Bulgaria is beautiful in winter and just like in the rest of the year, the winter season is full of fun things to try and experience. In this article, I am going to cover all the fun things to do in Bulgaria in winter, the best places to visit during the snowy season, what traditional winter foods to try, as well as interesting events and festivals that take place during this time of the year.
There is something special and magical about winter – sitting right next to a fireplace with a hot drink in hand and watching the snowflakes fall outside the window is one of those little things in life that easily keep everyone happy.
And while you can do this in many places around the world, planning a visit to Bulgaria in winter might just be the best choice for a winter holiday. From world-class skiing and snowboarding to soaking in one of the many Bulgarian thermal hot springs, and tasting seasonal culinary specialties to witnessing or participating in one of the local bizarre and unique traditions, here’s everything that you need to know about Bulgaria in winter.
…but first things first.
What is the weather like in Bulgaria in winter?
Bulgarian winters are usually snowy and cold. It isn’t unheard of for temperatures to drop down to -20°C. However, in the last few years with all the climate changes, temperatures rarely drop that much and are usually between 10°C to -10°C. In fact, I am writing this on Christmas 2020, and looking outside the weather is dry and about 11°C. This is not typical comparing to the winters that I remember from my childhood when there was always snow at that time of the year and temperatures have been below zero.
Anyways, this varies, as there might be warm wind invasions from the south (raising the temperatures to 15°C) or cold air outbreaks coming from the north, which can bring strong, cold winds and severe frosts.
The winter season in Bulgaria starts roughly at the beginning of December and lasts until the beginning / Mid-March. In the highest parts of the mountains, the winter cover lasts until Mid-May.
There’s almost no rainfall during the winter season and most days are quite sunny.
What to pack for winter in Bulgaria?
From the previous section of this article, you already have an idea of what the weather is like in winter in Bulgaria. To help you prepare appropriately for this kind of weather and temperatures, I gathered this shortlist of all the essentials to keep you warm on your trip:
- Hat, scarf, and gloves
- Merino wool undershirts, leggings, and underwear
- Jacket (preferably water and windproof)
- Sweaters and t-shirts
- Bottoms – jeans are fine if you’re exploring the cities. For the mountains, make sure to pack padded waterproof pants.
- Winter boots & winter trekking shoes if you’re planning to go winter trekking
- Warm wool socks – when you arrive in Bulgaria, you can also buy terlitsi (traditional winter knitted wool socks). Every single Bulgarian has at least a few pairs of terlitsi entangled by his grandmother. To say that Bulgarians love terlitsi won’t be enough to describe our feeling for one of the best things that exist in this world!
- Ski/snowboard clothes & gear – if you’re coming for the winter sports, you can either bring your own equipment or rent from the resort that you’re visiting
- Camera – as Bulgaria in winter is super picturesque
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO BULGARIA
If you’re already decided to visit Bulgaria in the winter season, you can see my top travel recommendations here:
Accommodation in Bulgaria:
When I travel around my home country, I always prefer staying in guest houses rather than hotels. Especially, in the villages and small towns, that can help local families keep their business and feed their family. I either book them on Booking.com or directly over the phone.
Top-rated winter tours and experiences in Bulgaria:
Need a Visa for Bulgaria?
I recommend iVisa, they will sort your Bulgarian visa quickly and efficiently.
Travel Insurance (Better Safe Than Sorry):
You better not have to use it, but it’s always good to be insured when traveling abroad, as well as in your own country. If you decide to get insurance, check for coverage and rate with my recommended provider World Nomads.
Disclosure: Please note that some of the links here are affiliate links, which means I will receive a small commission if you make a booking after clicking. It comes at no extra cost to you but it helps me with the running of this site! As always, opinions are my own. Thank you!
Fun things to do in Bulgaria in winter
Winter sports: skiing & snowboarding
Skiing and snowboarding are among the top things to do in Bulgaria in winter and many locals’ favorite activities.
Comparing to the Alps, Bulgarian winter resorts might not be so fancy, but the quality and the conditions offered don’t give away in any way. There are numerous ski slopes with different difficulty, so it doesn’t matter if you’re just starting or you’re an advanced skier or snowboarder, there are great options for everyone. Moreover, Bulgaria is one of the cheapest places in Europe to enjoy winter sports and the value that you get for your money is top-notch!
There are 3 main winter resorts in Bulgaria: Bansko (known as the best), Borovets (the first ski resort), and Pamporovo (covering 2 ski zones). Sofia’s own mountain Vitosha also has a very popular ski zone – Tulip 1 & 2.
Other smaller ski resorts include Dobrinishte (Bezbog), Panichishte (Seven Rila Lakes), Malyovitsa, Semkovo, and Kartala. Please note that some of those don’t feature lifts, but ski tow instead.
Winter trekking in Bulgaria
Ever since I went on a trek to Musala peak in winter, I am in love with winter trekking. In Bulgaria, trekking in winter doesn’t require previous experience or any special techniques. However, adequate equipment is a must. Crampons and snowshoes are not always necessary, but good to have.
If you’re not joining an organized tour, you should choose the time for winter trekking wisely. Sometimes during the winter in Bulgaria, the mountains experience heavy snowfalls, hurricane winds, and temperatures can drop down to -30°C degrees. There is also a danger of avalanches. The area around Malyovitsa is one of the most avalanche-dangerous in all of Bulgaria.
But don’t panic! There are many warm, quiet, and sunny days in the mountains in winter.
Here are a few ideas of where to go trekking in Bulgaria in winter:
- Musala peak (the top of the Balkans) in Rila Mountain
- Malyovitsa peak in Rila Mountain
- Cherni vrah in Vitosha Mountain
- Botev peak in Central Balkan Mountain
- Polezhan peak in Pirin Mountain
- Vihren peak in Pirin Mountain
Soak in the hot springs
One of Bulgaria’s biggest treasures is the abundance of hot thermal springs. That makes the country very appealing to those looking for a budget spa holiday in Europe. The natural hot waters that flow from springs in Bulgaria are great for relaxation and have healing abilities.
With over 600 mineral water springs, Bulgaria is second in Europe, after Iceland, in natural mineral water and spring water resources, and quality of drinking water. It is also famous as the spa capital of the Balkans. The water temperatures are between 20°C to 101°C.
Having said that, what’s better to do in Bulgaria in winter than soaking in those hot mineral springs? Especially, after a day of skiing or trekking – an absolute bliss!
The spa destinations in Bulgaria include Velingrad, Devin, Hisarya, Sapareva Banya, Narechen, Bankya, Sandanski, Varshets, Pomorie, and many more.
Fest on the mouth-watering winter food
I always say how delicious Bulgarian cuisine is. When visiting, you should definitely try as much as possible, but now I am going to focus on a few dishes that are very typical for the winter season, and others that you can try only during the cold months of the year:
Turshia – Turshia is a group of naturally fermented vegetables. Different variations of turshia include different vegetables, but the most common ones are carrots, pickles, cauliflower, peppers, green tomatoes, celery, and garlic. It is an absolute favorite winter meal in Bulgaria and it serves as a traditional appetizer for rakia.
Kiselo zele (sour cabbage) – It is obtained during the fermentation of cabbage in prepared brine. The sour cabbage is being consumed mainly as a salad flavored with olive oil and red pepper. Bulgarians produce their own sour cabbage in their basements.
Sarmi – This dish is made from the leaves of the sour cabbage stuffed with rice and minced meat. I love adding a dried plum to each leaf. Yummy!
Soups – Soups make the perfect lunch in Bulgaria during the winter season. There are all kinds of soups that you can have, but here are the three most common and must try:
- Chicken soup – My favorite soup! It is made from chicken and vegetables, boiled together until everything is cooked. I love adding lemon, parsley, and lots of black pepper to it.
- Tripe soup – You either love or hate this soup. Made from cow or lamb stomach and milk, it’s one of the locals’ favorite soups. Usually, you are expected to add vinegar, garlic, and spicy pepper to your taste. The soup is considered to be a hangover remedy.
- Bean and lentils soup – Those two soups are being cooked in every single hut in Bulgaria. They are very nutritious and go along perfectly with chopped bread.
Ruska (Russian) salad – As you can guess by the name, this isn’t an authentic Bulgarian salad, however, it is one of the most famous salads that it consumed in Bulgaria in winter. The salad is made from mayonnaise, boiled potatoes, peas, carrots, pickles, corn, and ham. You might have had it in other countries such as Israel and Mongolia by another name.
Kavarma – A heavy meal that is made from pork meat, onions, mushrooms, peeled and chopped tomatoes, sliced carrots, and a cut pepper, mixed with cumin, oregano, sunflower oil, and a cup of wine. It is slow-cooked and prepared in gyuveche.
Stuffed peppers – This is one of my favorite Bulgarian meals. And although you can eat it all-year-round, I decided to include it as it is especially common to have it during the winter season. Also, it is part of the Christmas Eve dinner. Basically, it is peppers filled with rice, meat, and vegetables. On Christmas Eve, it must be vegetarian.
The Rhodope Narrow Gauge Railway
The Rhodope Narrow Gauge is the most scenic train ride in Bulgaria. The train runs from the town of Septemvri to the resort town of Dobrinishte at the foot of Pirin Mountain.
Its track gauge is only 760mm! For its length of 124,7 km, the train passes through the gorge of Chepisnka River, Avromovo Saddle that divides the mountains of Rila and the Rhodopes, and continues following the Mesta River until it reaches the Razlog Valley at the foot of Pirin Mountain.
With this train, you can reach the ski resorts of Bansko and Dobrinishte.
Alternatively, you can drop off at many other places on the way. Velingrad, for instance, is Bulgaria’s largest balneological resorts and is also known as the Spa capital of the Balkans.
Another interesting place on the way of The Rhodope Narrow Gauge is Avramovo train station – the highest one on the Balkan Peninsula at an elevation of 1, 267 above sea level. After 3-4 hours of walking from Avramovo, you can reach Ortsevo village.
The entire train journey from Septemvri to Dobrinishte takes about 5 and a half hours and a one-way ticket costs only 3.30 EUR! Even if you don’t get off anywhere on the way, just sitting on the train and enjoying the winter scenery from the window it’s an experience on its own.
8 Fascinating places to visit in Bulgaria in winter
One of the best places to visit in Bulgaria in winter is the Rhodopes Mountain. This mountain range is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful parts of the country. It’s absolutely stunning in every season and it’s full of places to discover.
The Rhodopes Mountain is home to the winter resort of Pamporovo, but there’s something for everyone to explore. This part of the country is also home to many caves and some of the most charming villages. Believe me, once you set foot in the Rhodopes, you won’t want to leave.
The mountain has a rich cultural heritage. Thracian tribes inhabited the Rhodopes for centuries. On the territory of the mountain, there are lots of remains of their culture and you can check out some ancient Thracian sites such as Belintash, Perperikon, and Tatul.
As to places to visit and stay, consider the cities of Smolyan, Zlatograd, Devin, and Sarnitsa or the villages of Shiroka Luka, Gela, and Ortsevo. The best way to explore this part of Bulgaria is by car.
Located in the very heart of Bulgaria, at the foot of the northern slopes of Stara Planina, Tryavna is one of the best places to visit in Bulgaria in winter. The preserved Revival architecture and the cultural heritage of this period are just a small portion of what the city has to offer.
Tryavna is home to the only Museum of Asian and African Art on the Balkan Peninsula. The museum has over 380 objects from Tibet, Nepal, India, and some African countries. But the best thing to do in Tryavna in winter is to explore the Old Town. You shouldn’t also miss The Clock Tower and Humpback bridge, and Tryavna Beer House.
The surroundings of Tryavna are just as beautiful as the town itself. Nearby, you can explore ”Etar” Open-Air Ethnographic Museum, Sokolsky & Dryanovski Monasteries, the Bacho Kiro Cave, and the historic and architectural reserve Bozhentsi.
Apriltsi and Pleven hut
Apriltsi is a small town situated below the highest peak of Stara Planina – Botev peak (2, 356). The town offers countless opportunities for tourism all-year-round. In winter, walking through the snow-covered streets of the town is really nice. On top of that, 19th-century Bulgarian houses are preserved and add to the town’s charm.
I’d recommend booking a stay in a guest house or exploring the city and heading to Pleven hut.
Pleven hut is located above the town of Apriltsi and is a place where you can easily spend a few days. If not to climb to the highest peak of the mountain Botev, you can move your home office there. Its library got recently been renewed and features a good Wi-Fi connection.
This is one of my favorite places in the whole world! I rarely share my love of Ambaritsa, but if you have read other of my articles about Bulgaria, you’ll probably know about the Blueberry Festival and that I am a volunteer at the hut since 2016.
Ambaritsa hut is situated at an elevation of 1, 520 meters above sea level, in the heart of Central Balkan National Park. From in front of the hut, and from its windows, you can enjoy the stunning view of the highest peaks of this part of the mountain, all covered in snow. There’s something truly magical about this view (personally, one of my favorite mountain views ever)!
During the winter season, you can go winter hiking to the two closest peaks – Ambaritsa & Golyam Kupen.
If not, I guarantee that just the walk to reach the hut and the surroundings are enjoyable enough. Plus, there’s nothing better than reading a book next to the fireplace or playing one of the many games available for tourists.
Home to one of Europe’s very few hot water geysers, Sapareva Banya is one of Bulgaria’s spa resorts. It is located at the north foot of Rila Mountain and only 75 km away from Sofia.
The geyser water temperature is 103°C and usually, you can observe the geothermal spring that pushes out an 18-meter jet of mineral water every 20 seconds. On cold winter days some of the water freezes, but the geyser continues to push water and hot steam floats over the snow. The geyser is in the center of the town and it is surrounded by a public garden.
When visiting Sapareva Banya, you can combine a ski and spa holiday in one. Close to Sapareva Banya is located another smaller Bulgarian winter resort – Panichishte (Seven Rila Lakes).
On the other side of Rila Mountain is the village of Govedartsi – a beautiful mountainous destination. The village is located along the Cherni Iskar river at an elevation of 1, 157 meters above sea level. The temperatures in January can drop drown to -33° C, there is snow on average 160 days a year, and the snow cover is over 120 cm.
On the territory of Govedartsi is also the small winter resort of Malyovitsa. You can either go skiing or snowboarding at the slopes of Malyovitsa ski resort or go for a winter hike as the village is the starting point for routes to Malyovitsa hut and peak, Vada hut, Mechit hut, and more.
If you’re just looking for mountain coziness, then be sure that the hosts of the guests’ houses will welcome you in a traditional Balkan atmosphere and with delicious, traditional dishes.
The capital of Bulgaria Sofia is a great destination to visit all-year-round. While the many green areas and parks are one of the best places to spend your time in Sofia in any other reason, winter has its own charm and offers both indoor and outdoor activities for you to enjoy.
Here are a few ideas of what to do in Sofia in winter:
- Sofia’s Christmas Market – Sofia’s Weihnachtsmarkt is a German-themed Christmas market that started a few years ago and is the most popular market of this kind in the capital city. The stalls around the market offer German sausages and sweets, mulled wine, Christmas decorations, and presents.
- Ice skating – Sofia is home to the largest outdoor ice rink in Eastern Europe. The artificial Lake Ariana at the entrance to Boris’ Garden is emptied for the winter to become the local’s favorite place in the city in the cold months. The ice rink is open 24 hours, 7 days a week.
- Visit the museums – what better time to visit the city’s museum than the winter season? Fortunately for you, Sofia has many museums that represent Bulgaria’s rich history and culture. The ones that I would recommend you to visit include the National Museum of History, the National Archaeological Museum, and the National Museum of Natural History.
Of course, don’t miss to explore more of the city and check out some of the amazing free things to do in Sofia or join one of the city’s free tours. Sofia’s own mountain Vitosha is also not to be missed as it offers many hiking trails with different difficulties and the scenery is extremely beautiful in winter. It is one of the best day hikes destinations near Sofia and you can even go there for skiing and snowboarding.
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 and it attracts visitors all-year-round mostly with its spaceship-like architecture that resembles a UFO.
A day trip from Sofia to Buzludzha is one of the best ways to see the monument and explore the surroundings. Nearby, you should also check out Shipka Monument and Church. Those are all very beautiful when are covered in snow, hence my decision to include them on the list.
Unfortunately, the Buzludzha monument that was erected in 1981 as a home for the Bulgarian Communist Party is now closed to the public. There’s still a way to get in at your own risk and responsibility, but I wouldn’t advise you to do so if you don’t have a local guide that has done it before.
Winter customs and traditions in Bulgaria
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 hero (traditional folklore dance) 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.
The International Festival of Masquerade Games ”Surva” is the biggest festival of that kind in Bulgaria and 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. If you happen to visit the country around that time, don’t miss checking the Surva festival – it is one of the most amazing things to do in Bulgaria.
On the 14th of February in Bulgaria, we don’t celebrate the love for each other, but instead the love of wine. Okay, people do celebrate Valentine’s Day, but there’s another tradition in Bulgaria that has been celebrated on that same day for centuries now – St Trifon, the ancient holiday of winemakers and vine growers.
St Trifon is considered to be the guardian of the vineyards and protector of all winemakers.
Trifon Zarezan tradition can be traced back to the Thracians who were some of the first winemakers in the world. Nowadays, the tradition is preserved in some local vineyards.
Baba Marta (Grandma March)
In Bulgaria, we wave goodbye to winter with the arrival of Baba Marta on the 1st of March. Baba Marta is a figure from Bulgarian folklore who brings with her the end of winter and the beginning of spring.
On 1st March it is a tradition for the Bulgarians to exchange martneitsi for health and happiness in the upcoming year. Martenitsi are red and white interwoven strings that we wear on our wrists or clothes up until we see a stork. Then, we take off the martenitsi and hang them on a blossoming tree.
And those were the most important things that you need to know about Bulgaria in winter. Hopefully, you’ve got inspired to plan your next winter holiday in my beautiful home country. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any additional questions about traveling in Bulgaria – I’d love to help!
Thanks for reading,