Chalga music is one of the first things you have to understand in Bulgaria. The Middle Eastern-style genre with provocative lyrics is blasted from cars and bars and literally divides the nation: Bulgarians either love it or hate it. To decide for yourself which side you will be on, consider visiting a chalga club – a nightclub where only chalga is played. There are several in every Bulgarian town, just ask around for the best. Dancing to chalga means a lot of hip movements, belly dancing, throwing napkins in the air (a metaphor for throwing money) and heavy partying till dawn.
Until recently, weddings in Bulgaria were organized and paid for by the parents of the bride and groom. The guests were usually more than 200 (and often up to 500 or even more, especially in villages), which meant that the couple didn’t even know all the relatives of the parents of both sides. Wedding parties involved endless flows of drinks and food and a lot of dancing. This has largely changed in the past two decades, and now couples do their own thing, which means a wave of creativity has been unleashed and weddings can include any kind of entertainment from a golf game for all the guests to a wedding on a mountaintop.
Traditional celebrations take place throughout the year in Bulgaria, but one of the best events to join for the party atmosphere is the biggest Kukeri festival that takes place in the town of Pernik, half an hour from Sofia. Kukeri are bizarre local hairy monster characters whose role is to scare the evil spirits away by dancing with a set of heavy bells tied around their waists. The festival lasts several days and is usually held in February.
There is a solid society of hikers in Bulgaria whose favorite pastime is spending the weekends in mountain huts and chalets called hizha (hee-jah) in Bulgarian. Some chalets are accessible by car, while others require a lot of sweat to get to them. The nights at the chalets, however, are always fun – with hikers singing, playing games or dancing.
Krachma (crach-mah) is the Bulgarian word for a tavern. Unlike going to a bar, where you mainly focus on cocktails and whiskey, or a restaurant where you go to enjoy the food, a krachma is the place where you go to both drink and eat whether you’re celebrating a special occasion or not. These kind of venues are often unassuming and have cheap to moderate prices, although a krachma can also be decorated with traditional folklore motifs and objects. This is actually one of the best places to try traditional Bulgarian food without breaking the bank.
Summer is the season of music festivals in Bulgaria. Many new summer events pop up every year, but there are a few time-tested gatherings such as the free A to JazZ Festival in Sofia and the WakeUp! Festival in the mountains near Plovdiv. Summer festivals mean a more relaxed atmosphere during the day with activities such as yoga, treasure hunts and more, gradually escalating throughout the evening until the headliner hits the stage. Bring your colorful clothes and enjoy meeting new people and listening to good music under the stars.
Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, is more or less the only city that has a well-developed park culture. The biggest public parks (Borisova Gradina, South Park, Zaimov Park, North Park and others) are well maintained and full of people enjoying the good weather, playing with their kids, picnicking or just relaxing in hammocks hanging from trees. Instead of going to a bar, many people prefer to grab a beer and sit in the grass. In other big cities, such as Plovdiv (where drinking in parks and on the street is banned), Varna or Burgas, this ambience doesn’t really exist.