Essence of Bulgaria

Essence of Bulgaria

Style: TravellerCultural discovery away from the crowds
Duration: 12 days
Type: GroupTravel with a small group of other travellers


As we know it today, Bulgaria is an urbanized, skilled society, where modernity coexists with much that is traditional. Heritage plays a highly visible role in the society, with medieval churches, monasteries and numerous folk festivals being held in rural places. Nevertheless, such traditions provide a contrast with contemporary Bulgaria’s rapid transformation into a modern European society. Embark with us on an itinerary which has been designed to take in as many of Bulgaria’s highlights as possible, while keeping cross-country travel as manageable as possible. Our journey starts with a tour of the vibrant capital Sofia before leaving for Southern Bulgaria, with its rich cultural heritage and dramatic Pirin mountain scenery. We continue to the central region along the Rhodopes mountains, via picturesque villages and narrow gorges to Trigrad where unspoilt nature dominates. Finally, we spend time in the wonderful city of Plovdiv and continue to Northern Bulgaria in the shadow of the Balkan Mountains with its fascinating mix of historical old towns and archaeological treasures, from the ancient Thracian Tomb in Kazanlak, via the world-famous rose valley and back to the capital. Within Bulgaria’s beguiling blend of nature and history, unforgettable adventures are guaranteed.


Tour Rating
Fitness ●●●○○ | Off the Beaten Track ●●●●○ | Culture ●●●●○ | History ●●●●○ | Wildlife ●●●○○

Tour Pace

Tour Highlights

  • Wander the fascinating capital of Sofia
  • Enjoy the stunning frescoes and courtyards of the imposing Rila and Rozhen monasteries
  • Get a sense of the rich cultural heritage left by former civilisations - the Thracians, the Ottomans Turks and the Romans - over the decades
  • Explore the ancient wine-producing village of Melnik, surrounded by strange sandstone pyramids
  • Admire the quaint villages of the Rhodopes region
  • Revel in Plovdiv, home to a host of Roman, Ottoman and 19th – century Bulgarian architectural marvels
  • Experience the whole process of the rose distillery process while being in the Rose Valley
  • Savour the fresh air of the Pirin Mountains  
  • Get adventurous in Trigrad soaking up the breathtaking views from the gorge and caves
  • Spend a morning hiking in the refreshing Balkan Mountains

Tour Essentials

Accommodation: Mixture of comfortable tourist class hotels and family-run guest houses, all en-suite
Included Meals: Daily breakfast (B), plus lunches (L) and dinners (D) as shown in the itinerary.
Group Size: Maximum of 12 travellers
Start Point: Sofia
End Point: Sofia or, for tour extension to Romania possibility to transfer overland by car, via Ruse (contact us for details)
Transport: Sedan car (for a maximum 3 travellers or Minivan/bus (depending on group size)
Country Visited: Bulgaria

Tour itinerary notes
While our intention is to adhere to the day-by-day itinerary as printed below, a degree of flexibility is built in. Overnight stops may vary from those suggested and on occasions alternative accommodation, of a similar standard to that named below, will be used.

Tour Guide
Our guides are a key strength, chosen for their knowledge of and passion for the areas in which they work. All of our guides are carefully hand-picked, and are not just passing through these countries, but are usually locally born. Unlike some companies it should be noted we do not send a guide or tour leader from Undiscovered Destinations in the UK as we have every confidence in our locally appointed representative who is responsible for operating the tour on our behalf. Where possible you will have the same guide throughout your trip but on occasions it may be necessary to change the guide at one or more points during the tour. On our Bulgaria tours, we have a combined driver/guide for groups of three or less.

Day 1: Arrival in Sofia
Arrive in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, and transfer to the city centre. The rest of the day is at leisure, with no guided activities. If you wish to arrange extra sightseeing or excursions please get in touch prior to your departure. Overnight L’Opera Guest House or similar. No meals included today.

Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria since 1879, rich with over 2,000 years of history, used to be an old Roman, Byzantine, Medieval Bulgarian and well-known Ottoman city. A royal palace, parliament house and various government ministries were built in the eastern part of the centre, providing Sofia with a quarter of fine buildings which still exist to this day. The Roman, medieval and Ottoman-era buildings that also dot Sofia give some idea of the city’s ancient origins, Monumental public buildings from the Communist period add a melancholy grandeur to downtown squares and intersections.

Day 2: Sofia
After breakfast take a walking city tour through the fascinating historical city of the capital. Starting with the golden-domed Aleksander Nevski Cathedral and Sveta Sofia, one of the capital’s oldest churches which gave the city its name. Walk by the fountain-splashed City Garden overlooked by the Neo-Classical National Theatre and continue to the vibrantly decorated Russian Church. Walking through the red-brick Market Hall, we arrive face to face with the third world’s largest Art-Nouveau Synagogue. After a traditional style lunch, continue to explore the capital at your own leisure. The evening is yours to discover the mouth-watering local culinary scene - your tour guide will provide you with recommendations. Overnight L’Opera Guest House or similar. (BL)

Day 3: Sofia – Rila Monastery – Melnik (Approx. driving time today: 3.5 hours – 4 hours)
Leaving Sofia behind, head to the majestic Rila Mountains. Visit Rila Monastery, the country’s most famous cultural heritage and also one of the most picturesque orthodox structures. Experience the tranquillity of the site and admire the magnificent church of Rozhdestvo Bogorodichno with its apocalyptic frescoes. Glance at the immense Monastery’s kitchen with its surprisingly gigantic cauldrons before taking an easy walk (flat terrain – distance: 3.5km) to the cave of St. John the Hermite of Rila. Lunch will be taken by the picturesque Rilska River before continuing our journey south. Notice the change in vegetation, shifting from pine forest to endless sunflower fields and a nice Mediterranean climate. Travelling through rolling landscapes, stop at lush Kresna gorge and soon thereafter emerge into the heart of the wine region, ending in Bulgaria’s smallest town - Melnik for our overnight stay. Overnight Rechen Rai Hotel or similar. (BL)

Note: For those who do not wish to do the walk, it is possible to be transferred by car to the cave. Tonight, your hotel is located walking distance from the main street, however you may wish to bring a headtorch/flashlight with you to guide you on the way back.

Rila Monastery (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Rila Monstery was founded in the 10th century by St. John of Rila, a hermit canonized by the Orthodox Church. Its ascetic dwelling and tomb made him a sort of medieval superstar admired by the local people, the Bulgarian tsar Peter and even the royals in neighbouring Constantinople. Some one thousand years later, this monastic complex is arguably Bulgaria’s most iconic building and was enlisted to UNESCO World Heritage status in 1983.

Day 4: Melnik – Excursion to Rozhen Monastery (Approx. driving time today: 30 minutes)
This morning take a picturesque trail (gentle uphill on a marked path – maximum 2 hour walk), twisting through an acacia forest up to the highest part of intriguing natural rock formations known as the “sand pyramids”. Visit the 13th century Rozhen Monastery, located on a tranquil plateau with dramatic views over the region’s sandstone cliffs. Admire the ancient frescoes in the company of one of the monks before indulging in local cuisine at mehana (tavern) nearby in the village of Rohzen. Later in the afternoon, visit the home of one of the area’s wealthiest wine merchants, beautifully restored to its 19th century appearance. Here enjoy wine tasting in the natural cellars lying right beneath the building. Return to the hotel and any remaining time this afternoon is at leisure to stroll in the peaceful surroundings. Overnight Rechen Rai Hotel or similar. (BL)

Note: For those who do not wish to do the walk this morning, it is possible to be transferred by car from Melnik to the Rohzen Monastery and from there take a very short walk to the best viewing point (gentle walk uphill – 30 minutes in both directions).

The enchanting small town of Melnik is tucked away in a valley formed by rocky, arid hills crowned with pyramidal sandstone formations and a canyon of beautifully eroded rocks. Once a thriving centre of winemaking and the capital of a principality, Melnik is now a quiet town with less than 400 inhabitants living all-year round.

Day 5: Melnik – Kovachevitsa – Trigrad (Approx. driving time today: 3.5 hours)
Heading east from Melnik across the southern spur of the Pirin Mountains, access the foothills of the Rhodopes, a region studded with quaint traditional villages. Take a detour from the main road to the stone-built highland settlement of Kavachevitsa, gaining an insight into the everyday lives of the Rhodopi inhabitants – a mixture between Bulgarian Christians, Bulgarian Muslims, Pomaks and Turks who have co-existed peacefully for centuries. The village itself is an enchanting and peaceful architectural reserve, many artists from the capital retreat here during the weekend holidays. Explore the alpine style village with its stone tile roofs and small galleries, before continuing our journey to the pine-covered central Rhodopes, stopping en-route for lunch. Travelling through diverse landscapes of mountains, forests, rivers, lakes and valleys, arrive in the isolated picturesque village of Trigrad. Overnight Arkan Han Hotel or similar. (BL)

Day 6: Trigrad Gorge – Yagodina – Eagle’s Eye viewpoint - Trigad (Approx. driving time today: 1.5 hours and optional: 40 minutes Jeep transfer on track)
Wake up to the sounds of nature, and after breakfast depart following the Trigradska River via the astounding 7-kilometer-long Trigrad Gorge, a nature reserve with numerous caves. Ascend through the Devil’s Throat boarded by its steep and dramatically narrow marble cliffs, and finally emerging at the pretty village of Yagodina. From here, take a walk down the spectacular stalagmite-filled Yagodina Cave. Stretching for about 10 km over five levels, we walk about 45 minutes through stunning galleries with interesting curtain-like rock formations comprising evidence of prehistoric occupation. Return to Yagodina for lunch and later this, embark on a 4WD Jeep for a 30-minute drive (one way) of steep ascent to the sightseeing Eagle’s Eye platform built at 1,563m above the sea level, next to the St Ilia peak. The walkable platform reveals a 680m shear drop looking down dramatically on Buynovsko Gorge. A breathtaking 360 degree panorama is revealed over the mountains in the distance. Look out for Golden Eagles which can sometimes be seen soaring on the thermals. Return to Trigrad, where a short cooking class (optional) can be arranged to learn how to make Banitsa, one of the most traditional and delicious Balkan specialties. Overnight Arkan Han Hotel or similar. (BL)

Notes: Be aware that the access to the Eagle Eye viewpoint requires a drive off-road on a steep and bumpy mountainous track. The local drivers are experienced and there are no particular risks involved. Nevertheless, we advise to keep your belongings stored in a bag during the drives. Although we really believe the experience is worth the rough journey to the top, if you suffer from vertigo or feel uncomfortable taking part, you may wish to remain in Yagodina and take an easy walk through the nearby pine forest and vast meadows.   

Day 7: Trigrad – Gela - Shiroka Luka – Bachkovo Monastery – Asen’s Fortress - Plovdiv (Approx. driving time today: 3 hours)
Today we head north, to the architectural reserve of Shiroka Luka, nation-wide renowned for its folklore music academy and, in particular for its bagpipe tradition. Take a walk (easy walk on marked trail, soft ground – about 1h30 in total) through nice pastoral landscapes up to the small village of Gela, where lunch will be taken overlooking the valley. Descending to the delightful village of Shiroka Luka, we get the chance to meet Kalin, a bagpipe master, who will explain how to make the unique and traditional Kaba Gajda (literally “rude bagpipe”), and of course play a few tunes. Continuing via the famous Pamporovo ski resort, stop for a visit at the country’s second largest monastery, the Bachkovo Monastery, renowned for its fine architecture, sumptuous iconostasis and dramatic frescoes in the Church of Sveti Nikola. Finally, enter the Thracian Plain, stopping for a short visit to the medieval Asen’s fortress with its tiny church perched on high atop a steep rock. Later this afternoon, arrive in the beautiful city of Plovdiv, home to a host of Roman, Ottoman and 19th century Bulgarian architectural marvels. Overnight Evmolpia Boutique Hotel or similar. (BL)

Note: For those who do not wish to do the walk, it is possible to be transferred by car directly to the village of Gela, or to take a shorter walk of about 45 minutes in duration.

Shiroka Luka
This quaint and atmospheric village was originally founded in the late 14th century by villagers fleeing forced Islamization and hiding in this hard-to-reach mountain region. Shiroka Luka characterizes a rebirth of Bulgarian identity in religion, traditions, art and architecture and above all, is particularly associated with folk culture as the village is also the home of the National School of Folklore Arts.

Bachkovo Monastery (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Situated at the foot of the forested slopes of the Rhodope Mountains, the Bachkovo Monastery lies with its serene courtyards filled with flowerbeds, exotic trees and drinking fountains. The monastery was founded in 1083 by Grigori and Abbasi Bakouriani, Georgian brothers who were commanders in the Byzantine army. In the 13th century, the monastery was sponsored by Tsar Ivan Assen II and his successor Ivan Aleksander. Destroyed by the Ottomans in the 16th century, it was restored by the 17th century and has been designated a world heritage site by UNESCO.

Day 8: Plovdiv
Revel today in the streets of Plovdid, starting this morning with a guided city tour within its romantic old town packed with colourful and creaky 19th century mansions. Visit the exquisite merchant house of Stepan Hindlian, built in 1835 and kept as original, walk by the impressive marble Roman amphitheatre, and enter the Cuma Cammi Mosque, dated from 1364. This afternoon is at your own leisure to explore the countless galleries, artisan’s workshops, and cafes hidden in the meandering cobblestone streets. Stunning views over Plovdid at sunset are not to be missed from the vantage point of Nebet Tepe. This evening, meet up with your guide again for a memorable dinner in a 19th century Dervish monastery now operating as a restaurant right in the heart of old Plovdiv. Overnight Evmolpia Boutique Hotel or similar. (BD)

Plovdiv (European Capital of Culture 2019)
Plovdiv (a.k.a. Philippopolis) was founded by Philipp the Great, father of Alexander, known under the same title. Plovdiv’s geographic position made it a glorious centre of trade in beween Europe and the far/middle East over the centuries. Plovdiv old wealthy merchant’s homes were crafted by the most skilled artisans of the time and present probably the finest display of 18th and 19th century architecture in the Balkans. In addition, one of the world’s best-preserved ancient theatres is located in the city centre, and was constructed during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD). Like Rome, Plovdiv straddles seven hills but as Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city, it is far more ancient.

Day 9: Plovdiv – Karlovo – Kalofer (Approx. driving time today: 1.5 hours)
Leaving Plovdiv and the Rhodopes Mountains behind, depart for the town of Karlovo, following the footprints of the 19th century revolutionary Vasil Levski. On arrival, take a walk in the old part of the city, protected as an architectural reserve and visit two of the most remarkable houses in the town. In Pateva House, enjoy for the first time the magic of locally produced roses and herbs, while in Buhalov Khan House we learn about the traditional art crafts and drink a Turkish coffee prepared on sand. Continue to the 15th century old Kurshum Mosque (literally meaning the “Bullet” mosque), named after its leaden roof and later, stop for local cheese tasting at a dairy shop before arriving in the city of Kalofer. Overnight Iliikova Guest House or similar. (BL)

Day 10: Kalofer Eco-trek walk – Kazanlak – Kalofer (Approx. driving time today: 1.5 hours)
After an early breakfast, start our morning at the heart of the Balkan Mountains with a scenic 1.5 hours walk (round-trip on marked path with a few stairs and moderate uphill – comfortable walking shoes with good grip recommended) above the White River crossing numerous wooden bridges. The views are spectacular and keep a close out for local flora and fauna. Later on, depart to the city of Kazanlak, famous for being the epicentre of the worldwide renowned Bulgarian rose oil production. Here we walk through the city Rose Park (Rosarium) and enter the recently opened Rose museum which gives excellent facts about the rose production. Later on, visit the superb Thracian tomb of Kazanlak, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. This royal tomb reveals great examples of Early Hellenic mural depictions. Following the stairs outside of the tomb, visit the Ethnographic museum for rose liquor and rose jam degustation in a peaceful atmosphere. Return to Kalofer for the night. Overnight Iliikova Guest House or similar. (BL)

Note: For those who do not wish to do the whole round-trip walk, it is possible to shorten the distance.

Day 11: Kalofer – Rose Valley - Sofia (Approx. driving time today: 2.5 hours)
After breakfast, pay a visit to a rose distillery in a local village. Nearby, stop at two micro-farms, where in one, observe the farmer producing white traditional cheese and in the other one, enjoy a nice break in the shadow of the trees at a small ostrich ranch. Later we continue back to Sofia and this evening enjoy a farewell dinner at a local restaurant. Overnight L’Opera Guest House or similar. (BLD)

Note: For those wishing to continue their tour to Romania, note that there is the option today to leave the group and transfer by car to Ruse, a privileged village located north from Kalofer. Please contact us for details.

The Valley of Roses
Framed by the lofty Balkan Mountains to the north and the dense forested Sredna Gora Hills to the south, the Valley of Roses is a predilected area of production of rose Damascena and Alba varieties. The valley is names after the rose plantations which for centuries have supplied Bulgaria’s rose-oil industry. Today, 85% of the world’s rose oil production originates from here and the Valley of Roses is a popular destination, especially during the harvest season in late May – mid June.

Day 12: Departure from Sofia
The final day is at leisure until your transfer to the airport and you onward flight. If time allows you may wish to spend some more time wandering in the streets and observing the monuments of the capital. (B)

Tour Inclusions / Exclusions

Arrival and departure airport transfers
All accommodation as per the itinerary or similar
Land transportation
Services of an English-speaking guide/tour leader - we have a combined driver/guide for groups of three or less.
Meals as listed (B – Breakfast, L – Lunch, D – Dinner)
Entrance fees for sites as listed as part of the itinerary
Walking poles
Water reservoir in the vehicle and reusable flask for the time of the tour

International flights
Travel Insurance
Items of a personal nature
Activities mentioned as optional in the itinerary
Visa if applicable
Tips (discretionary)