With limited funds and a (somewhat understandable) suspicion of any centralized bureau, a state-funded tourism body for Bulgaria does not at present exist, nor does a tourism-oriented ethos. There are, however, a number of websites professing to be independent travel advisors. Of these, www.discover-bulgaria.com is the best for general information. Sofia-based Zig Zag (tel. 02/980 5102; www.zigzagbg.com) is an excellent independent advice bureau and offers a range of services. If you're particularly interested in monasteries, Alder Travel specializes in tours to these (www.alder-tansport.com or www.bulgarianmonasteries.com). Other recommended tour operators offering general information on their websites are www.andantetravels.com and www.alexandertour.com. For up-to-date political and economic news on Bulgaria, check out www.sofiaecho.com, the country's English-language weekly newspaper, staffed by a group of enthusiastic expats and opinionated Bulgarians.
Tour Guides on Call -- With English-speaking guides and useful leaflets rather thin on the ground, there is a welcome service launched by local cellphone operator Globul. Look for large brown signboards at popular sites headed with "CALL AND LEARN MORE ABOUT . . . "; dial the number and a recorded voice provides you with background information about the site. Cost of the call is 1.20lev ($1.50/95p), 30% of which goes toward upkeep of the site; information lasts about 3 minutes.
Documents -- Citizens of the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K. may visit visa-free for 30 days in any 6-month period, as long as their passport is valid for 3 months beyond their stay. Travelers can import an unlimited amount of cash, but if it exceeds 4,000€/$5,080, the sum must be declared, as it is against the law to export more than you import. The quotas for duty-free import and export of goods for noncommercial use are generally the same as in E.U. countries; note that valuable antiques, artworks, or coins need a permit issued by the Ministry of Culture.
Upon arrival visitors are supposed to register with the local police within 5 days -- most hotels will do this paperwork for you, providing you with a registration slip, which you should keep with your passport for when you depart. Officially you are liable to be fined should the authorities demand to see this before you leave the country, but as a short-term visitor you are unlikely to encounter any problems, and there is talk of phasing this out.
Embassies -- The U.S. embassy is at 16 Kozyak St. (tel. 02/937 5100 or 02/963-2022; http://bulgaria.usembassy.gov). For citizens of the U.K., head to 9 Moskovska St. (tel. 02/9343-9222; www.british-embassy.bg). The Canadian consulate can be reached at tel. 02/943-370, while the Australian consulate can be reached at tel. 02/946-1334.
Regardless of what the tourist literature may tell you about credit cards being widely accepted, please note that outside of Sofia, they certainly are not. Always carry cash. The local currency is known as the lev or leva (BGN). One lev is made up of 100 stotinki (in denominations of 10, 20, and 50). The national currency currently is tied to the euro at a fixed rate of almost 2lev = 1€. Euros are almost universally accepted; the dollar, being a less stable rate, is less popular (conversions here are worked at a 1€=$1.27 and $1=1.24lev rate). Banks are the best place to exchange other currency, or draw money on your cards (exchange bureaus charges are usually higher). There are plenty of functioning ATMs in cities and medium-size towns. As credit cards are usually not accepted outside of the big cities (and even where they are, it's worth knowing that MasterCard and Visa are more widely so), it is probably ideal to carry a combination of euro traveler's checks and card(s) to make periodic ATM transactions -- look out for the latest FNB machines, as these now allow a 400lev ($253/£157) withdrawal in one go (and three in succession). At press time, the exchange rates for 10lev roughly equaled $8.09 or £4.05. Many hotels list rates in euros -- in those instances, we only list euro and U.S. dollar amounts at an exchange of 1€ to $1.27.
When To Go
With four clearly defined seasons, what you do depends on what time of the year you visit, and -- given altitude ranges from sea level to 2,000m (6,560 ft.) -- where in Bulgaria you're heading. The best time to visit from a scenic and cuisine point of view is June, when the markets are full of fresh produce; or during September for the fall colors. July and August tend to be hot, sometimes uncomfortably so (average is around 86°F/30°C, but the temperature can be in excess of 104°F/40°C). This is when people traditionally flee Sofia and Plovdiv, seeking respite in the cooler mountain villages and on the crowded coast. Bulgaria is not worth visiting in winter unless you go for the snow; skiing season runs from December to March.
Shops, museums, and banks are closed January 1 (New Year's Day), March 3 (Liberation of Bulgaria), Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, May 1 (Labor Day), May 6 (St. George's Day), May 24 (Saints Cyril and Methodius Day, aka Day of Slavonic Education and Culture), September 6 (Unification Day), September 22 (Independence Day), and December 24, 25, and 26 (Christmas).
Major Festivals in Bulgaria -- The Bulgarian calendar features numerous festivals throughout the year, particularly in the rural areas, but the following are worth noting. The Kukeri Festival is visually arresting: Villagers don terrifying outfits to ward off the demons that stalk the earth. It is celebrated in the southwest on New Year's Eve, January 1, or January 14 (and sometimes in March). Velikden (Easter) is the most important holiday in the Orthodox Church, and services with huge attendances are deeply moving. The main service takes place on Saturday night when priests emerge from behind the iconostasis with blazing candelabra and the congregation follows. The whole group walks around the church three times in celebration of the resurrection. The hugely popular but overrated Festival of Roses is celebrated in early June in the town of Kazanlak. The Sofia Music Weeks usually take place late May to early June and are a must for classical music lovers, as is the symphonic musical festival held in Plovdiv in mid-June. Jazz is added to the lineup for the Varna Summer Festival (mid-June to mid-Aug) and Sozopol's Appollonia Festival (early Sept).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.