As a still off-the-radar destination, Bulgaria is often overlooked. When foreigners set foot in the country, they follow a few main routes and rarely step beyond Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, Sozopol, Sunny Beach or Bansko. Yet, Bulgaria has many hidden gems available to the curious traveler. Follow this guide to discover smaller, non-touristy towns that are worth visiting.
Stara Zagora is a neat and green city (it was built with all streets perpendicular) built on top of the Roman autonomous city Augusta Traiana. You can see a few remains of the Roman past of the city — like the Augusta Traiana Antique Forum (restored and used as a stage for opera and theatrical performances in the summer) and the History Museum (built on the ruins of the main street of Augusta Traiana, Cardo Maximus, which is displayed as it used to look like in the basement level of the museum). The city park Ayazmoto is one of the most beautiful in Bulgaria with a house of mirrors in it.
Gabrovo has two unique museums: The House of Humor and Satire with a huge collection of humorous art and jokes from all over the world and the Interactive Museum of Industry, telling the history of the trade in the area and letting you interact many aspects of the story (for example, you can create your own mini explosion). A little bit out of the town, the biggest open-air ethnographic museum, Etar, is situated. You will walk among models of old-time houses, see how clothes were washed and grain was ground using the power of water, and you will follow the sweet smell of freshly baked bread called simid to travel back in time through all your senses. If you are interested in ancient crafts, you can sing up for a course and make a little something for yourself.
Melnik is officially the smallest town in Bulgaria with a population of a little over 300 people. There are at least two good reasons to visit it. Firstly, because it is located in the heart of the Melnik Wine Region, you can taste some of the best local wines in the town itself, where many locals sell their homemade wine. The nearby wineries are open for vineyard tours and wine tastings. You can download the Melnik Wine Route map and explore the beautiful landscapes of the Bulgarian Southwest. The second reason is the wonderful white Melnik Earth Pyramids surrounding the town; they offer a sort of fairy tale atmosphere to the place.
Ruse is a perfect base for a four- to five-day stay exploring both cultural and natural sites. Being the largest city on the Danube River and only 50 kilometeres away from Bucharest, the capital of Romania, Ruse, is a lively place compared to most cities in northern Bulgaria. While you are in Ruse, visit the Eco Museum & Aquarium — featuring a life-size mammoth model — stroll along the pedestrianized Alexandrovska Street, feast on fish and chips on the Danube banks and find a cool refuge in the pristine parks. Rent a car to explore the region and visit the UNESCO-protected Ivanovo rock-hewn churches, the Basarbovo rock monastery, Rusenski Lom Natural Park or the fortress of Cherven.
Kardzhali is a perfect place to stay if you want to explore the Thracian relics in the Rhodope Mountains — which includes the Thracian cities of Perperikon and Tatul — or the rock-hewn Thracian sanctuaries (near the villages of Dazhdovnitsa and Nochevo). The Devil’s Bridge near the town of Ardino is also close by along with the rock formations called the Stone Wedding and the Stone Mushrooms. Nature lovers will enjoy a day rowing in Kardzhali Reservoir or Studen Kladenets Reservoir. When in Kardzhali, be in the pedestrian zone of the town at noon to hear the Clock Tower play a famous revolutionary song or enjoy the History Museum where you can explore the archaeological finds from the Thracian cities.