The Bulgarian train lines are pretty old and not very user-friendly as they cannot be booked online, and the ticket agents sometimes don't speak English. It will help if you use Google Translate to communicate with the agent and know the train number you would like by using the Bulgarian Train Website. They are attempting to make tickets available online but only a small scale pilot project is underway as of June 2019. The following route hits many of the major cities with no day having an excessive amount of time spent on a train and is designed to be extended or shortened. Buses can be used instead of trains for the entire length of this journey depending on which mode of transportation you prefer. Pricing is similar between the two options.
Locations to visit
Travel Day 1
As Sofia is the main hub of travel to and from Bulgaria, it is the starting and ending point of the journey. You will find that Sofia is one of the most "outdoorsy" city's that you will visit with tons of parks, squares, and mountains. The internet in the city is fantastic with many of the parks even set up as free wifi hotspots allowing for easy travel throughout the city. We would suggest spending about 3 days in the city unless you are wanting to do the day trip to Rila Monastery for which you should add an extra night. Take a look at our Sofia page for some hidden gems, where to stay, and how to get around.
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Travel Day 2
After your time in Sofia, head a couple of hours east to Plovdiv, the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe. Make your way to the main train station in Sofia which is attached to line 2 of the Metro. Train tickets can be bought either on the main floor or in the basement at any of the open windows. It seemed like cash was the only available method and the agents rarely spoke English. Have an idea of the train times and what class level you want previous to going to make sure there are no surprises. The train to Plovdiv takes between 2-3 hours with no changes depending on which style of the train you chose. Plovdiv is one of the most gorgeous cities in Bulgaria with some of the best-preserved buildings from Roman times. With a history dating back 8,000 years, it is no surprise that the archeological museum is one of the top things to do in the city. Plovdiv is a unique mix of new and old and can be explored in 2-3 days. If you add a day trip to Kazanluk, the rose valley, the Monument of Freedom and Buzludzha then make sure to add an extra night stay. While you can get to Kazanluk by train or bus, you unfortunately cannot make it up to Buzludzha unless you have a car or join a tour. The plus side is that car rentals are relatively inexpensive, and the driving is very calm as compared to many other European countries.
Travel Day 3
With a couple of full days of history behind you, its now time to make it out to the coast for some relaxation. The Bulgarian Black Sea coast is one of Europe's best sandy beach destinations with over 30% of the coast covered in sand. There are many places to choose from so take a look at the breakdown of the resort towns HERE. Our suggestion would be to stay in Sunny Beach as it offers easy access to Nessebar while being connected to the train network through Burgas. Sunny Beach is extremely popular and is almost like a mini Miami Beach with high-rise resorts, party streets, and not a lot of true local culture. For those wanting the beautiful beach, access to Nessebar, but without the parties, stay on the south end of the beach as it is relatively quiet but easy to reach. The train from Plovdiv will take you to Burgas in less than 4 hours and then catch the hour-long bus to Sunny Beach. The train and bus stations are right next door to each other making the change hassle-free. Buses run almost every hour and tickets are bought on the bus.
We highly suggest that one of your days should be spent touring through the city of Nessebar. Nessebar has been the religious centre for the majority of peoples who have conquered the region. This has left it with over 40 churches and the claim to being the city with the most churches per capita. It is hard to walk a block on the island without stumbling onto another church. There are even some dating back to the 6th century! While there are lots of tourists on the island, there are still many spots where you can find peace and quiet. If you are staying in Sunny Beach, you can either walk to Nessebar (depending on where you are staying), take a bus, or take the tourist train. With such easy access, there should be no excuse for not checking out the UNESCO site!
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Travel Day 4
Depending on where you chose to stay along the Black Sea, your journey may be a little different to reach Veliko Tarnovo. If departing from Sunny Beach, make your way on the bus to the central train station in Burgas to catch your connecting train to Veliko Tarnovo. The train will take roughly 5 hours with only 1 stop and will get you into the former capital city in the late evening so make sure your accommodations are aware of your estimated arrival time. Veliko Tarnovo train station is 10 minutes drive from the old city so make sure to take a taxi into town. Do not try to walk it, as there is no sidewalk and it is pretty much a highway. For over 300 years, Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire resulting in the city growing in population and power. As such, the city has a number of sites to see and is steeped in history. Check out the walled city of Tsarevets sitting on top of a hill both during the day and for the nightly light show. Make sure to head down to the river to visit the church of St Demetrius of Thessaloniki as it was the spot that marked the start of the rebellion which led to their second independence!
Veliko Tarnovo is a perfect ending spot as you can make your way back to Sofia easily or catch the train taking you north to Bucharest. Remember the train station taking you to either is about 20 minutes outside of town in Gorna Oryahovitsa. To get there, you can take a taxi, or ask around and find the right city bus that should get you there in about 30 minutes for just a few Lei.