Touring holidays to Bulgaria and Romania

Kieran Meeke / 24 July 2017

Linked by a common border along the River Danube, Bulgaria and Romania have much in common. A shared history, characterful towns, wild nature and a warm welcome for strangers make the two a fascinating combination to explore.



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People

Bulgaria and Romania both gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 but were on opposing sides in World War I.

During the WWII, they both fought on the side of Nazi Germany and fell under Soviet Communist rule afterwards.

Romania’s notorious dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in 1989 and Bulgaria held its first democratic elections in 1990, with Romania following in 1996.

Both countries are predominantly Eastern Orthodox. They joined NATO in 2004 and then the EU in 2007.

The legacy of Communism has been hard to throw off but, while still poor, the two countries have higher per capita incomes than many of their Balkan neighbours but the thriving underground economy means both are better off than the figures imply.

Romania, sharing a border with countries such as Hungary and Ukraine, has a more European population. Bulgaria is closer to its Balkan neighbours and you might detect more Mediterranean features in its people.

The similarities are strong however, and both peoples hide warm hearts under a somewhat wary exterior. Small talk is not common, so don’t expect a greeting in a shop, but most visitors return with stories of outbursts of hospitality that make them wish to return.

Visit two vibrant capitals, and discover ancient sites, historic castles, tranquil monasteries and magnificent cathedrals Find out more here.

Language and culture

Even with their shared history on opposite sides of the River Danube along a long common border, the similarities do not include language.

Romania, as its name implies, was long occupied by the Romans and their Latin-based language has more in common with Italian (especially Sicilian) than Bulgarian.

Bulgaria, less isolated by mountains than Romania, was more open to Slavic influence. Their language’s closest relative is perhaps Serbian but it even has links to Polish and uses the Cyrillic alphabet.

However, most British visitors will have little problem finding an English speaker, particularly among younger people as it’s commonly studied as a second language. Older people will understand Russian.

Be aware that Bulgarians shake their head for “Yes” and nod for “No”.

Southern Romania and Northern Bulgaria in particular share much common culture, especially in folk music and some folk customs. Much of these links can be traced back to Roman times but the Ottomans also left a joint legacy. 

Bulgaria’s “chalga” pop-folk music, with its scantily clad dancers, might well remind you of Turkey and is also related to Romania’s “manele” music.

The River Danube was more of a connection than a border, particularly in older centuries, and you will see many other similarities in the style of mountain villages and farming practises.

The biggest difference may be in religion, with Bulgaria being more secular despite having an older population.

Must-see sights in Romania

Bucharest is most famous for its enormous People’s Palace, the second largest government building in the world (after the Pentagon). With 1,000 rooms, you will need a guided tour to see even a fraction of it.

The capital feels strongly European, with a strong cultural life and a thriving Old Town.

Don’t miss the open-air Village Museum in Herastrau park and Bellu Cemetery with its ornate tombs.

The Carpathian Mountains are a great place to hike, a vast expanse of wilderness that is home to bears and wolves. Horse-riders will be among others who enjoy the Danube Delta, glacial lakes or the longest volcanic mountain chain in Europe.

Transylvania is a forested region in central Romania, hemmed in by the Carpathian Mountains. Its remoteness made it a safe refuge in a war-torn region and it has many castles, most notably the “Dracula” clifftop Bran Castle.

Sighisoara is another photo-worthy hilltop fortress in Transylvania that is Unesco recognised, while the village of Viscri has a notable fortified church with dramatic views. Prince Charles bought a property in the village to help support traditional arts and crafts.

The Danube Delta is a favourite of birdwatchers, with some 300 species including egrets, Dalmatian pelicans and ibises. It is a major biosphere reserve and Europe's largest wetland, formed where the Danube flows into the Black Sea.

Maramures is a beautiful untouched region of hills and peasant villages, one of Europe’s undiscovered wonders. It is noted for its Unesco-listed wooden churches, some dating to the 14th century, if not earlier. 

The church in Surdesti is among the most striking, with one of the tallest wooden steeples in Europe.

Bordering Ukraine, the region of Bucovina is famed for its monasteries, which are painted with murals both inside and out. These frescoes date back to the 15th century and show both Old and New Testament scenes.

The Transfagarasan road has been made famous from its appearance on BBC’s “Top Gear”. Open only from July to October, it winds down through the mountains in a series of dramatic horseshoe bends for some 90 miles in the Transylvanian Alps. 

Bear in mind than the speed limit is actually 24 mph for safety!

Must see sights in Bulgaria

Sofia is centred on St. Alexander Nevski Square and the dramatic golden domes of Alexander Nevski Cathedral. 

A walk from there will take you through most of the city’s sights, ending where the Banya Bashi Mosque, Sofia Synagogue, Catholic Cathedral of St Joseph and Orthodox Church of St Nedelya all stand together.

A top draw in Sofia is the Central Mineral Baths. Mount Vitosha, which, overlooking the city, offers brilliant hiking and skiing.

Varna is among the many Black Sea resorts that also specialise in spa treatments, including medicinal mud baths. 

Its waterfront promenade is lined with clubs where you can experience Bulgarian chalga, rock and, of course, hip-hop but it is also noted for its churches, Archaeological Museum and Roman remains. It’s a pleasant contrast to busier international resorts such as Sunny Beach.

Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, has an Old Town that dates back to Roman times. The Roman amphitheatre is only one of the historic structures that take you through the ages to the colourful Bulgarian Renaissance style of architecture.

The Rhodope Mountains offer a good mix of hikes of different standards along with a chance to experience local culture in the guesthouses of its traditional villages of the south. 

Hiking is growing in popularity throughout Bulgaria and there is a great variety available, in both length and difficulty.

The Rila Mountains form the highest range in the Balkans and are noted for their pretty Seven Lakes, which are among 200 glacial lakes in total. 

Rila National Park surrounds Mt Musala, the country’s highest at almost 10,00 feet, and offers the chance to see wild deer and a rich birdlife.

Rila Monastery is a good day trip from Sofia and stands in a picturesque wooded landscape, with a snow-tipped mountain backdrop. Its Eastern Orthodox architecture, with black and white arches and five domes, is striking as are its Byzantine frescoes. 

Food and drink

In Romania's cuisine, you will detect influences from Ottoman Turkey – and possibly Rome before that – as well as its northern European neighbours in Hungary and Austria. Bulgaria adds its Balkan and Mediterranean neighbours to the mix.

A typical Romanian meal will feature polenta (called mamaliga) and rich stews, with lots of meat. Pork is the most common, followed by beef. 

Stuffed cabbage or peppers, sausages and dishes such as moussaka are also popular. Soup and salad are a given (in both countries), along with bread.

Romanian desserts include crepes and pastries, and baklava.

Bulgaria’s cuisine is very similar with also reflects the greater variety of its landscape, from warm Black Sea coast to wintry mountains. White cheese and yoghurt are prime ingredients, as is lamb – look out for a “cheverme”, whole roast lamb on a spit.

A typical Bulgarian meal might be a mixed grill of kebabs and meatballs, or a slow-cooked “gyuvech” stew of beef, onions peppers and mushroom, with dumplings and cheese.

Beer is popular and few meals in Romanian or Bulgaria don’t include a starting tot of the regional plum brandy or rakia.

Bulgarian cabernet sauvignon was at one point the best selling cheap wine in the UK, with Romanian pinot noir not far behind, but their industries collapsed with the end of Communism.

Investment in modern techniques is slowly rebuilding their reputation and you will find some surprises on local wine lists, among them Bulgaria’s mavrud grape variety.

Health and safety

The biggest hazards are bad driving and potholed roads. Tampering with ATMs and pickpocketing in crowded areas and on public transport are also a concern in bigger towns and cities. 

A good tip is to use the ATM in your hotel or inside a major bank.

In remote country areas, packs of stray dogs can also be dangerous but this is not much of a risk to most visitors. Don’t photograph military installations in either country; it is illegal. 

Drug laws are strict, as is drink-driving enforcement.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.