Bulgaria is one of the most underrated countries in Europe. It is a Balkan country, “behind the shadow” of the popular European destinations, an off the beaten place, relatively far from the main tourist streams. At the same time, it has an incredibly diverse nature, with rich history and culture. And every season in the country has its own unique beauty, from the Black Sea coast to the highest mountains. How about winter in Bulgaria? Let’s prepare to explore this country in the coldest season, get more info, some tips, and prepare your travel gear!
Natural landscapes in Bulgaria
The area of Bulgaria is not so large- just like an average European country, a slightly larger than Hungary, Czechia, Portugal and Austria, and a bit smaller than Greece. But for such a small territory the diversity of natural zones and landscapes is amazing. Here you can see gorgeous beaches at the Black Sea, subtropical forests, large plains, hills with deciduous forests, high mountains with coniferous forests, and alpine type of mountains with mountain tundra.
At the same time, Bulgaria has a long history with a lot of historical sites, and many ethnic, cultural, and modern places of interest, located in all of these natural landscapes. This offers great opportunities for traveling by various means of transportation, combined with hiking and other kinds of natural traveling experience.
All these natural places and human-made sites are worth visiting. But as in every country located in the moderate climate zone, these places are different in different seasons, as well as the way of traveling between them. So, let’s focus on one of these seasons- winter.
Winter in Bulgaria
Bulgaria is just north of sub-tropical Greece. But at the same time, it is not far from the cold moderate climate of Ukraine and Russia. It is in the transition zone between the warm humid Mediterranean region and the cold continental East European-Siberian region. Add to this the diverse terrain of Bulgaria and you can guess that the winter here is also diverse, changeable, and different in different parts of the country.
The Mediterranean cyclones and the East-European (Siberian) anticyclone
If you like a beautiful, snowy winter, the best chance is when these two guys- a Mediterranean cyclone and an East-European (Siberian) anticyclone meet together. And they usually do it every winter, over Bulgaria. The Mediterranean cyclone brings rain, and the East-European (Siberian) anticyclone brings cold. When rain mixes with cold, it turns into snow. Snow falls with temperatures dropping from northeast to south. When the cyclone leaves, it becomes very cold. The whole (or almost whole) of Bulgaria is white and sunny.
But the problem is that these two atmospheric formations are not always presented. There are also Atlantic cyclones, but they are rarer and can’t bring too much “real winter” to Bulgaria. When they come, the weather becomes windy and rainy, and snowfalls usually come only in the northwest, and the mountains.
Anyway, let’s see how winter usually is in the different regions of Bulgaria.
Sub-tropical areas of Bulgaria
In general, winter is almost sub-tropical in the southern Black Sea coast, near the border with Turkey and the extreme southwest (Struma Valley) of Bulgaria. In these areas temperature seldom drop below 0°C and snow is also seldom. While it snows in the rest of the country, in these sub-tropical places it usually rains. And even when there is snow, it melts quickly.
Upper Thracian Plain
This is the area where Plovdiv is located. Here winter is a bit colder, but still not the coldest. Again, rainfall is more than snowfall. But sometimes, there are days of snowfall, forming 50-60 cm of snow cover. And if there is cold air from a Siberian anticyclone, temperatures in the morning can drop lower than the highest peaks of the mountains, even below -20°C. Anyway, it happens seldom. Winter here is still soft and most of the winter days are snowless, without a snow cover.
High Plains in the west
These are small plains, locked by the surrounding mountains, located in the west of Bulgaria. Sofia, the capital, is located in one of them. They are higher in altitude and winter is colder. Due to their location, there are often temperature inversions- while the weather in the surrounding mountains is nice and sunny, the bottom of these plains can be covered by fog and the temperature can be very cold. Here, in one of them, the lowest temperature in Bulgaria for the last 100 years was recorded (again during a Siberian anticyclone)- -38°C.
This is the large area between Stara Planina (Balkan Mountain) and the Danube River, a part of the larger Lower Danubian Plain. Here the winter is a bit like in the high plains, but with some exceptions in Northwest Bulgaria and the plain of Sevlievo, there are no such lower temperature records. Snowfalls are more often than rainfalls and the snow cover can remain a long time.
Dobrudzha and the Northeast
Here the winter is a bit like in the rest of the Danubian Plain, but windier. When cold air driven by a Siberian anticyclone comes from the northeast, there are usually snowstorms forming high snowdrifts, covering the roads of the region.
The high mountains
The higher the mountain is, the colder and harsh the winter. Snow falls on the areas above 1000-1200 m from November to April, and the snow cover is constant. It gets deeper and deeper, sometimes reaching almost 1,5 and even 2 m in the second half of February.
In the alpine area of the highest mountains Rila and Pirin the winter is harsh. Snow starts in October and can last until the end of May. It completely covers the low dwarf pine forests and can become very cold and windy. And the main danger at that time is the avalanches. They happen often and can be deadly.
But the harshest winter is on the summit of the Balkan Mountain (Stara Planina), especially in the area of its highest peak Botev (2376 m). Although it is lower than Rila and Pirin, its situation as a wall between the Danubian Plain and the Upper Thracian Plain makes it the windiest place in Bulgaria. And when cold air comes from the northeast, the conditions on the summit are severe. There is a snow hurricane that can kill people. In such weather, everything turns into a white hell.
Why should you explore Bulgaria in winter
Most people like summer or just nice and warm weather. But winter has its charm too. Nature is nature, and it is always beautiful, you just have to discover the beauty of the winter. And in Bulgaria, winter has its specific beauty, not only in nature but also in the cities. And even at the Black Sea coast, attracting people only in summer, you can still find a specific winter beauty too.
So, what are the best reasons to visit and explore Bulgaria in winter? Let’s analyze them, so you can make your decision.
There are dozens of events in Bulgaria every winter, and it is not just Christmas. January and February have their special days too. Let’s open the calendar.
Christmas and New Year
Of course, the most popular of them is Christmas and New Year (as in many other countries in the world, Christmas and New Year are just parts of one big festival). As everywhere in Europe, America, Australia, and parts of Africa and Asia, Christmas is colorful and attractive. In Sofia and every big city, there is a big Christmas tree in the center, Christmas decorations everywhere, Christmas open market, Santa Claus (here he is called “Dyado Koleda”, which means “Grandpa Christmas”).
Celebrations begin from the first half of December, reaching their culmination on the 25th. Then they proceed until New Year’s Eve. Along with the international Christmas and New Year traditions, such as Christmas trees, Santa Claus gifts, and the New Year countdown in the last 10 seconds of the year, there are some local Bulgarian customs worth to experience. For example, there is a special Christmas Eve set of meals, which are meatless and in odd numbers. Also, on New Year Eve you can enjoy a Bulgarian “horo”- a traditional dance in which many unknown people dance hand in hand in the central square.
Other winter events
Christmas and New Year are worldwide festivals. But there are many other local festivals in Bulgaria, following old traditional customs. Almost all of them are the so-called “name-days”, established by the Orthodox Church. These days, people named after certain saints or other events celebrate in specific ways.
Nikulden (St. Nichola’s Day)- Dec 6
It is in honor of St. Nicholas, a saint who has lived in the first half of the 4th century, known as the patron of the sailors and all other people related to the sea. So, on this day everybody in Bulgaria eats fish (mainly carp), and those who are named after Nichola eat is at a party.
Vasilyovden (St.Basil’s Day)- Jan 1
Naturally, it is a part of the New Year celebration. On the day after New Year’s Eve, there is a relaxing time, a lot of eating, and more parties. And according to a local custom called “Survakane”, groups of young people bringing a decorated branch of wood go from house to house, spank hosts’ backs while blessing them. Today, it is seldom performed in the cities but more common in the villages.
Jordanovden (Jordan Day, Epiphany)- Jan 6
This is a festival dedicated to the baptism of Jesus in Jordan River by John the Baptist. According to the tradition, a priest throws a cross in the icy waters of a river, then a group of brave men jumps into the water in a contest who will grab the cross first.
Other name days: Ivanovden (John’d Day)- Jan 7., Antonovden (Antony’s Day)- Jan 17., Atanasovden (Atanas’ Day)- Jan 18.
There are no special exotic customs these days, but just parties. And these parties are really attractive and colorful, especially in the villages.
St. Valentine and St. Tryfonos- Feb 14.
Yes, in modern times, there are two different festivals on this date. Usually, those who are married or just in a relationship celebrate St. Valentine. In fact, it is not a Bulgarian traditional festival but is imported from Western Europe and the USA. But those who are single (or more traditional) celebrate St. Tryfonos, called also “Tryfon Zarezan”, the festival of wine.
So, if you wonder how could you observe or join some of these festivals- visit a big city during Christmas and New Year. But if you want to enjoy some of the other folklore festivals- go to a village (preferably, some tourist developed village), sleep in a guesthouse and ask your host to guide you. They would be always ready to introduce the best.
This could be another reason to travel to Bulgaria during winter. It is low season at the Black Sea coast, as well as in most of the other places in the country, except in the winter resorts. Yes, you would not be able to relax in an open-air café or a restaurant, but you can find a lot of comfort in other alternatives. And the serenity of the silent places without tourist crowds has its special charm.
White fairy tale
Cities and villages in white can be incredibly beautiful. Yes, snow is not constantly present in most of the country, but when the weather is snowy, everything can become a white fairy tale. Yes, it is difficult to predict whether there will be snow in Plovdiv or Sofia when you plan your winter trip, but if there isn’t snow, just go to the mountain! Small mountain villages covered by a beautiful white dress are stunning. And even in the big cities of the lowland without snow- their places of interest are still interesting like in summer. Finally, of course, the natural landscapes covered by snow are always worth to enjoy.
Ski and other winter sports
These are the places where winter is the high season. There are several big winter resorts in Bulgaria, where you can not only enjoy winter sports but also everything that winter and the local tradition can offer. The four big resorts of Bulgaria are Vitosha, Borovets (in Rila Mountain), Bansko (in Pirin Mountain), and Pamporovo (in the Rhodope Mountains).
But if you want to explore something more than the human-made places and events of interest in winter, go to discover the incredible beauty of winter nature in Bulgaria. And the best way to do it is by hiking.
Hiking in Bulgaria during the winter can be a very exciting experience, but if you don’t prepare well, it can be dangerous, even deadly. First, let’s focus more on the conditions in the Bulgarian mountains- they are not so different than in the mountains in other countries located in the same geographical zone.
Most of the mountains in Bulgaria are constantly covered by snow, almost during the whole winter season. Only the lower areas (below 800-1000 m) can sometimes remain without snow cover. But the higher areas are snow-covered, and especially in February snow can get very deep.
So, if there is snow, hiking will be slower. Don’t expect clean trails, unless they are already trodden by other hikers before you. Only the bigger roads where cars can pass can be cleaned, but you want to go deeper into the mountain. And the deeper is the snow, the slower is the hike.
At the same time, the days are short. Sunset is before 6:00 pm. Actually, around 5:30 pm it is already dark. So, while you would not have a problem to plan a 25 km hike for 7 hours in summer, in deep snow, you normally can’t walk more than 10 km for the same time. And to do it, you have to start early in the morning, always bringing your headlamp, just in case.
Be aware of avalanches
Avalanches can occur in Rila and Pirin, sometimes even in lower mountains like Vitosha and Stara Planina. That’s why there are winter trails in the high mountains above the forest zone, marked by metal pillars, designed to pass through safer places, usually on the summits. In fact, you can’t find the summer trails- they are hidden under the snow. And you should not try, just avoid them, it can be dangerous.
Follow the weather forecast
This is important especially if you want to hike the highest summits of Stara Planina. Don’t go there if the weather forecast is about coming cold air, or whatever weather change is expected. Go only when the atmosphere is stable, still and sunny. Otherwise, as I mentioned above, you can put your life at risk. Nobody goes there during a snow hurricane, no matter how well is prepared.
Although Rila and Pirin are higher than Stara Planina, they can be still dangerous in bad weather. Only the lower mountains covered by forest are safer- Rhodope, Sredna Gora, Strandzha, and other smaller mountains.
Now, let’s take a look at the special equipment you have to bring if you want to explore and enjoy the natural beauty of Bulgaria.
Special winter packing list
If you visit Bulgaria, but just want to travel to the big cities and some other tourist places by bus, train or car, you don’t need anything special and different than just normal winter clothes and shoes. In other words, if you live in cities like New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, or other places in the same geographical zone, you don’t need to bring anything more different than the things you wear in your daily winter life.
And if you want to explore nature by hiking, you would need something more. First, you would need some general hiking accessories like hiking poles and a backpack– things that you would bring in any season for hiking. But since you would do it in winter, you would need some special things, particularly intended for winter hiking. This is your special packing list.
Winter hiking boots
Hiking boots are one of the most important parts of your hiking gear. And for walking in the snow, you need something more than just normal hiking boots- you need winter hiking boots. The main difference between the winter and the normal (summer) hiking boots is their increased waterproof feature. Thus, whether you walk on dry or wet snow, your feet would remain dry. Besides, they should be compatible with crampons and snowshoes, so you can walk on ice or on deep snow. Let’s see some good winter hiking boots below:
Crampons are necessary when you walk on the icy surface. They can save you from falling if you have to pass steep places. Yes, the problem is that you can’t use them when you walk on stones, and if the snow is not enough, you would step on a mixed surface where you would need to remove them often, then put them on again. So, a better choice is to use automatic crampons that can be removed and put one easily. Let’s see some crampons below:
Snowshoes are designed to walk easily on deep snow. For this purpose, they are made to provide a larger area for your foot. Thus, you still sink in the snow, but not as much as if you are without them. They are attached to your winter hiking boots. At the same time, they are not flat below, to provide some stability without sliding. Let’s see some of them below. You can also find sets of snowshoes, trekking poles and carrying tote bag.
Gaiters are an important accessory, used to protect the lower part of your leg from thorns, snake bites, and other things, as well as various things like sand, mud, and snow from entering your boots. In winter, gaiters provide cover and protection from snow inside your boots. And snow in the mountain gets seriously deep. Even with snowshoes, you can sink deeper than your boots’ height. So, gaiters can be a very important accessory. Let’s look at some gaiters below.
Winter hiking pants
To hike in a snowy environment, you would need something more than just ordinary pants. The main reason is that you want to remain dry. There is nothing more uncomfortable, even dangerous than getting wet in sub-zero temperatures. And when you walk in deep snow, it can easily melt on your legs. But good winter hiking pants are enough thick, with enough insulating features to prevent it, so you can even sit on the snow and remain dry. Let’s take a look at some good examples:
Winter hiking jackets differ from normal jackets by their better warming, insulating, and dry-keeping features. At the same time, good jackets are light. In general, the best way to wear clothes on the mountain is by layering. This is important because in Bulgaria, like many other countries with such kind of nature, the temperature can often change while you ascend or descend. Today, there are good jackets in male and female versions. Let’s see some of them.
In the mountains of Bulgaria, the winter weather can be harsh. Yes, jackets usually have hoods, but it’s not enough, especially if you go hiking above the forest zones of Rila, Pirin, and Stara Planina. And if it is also windy, your head must be well-protected, especially your nape and your ears. So, the good winter hats are designed for this purpose. Let’s take a look at them.
Winter gloves are a must for the mountains in Bulgaria during winter. The good winter gloves will protect your hands not only from touching snow but also from the freezing wind. Also, a very important feature of the good gloves is their waterproof feature. Nobody wants to wear wet gloves due to snow melting or touching wet snow. So, let’s take a look at the good gloves too.
Snow can be blinding, especially at high altitude. Due to the strong UV light, snow can damage your eyes causing photokeratitis. Not every kind of snow causes it, but still, most of it can be dangerous, especially on a bright sunny day, but don’t underestimate cloudy days too. So, the solution is wearing sunglasses. Good sunglasses have good eye coverage. And if you wear normal glasses, there are good fitover sunglasses that you can wear over them. Let’s see them below.
4 season tents
If you plan longer hiking, you would need a place to sleep. Yes, there are lodges in most of the mountains in Bulgaria, but not everywhere. Besides, due to the shorter day and slower speed, you may not be able to reach from one lodge to another during the daylight. The solution is to bring a tent.
If you go hiking in the lower mountains- Eastern Rhodope, Sakar, Strandzha, or Eastern Stara Planina, a 3-season tent would be enough (but only if there is no cold wave from north-northeast, follow the weather forecast!). But if you aim at the high mountains, you need a 4-season tent, preferably with good wind-proof features. Let’s look at such tents below.
4 season sleeping bags
When you are in a tent, you need a good sleeping bag. The best sleeping bags for winter conditions are those in mummy or spoon shapes. Usually, they are filled with down and have a low-temperature rating. They can be a bit thicker and heavier, but it is important to ensure a warm comfortable night. Take a look at the proper sleeping bags below.
4 season sleeping pads
For better insulation, you also need a good sleeping pad. Sleeping pads have R-value, indicating their insulation ability. So, for snowy conditions in Bulgaria, you need a sleeping pad with R-value higher than 5. It is thicker and can take up more space, but it is crucial for enough warmth on the snow. So, let’s also see the sleeping pads.
Finally, an additional, but also an important accessory. I remember a friend of mine who shared with me his story in the high areas of Stara Planina. They were well-equipped, but the weather changed and they were stuck in a snowstorm. They found an abandoned hut with woods, where they spent the whole night. What saved them from freezing was their small cookware which they used with fire made by the woods. They melted snow on it and drank hot water all the time. From that day on, they always used a cookware with a gas bottle like these:
So, as you can see, almost all of the above accessories are designed to keep you warm, dry, and safe. Again, the mountains of Bulgaria in winter can be sometimes severely unforgiving. Every year I hear news about tourists who have died by freezing.
Yes, if you come to Bulgaria in winter, you can visit only the “civilized” part of the country- cities, and villages. But if you want to discover the whole beauty of the country in this season, don’t hesitate to add an “attack” to the mountains. And you can expect an amazing experience, full of challenges and beauty.
Get some inspiration of the winter in Bulgaria from the video below!
Take a look at some travel books about Bulgaria:
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