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Hand-painted icons for sale near Sofia's Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Photograph by Aaron Huey, National Geographic)

Ten Ways to Go Local in Bulgaria

As Andrew Nelson writes in a recent feature story he wrote for Traveler magazine, Bulgaria is a whirlpool of civilizations. “Everyone, it seems, has come [here]. The Thracians, with their gold. Rome, with its legions. The Asiatic Bulgars, the country’s namesake. Also Huns, Slavs, Jews, Turks, with their many traditions.”

Here are ten ways to do as the locals do in this Balkan beauty: 

Snap-Up Souvenir: Most of the world’s rose oil comes from Bulgaria. Visitors can buy rose products at Shipka, an “organics” shop in Sofia, and the Rose Museum, in the town of Kazanlak.

Park It Here: Just south of Rila National Park—almost an extension of it—is Pirin National Park, and its resort town, Bansko, where visitors hike, bike, and ski. Lodgings include the luxe Kempinski Grand Hotel Arena, but increasingly popular are stays in centuries-old farm homes.

For the Birds: Bulgaria’s mix of landscapes—fields, marshes, mountains, seashore—attracts hundreds of bird species. View raptors in the lofty Central Balkan National Park and seabirds in Srebarna Nature Reserve’s wetlands.

Gold Digger: The Thracians, who inhabited ancient Bulgaria, had a way with gold. See their handiwork—including a golden mask of Thracian King Teres, discovered in 2004—at Sofia’s National Institute of Archaeology.

History in Stone: Famous for vivid frescoes, the Rock-Hewn Churches of Ivanovo—scores of chapels and sanctuaries carved out of hillsides by hermits in the 1100s—have earned World Heritage status. One church currently is open to the public.

To Market: Browse vintage artifacts, icons, nesting dolls, and more at the antiques market near Sofia’s Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Prepare to haggle for what catches your fancy.

Rest Your Head: Stay atop Roman history at Arena di Serdica, a 63-room Sofia hotel built over Roman ruins uncovered during construction.

Break Bread: Start the day with a banitsa, a pastry of phyllo dough filled with an eggy cheese mixture.

Wave the Flag: Bulgaria’s national day (called Unification Day), September 6, is celebrated with fireworks and parades.

Summer Stop: Beachgoers flock in summer to Bulgaria’s Black Sea Riviera, popular for its 235-mile coast and family resorts. Also here: the millennia-old city of Nesebur, which was built on a stony promontory in Thracian times. Conquered by the Greeks—whose acropolis remains—it later became a significant Byzantine settlement centered around a still standing basilica.

This piece first appeared in the November 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine to accompany a feature story written by Andrew Nelson entitled “Postmark Bulgaria.”