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3 Weeks RS Best of Bulgaria Plus Solo In Sofia

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Best of Bulgaria Plus 12 nights in Sofia

I just returned from 3.5 weeks (May 16 - June 9) in Bulgaria: the 12 day Best of Bulgaria tour plus 4 nights pre-tour and 8 nights post-tour in Sofia.

Why So Much Time in Bulgaria?
I like to really see a place and can easily spend a week in almost any big city. Sofia was no exception.

Why So Much Time in Sofia?
I spent the 3.5 days before the tour in Sofia. Post-tour, I spent 4 days in Sofia and 4 days taking day trips: 2 within Bulgaria and 2 Beyond Bulgaria to Nis, Serbia and Skopje, Macedonia. (More on the day trips later.)

Why Bulgaria?

(Written May 3) Bulgaria seemed like a great follow-on to Turkey, with their intertwined layers of history, similar foods and desserts, and scattered Mosques as the visible remnants of Ottoman rule in Bulgaria. I found it fascinating to gain insights into the history from the perspective of a former Ottoman Empire region and a former Communist satellite.

(Written June 14) You won't find an Eiffel Tower or an Ephesus in Bulgaria, a Mona Lisa or a David. But it's an interesting place to view every day life in a country still emerging from its oppressive and war-torn roots to engage the freedoms of capitalism.

I wouldn't expect my trip report to convince anyone to go to Bulgaria, but if you're considering a visit or the tour, perhaps it will be helpful.

"It may not appear at the top of many travelers' wish lists, and that's just one reason you may want to visit."
Rick Steves

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Why 3.5 weeks?

(written May 3) 3.5 weeks is a stretch on how long I can ask my Mom to dogsit. By the time I add a week in Denver to each end of the trip, I'm gone from home 5.5 weeks - pushing my own limit.

Why So Much Time in Sofia

I had considered leaving Sofia after the tour to visit another city (Istanbul, Warsaw, Budapest and London would all have been easy) or another country (Romania and Albania were contenders.)

But Sofia seemed to have a lot to offer, especially when bcerulo helped me to see the potential of the day trips.

I was really happy with the decision because, after further research, I learned that I would be in Bulgaria during their Rose Festival in early June. That was a stroke of cultural luck!

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Why May: Fairs and Festivals

(written May 3) Initially, there were 6 departures in 2023 of the RS Best of Bulgaria tour. The May tour departure aligned with being in Denver for my nephew's graduation.

I was happy to learn that the May tour (plus some time after) would have me in Bulgaria during their rose harvests and Rose Festival parade, held on the first weekend in June. And we were on tour on the day dedicated to St Cyril and St Methodius, who invented the Bulgarian alphabet.

How Did I Know About the Festival?
I found out about both festivals by reading the "Plan" section of the Rick Steves Bulgaria Festivals page.

https://www.ricksteves.com/europe/bulgaria/festivals

(There's likely a page for the country you're visiting next.)

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Thank You, Bcerulo!

Bcerulo helped me so much by sharing tour experiences from the Best of Bulgaria tour last fall: information about SIM Card vendors, restaurant recommendations, and just general enthusiasm for the tour! She also gave me great ideas, based on her post-tour travels beyond Bulgaria for my own post-tour day trips.

I won't duplicate her helpful report. I'll only comment on our tour variations and my extras.
https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/trip-reports/best-of-bulgaria-trip-report-september-2022

Wishing you all the best, bcerulo, on your Best of Turkey tour!

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Much Less Active Tour

Where Best of Turkey was a 10 out of 10 on the Rick Steves active scale, Best of Bulgaria is a 5. The sites were smaller, with not as much climbing and scrambling to see them. The bag schleps were much less. In Veliko Tarnovo, when there might have been a schlep, we loaded our bags into a small delivery van which brought them up to our hotel.

Perhaps as a reflection of that, this tour group seemed much older on average. Whereas I was about the average age for the Turkey tours, I was 2nd youngest on this tour, with a range from 52 to an active and in shape 80 year old.

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What Did I Think of The Tour?

This is difficult to answer and I can only compare to my Best of Turkey and Best of Istanbul tours last year.

Bulgaria doesn't have the blockbuster historical sites that Turkey has. It has smaller and less-known sites from the same archaeological periods of history. The recent archaeological finds in Varna, Bulgaria have changed scientific knowledge about the timeline of development of human social hierarchies, and the archaeologist/guide at the museum made that history fascinating.

The tour's local experiences were fabulous: I wasn't sure that I would be interested in these aspects of the Bulgaria tour. I was wrong.

Our visit to the Mayor's house in a small town in Bulgaria was a delightful afternoon, as if you were visiting your grandmother for a family gathering in her back yard. Her vegetable gardens inspired me with ideas for my own!

I thought the visit to a carpet weaving factory in Bulgaria might seem second rate to Turkey. Not at all. This small factory produces hand-made carpets for kings, presidents, palaces and palatial estates. We saw every fascinating stop of the time-consuming process, including the custom thread dyeing.

Some experiences were unique to the May tour, including our stop at a local festivity celebrating Bulgarian culture and the Cyrillic alphabet and our stop in Kazanlak during the Rose Festival to pick roses and see a modern rose distillery in operation. If you want those experiences, check the festival dates carefully before booking your Best of Bulgaria dates.

We didn't attend the folkloric dance event listed in the itinerary. Instead, I think that was the day we visited a site of Roman ruins and a Trabant collection.

Our guide, 34 year old Yuri, was knowledgeable and educated in Bulgarian history, as was our assistant guide, Toni. Yuri didn't sugar coat Bulgaria's current challenges. His viewpoint was educational and real, but some tour members may want their guide to paint a rosier picture.

At first I thought that is what I would want, but as I learned more, I realized this was better for my understanding. Especially after I layered in some perspectives of a few locals who I met.

So, Do I Recommend the Best of Bulgaria Tour?
Yes, for travelers who love Rick Steves experiences and enjoy learning about the history in that region. I wouldn't recommend it for a first time traveler and perhaps not for a first time Rick Steves tour member.

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Which Hotel: Arte Hotel or Eurstars?

Originally, our tour first and last hotel was the Eurostars Sofia City. Not long before the tour, it changed to the Arte Hotel Sofia. I had long since booked my "before and after" nights and, after a comparison, I decided to stick with the Eurostars.

Which Hotel Do I Recommend?

For most RS travelers, the Arte Hotel will be a better choice: less expensive and closer to many (not all) central attractions. It's 400m from the metro that goes directly to the airport, compared to 850m for the Eurostars. I still walked to the metro for my departure day transit to the Sofia airport. Uphill over lots of suitcase rattling cobblestones. At least the metro station had ramps. Especially if you are only staying 1 or 2 days before and after the tour, I recommend the Arte Hotel.

For my longer stay, I'm glad I chose the Eurostars, which has an outdoor space for breakfast. I love outdoor dining and I love hotel breakfasts. For me, it was the safer choice to stay COVID free before the tour. I learned by staying in both that the Eurostars has a lot more shelf and cupboard space, which allowed me to stack my packing cubes on cupboard shelves and organize daily essentials on room shelves. The Eurostars TV was also on the wall, which left the desk clear for my stuff.

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Perspective of an Older Bulgarian

While wandering a city park, I stopped to visit with a gentleman and his little white dog to get my dog fix. This is a great way to meet and talk to people!

He told me (in perfect English) that while Italy was enjoying their Renaissance, Bulgaria was suffering 500 years of the oppression of Ottoman rule. Then Balkan and World Wars, followed by the economic stagnation of communism. It's only in the last 30+ years that Bulgaria has been able to try capitalism. And now, apparently, the Bulgarian Mafia siphons off funds meant for infrastructure and growth.

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All 86 Have Left Bulgaria

Anecdotally, RS Tour Guide Yuri told us that among his high school class of 86 students, all live outside Bulgaria, as he does. Young people leave for the UK, Germany, Australia and the US.

When I asked my Skopje tour guide what the biggest export is of Macedonia, he said young, educated people with initiative.

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Young Henry and his Bulgarian Dream

I was the first American "Henry" had ever met, when he sat down next to me at the airport. He had been cautioned that we're very friendly and will talk to anyone, even people we've just met. I suppose I proved that right for him, haha!

Henry had never been on a plane and was headed to Washington, D.C. to make his way to a job as a cook in Ocean Springs where he will make $18 at minimum wage instead of $4 in Bulgaria. His Mom, who "likes Russia," wanted him to stay home and be satisfied. His Dad, who "likes the US," encouraged him to enjoy the freedom to do anything.

And what does Henry want to do with the freedom he will find in America and the money he will make? He wants to return to Bulgaria after 4 months, buy an old BMW and "be a rich gangster guy" like friends in Bulgaria who have done this.

This was probably the most poignant conversation I could have had as I was leaving Bulgaria.

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Why Are So Many Bulgarian Villages Deserted?

As we drove through Bulgaria on tour, we saw so many villages that, in England or France (or North Macedonia) would be delightful little places with centuries of history. Instead, we saw abandoned houses, broken windows and run-down properties.

In North Macedonia, I did not see the same.

The difference, as explained by my guide on the North Macedonia trip, is that in Bulgaria the local farms were collectivized during communism. When the farms were returned to the people, families had lost their connection to ancestral land and had no reason to return. Or generations later, didn't know what to do there.

That didn't happen in North Macedonia, where farmers still work the land their families have owned, uninterrupted, for generations.

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Sofia Transit is Cheap and Easy

Sofia's transit system, which you can use with a contactless credit card, costs 1.60 BGN / €0.82 per ride. When you use your card, the system automatically caps your daily fares at 4 BGN / ~ €2.

https://visitsofia.bg/en/how-to-travel/public-transport

The Simplicity of Riding the Metro

It's easy to use your tap card or Google Pay:
• No ticket to buy
• No machine to figure out
• The system automatically caps daily fares paid with your card at 4 BGN / €2

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Metro to/from the Sofia Airport is Delightfully Easy

If you consider taking the metro to/from the airport, Sofia is an impressively easy place to do it!

I did arrange a driver (shared ride, BGN 40 / $24) for my rainy, after-dark arrival. A taxi would have been $12 - $18.

For my return, I walked the 900m to the metro station for the 40 minute trip to the Sofia airport. Sofia has done a brilliant job for travelers with their metro. I never used the metro within Sofia. my only ride was to the airport.

My single ride between the Sofia airport and the city center was 1.60 BGN / €0.80.

Metro from the Arte Hotel or the Eurostars Hotel

If you're staying at the Arte Hotel, it's 400m to the Serdika metro station.

From the Eurostars, it was 900m to the Kliment Orhidski Metrostation, which I preferred because there was only 1 line, so no room for confusion.

From either station, take the M4 Yellow line to the airport:
• Direction Sofia Airport
• 40 minutes between the airport and city center stations
• The onboard signs are shown and the announcements for next stations are made in Bulgarian and English
• The last stop is the Sofia Airport
• The Metro Station is steps from the terminal for your likely connection within Europe

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Fun Fact: The Locals Call it SOF- ee-uh

If you've learned to pronounced Budapest and Barcelona like the locals and want to sound local in Bulgaria, you'll need to say "SOF-ee-uh" rather than "Sof-EE-uh."

In Cyrillic, that's София!

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Speaking of Cyrillic

Learning Cyrillic for me was "fun." Visiting Bulgaria was a chance to use the Cyrillic that I had learned for a 2020 RS Best of St Petersburg tour.

If learning Cyrillic would not be fun for you, skip this post because traveling in Bulgaria, you may not need to know a single word of Bulgarian or a single letter in Cyrillic. There are plenty of English speakers, especially the younger generations, and lots of signs in English.

Occasionally I found knowing the Cyrillic alphabet helpful. And easy with just a few hints:

A small 7-11 type store is a мини-маркет / mini-market.
The machine that dispenses local currency is a банкомат / BANKOMAT.
An апотек/APOTEK can sell you OTC meds.
You can order a meal at a рестаурант / RESTAURANT.

Here's a great tool I just found for converting between Latin and Bulgarian Cyrillic:
https://www.lexilogos.com/keyboard/bulgarian_conversion.htm

For Drivers
Signs on motorways and larger roads are in both Cyrillic and Latin alphabets. In smaller towns, you may need to recognize "центер" on roundabout signs to find your way to the town "Center."

The main roads have great service stations for petrol, snacks and a free comfort stop.

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Next Year The Euro ...? Maybe

I ordered a small stack of Bulgarian Leva (singular=Lev) before my trip and took out more at bank ATMs.

In 2024, you may be able to travel with the simplicity of the Euro. That's the official stance, but locals expressed skepticism that the switchover will happen in 2024. Apparently it's easier to do some creative financing when you're still on your own currency. And with their nostalgia for the leva, they didn't seem to be in a hurry.

For now, the Bulgarian Lev is tied to the Euro at about 1.95. So divide the local price by 2 and you're always close to Euro pricing.

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Google Fi Worked Great!

This was my first trip with Google Fi. The 2018 era reviews of it in Bulgaria were sketchy. Things have improved because I had great coverage. Only a very few times in the mountains near the NW border with Romania did I see No Service, and that only for a mile or two.

Service was flawless in Sophia and the towns on the tour. And it cost me maybe $5 for the tiny amount of data I used for WhatsApp and extensive Google Maps outside of tour times.

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Packing Tips

OTC Stomach meds - 2 or 3 times, I took OTC stomach meds, Pepto Bismol or similar. Most people probably wouldn't need to.

Comfort Note for Ladies

Toilet Paper - restrooms in nicer museums, gas stations, restaurants and cafes will usually be free and stocked.

Toilets in public areas and smaller sites are often attended, stocked and will cost BGN 1. If they are not attended, they probably also aren't stocked.

Most of the toilets are western style. We saw a few "squattie potties," as the 20-somethings on my Best of Turkey tour called them, such as the public toilets at the Women's Bazaar.

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Fun Fact: Town Storks on Electrical Pylons

(written June 4) Storks have taken over the tops of small electrical pylons in town centers to build their nests. It is a common sight to see them perched, as if watching over both the towns and their nests.

(written June 12) I just read a 2010 article that "Bulgaria's electricity distribution company CEZ has installed over 500 safety platforms for stork nests on its power poles."

https://www.novinite.com/articles/114001/Bulgaria+Electricity+Provider+Safeguards+Nesting+Storks

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Fun Facts

It's common in Bulgaria to be given ice to water down your glass of white or Rosé wine.

If you want ice in your drink just ask. You'll be given a cute little "pail" of ice with tongs.

Everyone Smokes

(June 6) Old, young, men, women and lots of students at the high school near my hotel. My new friend Henry (above) told me that sometimes the teachers stand outside and smoke with their students. Henry doesn't smoke and says he never will.

The outdoor dining spaces will have smokers. If you want to eat outside, you'll have to accept it.

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Ice Cream - a Taste Above

I had gelato a few times at a local place and thought it was pretty good. One day, I had the time to walk to Gelato & Latte (another bcerulo recommendation) and taste two of their house made flavors.

It was worth the walk!!!

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Restaurants in Sofia

I found LOTS of great restaurants. These are just the ones I got to. There were so many more that I wanted to try.

Da Nonna
This was the first place I found on arrival night when I wanted my first Bulgarian meal. It's not far from the Eurostars hotel. They have a semi-enclosed front patio that was perfect for the sketchy weather. My first dinner was a tasty and tender pork-knuckle on a bed of mashed potatoes, with my first Shopska salad and Rakia - all told, a great introduction to local flavors. I went back several times and became friendly with the waitress and owner.

Kashtite
"Offers Bulgarian national cuisine on fire, on a hot plate and in an oven." Bulgarian folk music that had the locals singing along begins at 8pm, with musicians wandering through the dining spaces.

Shastalivetca on Vitosha Blvd
A Rick Steves recommendation with a sister restaurant overlooking the valley in Veliko Tarnovo. In Sofia, it's a great place to people watch along Sofia's main pedestrian shopping drag.

Skara Bar
Great little casual place for Rakia and grilled meats. I was delighted when the entire front window folded open for outdoor dining.

Bernard's
This was a local find as I walked from the Eurostars one day, using a quiet, residential road "1 block over" from the main road.

The Bulgarian-only menu (you'll need Google Translate with Bulgarian language loaded) caters to local patrons. I never heard English. My typical bill for pork with mushrooms, salad, potatoes and a glass of Bulgarian wine was BGN 20.

Raketa Rakia Bar
This place has a fun and casual feel with good food at moderate prices.

Fine Dining: Egur Egur Armenian Restaurant

This was a lucky accident. I was supposed to join the free Balkan Bites tour, but when I arrived at the meeting point, it didn't feel right. So I bailed, and started wandering to find lunch. I saw a pretty patio shaded with umbrellas. The expected Shopska salad was a bit more expensive than usual. But I was ready for a break. The food is beautifully presented.

I went there twice. I'm pretty sure the owner was at the table next to me as he clearly directed waiters to seat me.

They have beautiful indoor dining spaces for private parties of 10 or maybe 16, such as for a special celebration.

Staria Chinar
Just a few minutes walk from the Eurostars, they serve quality plates at moderate prices in a casual outdoor atmosphere. About a month ahead, I had made a reservation for the last night of my stay, not knowing that our tour would go there the first night. It was the perfect restaurant to book-end my visit, with great food and friendly service at moderate prices.

You'll want to check and triple check your reservations. I needed the help of the hotel clerk to get the table for my confirmed (by email) reservation, which they couldn't find, but honored.

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Sofia is an inexpensive place to be a tourist.

In Sofia, I planned 1 museum each day, with prices ranging from BGN2 to BGN12 (€1-€6) for most.

The Red Flat (the most expensive, at BGN18) was a nostalgic look at 80's technology during communism in Bulgaria

My favorites were the 2 Palace Museums, not far from the Arte Hotel. The left side is the collection from a former ruler, while the right side (separate entry) is the Ethnographic Museum with folkloric clothes, kitchen implements, fishing articles, musical instruments and more.

An ice cream, priced by weight, was usually BGN 6-8 (€3-4.)

On average, I paid $75 / night at the Eurostars, most nights of which I booked 11 months in advance, when I first booked the tour. I think I got the tour price; the prices were considerably higher closer to my trip.

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Sofia Day Trips

I borrowed and modified Bcerulo's idea of traveling beyond the RS tour zone to take day trips within Bulgaria and beyond. I decided to use Sofia as a base, rather than traveling a circuit, out of pure laziness. After the 1-2 night hotel changes with the RS tour, I was glad to sleep in my hotel in Sofia each night, even if it meant some long day trip drives.

Within Bulgaria, I booked day trips to Belogradchik Rocks and Kazanlak, for the annual Rose Festival and Parade.

Beyond Bulgaria, I booked day trips to Nis, Serbia and Skopje, North Macedonia. Those 2 days felt like scouting trips for future trips. Nis didn't do much for me. But after my visit to the beautiful city of Skopje, I'm intrigued to research Macedonia for a future visit.

And I got 8 stamps in my shiny new passport: 4 for each day trip, leaving and re-entering Bulgaria and entering and leaving the other country.

Day Trip Tour Booking
I booked all of the day trips using GetYourGuide because I appreciate the ease of managing multiple activities through their app, grouped logically by location - including activities I have pre-booked for my summer trip.

Day Trip Tour Provider
The trips were all fulfilled through V Travels Ltd. (https://vtravel.bg/) who I highly recommend. Victor, the principal, offers a 10% discount for booking direct. When one of my day trips only had 2 people, Victor ran the tour to Skopje anyway. As a small business, he values the reputation he has built.

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Day Trip to Belogradchik Rocks

https://www.getyourguide.com/sofia-l158/belogradchik-day-trip-from-sofia-new-wonder-of-nature-t28975/

This was a beautiful outdoor excursion to the natural wonder of rock formations in the NW corner of Bulgaria, near the border with Romania. We scrambled up the path and then dozens of uneven steps to get to the jaw-dropping views of the rock formations across the valleys.

Pictures: https://belogradchishki-skali.com/

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Day Trip to Nis

I was joined in Sofia for my weekend day trips by a fellow forum member; I hope she'll chime in! It was fun to have her company when she took a detour to Sofia from her own travels in the region.

Nis was an interesting trip for variety: Roman Mosaics, a skull tower and a small transit concentration camp. My favorite stop was to see the preserved palace mosaics of Mediana, Constantine the Great's luxurious 4th-century Roman palace.

While I'm glad I went, it didn't make me want to visit Serbia more.

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Day Trip to the Rose Festival Parade

This trip's morning activities were a repeat from the RS tour - a guided tour of a rose distillery and the fun chance to pick some roses from the fields. Mid-day, we drove to Kazanlak where we had free time to watch the annual Rose Festival Parade, see the variety of colorful, traditional costumes and watch (or join) the Bulgarians as they danced and sang to traditional music in the streets afterward.

My new parade friend Dora, who spoke no English but to whom I was able to communicate that I was from California, held my hand as she wandered through the after-parade crowds trying to find her son in law, Jason, also from California, and his Bulgarian wife.

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Day Trip to Skopje, Macedoonia

https://www.getyourguide.com/sofia-l158/skopje-fyrom-macedonia-day-tour-t138647/

Skopje was a pleasant surprise, though I didn't have much in the way of expectations. Virtually flattened in a 1963 earthquake, the rebuilt city feels modern, open and inviting. During our day trip, we visited the Mother Teresa memorial building, the beautiful fountain in the central plaza just beside the river, a Mosque, and crossed the old bridge to the winding streets of the old town.

This day trip has inspired me to research North Macedonia for a possible future visit.

Curious note: driving back to Sofia, we saw a Turkish heavy machinery military convoy that was headed on a peacekeeping mission to Kosovo.

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(Question from Diane)
How Was The Food?

I was excited about the food before I went to Bulgaria and loved every meal of it! You can count on some vegetables with every meal if you start with the country's famous Shopska Salad, which is tomatoes, cucumbers, sometimes onions and always a generous helping of shredded Bulgarian cheese. If I can find that cheese in a grocery store, I will be in heaven!

Then there is a lot of grilled meat and grilled meatballs, and sometimes meats cooked in clay ovens. I had pork with mushrooms a few times.

I'll add a few menu links in my restaurants section, for those who are curious.

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Lots of Google Paying

I rarely took out my credit card, until I got back home and went to Boston Market.

I used Google Pay extensively. So I never had to dig into the various zippers protecting my physical card.

I needed cash in the few, typical scenarios: one small cafe, toilets, the Women's Bazaar (farmer's market/ Bazaar shops) and tips for guides. I recall one museum house in Plovdiv that wanted cash. Some restaurants needed cash tips, others actually had it built into their credit card payment screens.

In 3.5 weeks I spent BGN 360 / €180 cash. In the last few days, I was unloading the last BGN 50 of it.

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Rainy Forecast - Not That Rainy

Prior to my trip, I saw a lot of rain in the forecast: 70% chance of rain; 80% chance; 100% chance. And yes, it did rain. Probably all but a few days that I was there. A couple of times there were umbrella-opening rains which, fortuitously, seemed to happen while I was in a museum. Often, it felt like the misty spray from a dining patio.

I didn't bring an umbrella, and wouldn't change that. Most of the time, my rain shell was fine and I had to decide whether I needed the hood. I did bring my good-for-the-rain walking ankle-boots, and was glad to have them in late May. I wore them less as my trip progressed into June.

Don't panic-pack if you see rain in the spring forecast!

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Great report on a fascinating country. For your future travels in the Balkans, you may want to look at Lyuba Tours (lyubatours.com) - they run Best of the Wild Balkans and separate Best of the Western Balkans tours that not only include Skopje but also venture into Albania, more of Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Montenegro. I've taken both tours after the RS Bulgaria tour piqued my interest in the region. They are all very interesting countries with intertwined history and beautiful scenery and are definitely "off the beaten path" for most people.

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Ah! I was excited to see your report! It was fun to join you for the weekend! And as I did no research at all on where the 2 day trips went, I am not sure my perspectives have any depth to them.

However, my take?

Nis was nice but the jury is still out on Serbia. However, since I plan to spend about a week there in September and Nis is a bit too far for me to plan on during that week, I am glad to have seen it this way. And that was the biggest, cheapest burger I have ever had.

The rose festival? That was a ton of fun. The parade was just like small town America - until the end, when it turned into a giant street dance with what was obviously a national dance and everyone joining in in big circles. That was incredibly fun to watch (I am too uncoordinated to have tried it but would have been welcomed). Like you, but in a different place, I sat down to watch and was taken care of by my neighbors - told what to do, given flowers, etc. And the stop at the rose water and rose oil distillery was extremely interesting. But since I plan to visit next year in the fall, I am glad to have seen it so that I can keep my fall visit without difficult decisions.

I will arrange my trip differently (no tour), but there are definitely things to see in Sofia - and some really great food. The countryside I saw is gorgeous.

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Yes, agreed about Lyuba Tours! Yuri, our RS tour guide, is the owner of Lyuba Tours, working alongside Stefan, who also leads RS tours. Yuri expressed a passion for his custom tours in the Balkans and Central Asia.

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You know what's interesting, TexasTravelmom, in reading your comments about the Rose Festival Parade is the rich interactions we each had with locals, experiencing their friendliness and inclusiveness in a way that is different from interactions with them in hotel/restaurant/museums. I'm glad we got to see that side of Bulgarian culture!

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Thank you, mango.tree, for that really interesting information. I hadn't researched it and am really happy to have your insights!

ETA: and you're absolutely right about my use of war-torn, which isn't really a good, current descriptor. Thanks again!

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Oh, Diane, great question, I'll write that one up along with my restaurants section.

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559 posts

Interesting trip report. I especially like the personal observational bits and pieces.
Thank you for sharing your experiences! 💙💛

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756 posts

I was hoping you would write a trip report! Sounds like Bulgaria is a great follow up to your Turkey tour. I look forward to reading (and hearing!) more.

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2651 posts

Great report! I love your layout.

As you know, we were in Bulgaria with you but were always somehow in a different city:(

You make a lot of great points and I agree - there was so much smoking!!!!!! But it was such an inexpensive place to travel - we’d load up on tons of fun snacks in stores and it always turned out to be like $5. And our dinners out - two meals, drinks, bread would be like $12.

Glad you enjoyed Bulgaria - we did too! But I agree - it’s a trip you do after you’ve been a lot of other places, I think.

We did Romania on the same trip and preferred Romania. It had some incredible architecture in Bucharest and Braşov and somehow we connected with those cities better.

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7012 posts

I'm loving this trip report - it sounds like such a wonderful destination! The glossy countries that star in the travel mags are nice to visit, but there's a lot to be said for visiting countries that are less economically developed. I can't wait to read the rest of it!

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What a great report (as always!)
Can't wait to see you and hear more in person.
Welcome home!

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Love your report, can’t wait for the rest. One question, would you say that it is easy to travel around on your own or do you recommend taking rick’s tour and extend like you did. Bulgaria and Romania have been on my list for quite a few years. Hoping to get there september 2024, along with Serbia.

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*As you know, we were in Bulgaria with you but were always somehow in a different city:( *

Valerie, we've missed each other twice now, including our 2020 dinner in Warsaw. It will happen, I know it!

It sounds like you ate even less expensively than I did. Perhaps because I stayed in Sofia. (And perhaps because I kept ordering Rakia to start and dessert to finish :-)

I'm really intrigued by your Romania comments. I was thinking it was my 2024 priority, until I visited Skopje. They're not so far apart that I couldn't do both. Or maybe 2 trips.

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(Question from Barbara)
Would you say that it is easy to travel around on your own?

Barbara, great question and probably one Valerie can answer better than me, as she traveled independently. I can say that I did a bit of research for a "Plan B" in case I got kicked off the tour. It looked like it would be pretty easy to travel between the bigger cities by bus, for which I found this great website:

https://getbybus.com/en/blog/bus-bulgaria/

(website excerpt)
"The main hubs for domestic intercity buses are Sofia, Plovdiv, Veliko Tarnovo, Varna, Burgas from these cities you have lots of travel options, buses between many of the cities are frequent, so it is easy to move around. The longest domestic travel route is from Sofia to the Black sea, these routes have a travel time up to 7 hours."

Posted by
86 posts

Hi, CW,

Read your reports from your recent RS tour in Bulgaria. It brought back many fond memories from my September 2022 RS trip. You may recall, we communicated a bit back in January as you were planning this trip. Very pleased it all worked out so well for you.. A great trip.

Posted by
783 posts

Another great report! I know I will never get to Bulgaria, so I really appreciate learning from you and others.

Posted by
3357 posts

CWsocial, Valerie did not travel independently. She was on an Odyssey’s Unlimited tour that did Romania and Bulgaria. Thanks for your report!

Posted by
4928 posts

Oh that's right, thanks diveloonie, I had forgotten about that.

Posted by
4928 posts

Thanks, JimD, and I hope your planning for your Best of Turkey tour this fall is going well!

Posted by
4000 posts

We are, well I am since I do most of the planning, trying to get on a Rick Steve’s tour at some point. We’ve never taken a tour but would like to try one. I’m looking at Turkey, Bulgaria - since these tours look very interesting, fun and seem more efficient then going on our own, and Switzerland cause I think the value is there considering how expensive it is.
It’s just very difficult for us to commit to a tour, don’t know why, maybe we just aren’t ready mentally yet.
This is definately going to be bookmarked though, hopefully for September 2024!

Posted by
928 posts

Bravo, what a fantastic report! Bookmarking for future reference.

I made it to Hungary in 2018, but that is the farthest "east" and most exotic place I have visited in Europe - and I loved it. I had booked the RS Turkey tour for September 2020...of course that did not happen.

I suppose I should get back on the horse and shoot for Turkey again; would the RS Turkey tour be the first destination / tour you more experienced travelers recommend?

Thanks.

Posted by
2651 posts

@Diveloonie is right! We did Odysseys Unlimited. First time touring with them - and they were pretty good!

For those contemplating independent travel there, though, we did take the train from Bucharest to Brasov. It was fine. We were in the First Class car - it was clean, seats were fine, plenty of room for luggage etc. The trains are pretty old-looking but, beyond that it was just like a train in France or Spain.

Posted by
4928 posts

Jojo Rabbit, the Best of Istanbul and Best of Turkey tours were my first, after years of independent travels. They went well for me.

Comparing only the aspect of transportation...

The distances in Turkey are much greater, so for me it's the bigger logistical challenge, which I'd prefer to let a tour handle. It does also mean greater tour bus distances, but that was broken up (on both tours) with sightseeing stops, meal stops and rest stops.

I think I could easily manage Bulgaria by public busses, if I were only going to the main cities. If renting a car, the distances in Bulgaria are much less than Turkey.

Posted by
1530 posts

Great report! Looking forward to hearing about it in person. BTW, we traveled through Bulgaria independently in 2018. It’s an interesting country. We had no problems other than trying to get our rental car into a tiny parking slot at our BandB in Plovdiv :). We had planned to take a day trip from there but the experience of getting into that space changed our minds. We were satisfied with exploring Plovdiv.

Posted by
4928 posts

Bulgaria covers a territory of nearly 111,000 square kilometres.

Turkey covers an area of 783,562 square kilometres, though the Best of Turkey tour only visits western Turkey.

Posted by
305 posts

Thanks for the great trip report! I hope to be able to attend your next online travel group meeting to hear more and hopefully see some photos.

Posted by
33324 posts

Kashtite

"Offers Bulgarian national cuisine on fire, on a hot plate and in an oven." Bulgarian folk music that had the locals singing along >begins at 8pm, with musicians wandering through the dining spaces.

What an exceptional trip report CWsocial. Right up with your high standard. You should be a tour book writer.

Question - do you think that the musicians were trawling for tips, mariachi style, or just taking the music around so everybody had it up close and personal?

Posted by
4928 posts

Thanks, Nigel, very kind. But to be fair, the part in quotes is from their website.

I think I was the only tourist - among a few groups, a couple, some families with children, and one other solo gal.

The musicians seemed to be going floor to floor, but not table to table. At least not on our small, uppermost floor with 7 or 8 tables.

When they finished playing, they "just left" with no sign (that I saw) of pausing for tips. And none of the diners made any move towards wallets. Maybe we were all clueless. Or maybe tips weren't expected.

Posted by
280 posts

CWsocial...what an informative and ,for me timely report. My wife and I have an independent Bulgaria visit penciled in for late October into November but depends in part on our daughter's plans for meeting us.

Your trip report on the Rick Steves Istanbul tour helped us with our decision to take our first tour as we have never taken a tour except for occasional day trips.Our tour is October 6-14, followed by 9 nights in Israel . Our plan then would be to fly from there to Sofia and likely ultimately rent a car. I will be studying your report!
Thanks again!

Posted by
4928 posts

MA Traveler, I'm so glad to hear that my report helped you with decisions about your trip to Turkey. And if you do go to Bulgaria, I hope this report helps your planning and you have a great time!

Posted by
4928 posts

Haha, well thank you Mister É!

And now that I'm home, I can get back to scouring all my bookmarks of your replies to Budapest inquiries for my fall visit. And my bookmark of your Romania trip report for a future visit. And search for anything you might have had to say about Skopje!

Posted by
18778 posts

I may have heard a rumor that you had Opera tickets ... if you do and it's a box o learned something this week that might interest you.

Posted by
4928 posts

We're in the center Orchestra section. Does it apply there?

Posted by
4928 posts

I liked what I saw of Skopje in a couple hours walking tour. I'd definitely travel beyond the city. And I think you're onto my line of thinking to combine it with elsewhere: possibly also Greece.

Posted by
4928 posts

Was It Crowded?

(I thought this topic from another thread was relevant here.)

Sofia felt like a normal day in a European city.

I easily had a front row place, no elbowing required, to watch their (admittedly smaller, but still impressive) Changing of the Guard.

I walked right in to museums, with no reservation required. I had entire museum rooms to myself during my visits.

Popular restaurants required a reservation for dinner (not lunch) though I only heard Bulgarian. In some favorite spots, I got to know the staff who smiled and remembered my preferences.

Plovdiv seemed like any normal day. I was annoyed when the one other visitor to the Hindlayan House was in the same room that I was 🤣

For dinner in Varna, we had our pick of outdoor tables from our pick of restaurants at the beachfront on the Black Sea.

Veliko Tarnovo's craft market street felt empty.

Skopje, on my single day, mid week visit, was alive but nothing approaching crowded.

Posted by
4338 posts

Re Opera House: I had the Esterhazy cake.

We’ll just have to find a place for our intermission treats somewhere else after the ballet. Too bad there are no good places nearby. 🤣