By Bulgaria’s Beautiful Black Sea

When I first set foot onto the hot sand of a Bulgarian beach and laid eyes on the Black Sea, I thought to myself, “This has to be the ocean.” I was wrong, of course, but I couldn’t get over how vast it was, stretching seemingly forever toward the horizon.

The Black Sea, which connects southeastern Europe to western Asia, covers more than 160,000 square miles, making it about the size of California. It’s encircled by a half-dozen countries, including Russia, Turkey and Bulgaria.
The beach in Sozopol, Bulgaria, a charming town about 30 minutes southeast of Burgas.
Danielle Villasana for The New York Times

It’s also the perfect place for the traveler looking for a great deal. I spent a few days traversing the Bulgarian Black Sea coast by car, enjoying the bright, sunny weather, stunning ocean views and elegant, ancient cities that gild its shoreline. I wouldn’t be surprised if this corner of the world became the new “hot” destination in Eastern Europe, with its abundance of inexpensive lodging, fantastic seafood and gorgeous (free) beaches.

It’s also not as tough to get to as you might expect. There were (as of this writing) some good round-trip airfares from the United States to Sofia, the capital, as low as $603 from Kennedy or $612 from Chicago for dates in September.

It’s also worth noting that Sofia and Plovdiv, a city 90 miles east of the capital, are destinations of the low-budget carrier Ryanair. One-way flights from Sofia to London cost as little as $19 (I took advantage of a cheap Ryanair flight to London out of Bulgaria).

A pot of mussels from Bistro Oreha in Burgas.

Danielle Villasana for The New York Times

Once on the ground, you’ll need a car. I picked one up from Sixt Rent a Car. I hadn’t heard of Sixt before (it’s a German company), but was happy enough with the rate I was paying for my economy rental: 15 euros (about $17) per day, before taxes. I also hadn’t heard of the make or model of the car I received, something called a Dacia Sandero. It was a tiny little box that occasionally shook when a stiff wind, or large truck, blew past it but otherwise performed admirably.

It was also a stick shift — luckily, after a few hours my high school driver’s ed class kicked in. It helped that the roads are good in Bulgaria and that the main highway, the A1, is a four-lane road with a passing lane on each side. When you’re on a two-lane road, however, you should drive defensively: Bulgarian drivers are aggressive passers. Don’t tempt fate, and take your time.

I passed through the small town of Haskovo on my way to the sea, meeting up with some family members to attend the wedding of my American cousin Matthew and Tanya, his fiancée, who is from Bulgaria.

I spent the night at the spacious and stylish Hotel Retro, where I had a huge room with air-conditioning for 71 lev, about $40. I also enjoyed the first of many shopska salads, a refreshing mixture of tomato, cucumber and onion lightly dressed in olive oil. From Haskovo, it was an uneventful two-hour drive to the Black Sea.

I used the small city of Burgas and the modest Guest House Fotinov (65 lev per night) as my home base. The imposing Hotel Bulgaria is another option in the center of town — a huge 17-floor concrete monolith. Rooms are large and there are views, but the cost is roughly twice what I paid. “It’s nice,” my cousin Tanya said. “Well ... it’s communist nice,” she added. One plus: Within steps of the hotel is the small, elegant Holy Cross Armenian Church, built in 1673.

Indeed, the area is steeped in history. I love the rich, deep sense of the past that pervades areas like Burgas and the nearby towns of Nessebar and Sozopol. Around the seventh century B.C., Greek colonizers moved into old Thracian settlements on the western Black Sea coast. The archaeological museum in Burgas contains some fascinating Bronze Age artifacts, including the oldest marble statue found in Bulgaria. (Admission to the museum is 5 lev, and it’s only 10 lev for a combination ticket to visit all four museums in town.)

While I found few English speakers in Bulgaria generally, a woman working at the museum spoke some, and kindly walked me around town to show me the locations of the other museums. Most signage in Burgas is in Bulgarian, which uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Many businesses, however, especially those that cater to tourists, offer translations.

While the history in Burgas is impressive, I was even more taken by the quality and price of the food. I went to Sladko & Soleno, a small bakery on Aleksandrovska Street, and had a series of great sweets, cookies and breads. My favorite was probably the big, soft kashkavalka, a pliant loaf of bread covered in cheese. Another day, I stopped by a small doner kebab stand on Aleko Bogoridi Boulevard and picked up a big flatbread stuffed with grilled chicken, French fries and parsley-based slaw for 3 lev.

Even the stingiest traveler doesn’t have to be stuck with bakeries and street food, however — in Bulgaria, a nice sit-down dinner is easy on the wallet. Bistro Oreha is an excellent restaurant with outdoor seating on the main pedestrian mall in downtown Burgas. The ubiquitous shopska salad was great but the seafood really excelled. A bucket of meaty mussels dressed in herbs and a tangy, slightly spicy sauce cost 11 lev. A plate of ultra-tender, deep-fried baby squid with a creamy, garlicky sauce cost another 11 lev. Alcohol won’t set you back too far, either: A half-liter of local Burgasko beer costs 2 lev.
Dining in Sozopol.
Danielle Villasana for The New York Times

Exploring the town by foot is satisfying, but Burgas is big, and more ground can be covered by bike. I rented a two-wheeler through its bike-share program, which required buying a small magnetic tap-card for 10 lev. As opposed to renting the bike for a flat day rate, you get 10 hours of bike usage with the card and tap in and out every time you take or return a bike to one of the many kiosks around town, truly maximizing your lev.

I used my bike time primarily to explore the Sea Garden, a spacious park that runs along the eastern border of the city along the Black Sea. The park, designed near the turn of the 20th century, is home to public art installations, a public swimming pool, summer theater and, of course, miles of biking paths and great views of the sea.

Burgas isn’t the only town on Bulgaria’s coast that’s worth checking out, and other charming places are within easy striking distance. I made the half-hour drive up the coast to Nessebar, a 3,000-year-old former Greek colony that is now a Unesco World Heritage site. The old city is connected to the main town by a thin, man-made isthmus. It’s easy to park your car for a handful of lev and spend a few hours exploring the ruins of the old town and its dozens of churches, some from as far back as the fifth or sixth century.
Ruins in Nessebar, a 3,000-year-old former Greek colony which has dozens of churches, some dating back to the fifth or sixth century.
Danielle Villasana for The New York Times

Exploring all of Nessebar’s churches and museums would have taken all day, but I did check out several. My favorite was the peaceful St. Stephen church, a three-nave basilica that dates to the 11th century. (If you are looking to visit many of the churches in Nessebar, it’s worth getting a seven-museum pass for 20 lev.) It’s mostly just fun to walk the town’s cobblestone streets, grab a freshly squeezed orange juice (I paid 4.20 lev for a large plastic cup) and maybe do a little shopping.

There are plenty of places to get souvenirs, particularly leather goods. While I didn’t make a purchase, I did peruse several shops: all-leather handbags were in the 150 to 200 lev range. If you’re hungry, you can stop by Restaurant Old Nesebar, with tables overlooking the sea. The mussels are 16.50 lev, a substantial markup over Burgas, but it still won’t break the bank.

About 30 minutes southeast of Burgas is another fantastic little town, Sozopol. The charm of Sozopol, like Nessebar, is in its cobblestone streets, appealing restaurants and breathtaking seaside views. There’s a slightly more festive feel, however — when I drove in and parked my car, the streets were full of vendors, music and street performers. I walked past some boutiques (I stopped into the particularly charming Kotka i Kotka, a small shop and gallery) and met my family at a restaurant called Antichen Kladenec, where we tucked into a seafood dinner that featured, among other things, fried stingray (16 lev).
The old town of Nessebar.
Danielle Villasana for The New York Times

Afterward, we had dessert crepes next door at Happy Pancake Workshop, a ramshackle operation that was manned by three affable young actors from Sofia. Three crepes — plum and cinnamon, chocolate, and apple and rosemary — ran me about 9 lev.

The beach, however, was ultimately what I came for. I sneaked down a small path one day near the Port of Burgas, stepping through weeds and high grass, until I had reached a beautiful, vast white sand beach. It was a blisteringly hot day, and the towels and umbrellas of beachgoers dotted the coast. Bikini tops littered the sand as well — the beaches are topless (or tops optional), so best to leave any puritanical notions at home.

My beach excursion was impromptu, and I wasn’t at all prepared, but I just went with it. I stripped down to my boxers, ditched my clothes in a secluded area near the sea wall and plunged in. The water was cool, and gloriously refreshing on my skin. I floated on my back, listened to the sounds of families picnicking, the lapping of the waves, a faint thump of music coming from somewhere down the beach, and wondered how I hadn’t made it to this part of the world earlier.

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