Table of Contents
Bulgaria is an ancient nation situated along the Black Sea to the east, Romania to the north, Turkey and Greece to the south, and Serbia and Macedonia to the west. The original Bulgars and Slavs migrated to present-day Bulgaria more than 2000 years ago and established themselves as a major power in southeast Europe. For hundreds of years, Bulgaria vied with the Byzantines, the Ottomans, the Mongols and others for control of this patch of land.
Passports & Visas
Passports are required to enter and leave Bulgaria. Visas are not required for US citizens for visits of less than 90 days. For longer visits, contact the nearest Bulgarian embassy.
Obtaining a US passport
The US Government Website is where to start.
1621 22nd Street NW,
Washington, DC 20008
Tel. (202) 387-7969 (main switchboard
Bulgarian Consulate in New York City
121 East 62nd Street,
New York, NY 10021
Tel. (212) 935-4646
For local Consulates near you, look at the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.
US Embassy in Bulgaria
American Offices Provides consular assistance to U.S. citizens
Bulgaria Tourist Information
Bulgaria Culture and History
Bulgarians are a composite of three major ethnic groups, Thracians, Slavs and Bulgars. The Thracians were an ancient people that lived in the present-day Balkans during the time of the Ancient Greeks, Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire. They were known as a fierce and proud collection of tribes that were incorporated into Alexander’s Empire and then later — after more than a century of warfare — by the Roman Empire. They maintained their unique identity until the coming of the Slavs.
The Slavs are a vast enthnicity that orginated in present-day Ukriane and migrated into what is now Eastern Europe. They split into three groups, Eastern, Western and Southern Slavs — the Southern Slavs settled in modern Bulgaria and assimilated the Thracians.
Bulgars are from the Russian steppes and Central Asia and are related to the horsemen that swept across Asia in the latter half of the first millennium AD. These Bulgars created the First Bulgarian Empire, with its borders approximate to the modern-day nation. They warred with and eventually became allies with the powerful Byzantine Empire and are credited with saving Constantinople from being sacked by Arabs in 718AD.
The First Empire effectively assimilated the various ethnicities of the region into one “Bulgarian” identity which allowed for the Empire to establish a flourishing Christian Slavonic culture based on Eastern Orthodoxy (from the Byzantines), the Cyrillic alphabet and a clear, deep sense of ethnic pride. The First Empire was surrounded by enemies: Serbs and Croats to the west, Magyars and Rus to the north and the Byzantines to the east. After years of constant warfare, the Byzantines managed to utterly defeat a large Bulgar army, capture the Emperor, mutilate and demoralize Bulgarian soldiers and eventually sack the capital. The First Empire came to an end in 1018.
The strong culture that was established in the golden years of the First Empire sowed the seeds for rebellion, resistance and eventual re-establishment of a Second Bulgarian Empire in 1185. This Second Empire again faced enemies on all sides, but managed to hold them off for more than 200 years. In the late 13th and 14th centuries, outside pressure from old antagonists and internal feuding between nobles and the Bulgarian Emperor resulted in a weakening that paved the way for an Ottoman invasion that would alter the landscape of the Balkans forever. Ottoman rule in the Balkans actually strengthened the national identities of Christian Slavs like the Serbs and Bulgarians.
Under Muslim rule, these people’s formed outlaw bands that gained legendary status amongst the people and kept the dream of independence alive for five centuries. Bulgaria actually gained independence from the Ottomans after Russia allied with them to drive the Ottomans out in 1876 — the rest of the Balkans would have to wait until Europe’s old imperial class destroyed itself in WWI.
Bulgaria the nation-state had to fight for its old territories, because the Russians were more interested in driving out the Turks and splitting the old Bulgarian Empire up amongst several different groups. Wars were the theme of the next 50 years as Bulgaria fought its neighbors in a bloody give and take for land and eventually sided with Germany in both World Wars. Defeats in these wars decimated the population and there was little resistance to the Red Army when it marched in in 1944.
Like most European nations, Bulgaria was ruled by a strongman for the entirety of Communist rule during the Cold War. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1990, Bulgaria followed the rest of the former Warsaw Pact in holding elections and moving from a centrally planned economy to a free market economy. In the current transition period, Bulgaria has gained membership into the European Union and has seen a steady influx of tourists who want to see the relatively unspoiled landscape, preserved historic castles and monasteries and traditional way of life that is diminishing in Western Europe.
Bulgaria is still very cheap and “rustic,” so prolonged stays on the coast or in the mountains are just as beautiful — and much less taxing on the pocket book — than other destinations in Europe. Bulgaria developed its own unique culture — and the Cyrillic alphabet — very early in history. Bulgaria’s traditional dress, local music, unique architecture and strong religion are all major points of interest for any traveler.
The Bulgarian currency is the Leva.
Driving in Bulgaria
Driving in Bulgaria can be hazardous to your health. The country has just emerged from a centrally-planned economy into a free market economy and this development usually creates a strata of “New Rich” that enjoy drinking expensive wine and driving fast cars. These people ignore all laws and actively seek out the thrill of life in the fast lane. They will be the majority of drivers in a country that is seeing its first drivers. Another side-effect of the Communism-Capitalism switch is the lack of suitable infrastructure to support both fast New Rich drivers and any other driver. Roads will be in poor condition, there will be potholes and other road hazards as well as construction to improve said roads. If possible, use public transportation, but if you are determined to drive, be advised that your American-style driving will be an anomaly. Driving with an American driver’s license in Bulgaria will not suffice, you will need an International Driver’s Permit.
Electricity in Bulgaria
230V AC, 50 HZ, two-pin plugs are standard, which means you will need an adapter if you use American appliances. Emergency Numbers Ambulance: Dial 150 Fire Dept: Dial 160 Police Dept: Dial 166
Etiquette in Bulgaria
Bulgaria is a traditional country that places high value on family, relationships and religion. As such, there are a few pieces of etiquette one should be aware of: when greeting or meeting, a handshake and a greeting appropriate to the time of day will suffice.
When eating together, wait for the most senior person to be served before eating. If invited to a private gathering, bring a small gift for the host, such as flowers, a bottle of decent wine or something similar. Respect the religion, which is Bulgarian Orthodox Christianity — religion has been a major force in Bulgarian life for more than a thousand years, so be aware of that when you visit churches or take pictures in churches. Also, Bulgarians value relationships more than those in non-traditional societies generally do.
Public Hours in Bulgaria
Standard business operating hours on weekdays in Bulgaria are from 8am to 5pm with a break for lunch, usually noon to 1:30pm. These hours are industry-dependent and subject to change without notice. The lunch break is flexible — as in your standard bank and any government office will observe it diligently, whereas a mom & pop shop might still sell you something.
Safety in Bulgaria
Crime in Bulgaria has been on the rise since the fall of Communism. Turkish and Russian gangs use the country as a transit point for various illicit dealings and local mafia are also active and dangerous. Your common pickpocket likes to hang around public places like the train station and behind you on the bus; violent crime is above average, but tends to be alcohol, mafia, woman, cash or drug-related (meaning that random injury or killing of American tourists is not an issue). The CIA Factbook specifically mentions scam artists, thievery and petty robbery as the main concerns, not violent crime, so if you stay away from drugs and alcohol (clubs and rowdy bars), prostitutes and keep your money hidden well, you should be fine. Here is a link to the US Government information on safety in Bulgaria
Bulgaria operates on EET (Eastern European Time)
Tipping in Bulgaria
Tipping is an American custom based on an old English tradition. Naturally, no one in the world is going to tell an American that he should not pay extra for a meal, especially in growing economies like Bulgaria. Having said that, constant tipping is not an indigenous practice in most countries of the world. It shows two things: 1) You liked the service 2) You have extra cash to throw around. We suggest that when you tip, do it to demonstrate the first and not the second.
Weather in Bulgaria
Wunderground.com is one of the best weather forecast resources around for Europe, and Bulgaria also has its own local site for weather information here.
Main Sights in Bulgaria
Bulgaria has a good mix of traditional, cultural, historical and natural sights of interest. The mountains of Bulgaria are popular winter resort areas, while the Black Sea coast is popular with summer vacationers. There are numerous castles, monasteries and historical sites throughout Bulgaria, as it was a crossroads between the old Byzantine Empire in the east and the Holy Roman Empire in the west. The official Bulgaria Travel site contains lots of tips and practical information.
Some of the main sights are:
The modern capital of Sofia
The historic capital of Veliko Turnovo
Picturesque villages such as Bansko and Bozhentsi
Thracian ruins and tombs
The Rila monastery
Getting Around Bulgaria
There are no direct flights from anywhere in the USA to Bulgaria, but you can book a ticket to Sofia via any major European city. If you are already in Europe, most major carriers fly to Sofia or Varna.
Buses are very convenient in and outside of Bulgaria. You can get to Sofia by bus from any major city in Germany and most major cities in other countries as well. The roads get a little bumpy once you leave the Czech Republic and the trip can take anywhere from 10 – 36 hours depending on conditions, but its cheap and can make for a good story. Within Bulgaria, buses are the main mode of public transportation for locals. All villages and towns are linked by bus to the nearest city and all cities are linked with the major cities (Sofia, Varna). There are government run buses (old and creaky), freelancers (shifty) and private companies (Etap-Grup and Biomet for example).
Train is probably the best way to get anywhere in Europe and this includes Bulgaria. You can board a train and end up in Bulgaria within 24 hours from all major European cities. The Bulgarian Railways site has information in English for travelers looking for information, tickets, inter-Bulgaria passes and other information.
If you like the freedom and comfort of your own car, then consider renting in Sofia. Driving can be dangerous here and you must have an International Driver’s permit. Additionally, you must be 21 to rent a car — most companies require a credit card as well. Avis has an office here, as do Budget and Europcar.
There are many different types of taxis in Bulgaria, ranging from established cab companies with functioning meters to mini-buses and freelance cars willing to drive somewhere for a price. Be cautious with freelance cabs (or any cabbie for that matter) and be sure to figure out the price before hand. There definitely is a chance that freelance cabs will scam you, but you can also get lucky and find a friend/guide for your entire trip with the right freelancer — this is what traveling is all about.
Personal Medications No permit is required to carry medication in your luggage. However, you should pack your medication in its original containers and/or have your doctor’s prescription with you. Customs officials will have to be satisfied that you are not importing more than would be necessary for your personal use, taking into account the drug type and length of stay (for no more than three months).
Lodging in Bulgaria
Bulgaria offers every type of lodging from couch-surfing, to hostels and agritourism , to 5-Star resorts.
There are a few sites that offer booking and information about hotels and lodging in Bulgaria. We recommend our booking engine for great deals on hotels in Bulgaria.
Public Holidays in Bulgaria
1 Jan New Year’s Day
3 Mar National Day (Day of Liberation)
2 Apr – 5 Apr Orthodox Easter
1 May Labour Day
6 May St George’s Day (Day of Bulgarian Army)
24 May St Cyril and Methodius Day (Day of Culture and Literacy)
6 Sep The Unification of Bulgaria
22 Sep Independence Day
1 Nov Day of the Bulgarian Revival Leaders
24 Dec – 25 Dec Christmas
31 Dec New Year’s Eve.
My Bulgaria has complete information for dialing procedures, including codes for most big cities.
Useful Country Codes:
USA and Canada 1
Returning to the US from Bulgaria
Customs,VAT & Duty Free You can find information concerning VAT Invest Bulgaria.
If you are a U.S. or Canadian resident, you may qualify for a personal exemption which allows you to bring goods of a certain value into the country without paying customs duties, excise taxes, or Value Added Tax.
Friday 19th of December 2014
I'm a french/german New York based photographer and writer and am very interested in pitching a winter / snow and ski story about Bulgaria, it's mountains and churches to a client of mine, the Conde Nast Traveler Spain.
The director of the magazine has shown interest in a story from Bulgaria I would write and photograph this winter to be published in winter of 2015/16.
I have published stories with the Conde Nat Traveler in the past, including one in Montreal with skiing in the near mountains. In February 2015 they will publish a story I just wrote on my grandfather who used to live and ski in Andorra in the 1940's.
Could you forward my information to the person that could help me on this?
Happy Holidays and Warm Regards, Nils
Friday 18th of May 2012
Actually the dates of the Ortodox Easter are different every year. It is one week after the Catholic, because of the different calendars both churches use.