For its relatively small size and population, Bulgaria has a lot of cultural diversity. And while you may expect to find mystical Thracian burial sites, medieval Bulgarian and Byzantine castles or lavishly decorated Ottoman mosques, there are many places which look nothing like what you would think.
From a French-style summer palace to a former Czech village, here’s 6 places you would not believe are in Bulgaria. With tips to help you get there and see them yourself, of course!
1. French château?
No, it’s a Bulgarian seaside palace!
The Euxinograde palace near Varna was built in an 18th-century French château style for the Bulgarian royal family. With its mansard roof, intricate façade brickwork and charming clock tower, Euxinograde looks like it belongs in the UNESCO World Heritage Loire Valley of central France rather than on the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast. Add the gorgeous park designed by the noted landscape architect Édouard André and the respected winery that’s part of the palace complex and you have a true piece of France in the Balkans.
- How to get there: The Euxinograde palace is a government property and can be visited after a prior booking via this e-mail. The complex lies just east of the seaside capital Varna and is accessible from there.
No, this is not an Italian town, but Bulgaria’s second-largest city, Plovdiv!
Founded some 6,000 years ago, Plovdiv shares an uncanny amount of similarities with Italy’s capital, Rome, with which it is twinned. Both cities are famously located on seven hills, though in Plovdiv’s case, one of those was destroyed and used as building material to pave the streets. Just like Rome, Plovdiv features copious heritage from the Roman Empire, including a well-preserved Ancient Roman theatre, a forum with an odeon, an antique stadium and an ancient aqueduct, among others.
Plovdiv, a captivating Balkan town, also remains an important centre of Roman Catholicism in Bulgaria, and the elegant Cathedral of Saint Louis impresses with its Italianate Baroque and Classicist design.
- How to get there: Plovdiv is on the Trakia motorway which links it with Sofia and Burgas. There’s an international airport serviced by Ryanair as well as extensive railway links to the rest of Bulgaria.
Not exactly. This is the Shipka Memorial Church in the little town of Shipka.
If you’ve heard the name, then it’s probably because of the memorable Battle of Shipka Pass of 1877, in which Bulgarian and Russian forces held the Ottomans and crucially decided the course of the entire Russo-Turkish War… and Bulgaria’s existence as a separate country.
The church was financed by Russian participants in the war and designed by Russian architects to commemorate those who fell in the battle. Its Russian Renaissance architecture is quite reminiscent of the Kremlin or Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.
- How to get there: Shipka is 12 km from Kazanlak in Stara Zagora Province. It lies at the southern end of the Shipka Pass; Gabrovo is on the northern side of the Balkan Mountains. Travel by bus or train to Kazanlak and catch a local bus to Shipka from there.
Not really! Rather, this is Bulgaria’s Little Vienna, the city of Ruse.
Just like Vienna, Ruse lies on the Danube River and is Bulgaria’s most important river port city. As trade along the Danube prospered around the turn of the 20th century, Ruse became an affluent place that was considered the most westernized of Bulgaria’s big cities. The typically Central European architecture of Ruse’s city centre was deeply influenced by the trends in Vienna at the time. To this day, Ruse retains the appearance of a charming Little Vienna… even the Pantheon of National evival Heroes is a lot like the Secession Bulding in the Austrian metropolis!
- How to get there: Ruse is quite far from Sofia, but there’s a direct railway line between the two cities, as well as regular buses. Travel is also possible from the Romanian capital Bucharest, just an hour away north of the Danube.
5. Greek island?
Close, but no cigar. Sozopol is in fact a picturesque town situated on a peninsula on Bulgaria’s southern Black Sea coast.
As you can perhaps tell from the name, which comes from the Greek Sozopolis, Sozopol was originally an Ancient Greek colony on the Black Sea. Even today, Sozopol looks deceptively like a scenic town on a tranquil Greek island. Traditional houses of stone and dark wood line the sandy beaches, and along the coast you can find the reconstructed defensive walls from Byzantine times.
- How to get there: The nearest big city to Sozopol is Burgas, which is well connected to Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna. There are regular local buses to Sozopol from Burgas, as well as direct buses to Sozopol from Sofia’s Central bus station twice a day.
6. Czech countryside?
Actually, a village lost in Bulgaria’s Danubian Plain. Though Voyvodovo was indeed founded in 1900 by Czech colonists from Austria-Hungary.
Nowadays, Voyvodovo is a sleepy small village that few have even heard about. However, it is unique in Bulgaria with its characteristic houses which have a typically Czech rural design. And no coincidence, as Voyvodovo was settled by puritan Protestant Czechs in 1900 and at one point had a thriving Czech community of over 500 as well as a Czech school. Sadly, none of the Czechs remain in Voyvodovo today, but their cultural heritage is there to see.
- How to get there: Voyvodovo is in Vratsa Province, near Kozloduy, Oryahovo and Mizia. You can use the two daily buses from Sofia’s Central bus station to Kozloduy and back to get to the village and return to the capital.