On holiday in the 'unhappiest' place in Europe

Bulgaria, Black Sea Coast, Sozopol, town beach
Home to golden beaches and buzzing cities, Bulgaria should feature on your 2024 must-visit list - Stone RF/Getty

Data gurus at Eurostat may have declared Bulgaria the unhappiest country in Europe after a recent poll, but the survey – which analysed levels of life satisfaction across the continent – only tells part of the story.

Whether you’re looking for golden beaches lapped by the Black Sea, cities buzzing with creativity and echoes of history, or snow-capped mountains, Bulgaria should certainly feature on your 2024 “must-visit” list. What’s more, it’s easily accessible from the UK (flights take just over three hours), and eminently affordable.

All that’s left to do is pack your bags – will it be swimsuits for Sozopol, thermals for skiing in Bansko or comfy shoes for exploring the streets of Sofia and Plovdiv? Read on and take your pick.

Delve into history and café culture in Sofia

Unsurprisingly (and not just because its airport is the best connected by a country mile), many a Bulgarian odyssey begins in the capital, Sofia – already an up-and-coming city-break destination.

Vitosha Boulevard, Sofia, Bulgaria
The capital Sofia is already an up-and-coming city-break destination - Alamy

When it comes to heritage-rich European capitals, it’s no Rome, Athens or Paris – but Sofia nevertheless holds its own in the history stakes. This dynamic city may have only become a capital in 1879, but its history pre-dates the accolade by some 7,000 years – making it one of the oldest cities in Europe. Traces of Sofia’s past range from the Neo-Byzantine architecture of the iconic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, whose domes have become symbolic of the city, to the Ottoman-era Banya Bashi Mosque and Ancient Serdica Archaeological Park, which showcases the remains of the Roman city. Must-visit museums include the Sofia Historical Museum, housed in the former city baths, and the National Archaeological Institute.

In terms of more recent history, those intrigued by the legacy of the Soviet Union – from which Bulgaria gained independence in 1991 – will find much of interest here, too: both the National Palace of Culture, Largo (an architectural trio made up of the former Bulgarian Communist Party headquarters, the TZUM-Sofia Central Department Store and the president’s office), and the Museum of Socialist Art (packed with Socialist-era statues and artworks) offer a taste of communist-era Sofia.

Palace of Justice, Vitosha Boulevard, central Sofia, Bulgaria, Europe
History or politics enthusiasts will discover plenty of intriguing sites and attractions in Sofia - Alamy

Having taken a stroll in the City Garden or forested Borisova Gradina Park, get a taste of Sofia’s contemporary flair (and perhaps a coffee or rakia fruit brandy) on Vitosha Boulevard, a bustling pedestrian street lined with trendy boutiques, cafés, and restaurants. Popular eateries for local flavours include the rustic Hadjidraganov’s Cellars and traditional-yet-creative Cosmos. Don’t leave without soaking up the cosy atmosphere at café-restaurants Made In Home and The Little Things.

Fall in love with Bulgaria’s cultural capital

When it comes to historical accolades, Sofia faces stiff competition from its little sister, Plovdiv, which claims to be the oldest continually inhabited city in Europe. Set roughly 85 miles southeast of the capital, it’s easily accessible by train from Sofia (there are a few direct flights from the UK, too), and was named Bulgaria’s first ever European Capital of Culture in 2019.

The heart of Plovdiv is its captivating Old Town, a labyrinth of cobblestone streets lined with impeccably restored 19th-century houses. Older still is the Ancient Theatre of Philippopolis – a well-preserved testament to the city’s Roman past constructed in the first century AD – which offers panoramic views of the surrounding hills and still stages classical dramas, dance performances and music.

Roman amphitheatre in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
The Ancient Theatre of Philippopolis in Plovdiv was constructed in the first century AD - Alamy

Contemporary Plovdiv, meanwhile, is all about creativity – not least in the Kapana district, a lively area filled with artistic spaces, boutique stores, cafés and some of the city’s most striking street art. Home to the Dzhumaya Mosque, it’s perhaps in Kapana that Plovdiv’s marriage of centuries-long heritage, diverse cultural influences (the result of multiple imperial powers) and innovative outlook is most spectacular.

Arts enthusiasts should start their tour at the City Art Gallery (with locations in the Old Town, near the leafy Tsar Simeon Garden Park, and on the bustling King Alexander I shopping street) before discovering contemporary works at Sarieva and both Bulgarian and international artists at Kapana Art Gallery. And you needn’t stop when evening falls: the Arsenal of Art is a lovely spot to enjoy a cold beer or two surrounded by art, and often live music too.

Hit the slopes in Bansko and Borovets

Skiing is famously not a cheap holiday, but looking past Verbier and Courchevel in favour of Bulgaria’s mountain resorts inevitably makes for a winter break that’s kinder to the bank balance.

If you’re keen not to head too far from the capital, opt for Borovets. Just over an hour’s drive from Sofia, here you’ll find snow-capped pine forests presiding over more than 35 miles of slopes. There’s plenty of space for freestylers at the Borosport Snow Park, and with traditional Balkan taverns and bars, the après-ski options give their French counterparts a run for their money, too.

Ski resort Borovets, Bulgaria
The ski resort of Borovets is just over an hour’s drive from Sofia - Alamy

But when it comes to Bulgarian ski resorts, it’s really all about Bansko. Further from Sofia (around a two-hour drive), it’s regarded as the Balkans’ premier ski and winter sports resort, and well worth the extra distance – it has, after all, hosted the alpine skiing and snowboarding World Cups on more than one occasion. There are more than 45 miles of slopes, plus the natural beauty of the Pirin National Park and even a Unesco-listed medieval town. If you’d rather swap skis for walking boots, visit Pirin in summer for hikes to Vihren Peak and Muratovo glacial lake.

Soak up the sun on the Black Sea Coast

Greece may have the Aegean and Ionian, but Bulgaria has the Black Sea – and with average July temperatures of around 23C, it makes just as fine a spot for a beach holiday. The seaside resorts of Sunny Beach and Golden Sands, easily accessible via direct flights to Burgas and Varna respectively, get most of the attention – but to add a dose of culture to your beach break, it’s worth considering the port towns of Nessebar and Sozopol instead.

Sozopol, Bulgaria
The port town of Sozopol sits on the beautiful Black Sea - Alamy

Both have inviting beaches, but also atmospheric old towns: a wander through Sozopol means exploring the fifth-century Sozopol fort, 18th-century Bulgarian Revival houses and the Archaeological Museum; while Nessebar’s cobbled streets are home to historic churches and ruins, including Byzantine-era fortifications and baths. Sozopol just pips Nessebar in late summer, however, when the Apollonia Festival of Arts sees film screenings, concerts and exhibitions take over the town.


Wizzair (wizzair.com) flies from UK airports to Sofia from £30 return. The Grand Hotel Sofia (00 359 2 811 0800; grandhotelsofia.bg) has double rooms from £103 per night.