Don’t be an arrogant cheapskate.
Just because you are in an inexpensive country doesn’t mean you can get everything you want for next to nothing. A sure way to embarrass yourself is to try bargaining for a discount on a magnet souvenir that costs 1 lev ($0.56). You might really need the small change for your next big purchase. A 1.20 lev ($0.68) pizza slice that is. Pay no respect for our culture by dragging your local friend, who is excited for you to try Bulgarian beans soup and shopska salad, across town for a dirt-cheap fast food meal you can find in your home country. To make a cheapskate nickname last longer, act like the 20 lev bill in your pocket can buy a whole clothing store, along with the shop keeper.
…do spend more on regional specialities.
Rose oil perfume from Kazanlak, raspberry wine from Trastena, green cheese from Cherny Vit or Rhodopean mursal tea with honey are just a few options. Authentic Bulgarian dresses are masterpieces to look at, especially when worn by singers who enchant you with outlandish voices in a concert. In the summer, go to Burgas and ask around where you can observe barefoot fire dancing. You can also meet these dancers at the Wake Up festival near Plovdiv or Jeravna’s folklore festival.
Don’t limit your trip to Sofia.
Don’t strike Bulgaria off your list just because you have spent 2 days in Sofia as a stopover on your way to Istanbul or Halkidiki. Parliament, media, administration, nightlife, culture, social environment, businesses – most action is centralized in the capital. Even us locals often have to remind ourselves that “Sofia is not Bulgaria.”
…do enjoy Bulgaria’s exquisite villages.
The capital is worth visiting, but nearly 4/5 of this country is actually rural. Our villages depopulate, 10% are already empty and a few hundred have less than 10 inhabitants, mainly seniors. But despite all dark demographic statistics, there is enormous potential for rural tourism to be developed. Hurry up and go there before tourists flood these places. Dolen, Ravnogor, Turiya, Trigrad are just a few suggestions that are hard to reach by public transportation, but are still untouched by mass tourism.
Don’t trust hotel star rating.
You would normally expect a 4 star hotel to offer great service and luxury. This is not always the case in Bulgaria, unless part of a famous hotel chain. The spirit of the standards set by the old Balkantourist from totalitarian times is still haunting our tourism industry with its outdated “they can’t get out of the country anyway” approach. A place that pretends to be expensive can greet you with gold-plated plastic in the bathroom, a creaky bed with a hard mattress, boring fiberboard furniture and heavy red-brown satin bed linens. Most certainly, you will hear your neighbors arguing or moaning. The typical breakfast buffet consists of coarsely chopped cucumbers and tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, margarine and thin slices of ham, regardless of the season. A private hostel room often offers a better looking and more comfortable space.
…do give guesthouses and family-owned small hotels a chance.
Good hosts will treat you with homemade food in the morning, friendly talks and a place with amazing views of nature. Rhodope Mountains is where you will find plenty of such family-owned places to stay. Go to Trigrad and try Arkan Han hotel’s legendary baklava, then ride a horse up the wild trail leading to an abandoned village.
Don’t go to Sunny Beach in the summer.
Overbuilt, overcrowded, overpriced and full of ‘alcohol tourism’ — this is what the overestimated Sunny Beach actually has to offer. There was nothing sunny about a wasted foreign girl who once threw up all over my new leather sandals. After this, a taxi took me from the club and drove me to my hotel at the price of a bus ticket to the other end of the country (250 miles against 3). If you are looking for a local experience then this is not the place – Sunny Beach is something like the Little United Drunk Kingdom.
…do visit the resort’s neighbors.
Nearby cities like the fast developing Burgas also offer great nightlife, without its totally-wasted-rolling-on-the-floor-naked side. And you can meet locals there, unlike Sunny Beach, which becomes a ghost town in the winter.
Don’t abuse the cheap booze.
If you choose to ignore the above advice and go to Sunny Beach anyway, then be warned that inexpensive alcohol can get you in sticky situations like paying 180 levs to call an ambulance. A recent police check in this same resort confiscated 273 liters of fake alcohol. Another check found an apartment factory for counterfeit drinks production and 3000 liters of various liquids. Both crimes were solved in the same year, 2015. Will these be the last ones? Are there more? All-you-can-drink pub crawls are a bad idea here, even if the booze is regular. Unless you want to play a “we will survive” game with your friends.
…do drink responsibly.
When ordering hard liquor, you should know that a double vodka is 100ml here.
Be a mindful traveler and buy your shots from reputable bars, or get your liquor from supermarkets. It is perfectly affordable to drink a cocktail or two in a sleek nightclub with good music and quality clientele. Why risk your life for a dirt-cheap night in a place filled with wasted sweaty teenagers?
Don’t expect Bulgarian trains to be fast.
Many times I have traveled in trains that stop all the time or slow down to 25 miles per hour. The trains are ancient and will take you back in times when passenger comfort and speed weren’t a priority. “First class” is a misleading label for something that has the same old dirty seats with a little more seating space and less people. The Bulgarian National Railways is famous for its atrocious service. What they do is just get you there (unless you are unlucky to board a train that breaks midway and waits for hours).
…do slow the pace down for the scenic journey.
Hop on the Septemvri-Dobrinishte panoramic narrow gauge line that passes through the gorges of two mountains (Rila and Rhodope) and gets you to Pirin. Its nostalgic coaches are well maintained, stopping at stunning mountain stations that are otherwise hard to reach. But almost any Bulgarian train journey will be a scenic delight, so instead of swearing about the lack of comfort just relax, meditate and enjoy the view.