Bulgaria’s mountains are an affordable and less crowded alternative to the Alps with cable cars, thermal springs and glacial lakes providing walkers with a wealth of options above and below the pines. Find out what Responsible Travel recommends, including the best time go, in our Bulgaria walking holidays guide.
Walking routes in Bulgaria
Boasting the Balkans’ highest mountain, Mount Musala (2,925m), Bulgaria is already becoming known as an affordable alternative to the Alps for winter holidays. Come the spring, however, when snow has thawed and meadows are covered in wild flowers, cable cars are still running and glacial lakes are glistening to whisk walkers to heavenly hiking at lofty altitude. Follow walking trails through the Rhodope, Pirin and Rila Mountains. Discover thermal spring resorts, such as Bansko, and traditional valley villages, including Trigrad, Shiroka Laka and Yagodina, tucked beneath the towering peaks. Roman roads, rough tracks and alpine ridges are all bound to feature on a tailor made or small group holiday, with freshly brewed mursalski herbal tea the only pick me up required for rugged ramblers seeking natural highs.
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Where to walk in Bulgaria
Bridging the gap from Greece, the Rhodopes are the most extensive mountain range in Bulgaria, characterised by gentle slopes that are densely forested. Walking routes are plentiful and include a couple of 10km trails around the gorges of Buinovo and Trigrad, both accessible from the village of Yagodina. Another Bulgarian base for walkers in the Rhodopes is Shiroka Laka, a traditional village steeped in folklore and Rhopodean architecture. The Devil’s Throat Cave – where Orpheus entered the Underworld – and the 5km Canyon of Waterfalls eco-trail are both just a short transfer from Shiroka Laka. All day (6hr) walking trails from Shiroka Laka include the Smolyan Lakes via the Prevala pass, and the farming village of Gela, which also plays host to an international bagpipe and Rhopodean cultural festival every year in early August.
The highest point in the Pirin Mountains is Mt Vihren (2,914m). Although it’s a scramble to make it to the white marble summit, panoramic views more than make up for any exertion. Base yourself in Bansko, at the foot of the Pirins, and you can take your pick of the spas to ease any aches as well as accessing a long and steady hiking trail to Vihren refuge (1,915m) by way of the lakes of Vasilashki and Bunderishki. There’s also another great hiking trail to the granite peak of Polezhan (2,851m) via a cable car ride from Dobrinishte. Other than a steep hike to the summit this trail is much easier than the route to Vihren refuge and also features Pirin panoramas as well as access to the 11 Popovi Lakes.
Featuring the mighty Mt. Musala, Rila National Park is also home to Bulgaria’s largest orthodox monastery, Rila Monastery. Surrounding the monastery are some capital coniferous forest trails with tell-tale signs of boar, deer and pine martens all worth keeping an eye out for, plus eagles and griffon vultures, circling overhead. A guesthouse in Govedartsi village makes the perfect place to unpack before heading onwards and upwards into the mountains. The top of the Toblerone shaped Mt Malyovitsa (2,729m) can be walked in a day with the start of the trail at Malyovitsa ski centre, just a short road transfer from Govedartsi. Mt Musala (2,925m) is also achievable in a day thanks to the Borovets cable car (2,300m) which takes you to a well graded walking trail featuring glacial lakes fringed with purple Rila primroses from June to August.
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Types of walking holiday in Bulgaria
Self guided walking holidays in Bulgaria are a happy compromise between complete independence and joining a guided group. Round-the-clock assistance and ground transfers between B&Bs and trail heads gives you confidence on some of Europe’s lesser known alpine trails, and you will be supplied with detailed maps and route notes. Some of the recommended walking trails start at altitude via cable cars and will also follow through forests before opening into alpine areas and gorgeous glacial lakes. Knowing where you’re going, what you might see and what conditions to expect at altitude all add to the enjoyment of walking at your own pace.
If you prefer to join a small group (max 12 walkers) you’ll have every chance to do so in Bulgaria. This type of walking holiday encourages social interaction as well as opportunities to learn more about your surroundings from an English speaking local guide. Solo travellers often like to become part of a small group. You’ll be assigned a room with someone of the same sex; some trips also offer private rooms for a supplement. Meeting local people will be much more meaningful in the presence of someone who’s lived in the area their whole life, and there’s no one better to point you in the direction of authentic experiences that you won’t find in any guide books.
When to walk in Bulgaria
Winter walking and snow shoeing holidays in Bulgaria are far preferable to downhill skiing and snowboarding; this is because both activities use natural tracks rather than environmentally damaging graded runs. There’s also no need for fake snow. When spring returns during April and May, walkers are treated to wild poppies and orchids as the Trigrad River runs faster and Rila National Park’s Skakavitsa Waterfall cascades from still snow capped summits. June, July and August is the best time to see Rila’s endemic purple primroses skirting glacial lakes above 1,900m, and this is often considered one of the best times to walk at altitude where conditions are more comfortable than down in the valleys. September and October find the leaves of deciduous beech forests on the turn as well as some of the best seasonal produce during harvest time – perfect for warming bowls of gyuvetch (spicy veg) and bob chorba (bean) soups. Rule of thumb for walking in Bulgaria: the higher the trail the more unpredictable the conditions. Best advice is to start early in the day to avoid heat in the summer, and nights drawing in during spring and autumn.
Finally, although Bulgarian Black Sea beach and winter holidays are quite firmly established there’s still a long way to go before walking holidays draw similar attention. Therein lies the charm of walking in Bulgaria. Staying at a small, family run hotel or guesthouse in the remote villages of Govedartsi in the Rila Mountains or Shiroka Laka in the Rhodope Mountains will really help the local economy, all year round. The same can be said for Bansko, at the base of the Pirins; there’s a different, more local, vibe during the summer with free festivals and loads of outdoor activities creating a more authentic experience. Visiting Bulgaria outside of the winter tourist season and away from the Black Sea in the summer are just a couple of ways to gain insight into the local culture and create less impact on the still developing infrastructure.
More about Bulgaria
If you’re looking for the best time to visit Bulgaria to experience the glacial moraine, alpine meadows and melt water lakes within the mountains of Rila, Rhodope and Pirin National Park then you've come to the right place.
Our Bulgaria travel guide lifts the lid on an intriguing nation that’s bordered by five countries and the Black Sea and features the tallest point within the whole of the Balkans, Mount Musala in Rila National Park.
If you're interested in travelling in Bulgaria then check out our map and highlights page before you go.
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