Bulgaria is a middle-sized European country in the eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula. It is quite off the beaten for the “European standard” of tourism, and it is one of the factors that make this country more exciting and challenging for travelers and explorers. At the same time, it has a very rich natural variety, long history, and amazing culture. So, it is worth exploring Bulgaria, and the best way to do it is by car- by your own car, or by rent a car. Read more tips and ideas on how to do it- wisely and safely for the best Bulgarian experience!
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Why traveling by car in Bulgaria is the best way
There are a lot of places to see in Bulgaria- cities, villages, resorts, mountains, ancient sites, unique natural formations, and many more. Most of them are connected by roads, but there is no public transport on all of them. Many places are really worth visiting, however, the only way to reach these places is by car, by bicycle, or on foot.
Even reaching the places with public transport sometimes can be difficult. For example- if you want to go to a place for one day without staying overnight, you can’t, because there is only one bus for the whole day. Of course, this is a problem in most of the other countries in the world, and Bulgaria is one of the countries with more interesting places to see without convenient transport.
That’s why traveling by car in Bulgaria is different. It gives you independence and flexibility. By car, you can reach every place in the country with a road connection. The only logistic problem is if you want to go by car to point A, hike (on foot) to point B, and proceed by car from point B. You can’t do it, you have to back to point A unless there are two cars and their drivers set one car in point A, and one car in point B.
Basic facts about the roads in Bulgaria
In general, the road network in Bulgaria is good- there are paved roads to most of the places of interest in the country. However, the road quality is not always good. There are only 6 highways, several 1st and 2nd class roads, and many smaller 3rd class roads (mainly between the villages). Many roads are not in perfect conditions, some are bumpy or with cracks or other damage. But with a proper car, proper speed and proper way of driving, that would be no problem.
Traffic in Bulgaria is on the right side. Unlike many countries, there are no toll gates on the highways, but you need a vignette to drive out of the cities and villages. If you enter the country by your own car, you can buy it from the border. But if you rent a car in Bulgaria, check whether the rental car company provides a vignette (which every good rental car company should do). It is their responsibility to provide a vignette, and it is your responsibility to present it.
Another important thing to remember is- always turn on the headlights, no matter whether it is night or day, winter or summer! Driving without headlights leads to a penalty.
Traffic in the cities
Bulgaria’s population is not so big- less than 7 million people. But it doesn’t mean that there is no traffic jam in the big cities, especially in Sofia. As in most of the countries in the world, traffic is highest on Monday morning, and Friday afternoon, as well as every morning and afternoon during the weekdays.
The centers of the big cities are difficult to park places. It is very difficult to find a free place to park your car. The parking lots arranged there are divided into blue zones, green zones, or just paid parking places. In the blue zone, you can stay for 2 hours and pay 2 BGN/hour, and in the green zone for 4 hours, and pay 1 BGN/hour. But even in these places sometimes can be difficult to find a place for your car.
Traffic in the countryside
Once you get out of the big city, traffic is relatively light. But there are exceptions- highways and first-class motorways are usually busy. The speed limit is 120 km (75 miles)/h. But be cautious because there are some drivers “flying” much faster on the highway, even on the smaller roads.
Traffic is especially high in summer on the main highways and roads from Sofia to Burgas or Varna, since this is the high season for the Bulgarian Black Sea Riviera. However, it is unlikely to be stuck in a traffic jam, unless there is a road reconstruction in some sections.
Currently, there are only a few traffic cameras or speed meters installed on some roads. The control on the road is still managed by traffic police teams. Usually, they stay in their police cars beside the road, sometimes slightly hidden aside. Until recently, they used to care more about how to get your money, instead of providing better safety on the road, but now their behavior is improved and they act much more professionally.
Bulgarian drivers warn each other by blinking their long lights (they normally drive with short lights). When they pass by traffic police, they warn the coming cars from the opposite side, so the warned drivers start driving more slowly and carefully. Anyway, if the traffic police stop you, just cooperate with them. Never try even thinking about bribes!
Bad roads, dirt roads, off-road
Most of the highways and first-class motorways are in relatively good condition. But the minor roads between villages- not always. Many of them are bumpy, with an old pavement, partially patched here and there. So, don’t speed on your car on such roads, because you can easily get surprised by a crack, a bump, or another kind of damage that can harm your car!
If you want to get further deep in the nature, there are dirt roads, sometimes partially covered by gravel. Dirt roads on the plains are safer, but in the mountains, it can be dangerous. Usually, such roads are in terrible conditions for cars, even for jeeps or other 4×4 vehicles. They are with notched tracks, sometimes quite deep by the rainy streams. Or they can be filled with muddy puddles where you can be easily stuck.
Some dirt roads in the mountain are still passable even by cars, but research well before you drive on them! In general, if you are going to drive on minor roads and dirt roads, choose a jeep, or at least a car that is enough high below.
Driving in winter
Winters in Bulgaria are not too cold. Snowfalls are quite frequent (although they are less frequent in recent years due to climate change). When snow falls, they clean the roads, even the minor roads between villages. But there are some areas in Bulgaria with snowstorms creating snowdrifts that quickly cover the roads. These places are mainly in the northeast of the country. When it happens, cars can be stuck in the snow for hours and even days.
In winter, be careful when you go to the mountain during snowfall. Yes, they clean the roads there too, but they can’t do it immediately. Usually, they close some road sections crossing the mountain passes, mainly in Stara Planina (The Balkan Mountains).
If you travel by your own can in winter, be sure to do it with winter tyres, or at least with universal tyres. And if you have to drive on snow-covered roads, better prepare tyre chains. But in general, driving in snowy conditions can be risky, especially in the mountains.
So, have these things in mind if you come to Bulgaria by your own car. And choose a proper car if you are going to rent it when you arrive. Now, let’s take a closer look at the rental car options and tips.
Rent a car in Bulgaria
There are many rental car companies in Bulgaria, and some of them provide good service with good cars. You can rent your car directly from the airport (Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, or Burgas), or from an office in the city.
Every rental car company in Bulgaria should offer cars with proper documentation: car passport, liability insurance, annual technical check (the latter two glued on the front car window), and a vignette. Read carefully their conditions in case of damage, crash, or other accident!
Below you can see the best Bulgaria rental car companies that you can choose from:
Top Rent A Car
This is the biggest rental car company in Bulgaria, presented in other Balkan countries too. In Bulgaria, they have offices in many cities, including Sofia and Sofia Airport. Their service is one of the best and includes various bonuses and discounts. Their cars are new (1800+), and they are assessed by excellent reviews.
Another excellent company. Although they don’t have as many offices as Top Rent A Car, their cars are even better, not older than 12 months. And again, they offer various kinds of discounts and other specific kinds of service.
Hertz is a well-known rental car company with offices all over the world. Its Bulgarian branch is one of the best in the country. Along with various kinds of service, they also offer a variety of vans, jeeps, and other larger than normal car vehicles.
Avis is another worldwide rental car company, an alternative to Hertz. In Bulgaria, they have several offices in the big cities and at the Bulgarian Black Sea Riviera. Again, they offer high-quality cars and services.
Yes Rent A Car
This company is local, but their service quality and their cars are some of the best. They are present in several big cities in Bulgaria- Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, and Burgas. And they have good and flexible conditions for returning the car to different locations.
As its name suggests, this company offers some of the best rental car prices in Bulgaria. At the same time, their quality of services and cars is still on a high level. This is a world-wide company, and in Bulgaria is presented in Sofia, Varna, and Burgas.
This is a successful Latvian rental car company, which has grown around the world in 24 countries, including Bulgaria. They provide very flexible kinds of service with some of the best prices in the country.
This is another worldwide company with offices in Bulgaria. Their offices are located in Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, Burgas, and other places on the Black Sea Riviera. They offer car rental services with various accessories, including baby seats or other extras.
There are many other rental car companies in Bulgaria, most of them minor, local, with various levels of quality. You can rent a car online in advance in some of them, like the companies described above, or just go to their office and rent a car there. They can offer lower prices, but there is no guarantee about the quality of their cars and services.
Other means of transportation in Bulgaria
Of course, although traveling by car is the best way to explore Bulgaria, you can also do it by bus, train, or something else, fully or partially.
Bulgaria is small, and there are not too many domestic flights within the country. The only routes are between Sofia and Varna, and between Sofia and Burgas. Like everywhere, it is the most expensive way to travel. It is worth it only if you are in a hurry, and once you reach your destination, you will need another transport to go further.
Traveling by train in Bulgaria is convenient. There are only normal speed trains in the country. If you want to use a train, you can just go to the railway station and buy a ticket, you don’t need to buy it in advance unless you travel between Sofia and the Black Sea Coast in summer.
There is an attractive narrow-gauge railway traveling on the Rhodope Mountains and the foot of the Rila and Pirin mountains. It is not made for tourists but gradually started to attract them with its picturesque routes in the mountains. The highest railway station in the Balkan Peninsula is on this route.
It can be convenient too- just go to the bus terminal, buy a ticket and go. But again, like traveling by train, it limits you with its timetable and fixed routes. At least you can combine it with a car traveling if you want to make a circle route.
This is adventurous and full of excitement. It is a pleasure to cycle on the minor roads in Bulgaria, and if you have a mountain bike, you can do it on dirt roads. You can rent a bike in the big cities and some resorts. Just avoid the busy first-class roads, traffic there can be dangerous. Be cautious if you cycle on dirt roads near some huts and other buildings at the ends of the villages- most likely there will be dogs, and bikers know that dogs “hate” them.
You can combine all these ways of transportation in Bulgaria, or you can travel exclusively by car- your own car, or a rental car. Of course, it is always worth adding some hike or even longer trekking. But if you can arrange your independent way of traveling, without limiting by schedules and routes, you can achieve a great journey around Bulgaria and enjoy the incredible beauty of this amazing country.
Traffic in Bulgaria is safe. But not always! To get a better image, take a look at the video below:
Take a look at some travel books about Bulgaria:
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Hi, we are Krasen and Ying Ying. Krasen is from Bulgaria, and Ying Ying is from China. We are passionate about geography and history, and we believe that the best way to experience it is by exploring the Earth in reality, not in a school, and not virtually.
So, we created this blog Journey Beyond the Horizon, where we share geographical knowledge, travel guides and tips how to experience it when you explore our planet, and a lot of inspiration.
And we wish you a happy journey, not just virtually, but most of all- in reality.