Bulgaria, which was founded in 681 A.D., is the oldest state in Europe, but its roots reach far deeper into the past. In tombs adorned with frescoes and bas-reliefs in the Valley of the Kings, archaeologists continue to discover beautifully worked golden objects buried with Bulgaria's Thracian forebears, some dating to 3000 B.C. Uncovering the countless burial mounds that dot central Bulgaria is a process started in earnest just a decade ago. In that short time, it has become clear that Bulgaria once was home to the world's most sophisticated goldsmiths. The discoveries also have prompted local claims that it was here, in the shadow of the Balkan Mountains, that Europe's first civilization was born.

Traversing Bulgaria's mountain ranges, which are carpeted with ancient forests and carved by mineral-rich rivers, you can see why the country's sophisticated warrior-artists chose to settle in its fertile plains. Bulgaria is a fascinating country, with a temperate climate that is more southern European than eastern. It is this gentle climate, along with a sweeping, sandy beach bordering the Black Sea coastline, that continues to attract new visitors, the vast majority of whom arrive in high summer.

Most of Bulgaria's unique treasures lie hidden in the ancient tombs of the Valley of the Kings; in the mixture of Bulgarian Renaissance architecture and ancient Roman ruins lining the cobbled streets of Plovdiv; in the medieval university town of Veliko Tarnovo that rises precipitously from limestone cliffs above the winding Yantra River; and in the architectural museum towns snuggled deep in Bulgaria's mountains. It is particularly the latter, their narrow cobbled lanes and alleys lined with 19th-century stone-and-timber homes, that define Bulgaria as an undiscovered gem.

Getting to the villages is an adventure as you snake along empty roads edged with high embankments billowing with red poppies and white elder flowers. You'll inevitably pass women in patterned headscarves tilling fields by hand, and wizened old men driving horse-drawn carts piled with hillocks of hay so huge you can't see their wheels. It's Bulgaria at its unspoiled best, a cache of natural beauty and ancient history, comfortable accommodations, and fresh cuisine in surroundings that show few signs of the so-called advances of the 21st century. It's no surprise that Bulgaria's tourism is on the increase, albeit it slowly, with 7.7 million visitors now including this unpolished Balkan jewel in their Eastern European itineraries. With a lack of tourism infrastructure, shockingly uneven service levels, and a foreign alphabet, Bulgaria may not be the easiest destination to master, but armed with this chapter, it will provide some of the most authentic experiences Eastern Europe has to offer.

Regions in Bulgaria

Black Sea Coast

Bulgarian Black Sea Coast forms the eastern edge of the country. It is full of relatively undiscovered resort towns, as well as large industrial port cities such as Burgas and Varna. Nesebar is a beautiuful... read more

Central Northern Bulgaria

Central Northern Bulgaria is full of cities with turn-of-the-20th-century architecture such as Lovech and Rousse that lie along great rivers such as the Danube. As you approach the Black Coastal region you... read more

Central Southern Bulgaria

Central Southern Bulgaria is dominated by the Northern Thrace area. It is full of plains through which the Maritsa River and its tributaries wind. It is also the home of many ancient Thracian sites and the... read more

Northern Bulgaria

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Sofia Province

Sophia Province borders three sides of the capital Sophia but does not include the city. The land is predominantly mountainous; the southern slopes of the Balkan Mountains lie to the north and to the south... read more

Southwestern Bulgaria

Sofia might be the country's commerce center, but the headiest rush is to be had while traveling into the mountainous landscape that defines much of southwestern Bulgaria. From the soaring snowcapped peaks... read more

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