Weekending: Varna, Bulgaria

weekend bulgaria travel varna
Back in September, the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan offered locals and expats like me an excuse to go on holiday while our American friends were celebrating the end of summer and Labor Day. With more time to explore than a typical Weekending trip, I checked out Turkey’s most western neighbor, Bulgaria, and fell in love with modern and medieval captials Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo.

The place: Varna, Bulgaria

Varna is known as the summertime capital of Bulgaria, a Black Sea beach town that’s a destination unto itself with several notable museums, an active cultural scene, and the gateway to the coastal resort towns.

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  • Unlike many of the purpose-built, touristy resort towns that litter the coast, Varna manages to maintain a nice balance of beach town and actual city. Pedestrian streets Knyaz Boris and Slivnitsa are great for window shopping and people watching day and night, and Varna has a handful of quirky and interesting museums to visit. The Archaeology Museum is one of the country’s best, and my visit to the creepily-cool Medical History museum (with nice Bulgarian lady following me around turning lights on and off as in VT) was one of my favorite travel experiences. Strolling the Sea Garden is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, though the zoo is maybe the grimmest I’ve seen yet (I could have easily stuck my head into the lion’s cage with no interferrence) but with admission under $1, it’s hard to complain.
  • The variety of daytime diversions extends to nightlife too, with everything from sceney beach clubs to seedy casinos to dive bars. Indian Bar has an eclectic decor of Native American art and Italian soccer banners which manages to be more charming that offensive, while Saloon Bar is just the kind of place I’d love in my neighborhood: cheap drinks, good music, and a bartender that remembers you after one drink. Varna is also the birthplace to Happy Bar & Grill, a chain restaurant all over Bulgaria (and now in Spain too) that resembles a love child of Hooters and T.G.I. Friday’s, in the best sense. Happy has a vaguely nostalgic rock-and-roll Americana theme going on, a menu of Bulgarian food and pizza (they also have some sushi restaurants), and waitresses clad in miniskirts and nude pantyhose. There are several location including a tiki beach bar, and any of them are good spots to take advantage of free wi-fi, decent coffee, and as many ’80s music videos as you can handle. Varna is a bit pricier than other towns in Bulgaria but still a steal by Western standards.

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  • Lovely as Varna may be, the travel season is really limited to summer. While there is plenty to do in cool weather, there is greatly reduced transportation in and around town, many waterfront cafes will close in winter, and you’ll miss out on experiencing the summer scene. The Black Sea has been the hot weather refuge of many Europeans for decades and Varna retains some old-school (and Communist-era) flavor (see the above photo of the thermal pools frequented by the elder residences) while joining the modern world with boutique hotels and sushi restaurants popping up to serve a growing international clientele. If you visit Bulgaria in cold weather, your time would be better spent exploring the old towns and museums in central and western Bulgaria.
  • I’d be remiss in wrapping up a series on Bulgaria without pointing out the obvious obstacle: Cyrillic. Invented in Bulgaria and not Russia, the alphabet is less complicated than you think but takes some adjustment and practice to feel comfortable reading signs and maps. I was fortunate to travel with my Russian-speaking husband who could at least read the alphabet (though Russian and Bulgarian are as dissimilar as English and Spanish) but I got the hang of it quickly enough. Rather than trying to memorize the alphabet in advance, transcribe a few key and familiar words, such as your name, your hotel, and the towns you are visiting so you can begin to recognize the characters. Also, Bulgaria’s quirk is the reverse head nod: they nod horizontally for yes, vertically for no. This feels very foreign the first time you experience it but makes an odd sense after a few days.

Getting there

Most of the international flights to Varna are from Eastern Europe, though the great budget carrier Wizz Air flies from London and Sofia. Bus service is excellent throughout the country (about 7 hours from Sofia) or from Istanbul (10 hours) or Bucharest (7 hours), but train service is slower and less comfortable.

Make it a week

Rent a car or bus hop along the coast if the weather is good, taking note that if a town has a foreign name (like Golden Sands) it’s probably an overbuilt tourist town. You could also combine with other regions of Bulgaria. I fit in Sofia, Veliko Tarnavo, and Varna comfortably in an 8 day Saturday – Sunday trip, traveling between cities by bus and returning to Sofia for my international flight on Wizz Air.

Read about more Weekending trips here.

Flying Wizz Air, European low-cost airline


I just flew with Wizz Air, a major budget airline in Europe whose name and stunts I had previously only snickered over. It turns out in addition to offering low fares across Europe, they are also the largest carrier in Hungary (at least according to Wizz, Malev Hungarian would beg to differ) and a major player in Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. Last week I traveled to Bulgaria (look for some future Weekending posts soon) and decided to try to fly across the country from the Black Sea town of Varna to the capital city Sofia rather than spend another eight hours on a bus. As is often the case with budget carriers, Wizz has caught a fair amount of flack for their nickle-and-diming fare structure and customer service, so I was anxious to experience it first-hand.The booking process
The low-cost carrier advertises flights as low as 15 GBP from London to Poland before taxes and fees, and I found fares from Varna to Sofia starting at 78 Bulgarian (around $50 USD) plus a few bucks for taxes. Not too bad, a lot pricier than the bus but much faster. Enter the laundry list of service fees. First, you are hit up 5 Euros per passenger to use a credit card (only other options are European credit cards or bank transfers that aren’t possible for US travelers). Next, you are offered a bunch of services that might be useful for some (extra legroom, flexible booking, priority boarding, etc) but not integral to the flight. Then comes the big guns: baggage allowances. Whether I’m traveling for two days or two weeks, at maximum I pack a standard wheelie carry-on and a purse, and avoid checking bags whenever possible. Wizz allows just one piece free, up to 10 kg (22 pounds), and charges 15 to 60 Euros per bag depending if you select the option online, at the airport, or at the gate. Not wishing to be caught with a surprise charge at the airport, I opted to check one bag. Final tally: 117 Bulgarian leva per ticket or $76 USD, booked less than two weeks in advance.

Pre-departure
Haven’t even gotten to the airport and there’s another potential fee: flight check-in. It’s free if you do it online up to 7 days in advance AND print boarding passes, or 10 Euros if you wait until arriving at the airport or can’t find a printer. After entering your passport information and checking in online, your boarding passes are available as web documents or PDFs. I downloaded the PDFs and emailed to my hotel in Varna, who were kind enough to print, but boarding passes via email. Arriving at the airport, they will still check your documents, but my baggage was not scrutinized and I noticed several fellow passengers with more than one bag to carry on, so I may have been able to get away with a purse and a rollerboard.

In-flight experience
Seating on the flight is open, causing the usual every-man-for-himself rush at the gate, but inside the plane, seats are relatively comfy with snazzy purple leather seats. There is an excellent (and free!) in-flight magazine with great destination info and articles that made me want to move to Poland immediately. The Varna to Sofia flight was too short for the full food and beverage “service” (i.e. they didn’t wheel out the cart of stuff you pay for) but the usual drinks and snacks were available for purchase at typically high prices (2.50 Euros for water, 3 Euros for Cup Noodles, which is sort of a great flight food idea). Flight attendants were helpful and cheerful in the signature purple and hot pink colors.

All told, I’d fly Wizz again (especially to Poland), especially if I were near to one of their hubs. Fares are much lower than the competition (Bulgarian Air priced out at 211 leva for the same route) and if you stop looking at fares as inherently all-inclusive, the a la cart structure is actually refreshing and honest. There aren’t many perks and no in-flight movies or tv, but with most flights under 3 hours, you can get by. Airline experiences are all in the seat of the beholder, but with prices this low, a leather seat and free English-language reading material feels more luxe than low-cost.