A Rail Journey Through Bulgaria’s Scenic Routes

If you enjoy soaking in ever-changing scenery from the comfort of a train compartment, Bulgaria’s got you covered.

This route goes between Bansko (a ski town and growing digital nomad hotspot) and Plovdiv, the second-largest city in the country.

Along the way, you’ll see some scenes pegged in time — like fields of solar panels showing that Bulgaria is distancing itself from dependence on Russia — but mostly timeless scenery of mountains and tunnels.

Bansko to Plovdiv

The most scenic train journey in Bulgaria runs from Bansko, a popular ski village and growing digital nomad hotspot to Plovdiv, the second largest city in the country. It has a fun historic center with hip restaurants and wine bars as well as Roman ruins sticking up all over town. Taking the train to and from Bansko gives you the chance to enjoy some of the best scenery in Bulgaria as well as take a step back in time as the line travels on the only narrow-gauge rail route in the country.

Leaving Bansko on the E85, your first stop should be the little village of Thompson (or Tompsan as some Bulgarian officials transliterate it). It’s named after a British Second World War major who was posthumously promoted to Major after being parachuted into the mountains here to liaise with the local Partizani guerrilla fighters against the pro-Nazi government. You can visit his home and his grave here, and there’s a monument to him in the village center.

A short detour off the train will get you to the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo, a collection of 13th-century churches and cloisters dug into the rocks and decorated with naivist but sometimes surreal clerical frescoes. The complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the views from the church’s over the Rusenski Lom Valley are stunning.

From here, continue on to Veliko Tarnovo, where you can visit the medieval Asenova and Asen’s Fortress and then explore the Bachkovo Monastery, which was founded in late 11th-century and is known for its 17th-century frescoes. You’ll also see a lot of rhododendrons here in May, which is an unmistakable sight and one of the highlights of this region.

The next day you can head up to the Rhodope Mauntains to Smolyan, which is the center of this region’s mineral springs and where many spa hotels are located. It’s a wonderful area to explore, and you can visit the amazing Yagodina Cave, where Orpheus was said to have descended to the underworld to find his beloved Eurydice.

Then it’s on to the city of Plovdiv, which is a strong contender for most beautiful city in Bulgaria. It’s full of Bulgarian Revival architecture and has a quaint Old Town where you can spend a day wandering its cobblestone streets, checking out the enticing street art and independent shops. The other must-do in the city is to visit Dzhumaya Mosque, which has nine domes that are an impressive example of Ottoman architecture and is one of the largest mosques in the world.

Plovdiv to Veliko Tarnovo

Bulgaria may not be on the conventional tourist tracks, but that’s exactly what makes it so rewarding to visit. Its layers of history are revealed in every turn of the cobblestone streets, and the quaint old houses are a feast for the eyes with their vibrant colors.

This journey begins on Route 55 and offers bucolic views of the country’s heartland as you head northeast. A few hours in, however, the road will turn to gravel and you’ll find yourself entering the Strandzha Mountains. The landscape here is absolutely stunning, especially in May when the entire region is ablaze with a brilliant display of flowers called Black Sea rhododendrons. If you’re able to drive here in early June, you can witness the amazing ritual of Bulgaria’s firewalkers who walk across flaming coals.

From the mountains, you’ll reach the southern coast and the town of Plovdiv in under three hours. The Old Town here is just as enchanting as you’d expect from its cliche descriptions, and the best time to explore it is on a warm summer evening when the streets are filled with carefree locals sipping drinks in tucked-away bars.

To the north of Plovdiv, you’ll want to make a detour to the charming village of Dryanovo. Here you’ll see the cliff-backed monastery dedicated to St Michael, which is worth a look not only for its striking architecture but also for its story of destruction and revolution during the long years of Ottoman rule.

In the afternoon, it’s worth a quick visit to the Bachkovo Monastery, found in the Rhodope Mountains, and one of the country’s most beautiful. The 17th-century frescos are a particular highlight.

Finally, it’s well worth a stop at the Krushuna Falls, a series of waterfalls tucked away in the northern mountains of Bulgaria. A series of pools and cascades combine to create this mesmerizing oasis that looks straight out of a fantasy movie.

On average, there are 7 departures each day between Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo. However, these figures can vary depending on the season and the number of trains operating during a given day.

Veliko Tarnovo to Varna

If you’re looking for a cheap, comfortable and safe way to travel from Veliko Tarnovo to Varna, then you should consider taking a bus. Several providers operate bus routes on this route, with departures available daily. Buses are usually equipped with amenities such as air conditioning and complimentary bottled water.

On average, there are 29 daily departures on the route from Veliko Tarnovo to Varna. However, this number may vary depending on the day of the week and season. On certain days of the year, some providers offer extra trips on this route.

The bus journey to Varna from Veliko Tarnovo will take you through some of Bulgaria’s most scenic routes, passing by sunflower fields, mountain ranges and many small villages. You’ll also see plenty of farm animals, wild dogs, and even turtles crossing the road! In addition to the natural beauty, the route is dotted with numerous monasteries and churches along the way. You’ll also see random displays of military might and other strange monuments that make for a truly memorable trip!

One of the most interesting stops on this journey is the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo, a beautiful complex of churches and cloisters that have been dug into the rocks. The church is considered to be one of the most remarkable sites in Bulgaria and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once you’ve explored the church, head back on E85 to continue your journey.

A good idea is to avoid traveling at peak times like during the weekends. Instead, try to go during the week or during off-peak hours. This will help you save money and avoid crowds. In addition, it’s worth comparing prices between different vendors to find the best deal on your ticket.

If you want to be sure that you’re getting the best deal on your tickets, then it’s a good idea to book in advance. Buying your tickets ahead of time can help you save up to 20%! And if you’re booking a trip to a popular destination, you should book as far in advance as possible. This will ensure that you get the best price on your tickets and can enjoy your trip to the fullest!

Varna to Sofia

The final leg of the journey, from Varna to Sofia, will see you discover Bulgaria’s most beautiful landscapes. First, head to Koprivshtitsa, an historic village where you can visit landmarks from the uprising against the Turks and admire the unique architecture. Here, you can stay at the Family Hotel Panorama and enjoy a peaceful night in a heritage building.

Continuing on, you will reach Veliko Tarnovo, which is another of the country’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a fascinating place to spend a day exploring. The highlight here is the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo, an amazing complex of churches and cloisters dug into the rocks which have been covered in stunning frescoes. The scenery here is also incredible, with the peaks of the Rila mountain range looming over you.

For a great view, make the short detour to the top of the Shipka Pass – this is a special place for all Bulgarians and evokes feelings of patriotism. Here, you can see the Monument to Freedom (Shipka), a huge memorial to the thousands of people who died in the battle to liberate Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire in 1877 and 1878.

A short drive further up the road will take you to the charming village of Balgari, which is worth a detour in order to see the famous Black Sea Rhododendrons, a flower that can only be found in this part of the world. Balgari is also the home of Bulgaria’s firewalkers, who perform an annual rite in which they walk across flames – be sure to book tickets ahead of time to ensure availability.

From here, you can drive back to Sofia, where you will have plenty of time to explore the city’s many sights. Learn about the country’s rich history at the National Museum of History, explore its art culture at the Sofia National Palace of Arts or catch a performance at one of the many theatres in town. If you are in the mood for some relaxation, you can spend the day on one of the region’s many beaches – Rapongi Beach is popular among visitors and offers a fantastic view over the sea.

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