An insider’s guide of how to prepare for a trip to Bulgaria - and what to expect when you get there
Are you or someone you know headed to Bulgaria for business/pleasure, or simply looking for a new adventure? Or perhaps you are curious about this “off the beaten path” destination? Whichever one it might be, this post is for you!
I am Bulgarian! Well, that is true at least most of the time, as I have now lived half of my life in New York - and sometimes that makes me quite American. I am married to a Bulgarian, speak Bulgarian, travel to Bulgaria at least once every summer, and this year, I just happen to be planning a wedding ceremony in (you can’t guess where?) BULGARIA!
All right, I admit, that is a whole lot of “Bulgaria” in just one paragraph, but I wanted to assure you that my knowledge and understanding of this naturally beautiful, culturally and historically rich, Eastern European (more specifically Balkan) destination runs deep through my veins. In the next few paragraphs, I will share some of my best tips and insights on how to prepare for a trip to Bulgaria and what to expect when you get there. Are you ready? Here we go: Destination Bulgaria!
Seven Rila Lakes, Rila Mountains, Bulgaria
Bulgaria is one of the oldest (est. 681) and at the same time least traveled countries in Europe. It is still virtually unknown to the mainstream traveler, which makes it a bit more challenging, but oh so very exciting to explore. Since its accession to the European Union in 2007 (it became the 27th member state) it has more than ever before captured the imagination of the international traveler. The most recent testament for that is TripAdvisor’s TripIndex Cities 2013 survey that ranked Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, as the most affordable destination for British travelers. Their criteria was “based on the combined cost for two of one night in a four-star hotel, cocktails, a two-course dinner with a bottle of wine, and return taxi transportation (two journeys of two miles each).” And even though value and affordability are a huge plus for Bulgaria, its charm lays with the rich cultural and historical heritage, gorgeous nature, delicious cuisine and warm Bulgarian hospitality. So here is what you need to know before you go.
Graf Ignatiev Street and the common trams in Sofia
Preparing for a Bulgarian adventure
Visas: U.S. citizens do NOT need a visa to travel to Bulgaria for any period of up to 90 days. If your plans require you to stay longer, then you will need an extended stay “D” visa, which you can apply for at any Bulgarian embassy. Word to the wise, start this process as early as possible, as it might take some time. After all, this is Europe!
Getting there: If you are traveling from the East Coast, it will take you about 12-14 hours (16-20 hours from the West coast) to get to Bulgaria. This is mainly due to the fact that direct flights from the U.S. at this time are nonexistent. However, all major European airlines, as well as some American ones, operate flights to various Western European cities from where connecting flights are available to Bulgaria. Getting there will definitely take some time, but I promise that once you set foot on Bulgarian soil, the long security lines, one 40lb (20kg) suitcase per traveler, a few hours layover, and less than gourmet airplane food will all be but a distant memory.
Language: The official language of Bulgaria is Bulgarian. It is a Cyrillic-based language, which makes it a bit challenging for most Western visitors, but definitely not impossible. While still at home, spend some time familiarizing yourself with the Cyrillic alphabet. This will help you tremendously when trying to find your way around Bulgaria and will keep to a minimum the stress and anxiety levels of not speaking the local language. Picking up an English-Bulgarian dictionary and committing to memory a few key words such as “здравей” (zdravei) – hello, “наздраве” (nazdrave) – cheers, and “благодаря” (blagodaria) – thank you, is also never a bad idea.
“Yes” and “No”: Bulgarians are the only people in the world who shake their heads to say “Yes” (or the Bulgarian “Da”) and nod for “No” (“Ne”). Stay mindful of this cultural difference, as it has been known to cause a lot of confusion in the past.
Money: Although a member of the EU, Bulgaria has not adopted the euro just yet. The national currency remains the New Bulgarian Lev (NBL), and the exchange rate is still quite favorable to the US dollar. Most often payment is made and accepted in cash, even though credit cards are becoming more and more common. I personally do not like to carry large amounts of cash when traveling, so what works best for me while in Bulgaria are the readily available ATMs that can quickly dispense just as much cash as I need in the local currency. Before you head out of the US, inform your bank that you plan to use your card in a foreign country (this way they won’t think its fraud and disable your access- I learned that the hard way) and check their foreign transaction and ATM fees.
What to expect when you get there:
Although I find having expectations while traveling to be quite dangerous, as that might lead to unnecessary disappointments should they not be met, here are a few characteristics of Bulgaria that you can safely count on encountering.
Limited English: Experiencing authentic Bulgaria means having access to very little or no English at all. That might sound scary to you now, but if you have followed my earlier advice to familiarize yourself with the Cyrillic alphabet and pick up an English-Bulgarian dictionary, then you really don’t have anything to worry about. If you are staying in any of the major cities such as Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, or Burgas (the four largest in order of size), then the likelihood of finding English speakers increases exponentially, albeit most street signs will remain in Cyrillic.
Friendly people: Bulgarians are warm and friendly people. They are extremely proud of their country and will go out of their way to help you find your way around, explain a cultural norm or answer a simple question (even if they don’t speak English, there will be a lot of expressive pointing and hand gesturing to get you where you want to go). If you are invited to a Bulgarian home, expect with each Hello and Goodbye a strong handshake accompanied by a left-right kiss on each cheek and a heartfelt hug.
Delicious food: WARNING! Expect great variety of delicious food at a reasonable price. Some of my favorite local dishes and must-haves are banitca with ayryan (a filo dough pie filled with cheese and a yogurt drink) for breakfast, shopska salata (a salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, roasted red or green peppers, sprinkled with Bulgarian cheese), and kebabche (a long version of a grilled meatball flavored with Balkan spices). Find your favorite dish and taste the delicious side of Bulgarian culture.
Gerry Botchoukova-Farkova is an Innovation Associate at Melibee Global and our Bulgaria editor here at Wondering Educators. In addition she currently serves as an Honorary BG Cultural Ambassador for Foundation Identity for Bulgaria, where she also heads the foundation’s English blog. Gerry has lived and studied in Spain, Bulgaria and the United States, and holds a B.A. in International Studies Summa Cum Laude from Bentley University. In her spare time she enjoys traveling and writing her blog entitled ~WithLoveFromBG~.
Photo credit: Andrey Andreev Photography