The opportunities for Bulgaria walking holidays are exquisitely endless, and yet it’s still one of Europe’s best kept secrets. You can shout about its marvels through the Canyon of Waterfalls or across Shiroka Laka in the Rhodope Mountains, but only a handful of fellow secret keepers will hear you. During the summer months, mass tourism hones in on the Black Sea, whereas our Bulgaria holidays head up into the hills, not just to its impressive Rhodope Mountains on the border with Greece, but also to Pirin and Rila National Parks, some of the country’s even greater kept secrets.
In Bulgaria, you can also soak in thermal spas away from the crowds, especially out of season, soothing your hiking or cycling muscles in one of its many mineral springs that pepper the mountainous landscapes. Hiking in Bulgaria is many things. It is cheap and very cheerful, quiet and quaint. But most importantly for secret trail seekers, it is gloriously mountainous but never ever monotonous.
Where to go
This Bulgarian mountain range stretches across the south-west corner of Bulgaria, its karst limestone gorges and caves, ancient forests and traditional trails creating an adventurer’s arcadia. To get an idea of the climate, the mountains also dip their foothills into Greece, so temperatures go into the high twenties in summer, with plenty of forest shade for perfect hiking weather. Hiking in Bulgaria’s Rhodopes (and cycling too) is not short on landscape highs, such as the 300m high Trigrad Gorge, the giant underground waterfall in Devil’s Throat Cave and the rocky phenomenon that makes up the Chudnite Mostove, aka the Wonderful Bridges.
Pirin National Park
The Pirin Mountains are not only protected by national park status, but also by UNESCO so, as you can imagine, they are a special place. On our walking holiday in the Pirins, you can trek reasonably easily to the range’s highest peak, Mount Vihren, (2,914m), also Bulgaria’s second highest. Trekking up to Tevno Ezero mountain hut is also a spectacular adventure, spending the night on the shores of a lake, cocooned by jagged peaks. Add this to Prevalski and Valiavishki glacial lakes, and you have the ingredients of one of our finest Bulgaria walking holidays.
Rila National Park
Rila National Park’s leading player is Mount Musala, the country’s highest peak at 2,925m, but there are plenty of colossal cameos all around to be applauded on our Rila walking holidays. As well as climbing to the top of Musala, from which you can see all the way to Greece on a good day, you can trek to the Seven Rila Lakes, Zeleni Rid ridge and also visit the mountainous and magnificent UNESCO Rila Monastery. We combine both Rila and Pirin Mountains into one on our Bulgaria holidays, as they are only 88km apart, enjoying a night in Bansko, a popular ski resort that lifts up its white curtain to reveal a programme of cultural events in summer.
Central Balkan National Park
This section of the Balkan Mountains, in the heart of Bulgaria, is designated a national park and, when you cycle through it on our small group holiday, you will see why. As well as the unspoilt mountain terrain, it has colossal coverage of ancient forests including beech, spruce and oak, and so this is particularly stunning in autumn when the leaves start to turn. It is also particularly stunning that most of the trees have been left alone by humans for centuries. Botev Peak is the highest point at 2,376m overseeing a handsome landscape of canyons and gorges, waterfalls and rivers.
Although many of our trips start or finish in the capital city of Sofia, we endeavour to include Plovdiv in our Bulgaria holidays, because it is a cultural revelation. So much so that it was European City of Culture in 2019, although Plovdiv has been winning cultural laurels for much longer, as it dates back to 4000BC. It’s like a mini Rome in some ways, a city of seven hills with a stunning Roman amphitheatre in the Old Town, cobblestone streets and ancient buildings. There is also an airport in Plovdiv, or it is a 2.5h journey from Sofia to Plovdiv by train.
Things to do
- We endeavour to add a traditional thermal spa into our Bulgaria walking holidays when possible because, with over 700 natural hot springs here, it’s rude not to really. On this walking and spa adventure, for example, you can swap the Rhodopes for robes, mountains for minerals at the end of the day in places like Devin, which is known as the spa capital of Bulgaria. Or, on this Rhodope cycling holiday, you can soothe those sensitive saddle spots in the gorgeous baths at Velingrad
- Although most of our Bulgaria holidays are for keen walkers and trekkers, cycling in Bulgaria is becoming more and more popular, as it is all over of course. Bulgaria is still a newbie on the velo-drome of cycling holidays, and all our cycling trips are fully supported with a guide and bike van, Explore the Rhodope Mountains and, further north, cycling in the Balkan Mountains including a stretch in Central Balkan National Park. You will be escorted all the way, to ensure that you have excellent support for you and your bikes. Trips are available from April to October in the southern Rhodopes but from May until October in the more northern Balkans Mountains.
- One of the joys of hiking in Bulgaria is discovering the relatively unknown Rhodepean culture, many aspects of which are still unchanged in this well protected mountain environment. Much of the architecture, for example, dates back to the Bulgarian Revival period between 1770 and 1900. You still see villages full of two-storey white stone and timber houses, with bay windows overlooking the mountains and many boasting intricate interior woodwork.
- Food in the Rhodopes is also fine mountain fare, with a wide array of tomatoes or peppers, as well as trees that are falling down with fruit, such as peaches and figs. Patatnika is a popular potato omelette that will set you up for a day on the hills, or to reward you at the end of a trek, agneshko cheverme is local lamb, slow roasted on an open fire. Warm yourself up on a walk with local mursalski or mountain tea, made with ironwort and said to be a cure-all for any aches and pains.
Responsible travel tips
- Keen birders already know about the proliferation of birds of prey hovering over their Bulgarian mountain habitats. However, if you are relatively new to birding, it’s worth reading up a little in advance and packing your binoculars. Some of the beauties to espy include golden eagles, griffon vultures, peregrine falcons and kestrels. There are a few rare black vultures and Egyptian vultures on the neighbouring Greek side of the Rhodopes, as well as over 200 species of birds in the Central Balkan National Park. The Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds is a nest of knowledge on species and locations.
- Rewilding Europe has also earmarked the Rhodope Mountains for preservation and restoration because of its precious and pristine habitats. These are home not only to birds, but also bears, wolves and jackals and Bulgaria is at a key point on the map of biodiversity in Europe for creating dynamic wildlife corridors. Most recently, they reintroduced 14 black vultures, Europe’s largest raptor, with the hope that they will breed in the region once more, having disappeared as a breeding species since 1993. You can donate to Rewildling Europe’s vital work in these regions where they keep much more than an eagle eye on things.
- All of our walking tours focus on small rural communities when possible, and in Bulgaria this is no exception. However the income disparity between urban and rural is strongly felt in Bulgaria, so it’s even more important to spend locally when possible. As well as staying in our hand–picked locally owned accommodation and eating at our recommended local favourites, please shop ‘til you drop. From wool hiking socks or hats, to local rose or lavender oil, pickles and preserves, brightly coloured pottery and the purest of honey, leave a bit of room in your luggage for Bulgarian loveliness.