You can visit Sofia for its culture, Plovdiv for the colorful architecture of its Old Town, or Varna for its beaches, but you'd be wise to make your way into the mountains to discover the true beauty of Bulgaria.
We'll leave the prospect of overnight mountain-top accommodations in rustic alpine huts to more adventurous trekkers. Casual hikers and tourists will find plenty of wonders on a one-day hike into the Rila Mountains.
The Rila Mountains, part of the Rila National Park, are the highest range not only in Bulgaria, but in the entire Balkan Peninsula. The highest peak is Musala at 2,925 meters (9,596 feet). The main attractions of the Rila Mountains are the colorful Rila Monastery and the Seven Rila Lakes (Sedemte Rilski Ezera in Bulgarian). The monastery, the most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in the country and an important pilgrimage destination, is an hour and a half's drive south from Sofia. A hike to the lakes, the central attraction of the park, is a stimulating experience you will never forget.
It all starts with a chairlift. A chairlift not particularly suitable to those afraid of heights, or anyone hesitant to float high above the green, rocky terrain. In the winter months, white groundcover welcomes skiers from all over the world to Bulgaria's extremely popular ski slopes but in warmer months the airborne ride is truly sensational.
The Rila Lakes Chair Lift connects the Pionerska Hut area with the first of the lakes. The lift was built in 2009, making it one of the newest in Bulgaria. The bottom station sits at an elevation of 1585 meters (5200 feet) and the top station at the Rila Lakes Hut is at an elevation of 2100 meters (6890 feet). The 2.16-kilometer (1.34-mile) ride lasts 16 minutes. Tickets for adults are 10 lev; 18 lev for a round trip. Make sure to check the lift schedule if you plan to use it on the way down.
Atop the mountain you'll immediately see that good walking shoes are a necessity. The trek from the Rila Lakes Hut is not particularly difficult, but the early part of the ascent is a bit steep. Even so, families with young children can be seen on the paths, all leading in the direction of the upper lakes. The trails pass through fields brilliant with wildflowers and patches of snow, even as late as early June. The views are spectacular, but the effect of being in the midst of pristine nature can often be spoiled by summer crowds.
The second necessity in a mountain hike is wearing appropriate clothing. The peaks can be a bit cold, even on the warmest days. Seeing the snow cover and the frozen lakes is a bit misleading, though, as the midday sun makes it suitable for shorts and short sleeves as well.
The seven lakes are glacial in original and each one is named for its shape. In English, their names are: The Tear (the highest lake, clear waters); The Eye (the deepest); The Kidney (kidney-shaped and with steep shores); The Twin (the largest); The Trefoil (irregular shape and low shores); The Fish Lake (the shallowest); and The Lower Lake (the lowest lake).
You might not be able to see all of the lakes on your journey. Some of them may be frozen solid and passages through the snow may be quite difficult.
What is special about the Rila Mountains? The magnificent views, the sharp contrast between rocky peaks and fields of purple wildflowers; the ice-cold water; the sensation of walking in snow and in the warm sun; the feeling of being on top of the world. And, more than anything else, the wonder of discovering the breathtaking natural beauty of Bulgaria.