Look beyond Bulgaria’s mountains, monasteries and those budget-friendly ski resorts, and you’ll find nearly 250 miles of sun-drenched coastline, studded with a seemingly never-ending succession of sandy beaches.
Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast - all 220 miles of it - has swathes of golden sand and summer temperatures hovering comfortably in the high twenties, without quite reaching the extremes you might find further south in the Med. And the beaches are glorious (18 of them Blue Flag-certified), with enough variety to suit all tastes,with all-inclusive resorts, family-friendly swimming spots or something a bit more untamed, backed by salt marshes or rippling sand dunes.
Sun and sand aside, the other great selling point for the Bulgarian coast, of course, is the price – a holiday here is simply much, much cheaper than the French or Italian rivieras, or even Greece or Croatia – and easyJet has direct flights to both Varna and Burgas from the UK. Peak season on the Bulgarian riviera is July and August, but June and September are also lovely, with resorts generally less crowded. June’s balmy temperatures also make it one of the best months if you’re combining beach time with a walking holiday further inland.
Perhaps the most-famous resort on the Bulgarian coast is Sunny Beach, near Burgas, which lures travellers with its enormous stretch of sand and scores of big hotels – unsurprisingly, it’s also one of the coast’s most-crowded spots. Those seeking something a little quieter might want to look at some of the beaches further north, around Varna.
Take Albena, just north of the city. This resort town, backed by rolling forest, is an excellent choice for families, with a gently sloping sandy beach and plenty of facilities – White Lagoon sits on its own strip of fine pale sand, with doubles from £95 in September, all inclusive.
It makes a good base for discovering some of Bulgaria’s other coastal jewels: Bolata Beach, out a little further past Cape Kaliakra within the Kaliakra Nature Reserve, is a stunning crescent of sand enclosed within a steep-sided cove with reddish cliffs. There’s also Krapets, one of the quieter beaches further north, stretching up the coast from the small village of the same name towards the Romanian border, and backed by dunes. If you’re happy to swap sandy for rocky, head for the breathtaking cliffs at Tyulenovo, where the landscape includes a stupendous natural rock arch, and several underwater caves. The cliffs are popular for rock-climbing, and there are a few places to swim off the rocks (not advised in rough weather), or you can just hire a boat and explore the coast.
But it’s not all about kicking back on the sand; Bulgaria has culture in spades – and while some of its best-known historic sites might be further inland (Rila monastery, or the rock-hewn churches at Ivanovo, for instance) there’s also plenty to see within striking distance of the coast.
Take Sozopol – a fishing port with a lovely unspoilt centre. It’s crammed with 19th-century wooden houses (more accurately, they’re stone-walled and half-timbered at street level, with an upper storey of wood), but has a past that goes back much further, to the 7th century BC. Part of the town’s old fortress walls and tower have been beautifully restored, including the ancient granary, which has been converted into a museum. Blu Bay is one of the best hotels here, with sea-view doubles from £139, including breakfast.
A couple of hours’ drive north is Varna, the largest city on the Bulgarian coast. There’s a nice cosmopolitan feel here – a modern port offset by fascinating museums, good restaurants and extensive parks and gardens, all underpinned by stacks of history. The city’s second-century Roman baths are the largest in Bulgaria, and the excellent Museum of Archaeology is one of the country’s finest. The boutique Modus Hotel has doubles from £93, including breakfast, as well complementary bikes for exploring the beautifully landscaped Sea Garden.
Nearby is pretty Nessebar, a historic town squeezed onto a tiny peninsula, replete with Byzantine churches. A wander through the cobbled streets and squares is an enjoyable way while away a day – although due to its proximity to Sunny Beach, it does tend to get quite busy, so it’s worth coming early. Alternatively, check into the Meliá Sol Marina Palace, with doubles from £124, all inclusive.
And then there’s the food. Bulgarian cuisine is a delicious blend of influences, including a substantial nod to its long Ottoman heritage, and the region has a wine-making tradition stretching back over two millennia. Standout dishes include moussaka (the Bulgarian version uses layers of potato instead of aubergine), sarmi (cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat and rice), banitsa (baked filo pastry with layers of yogurt, egg and creamy white cheese), and tarator, a delicious chilled yogurt and cucumber soup. You’ll find plenty of seafood on the menu, too, from tasty fish soups to fresh local mussels, or a simple plate of fried sprats served with a wedge of lemon.
And how does it square up to the glitz of the French or Italian rivieras? You won’t find the same levels of in-your-face luxury accommodation and restaurants. But in terms of real value for money – miles and miles of golden sand, dependable sunshine, a warm welcome and accommodation to suit all budgets – Bulgaria takes some beating.