Road trip: From Varna to Burgas

If you are looking for more than a day at the beach with a bit of casino, the Bulgarian Riviera has much more to offer. Here are some of our favorite highlights from a week-long road trip between Varna to Burgas.

Peaceful villages, folklore, rock-hewn monasteries, spectacular resorts, world-class spas and golf courses, stunning botanical gardens, safaris, and catamaran cruises alongside frolicking dolphins, as well as one ornate castle and a surprising museum; these are but a few attractions to enjoy on a road trip from Varna to Burgas. Save these sights and activities for your next visit to the lovely Land of Roses.

A botanical garden, a historic winery, and a small palace

At the beautiful coastal town of Balchik, just 45-minutes north of Varna, lies the largest botanical garden in Bulgaria. At the entrance, you might think to yourselves, “Is that it? It’s just a bunch of flower beds and a greenhouse.” But go a little deeper, and you will be rewarded with an impressive view of the sea, not to mention some beautiful hidden corners and cascading waterfalls.

Balchik Botanical Garden. Photo: Inga Michaeli

There is also wine tasting at an ancient winery, and don’t miss out on the delightful summer palace of Queen Maria of Romania. To complete your visit to Balchik, have lunch at one of the seafood restaurants along the promenade.

Arts and crafts and a rock-hewn monastery

Just before you arrive in Balchik, do yourselves a favor and stop at Mildov Ceramics, a pottery workshop where this uniquely Bulgarian tradition is passed down from father to son. Ask for a short demonstration, and you will see how they create those lovely wares you will see in any souvenir shop. You can also walk around the beautiful garden, and of course, buy some souvenirs in the colorful shop.

Aladzha Monastery. Photo: Inga Michaeli

Another surprise awaits closer to Varna, just a short drive from the seaside resort town of Golden Sands. Amid the lush landscapes of a nature park with walking trails, you can visit the hidden Aladzha Monastery, carved into a 25-meter-high vertical karst cliff. A community of monks lived here from the 12th century, and today you can climb all the way up, get a glimpse of the monks’ cells and their austere lifestyle, and check out the beautiful view over the treetops.

Golf by the Black Sea

I have to say I was a bit skeptical, but then we got to Black Sea Rama, an 18-hole golf course not far from Balchik. It is impossible not to fall in love with the manicured lawns overlooking the sea, the tastefully decorated golf club (boasting four restaurants), the private villas, the modern-style boutique hotel, the spa (with both indoor and outdoor pools), and the chic atmosphere of a world-class resort. So if you’re looking for the wow factor, this is the place for you.

Black Sea Rama. Photo: Inga Michaeli

A safari, some local food, and an open museum

In the small village of Kalimantsi, we were greeted by Countryside Track and went on an off-road safari through the hills above Varna, driving alongside cows and flocks of sheep. We stopped for a taste of homemade rakia and honey, then visited the beautiful ethnographic complex of Kalimanski Khan.

If you’re traveling with children, this fairytale garden has horses and a large parrot cage, a wooden playground, a picturesque chapel, a simple restaurant filled with rural artifacts, and very basic rooms for rent (around $30 per night).

A World Heritage site and sailing with dolphins

Nessebar, just 40-minutes north of Burgas (very close to Sunny Beach), is an ancient town built on a tiny island, just 2800 ft long and 1000 ft wide. Founded at the end of the second millennium BC, it was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and boasts many historic buildings, from traditional wooden houses to churches.

Nessebar World Heritage Site. Photo: Inga Michaeli

Allow some time to wander the streets, buy souvenirs and enjoy a leisurely lunch at one of the many fish restaurants. And if you have another couple of hours to spare, I highly recommend booking a catamaran cruise; if you are lucky, you might also have an up-close encounter with frolicking dolphins.

Sozopol: Photo: Inga Michaeli

An Italianate town and a fairytale castle

The beautiful Sozopol is another ancient and impressive town, as colorful as Nessebar, with a lovely promenade overhanging a rocky beach, with traditional wooden houses and an Italian atmosphere. Leave time for lunch at the atmospheric Windmill Restaurant, offering fresh and flavorful food, not to mention some fine sea views.

Just outside the town, and literally in the middle of nowhere, you can visit the fairytale Castle of Ravadinovo, built by a local entrepreneur who hired a dozen Romani to bring his dream alive.

Fairyland Castle of Ravadinovo. Photo: Inga Michaeli

The result is somewhat over-the-top, surrounded by lush grounds and filled with ornate statues, a topiary garden, and many follies. The atmosphere is reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast; still, you can definitely spend a couple of hours exploring every nook and cranny, especially if you are traveling with children or maintaining an Instagram account.

An atmospheric beach and excellent spa

If the mini-Vegas vibe (emphasis on “mini”) at the Golden Sands resort is less than appealing, you will find a more relaxed and upscale resort, Saints Constantine & Helena, closer to Varna.

We stayed at the excellent Astor Garden Hotel (the only downside for me was the buffet), but you can choose from a wide range of hotels in this resort town. If you are ready to splurge, I would highly recommend booking the Villa Chinka, a beautiful boutique hotel sharing the same impressive beach as the Astor Garden.

Astor Garden Hotel. Photo: Inga Michaeli

Both hotels will also give you access to the vast Aquahouse Thermal spa complex, with large, small, and semi-private pools, as well as saunas, hot tubs, and treatment rooms.

A surprising museum

Last but not least is a very surprising museum, unlikely located in the Grand Mall of Varna. The Retro Museum focuses on 1944-1989, offering an extensive collection of vintage cars and all manner of objects and appliances from those years. An excellent place for history buffs, car collectors, and families.

The Retro Museum. Photo: Inga Michaeli

The author was a guest of the Bulgarian Tourism Board and would like to thank Mr. Orlin Mendov, Honorary Consul of Israel in Bulgaria; Emiliya Stefanova from APRA Porter Novelli; and our excellent Hebrew speaking guide, Tony.


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