Most people start their visit to Bulgaria in its bustling capital of Sofia. Once there you’ll quickly see its blend of cultures both European and Ottoman, as well as the strong Communist-era look that dominates the city to this day. One or two days in Sofia is plenty to experience all of the city’s major sights, after which you might want to shift your gaze to all the other remarkable destinations in Bulgaria. The best places to visit from Sofia highlight other aspects of Bulgaria’s history and culture, as well as its jaw-dropping landscapes. So, to give you an idea of what is possible with your extra time, here are some of the best day trips from Sofia.
Note on How to Get Around
Although many of the day trips mentioned below can be done by public transport, for more flexibility and independence consider renting a car for the day. Your own 4 wheels allow you to be in control of your time and schedule, and depending on how many people are in your group, renting a car might work out even cheaper than using other forms of transportation. You can compare car rental deals and find the cheapest prices at Rentalcars.com.
Don’t want to drive or deal with the hassle of public transport? No worries, we have listed the best tour for each day trip (if available) for you below.
1. Rila Monastery
Easily one of the most popular Sofia day trips is the magnificent Rila Monastery. Hidden away in the Rila Mountains, this medieval monastery is the largest, and likely the most important Eastern Orthodox monastery complex in Bulgaria. Visiting this beautiful monastery, which was built in 927 AD, you’ll first see the arcades and balconies around the inner cloister. The striped design of the arcade pillars create quite a stunning effect around the courtyard, while the arcades are also decorated with mosaic tiles. Inside the church you’ll find frescoes and a gilded iconostasis with intricate wood carvings. The monastery also hosts a museum with artifacts from its history, most notably Rafail’s Cross, whittled from a single piece of wood.
Getting there: With no buses or trains reaching its remote location, you’ll want to do what everyone does and visit as part of an organized tour.
2. Seven Rila Lakes
Bulgaria is home to many mountain destinations, but one of the best that is also a classic day tour from Sofia, is the Seven Rila Lakes in the Rila Mountains. Found between 2,100 and 2,500 meters in elevation, these glacial lakes combine with the mountain scenery to create a stunningly beautiful destination for hikers and photographers alike. Your visit starts with a chair lift ride to the Seven Rila Lakes hut, from which you can hike out to the different lakes. Some of the lakes are named after the shapes they resemble, like The Eye and The Kidney, while The Tear is named after its crystal clear water. Following the loop trail you’ll have the chance to see each of the lakes, plus plenty of epic mountain views.
Getting there: Thanks to their remote location, your only real transport option is to visit the Seven Rila Lakes with a guided tour. This also means you will have a guide with you on the hike.
3. Vitosha Mountain
If you’re looking for a short trip from Sofia then there’s really nowhere closer than Vitosha Mountain on the edge of the city. Easily seen from the center of Sofia, Vitosha offers both natural scenery and several major cultural landmarks. Of the latter, there’s little question that Boyana Church is the most significant. A UNESCO world heritage site, this 10th century church boasts layers and layers of splendid frescoes from different eras. Another religious landmark worth your time is the ancient Dragalevtsi Monastery which has remained active since the mid-15th century. Of course, where there’s a mountain there’s a view, and near the top of Vitosha is a viewpoint with a panorama of Sofia.
Getting there: It’s possible to take a local bus and reach Boyana Church or Dragalevtsi Monastery from the city center in around 30 minutes. There are chair lifts that you can then take to the top, when they’re running. To avoid worrying about getting about, it’s best to visit with a guided tour which can handle that for you.
Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv is a spot worth visiting. Even if you don’t have time to visit for longer, it’s still one of the best side trips from Sofia. Start out with a walk through the modern city center to see the half buried Roman stadium and Roman Forum. Next head to “The Trap”, a fun and vibrant neighborhood full of cafes and bars. To see Plovdiv’s main historic attractions, head over to the city’s Old Town where you’ll find the impressive Roman Theatre. Continuing around the Old Town you’ll spot plenty of traditional Ottoman houses like the Balabanov’s House enroute to the Regional Ethnographic Museum Plovdiv. Finally, finish up at Nebet Hill where you’ll be treated to stunning city views.
Getting there: To reach Plovdiv from Sofia you have a choice of train and bus. Trains run every hour or two and are scheduled to take around 2 hour 45 minutes, though they are known for delays. Buses are more frequent and take only around 2 hours. Taking a guided tour however will help you make the most of your day trip as a guide will know exactly what to see.
5. Belogradchik Rocks and Fortress
When it comes to things to see in Bulgaria outside of Sofia, two of the more curious are the Belogradchik Rocks and Fortress. Found near the town of Belogradchik on different parts of the slopes of the Balkan Mountains, both of these attractions feature the region’s fascinating rock formations. The Belogradchik Rocks are a collection of vibrantly colored rocks that have been eroded over time into strange shapes, many of which have names and legends surrounding them. The other big attraction here is the Belogradchik Fortress, a stronghold that dates back to Roman times. Much of the fortress was designed to blend in with the unusual landscape, while the fortress walls surrounding it are all more than 2 meters thick.
Getting there: Public transport is not going to work to get to Belogradchik from Sofia, so you’ll need to visit as part of a guided tour.
6. Melnik Pyramids
Despite its size, the tiny town of Melnik near Bulgaria’s Pirin Mountains is one of the best places to visit in Bulgaria. Melnik is officially the smallest town in Bulgaria, with fewer than 400 residents. Besides that, Melnik is known for three other things: traditional Ottoman houses, wine, and incredible “Sand Pyramids” which dominate the landscape. Begin your visit along the town’s main street, admiring the quaint houses as you go. Having enjoyed the town’s scenery, head in to the Melnik Wine Museum to learn about the local wines before sampling a few. Be sure to try the fruit flavored ones! Finally, it’s time to walk to the edge of town and find a vantage point that allows you to properly take in the sandstone ridges known here as “Sand Pyramids”.
Getting there: Too far and with too few public transport connections to get there and back in a day, your only option to see Melnik from Sofia is with a guided tour.
7. Veliko Tarnovo
Sofia may be the modern capital of Bulgaria, but there was a time when that title went to the city of Veliko Tarnovo in central Bulgaria. Home to the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, there’s plenty of history to explore in Veliko Tarnovo. Much of the history relates to the city’s star attraction Tsarevets Fortress, a huge fortress on the next hill over from the city’s Old Town. The view of the stronghold from the Old Town is spectacular, but you’ll also want to visit inside to see the fortress walls, Baldwin’s Tower and the Patriarchal Cathedral. Back over in the Old Town, you’ll want to take a walk down pretty Gurko Street and find a viewpoint to look across the row of Bulgarian Revival Houses that cling to the hillside over the Yantra River. To see them all clearly though you’ll need to wander down to the The Monument of Asenevci, which is itself quite a sight.
Getting there: With trains taking too long, a 3 hour 15 minute bus ride is your only public transport option for visiting Veliko Tarnovo from Sofia.
For a look at what parts of Bulgaria looked like in the 19th century, head to the town of Koprivshtitsa. Sitting in the foothills of the Sredna Gora Mountains, Koprivshtitsa is like one big open-air museum for Bulgaria’s Revival Period. All around the town visitors can admire authentic and well-preserved architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries, with 388 architectural, historical, and ethnographic monuments. This is because Koprivshtitsa was leveled by a series of fires and was rebuilt in the Revival style. Throughout town are quite a few museums, including the Todor Kableshkov House and Museum, Koprivshtitsa’s first museum. The town also has ties with many esteemed Bulgarian writers and revolutionaries, who often have exhibits dedicated to their work and efforts.
Getting there: You can get from Sofia to Koprivshtitsa by bus or train, with a select few connections a day. Both will take around 2 hours 45 minutes, although you will need to take a taxi from the train station to the town. A simpler option is to just go with a guided tour who will take care of transportation for you.
9. Musala Peak
Back in the Rila Mountains yet again is Musala Peak, the highest peak in Bulgaria and all of the Balkans. Unlike visiting the Seven Rila Lakes, you’ll find that climbing to the summit of Musala at 2,925 meters is a serious challenge. While you can walk from the bottom, it’s also possible to take a chair lift or gondola to start your hike much further up the mountain. As you head towards the summit, you’ll pass several mountain huts as well as loads of gorgeous mountain scenery including lakes and waterfalls. Of course, the best views are reserved for the peak, if the weather is agreeable.
Getting there: To visit as a day trip, you’ll want to take an early bus to Borovets via Samokov. To ensure you have enough time, you’ll want to consider taking the chair lift or gondola. You can also book a full-day hiking tour from Sofia.
10. Saeva Dupka, Devetashka & Prohodna Cave
Those who find exploring caves fascinating are spoilt for choice in Bulgaria. There are three incredible caves reachable from Sofia; Saeva Dupka, Devetashka, and Prohodna cave. Each cave showcases the beauty that can be found in these geological formations. Saeva Dupka has naturally formed corridors and halls which allow you to go in 400 meters past countless stalactites and stalagmites. Prohodna cave is a karst cave best known for the two holes in its ceiling that look remarkably like eyes gazing down. Devetashka Cave also has natural openings through its 60-meter-high domed ceiling and plenty of striking cave formations.
Getting there: Given their remote nature, visiting these caves all in one day from Sofia is really only manageable if done with a guided tour.
Those are many of the places around Sofia you’ll want to think about visiting as a day trip. With the variety and quality, the challenge will be deciding how many extra days you’ll need and where you want to start.