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Bulgaria Family Holidays & Breaks

The port of SozopolThe port of Sozopol© Barvinch | stockfreeimages.com & dreamstime.com
Skiing in the Rila Mountains, BorovetsSkiing in the Rila Mountains, Borovets© Snowturtle | stockfreeimages.com & dreamstime.com
Capital City Sofia
Flying Time 3.25hrs
Carbon Footprint 1.78 CO2
Timezone GMT +2
Currency Bulgarian Lev

Today

Overview

A decade ago the question ‘why Bulgaria?’ had a simple answer: its beach holidays were the cheapest in Europe. But those were the days of poorly renovated Soviet-era hotels and unappetising food. These days, with designer resorts and a deluge of international visitors, the answer is more complicated – it’s still cheap, but the range of destinations and accommodation is more diverse.

The vast majority of visitors fly straight to the Black Sea in the east, via two key airports: Varna and Burgas. The sea itself is less salty than the Mediterranean, and it has little in the way of tide or surf, which can be a big advantage for those considering a family holiday with small children. Also advantageous for young skin is the climate, which is consistently sunny but less hot than the Med. And while alcohol here is very cheap, the resorts have yet to be discovered by binge-drinking Brits.

Broadly speaking, the beaches around Varna (the main resort of which is Golden Sands) are steeper and the nightlife more noticeable than elsewhere, so these resorts tend to attract teenagers and young adults. Families with younger children head south instead, for the resorts around Burgas, particularly Sunny Beach.

Things to do with kids in Bulgaria

The vast majority of visitors remain on the Black Sea Coast, visiting other coastal towns and resorts. Varna, Bulgaria’s third city, is the most interesting of the big urbanisations on the shore, with an old-fashioned elegance and promenades leading down through parkland to the sea. It's worth hunting out its Roman baths and excellent archaeological museum, which helps make sense of the region’s historical background. The city has its own beach, and though it is not especially clean thanks to the proximity of the port, the shanty-town of clubs and bars is lively. A shuttle-bus runs between Golden Sands (see below) and the centre.

Burgas is less appealing and further away from most of the more southerly Black Sea resorts; tourists in the south tend to visit smaller coastal towns such as Nessebar, an ancient trading town on a spit of land, recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage site for the quality and quantity of its Byzantine and Ottoman buildings but unfortunately also close to Sunny Beach (see below), so crammed with tourists during the main part of the day. Less thronged is Sozopol, a former Thracian fishing settlement built out on a promontory into the Black Sea, now something of an artistic community, with narrow cobbled lanes and terraced restaurants with sea views.

Of the big Black Sea resorts, Golden Sands is the original playground of the apparatchik, set in sloping woodland and fronted by 3.5km of beach. Hotels are intricately packed side-by-side, which creates a convivial feeling. After dark, the main promenade comes alive with shows and there’s a jaunty, fairground atmosphere, with portrait artists, archery and shooting galleries, mechanical bucking bison, stalls where you paint your own ceramics, and photographer's studios that dress you in vintage clothes. The big discos are up in the woods behind. Resort-based kids’ activities include sports contests, puppet shows, pony-riding and discos, and there’s a slalom slide and water park, mini-golf, bouncy castles and mini-golf.

Sunny Beach, based around a 7km stretch of beach, is bigger, and although it has all the same attractions as Golden Sands, they are more widely spread, so visitors tend to stick to the vicinity of their own hotel. People-watching in the resorts can be highly entertaining, with young Scandinavians and Germans out and about in search of a party, and middle-aged Russians out and about in unfeasibly tight leopard-skin trousers. And there’s always likely to be a Cossack show or a troupe of whirling dervishes somewhere in the vicinity.

While the immediate hinterland to all the resorts is not especially interesting, Bulgaria has a couple of stunning mountain ranges with excellent hiking, wildlife and rural monasteries providing accommodation, as well as inexpensive beginner-to-intermediate winter skiing at Borovets and Pamporovo.

If you want to extend your family holiday by travelling inland, car rental is inexpensive but road signs are not so common and may well be in Cyrillic script, so you will need a good map. The best inland destination is Veliko Turnovo, a charismatic cobbled hilltop town that looks like something transported out of Tuscany, and that was once Bulgaria’s capital. Extensive ruins of the 5th-century Byzantine Tsarevets citadel encircle one of the hilltops, and several of the former palaces and merchants’ houses in town have been converted to galleries, restaurants and hotels.

For many centuries the dominant power in the region was the Ottoman empire, and indeed Istanbul is closer to the Black Sea coast than Sofia. During the season there are fast ferry services to the Turkish city from Black Sea resorts, usually selling packaged visits with one night’s accommodation included.

The Bulgarian capital Sofia, 500km from the coast, is essentially a business travel destination (Bulgarian culture and architecture took a bit of a pounding during Communism).

Eat

Frankly, you don’t come to Bulgaria for the food, but you’re unlikely to have a really bad meal over the course of your family holiday. Most resort restaurants have latched onto tourism staples such pizza and pasta, but among local specialities look out for kavarma, a sort of goulash of slow-cooked pork and vegetables in a clay pot, and Turkish-style grilled meats. In general, it’s best to avoid the fish.

They may not offer fine dining, but most of the bigger restaurants host some kind of good-quality cabaret act, doing Elvis, Abba and Tina Turner, at no extra cost. And you can spend as little as £10 a head for three courses with wine.

When to go to Bulgaria

Seaside temperatures in Bulgaria rise above 20°C from May to October and hover in the late 20s for most of June, July and August. The peak season is dictated by school holidays in Western Europe, with British, Scandinavians and Germans being the most noticeable groups in the better hotels and Eastern Europeans filling the two-star properties. Late June is ideal for young families; September tends to be dominated by more elderly visitors.

Cost

Despite modernisation, low prices remain one of Bulgaria's chief attractions as a family holiday destination.

By Andrew Eames

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