Towns on Stara Planina (The Balkan)
Stara Planina (means "Old Mountain") also known as The Balkan is going through our whole country dividing it into a Northern and Southern part. The mountain is great for tourist who love hiking. But there are also very nice towns to visit for the regular traveler - they are sometimes inside the mountain, sometimes at its foot. Going to a mountain town is a great way to experience some of the mountain living without having to sleep in a hut. Many of these towns offer very easy access to single-day trekking routes.
Let's explore the most popular of them and see how you can get there and what you can do.
We'll start from West and go to East - where the mountain ends near the Black Sea. The town of Berkovica is known as a base camp for trekking to Kom peak (18 km distance). If you are not that much of a mountaineer you can still enjoy this small town with population of only about 13,000, historical monuments, museums and very calm atmosphere.
Berkovica is 80km away of Sofia. Going there by train takes between 3 and 4 hours. Some faster buses are available (less than 2 hours) but there aren't many available daily. Buses to Berkovica start from the Central Bus Station.
Vratsa is a lovely mountain town 112 km North from Sofia. There are great views around it and landmarks well worth visiting - the Ledenika cave, Skaklya waterfall, the passage Vratsata, and more. Vratsa is one of the bigger towns in Stara planina with population of about 60,000 so you'll find plenty of stores, a mall, restaurants, etc.
The route Sofia - Vratsa is easy to take by train. Most trains take around 2 hours and cost €3 - €4. They are pretty frequent too - more than 10 trains daily. Buses start almost every hour, take also about 2 hours and cost €5 - €6. I recommend the train not only for the lower price but also because the road is hilly and the train journey is more pleasant.
Going East we reach Etropole. It's an old small town with a long history, currently having about 11,000 residents. There isn't so much to see there nowadays but if you like peaceful calm places with great views, why don't you visit it?
There is no train going to Etropole. Your only options are car or buses. Buses take an hour and half and there are about 10 races daily. Note that they start from Poduyane bus station and not from the central one.
Teteven is more visited by local tourists because of its many historical houses and beautiful nature. I am not saying Teteven is better than Etropole but if you have to choose only one of them, go to Teteven. Inside the town or very close to it there are multiple museums, caves, and mountain peaks.
As Teteven is further East near the center of the country, transportation takes a bit longer. There are no trains and buses take 2 hours and half. The ticket costs about €5. There are 7 - 8 daily buses and they start from the Central bus station.
Koprivshtica is a town with a lot of history and is one of the 100 Tourist Sites of Bulgaria. It's charming and beautiful with many preserved historical houses from the Bulgarian Renaissance, museums, and natural landmarks. Definitely worths a visit, don't miss it if you can.
Fortunately there are trains going to this town. The journey from Sofia is between 2 and 3 hours depending on the train type and there are 7-8 trains daily.
Troyan is one of the bigger towns in its area which in this case means a population of about 21,000 :) I'm sure those of you living in mega cities will appreciate the calm atmosphere and low population in our mountain towns. Troyan is also full of history, churches and museums. But there is something that makes it even better - the slivova rakia (brandy made of plums) which Troyan is very famous with. There is a special festival of the rakia each September so you may want to visit at that time :)
Getting to Troyan is easy by both train or bus. Buses take 3 to 4 hours and the train about 5-6 with a train change at Levski station. At this time there is only one daily train starting from Sofia at 4 PM and there are two trains from Troyan to Sofia - one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The cost is €8 - €10.
What if I told you that Karlovo is a town with a lot of history? You won't be surprised I guess. Well, Karlovo is really important town because here is born our national hero Vasil Levski. In Karlovo you'll find his monument and the national museum Vasil Levski which is the house where he was born. There's a lot more in this town with about 24,000 residents. More museums, old houses, the Karlovsko Kale forest, and more.
Karlovo is one of the transportation hubs of The Balkan so there are many trains and buses going there. The train journey from Sofia takes between 2:30 and 4:30 hours while the bus will take you there for about 3 hours. Because the town is near the middle of the country, it takes almost the same time to get there from Burgas.
Are you getting tired of history? Sorry! Here's another one. Kalofer is the town of another national hero - Hristo Botev. The town is much smaller than Karlovo - less than 3,000 residents. Besides the Hristo Botev museum you can see great nature around. Several trekking routes start here - to Ray hut, Botev peak, Raiskoto Praskalo, Djendema, and more. Because the town is really small it looks a lot more like a village. So if you are looking to see some rural life, don't hesitate to visit Kalofer.
Trains and buses will take you to Kalofer from Karlovo so it's a good idea to visit both. It's only about 20 minutes distance by train and costs less than €2.
Now let's go back at the North side of Stara Planina (Karlovo and Kalofer are at South). Gabrovo is the geographical center of Bulgaria. It's a relatively large town with nearly 60,000 residents, lots of cultural life and again - a lovely nature around. When I say lots of culture, I really mean a lot: Gabrovo has 5 theatres, several art galleries, cinemas and cultural houses, over ten museums and about 20 festivals each year. Who could expect it from a town with 60,000 people? Also: there are about 50 different monuments, several famous bridges, famous houses, parks, and more. If you have to visit only one town on The Balkan, Gabrovo is almost the top choice (why almost? read on).
How do you get there? The easiest way from Sofia is by car or bus. Buses take around 3 hours and cost €9 - €10. If you insist on going by train, you'll spend 6 hours traveling and will need to change once or twice. It's up to you. The train journey is pretty picturesque though!
Lovech is not too far from the geographic center either but is a bit at North. This town is also not exactly on the Balkan as it's located in a plane area at the foot of the mountain so it doesn't have the character of the mountain towns with lots of hilly streets etc. Lovech has its museums, theaters and art galleries but there's less to see in it than in Gabrovo.
Trains go to Lovech but they are not on the main Northern railway so you'll have to make a connection through Levski. Only one train daily goes from and to Sofia through this connection and the trip takes 4 - 5 hours. Fortunately there are many buses. The bus trip takes slightly less than 4 hours and costs €7 - €8.
A small but very beautiful town near Gabrovo. Tryavna is full of history and a popular destination for tourists who like to see such kind of places. It's easy to reach it by a bus from Gabrovo - the distance is about 20km.
Kazanlak is at the Southern side of the mountain. This town is most famous for the Valley of roses. Read the linked article to learn more about the town and how to get there.
Veliko Tarnovo is the old capital of Bulgaria and still one of the most beautiful and interesting towns. While it's currently not a big town with only 70,000 residents, it has an university and many tourist attractions. Veliko Tarnovo or just Tarnovo as they call it is a center of culture and life of Northern Bulgaria. A must visit if you are coming here for more than a couple of days.
To learn more about it and getting there, read our article about Tarnovo and around.
Getting closer to the sea, on the Southern side of the mountain is Sliven. With nearly 100,000 residents Sliven is one of the big towns in Bulgaria. Sliven has several museums - the most popular is probably the house of the Bulgarian hero Hadji Dimitar. Sliven isn't a popular destination for tourism which makes it a bit of a hidden gem. There's no shortage of things to see.
Being closer to the sea, Sliven is easier to reach from Burgas than from Sofia but it's on the road and rail between both so you can easily make a combo trip. Going there by train from Sofia takes about 5 - 6 hours. Buses are faster by the highway and will get you there for 4 hours (and about €10).
Kotel is a small town near Sliven. If you are going to Sliven it's easy to jump to Kotel by bus. There are a couple of natural reserves and places near Kotel. If you like nature and rural life, it's a great place to visit.
Elena is on the other side of the mountain, near Veliko Tarnovo. It's the center of the Elenski Balkan as we call this part of Stara Planina. Again plenty of history and museums even though it's a really small town with only about 5,000 residents. The trekkers might be interested in climbing the Chumerna peak (1536m) which is relatively easy to reach from Elena.
There is no railway going to Elene so you'll need to catch a local bus from Tarnovo or Gorna Oryahovitsa. Here's a timesheet in Bulgarian (PDF).
We'll end our tour with Veliki Preslav. Preslav is a small town 20km away of Shumen. It's an ancient capital of Bulgaria so you can imagine there's plenty of history and landmarks to see there. It's easy to reach Preslav by bus or even taxi from Shumen, and Shumen is reachable by multiple trains and buses from Sofia or Varna.
For sure this guide have missed some of the towns on The Balkan, not to mention the villages. There are literally hundreds of them - small and large, low in the foot of the mountain or high near the peaks. If you are looking for adventure, a long trip going to the places around Stara Planing is an excellent choice.
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