UNESCO World Heritage Sites are among the most attractive hotspots for tourists in Bulgaria. While some of them are well-known and appreciated by thousands of people each year, a few of the sites are surprisingly somewhat off-the-beaten-track and away from traditional tourism regions. A rare chance to see another side of Bulgaria and amaze yourself!
For its relatively compact territory, Bulgaria has a large number of World Heritage Sites protected by UNESCO. Seven of these are cultural, showcasing Bulgaria’s history from the time of the Thracians through the Middle Ages to the Ottoman period, and two of them are nature reserves conserving two very different natural habitats.
Check out Bulgaria’s 9 breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage Sites below!
1. Nesebar: an ancient city-state with mesmerizingly elaborate architecture
Nesebar’s old town is a near-island in the Black Sea, connected to the Bulgarian mainland only via a narrow isthmus. Founded by the Thracians in time immemorial, Nesebar (Messembria) was an influential colony of the Ancient Greeks and a wealthy port that changed hands between Bulgarians and Byzantines in the Middle Ages.
Nesebar’s valuable ancient heritage is very much alive. The old town is a stunning collection of antique towers and fortifications, intricately designed medieval churches in a unique style and even a curious wooden windmill.
Unfortunately, Nesebar’s proximity to the huge summer resort Sunny Beach means the ancient city is crowded in summer. Avoid the lines and pay a visit out of season for a serene and mysterious cultural experience.
- How to get there: Nesebar is not far north of Burgas, the terminus of the Trakia motorway from Sofia. There are regular direct buses from Sofia both in and out of season.
2. Rila Monastery: the beacon of Bulgarian spirit
High in the foothills of the Rila Mountains lies the legendary Rila Monastery. Surrounded by thick stone walls, the monastery has survived for more than a millennium since its foundation by the hermit John of Rila, Bulgaria’s national saint, in the early 10th century. Ever since, the monastery has been one of the most influential centres of Bulgarian culture and art.
The Rila Monastery’s elegant main church and living quarters mostly date from the 19th century. With their unmistakable striped decoration and gentle arches they are lauded as a masterpiece of the Bulgarian National Revival style. The oldest building in the complex is the monumental stone Tower of Hrelyo (Hrelja), built by a local lord of Serbian origin in the 14th century.
- How to get there: There’s a direct bus line from Sofia to the Rila Monastery leaving every day at 10:20 from Ovcha Kupel bus station (take the 5 tram from behind the Sofia Court House near Serdika metro station to get there). Alternatively, you can catch the more regular buses to the town of Dupnitsa and hop on another one to the monastery from there.
3. Pirin National Park: the mountains’ marble giant
Pirin is a wondrous highland of towering marble and karst peaks, picturesque glacial lakes and exciting hiking trails. It is famous for the unbelievably narrow saddle Koncheto (The Foal) in the mountain’s highest part, connecting the peaks Kutelo and Banski Suhodol. At times less than a metre wide, Koncheto guarantees an adrenaline-filled high-mountain trek. If you’re lucky, you may even spot the mythical fluffy flower Edelweiss below the rocky ridge!
Pirin National Park is well-known for its skiing opportunities as well – Bansko and Dobrinishte are both popular winter sports areas with a developed infrastructure. The two places are starting points for most trails as well.
- How to get there: Regular buses connect Sofia to Razlog, Bansko and Dobrinishte in the foothills of Pirin via Central bus station and Ovcha Kupel bus station every day.
4. Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak: amazing antique frescoes
You may not have heard of them, but Thracians were one of the earliest civilizations to inhabit the lands of modern Bulgaria. First mentioned in the Iliad, this brave warrior people also left a significant mark on Bulgaria’s cultural heritage. With their mysterious religious sites and richly-decorated burial mounds and ‘beehive’ tombs like the one in Kazanlak, Thracians are now an inseparable part of Bulgarian history.
The Tomb of Kazanlak is most notable for its absolutely fantastic mural paintings dating to the 4th century BC, the time when Alexander the Great ruled the world. Detailed and richly coloured frescoes of horsemen, aristocrats and noblewomen cover the interior of the burial chamber. Curiously, tourists visit a perfect copy of the tomb – the adjacent original is closed for visitors due to the fragile state of the frescoes.
- How to get there: Buses and trains go to Kazanlak daily from both Sofia (on the sub-Balkan road and railway) and Plovdiv (trains via Tulovo).
5. Madara Rider: a horseman on the rocks
Look at the obverse of any Bulgarian coin (other than the 1 lev coin) and you’ll see it – a relief image of a horseman trailed by a dog and killing what appears to be a lion. You can marvel at this 8th-century monument of early Bulgarian sculpture high on a vertical cliff in Madara, not far from Shumen in Bulgaria’s northeast.
Most likely shaped during the rule of the Bulgarian Empire’s second khan, Tervel, the Madara Rider has a lot in common with the ancient symbolism of Saint George killing the dragon. The rider is one of the national symbols of Bulgaria and a rare remnant of the turbulent Early Middle Ages.
- How to get there: The nearest town is Shumen, which is well connected to Sofia and Varna by road and railway. From Shumen, you can take a bus or hop on a passenger train to the village of Madara.
6. Boyana Church: a predecessor of the Renaissance
Hidden in the outskirts of Sofia in the shadow of the forested mountain Vitosha is this charming little Orthodox church. In terms of architecture, it’s a great example of how medieval Bulgarian builders interpreted the Byzantine style, with its oldest parts about 1000 years old.
The true magic of the Boyana Church, however, awaits in its interior. All of the church’s inner walls are covered by marvelous medieval frescoes, the most notable layer from 1259 featuring lifelike depictions of Bulgarian nobility and royalty and venerated Christian saints. The portraits are so strikingly real that many have hailed them as a precursor of Italian master Giotto’s early Renaissance art.
- How to get there: Take bus 64 from Hladilnika bus station in Sofia (a 10 min walk from James Bourchier metro station on line 2).
7. Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari: a Getic sculptural masterpiece
While the tomb at Kazanlak is celebrated for its vivid frescoes, the unique Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari is an ancient royal burial site famous for its rich sculptural decoration. The tomb was built in the 3rd century BC to house the remains of a wealthy ruler of the Getae tribe… who was buried there with all his five horses!
The most monumental part of the decoration are the 10 caryatids (columns sculpted as women) surrounding the burial chamber, whose lower body gradually takes the shape of a flower. This kind of sculpture is unseen in the region and may stem from the Getae’s transitional position between the Ancient Greek and the steppe people of the north, the mythical Hyperboreans.
- How to get there: The tomb is quite remote, located 40 km northeast of Razgrad. Your best bet is to travel to Razgrad or the smaller Isperih on a bus from Sofia and then organize the final leg from there.
8. Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo: a medieval cave monastic complex
The Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo are Bulgaria’s closest equivalent to Cappadocia. A cave labyrinth of rock churches, monasteries, chapels and monastic living quarters high above the valley of the Rusenski Lom River, the complex was the home of religious hermits (hesychasts) in the 14th century.
The Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo’s curiously-named caves (“The Buried Church”, “Lord’s Ravine” and “The Demolished Church”) house religious murals in the late Byzantine style as well as medieval graffiti. Together with the scenic natural surroundings of the river gorge, this is a site that will send you on a fairytale journey to the Bulgarian Middle Ages.
- How to get there: Ivanovo is a station on the Gorna Oryahovitsa-Ruse railway which provides a direct connection from Sofia (take the express train to Ruse).
9. Srebarna Nature Reserve: a bustling wetland bird site
Srebarna is a freshwater lake lying in a marshy area just south of the grand lower course of the Danube. A protected nature reserve, it is an area of extreme biodiversity and is most of all important for its vast variety of water birds.
Because it lies on the Via Pontica bird migration corridor, hundreds of bird species visit the Srebarna Nature Reserve every year – most notably the huge Dalmatian Pelicans and the tiny Pygmy Cormorants. Lake Srebarna is a serene wetland environment and a perfect place to get introduced to the flora and fauna of the Lower Danube.
- How to get there: The nearest town, Silistra (15 km away), is well linked to Sofia and Varna, though it is quite far from the former. Buses from Silistra to Tutrakan and Ruse should be able to drop you off at the village of Srebarna as they pass through.