s riches.
A visit to Koprivshtitsa will take you to one of the most characteristic Bulgarian towns that is a perfect getaway from either Sofia or Plovdiv.
Plovdiv’s Old Town
Plovdiv is the second-largest city in Bulgaria and Europe’s oldest inhabited city which history can be traced for 8 000 years.
The Old Town of Plovdiv is a well-preserved architectural reserve complex. Walking the narrow cobblestone streets feels like a walk through different historical ages. The Old Town is full of ancient buildings, museums, and here is situated The Amphitheater – the greatest achievement in the field of restoration of monuments of antiquity in Bulgaria and one of the best-preserved ancient theaters in the world.
Plovdiv and the surroundings are worth exploring for a few days, but if your time in Bulgaria is limited, then make sure to make a day trip to Plovdiv from Sofia and at least visit its Old Town.
Veliko Turnovo is the historical capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. The old part of the city is situated on the three hills Tsarevets, Trapezirtsa, and Sveta Gora, rising amidst the meanders of the Yantra river. Some of the tourist attractions in the city include the Monument of Asenevtsi, Monument of Independence, Trapezitsa Hill, and the village of Arbanasi, which is a historic and museum place on its own.
Situated at an altitude of 925 meters, Bansko is located at the foot of the gorgeous Pirin Mountain. Over 130 architectural and historical monuments are registered in Bansko, seven of which are of national significance.
Bansko is famous for its distinctive architecture, stone houses, its wood-carving school, and the traditional Pirin songs as well as cuisine.
It’s a great destination to visit all year round – in summer, Bansko is a great starting point for many hikes in Pirin Mountain, and in winter, Bansko is among the most famous winter resorts in Bulgaria and Europe.
Melnik is located in the skirts of Pirin mountain, among sand pyramids with bizarre forms and it’s the smallest city in Bulgaria. Melnik attracts visitors with his history, ancient houses, and aromatic wines. The town is declared as a cultural-historical reserve. 96 of its buildings are cultural monuments.
The spectacular landscape of Melnik sandstone cliffs makes it one of the best places to visit in Bulgaria.
Nessebar is among the oldest towns in Europe and one of the biggest historical depositories and the most abundant town with medieval architectural monuments in Bulgaria.
Located on the Black Sea coast, Nessebar is one of the declared museum towns and architectural, and archeological reserves of national significance and a cultural monument included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The biggest wealth of Nessebar is the 60 preserved houses from the Revival period.
30 km away from Nessebar is another ancient seaside town – Sozopol. Don’t miss to check out Sozpol, too!
Located at the heart of Rhodope Mountains, the village of Shiroka Laka is a proclaimed architectural and folklore reserve. The village is home to one of Bulgaria’s best schools for folk music and is just under the village of Gela – remember, where the bagpipe contest is.
You can visit them both in a single trip, but unfortunately, public transportation options to these places are very limited, so traveling by car is the best and most convenient way to get there. Find here more information about driving and traveling around Bulgaria by car.
This list of historical and museum cities and villages in Bulgaria doesn’t end here, but those are some of the best examples.
Almost every single church or monastery in Bulgaria is free to visit. Note that many of them may have separate museums in which if you want to get in and explore, you’ll have to pay a fee.
One of the most important cultural, historical, and architectural monuments in Bulgaria is the Rila Monastery. Founded in the 10th century, the monastery is the largest Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria that attracts thousands of tourists each year. In 2017, Rila Monastery attracted a record-high number of visitors – more than 1 million!
The Rila Monastery is nestled on the slopes of Rila Mountain in the deep valley of the Rilska River at an elevation of 1, 147 meters above sea level. With its 1000 years history, Rila Monastery is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Hopefully that after reading this, you’ve found your reasons to visit Bulgaria on your next trip. This list of free things to do in Bulgaria is just a part of all that this country has to offer and I really hope that you will explore beyond that. And even though some other things might cost you a lev or two, I guarantee that it is all worth it.
If you’re planning a trip to Bulgaria and have any questions that I don’t already answer on the blog, please feel free to contact me – I would love to help with any additional tips and recommendation, and why not even join you on the trip, or at least take you out for a beer!
Thanks for reading,
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