I’ve been calling Sofia home for the last month, and one of my favorite things about this city is just how close to so many amazing spots it is. I never knew what to expect from Bulgaria, really. I’ve traveled around the Balkans quite a bit, but I found Bulgaria to be quite different than its neighbors.
I was surprised to find some of the most beautiful mountains and mountain lakes in all of Europe, rivaling those of Switzerland and Montenegro. I walked through historic old towns that didn’t make me homicidal trying to squeeze through crowds of tourists. I explored historic churches and monasteries and Roman stadiums nearly two millennia old.
The best part is that with the exception of visiting the Black Sea coast, you can do almost anything as a day trip from Sofia. Since I was renting an Airbnb there, I did lots of day trips, leaving early in the morning to maximize my time and coming back at night to avoid paying twice for accommodation.
Of course, many of these destinations are also suitable for a longer stay, particularly Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo, but they also work as day trips from Sofia. I haven’t done all these trips, so some are suggestions from Bulgarian friends or things I found in my online research that I’ve flagged for when I come back to Sofia next year.
1. Seven Rila Lakes
If you’re at all into hiking, this is my #1 recommendation of what to do in Bulgaria in the summer and early fall. The Rila Lakes are less than 100 kilometers away from the capital, making it a perfect day trip from Sofia.
If you’re staying at a hostel in Sofia (I recommend Hostel Mostel, which I stayed at in Veliko Tarnovo and loved), many times there will be an organized tour you can easily hop on. If not, you can organize it yourself, but it’s a bit complicated. Take a bus from Sofia to Dupnitsa, then a minivan to the chairlift at Rila Lakes. Get an early start, as the chair lifts end around 4:30 PM. You can also take an organized tour to Rila Lakes. When I went, I took a group shuttle that my Airbnb host helped me organize, and I paid 12 leva each way.
The hike will take about 3-5 hours, not including the time you need to wait for and take the agonizingly slow chair lift (you can walk from the lift station to where it drops you off, but you’ll need to add a few more hours to your hike). The lift costs 10 leva one way, 18 roundtrip, and entrance to the Rila Lakes is free.
2. Rila Monastery
Despite sharing a name with the Lakes, these two places are not actually that close together. Originally, a friend and I rented a car, hoping to do both in one day — way overly ambitious, as there was simply no chance of that happening!
The Rila Monastery is stunning, and I don’t know what’s more beautiful: the church or the open terraced monastery where the monks live that encases the church and courtyard.
My friend Stephanie of the History Fangirl podcast and I rented a car, which ended up being a good choice — we also got to explore the crazy unofficial junk museum/hoarder’s den in Kocherinovo, eat at a lovely restaurant where I nearly destroyed my throat choking on a fish bone, hike the Stob’s pyramids, and stop at a mall for sushi because apparently, that’s what you do in Bulgaria.
If you don’t have a friend to split a rental car with, it’s best to book a guided tour, as there is only one bus to and from every day, and it only gives you about two hours at the monastery.
Plovdiv is worth an extended visit all on its own, but if you have limited time in Bulgaria, a day trip from Sofia is a great option (then come back and explore it more!).
Plovdiv is one of the oldest continually habited cities in the world, and definitely one of the oldest in Europe, with artifacts found dating as far back as 6000 BC. A remarkably well-preserved Roman stadium is right in the center of town, which dates back two millennia.
Plovdiv is also home to Kapana, a neighborhood filled with artsy boutiques, funky cafés, and relaxed bars. Plovdiv was named the European Capital of Culture for 2019, and there’s a lot of revival happening in Bulgaria’s second largest city as they prepare for the festivities.
It’s quite easy to get to do a day trip from Sofia to Plovdiv by bus (check schedules here, prices start at 14 leva each way), but if you prefer a guided tour or want to see Bachkovo too, there are affordable tours on offer as well.
4. Veliko Tarnovo
Veliko Tarnovo is perfect for a longer stay, but it also works great as a day trip from Sofia or an overnighter. The Tsarevets fortress is a must-see, and the church at the top of the hill inside the fortress is home to some of the trippiest, oddest religious art I’ve ever seen in my life.
We’re talking BDSM Jesus meets cow skulls with a distinctly Cubist affect… I actually do kind of think whoever painted the murals inside this church must have been having a seriously bad PCP trip.
Aside from being home to the world’s weirdest religious art, it also has a beautiful monument and beer garden where you can see the town of Veliko Tarnovo cascading down the hills to the riverside. It’s also home to some surprisingly happening nightlife, with funky craft beer and cocktail bars like Tequila Bar staying open well into the night.
Veliko Tarnovo is also a good base for day trips to some nearby spots, like Buzludzha and the Krushuna waterfalls (see later on in this list) if either of those strike your fancy.
It’s easy enough to go by bus, but I recommend booking your tickets online or buying them at the station the day before. Both there and back, I had trouble getting on the bus I wanted and had to wait 1-2 hours for the next bus. For this reason, a day tour could also be a good idea if you are pressed for time or unable to buy bus tickets in advance.
5. Vitosha/Cherni Vrah
One of the easiest day trips from Sofia is hiking Vitosha, the 2290-meter mountain right outside the city. On weekends in the summer, LIDL runs two free daily buses to one of the trailheads in the morning (one bus leaves at 8 AM, the other at 9 AM, from Vasil Levski Stadium; arrive a half hour early to secure a seat or you may have to stand) and returning at 5 and 6 PM. There are also several city buses if you want to go during the weekdays; Free Sofia Tours has detailed information on their website.
The hike from where the LIDL bus drops you off (The Golden Bridges, or Zlatnite Mostove) takes about 3 hours up and 2 hours back; whereas if you take one of the city buses to a point nearer to the peak, it’ll only take you about an hour to the top and another hour back.
(note: The rest of these day trips from Sofia I haven’t done yet but have been personally recommended to me and are on my list for future travels!)
6. Krushuna Waterfalls & Devetashka Cave
If you’re in Sofia in the summer, it can get really, really hot. I’m talking sticky, 40 degree Celsius, massively-thigh-chafing heat. Sofia’s about a six-hour bus ride from the Black Sea coast, so if you have a long time in Bulgaria, it’s a great place to escape the heat for a bit. But if you’re just looking for a day trip from Sofia to give you some relief from that city heat, try going to the Krushuna waterfalls, a series of waterfalls formed by calcium travertines (similar to ones you may have seen in photos in Semuc Champey, Oaxaca, Pamukkale, etc.).
You can get there by taking a bus to Lovech and then onto Krushuna, or simplify your life with a guided tour of the waterfalls and nearby cave. This would also work great as a day trip from Veliko Tarnovo if you choose to spend time there, as it’s much closer to Veliko Tarnovo than it is to Sofia.
7. Belogradchik Rocks
The Belogradchik Rocks are an odd, distinctive rock formation in the Northwest corner of Bulgaria, stretching nearly 30 kilometers long with stones measuring up to 200 meters. Each formation has a name based on what people in the past thought it looked like, and many of the formations have some sort of myth associated with it. There’s a famous fortress in nestled in the rocks, too, which you can explore as well.
It’s quite difficult to get here by public transport, as there’s only one daily bus and it takes four hours; you’re better off renting a car or going on a group tour that’ll show you both the rocks and the fortress.
8. Musala Peak
If Vitosha isn’t enough mountain for you, it’s possible to leave from Sofia, hike the tallest mountain in the entire Balkan peninsula, and get back at night. Musala Peak is in the Rila Mountain range, the same range as the Seven Rila Lakes hike, but Musala Peak stretches a staggering 2925 meters into the sky.
To get there in one day, it’s probably easiest to do a guided day trip, as you can be sure you’ll have a roundtrip transfer. Otherwise, you can try to take a bus from Sofia to Samokov then a minibus to Borovets, where you can take a gondola that’ll bring you to 2369 meters. You can then do the hike to the top of Musala, which should take about 3 to 4 hours to ascend depending on your pace.
Koprivshtitsa (try saying that three times fast) is a historic “museum town” that has kept in tact much of its 19th century architectural style. There are direct buses and trains to Koprivshitsa from Sofia a few times daily.
10. Melnik Pyramids
Bulgaria is home to lots of funky rock formations, from the giant stone pillars of Belogradchik that almost remind you of Meteora in Greece to the hoodoos of Stub’s Pyramids near Rila Monastery which are like a much smaller version of Bryce Canyon. Melnik is one of the cooler rock formations in Bulgaria, with pyramid-like rocks that stretch up into the sky surrounding a small humble town.
It doesn’t seem as if it’s possible to do a day trip using public transport, as what I’ve found online suggests the one daily bus leaves Sofia at 2 PM, so I’d suggest a guided tour of Melnik and the Rozhen monastery if you want to make this a day trip from Sofia, or stay overnight if you want to do it independently.
11. Caves of Saeva Dupka
I wish more than anything that I had made time to do this when I was living in Sofia – the photos of this place look absolutely stunning. I think there’s nothing more magical than caves that have glittering mineral formations. This cave actually reminds me a bit of the stunning ATM Cave in Belize with how massive it is and how crazy the stalagmites and stalactites look. You can go on a guided tour or rent a car to get here.
Buzludzha is a former Communist meeting place, abandoned nearly 30 years ago and ravaged by time, vandals, and the elements. While it’s not officially open to the public and the main entrance has been closed, tours still run there organized by Bulgaria Communism Tours upon request, or you can rent a car to get there on a day trip from Sofia, Plovdiv, or Veliko Tarnovo.
Buzludzha strikes mixed feelings in the hearts of a lot of Bulgarians. When I expressed that I wanted to go there, many people didn’t understand why: “why go to a dead place?” my Airbnb host asked me, genuinely puzzled by my interest in the decaying monument.
For me, the decay is the main interest — an architectural scar on the landscape of a country wondering where to go next. This abandoned UFO-looking building is, in my mind, an interesting symbol of a country not sure how to properly memorialize its past while still looking forward.