What to see and do in Bulgaria’s biggest national park

CNN  — 

On the southeastern fringes of Europe, Bulgaria is only just gaining a reputation tourist destination with huge potential.

But while it’s already pulling in visitors to its Black Sea beaches, its competitively priced ski resorts and its historic city of Plovdiv, the country still has many treasures waiting to be discovered.

One of them is the country’s biggest national park, Rila.

A drive south from capital Sofia, the park is home to a world of wonders ranging from a gilded Orthodox church that rivals Italian cathedrals to steep green ridges reminiscent of Northern Europe.

Read on for our top picks of what to see and do in Rila.

SEE: Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery, within Rila National Park, is a UNESCO-designated site deemed the spiritual beating heart of Bulgaria.

First things first: Get to the monastery.

It doesn’t take long for tourists fresh off the Sofia tarmac to hear about day trips to Rila Monastery Nature Park, located within Rila National Park. Bulgarians are proud of the UNESCO-designated site ornamented by intricate frescoes, candy-striped colonnades and a gleaming golden Orthodox church.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity is Bulgaria’s dominant religion, and the 1,000-year-old monastery could be deemed its spiritual beating heart. Though fire decimated the medieval complex about 200 years ago, the rebuilt monastery echoes its historic splendor.

Make time to step into the gilded jewelry-box-like church, bathed in the warm scent of hundreds of flickering beeswax candles. You’ll want to soak it in – photos are not allowed.

Insider tip: Before heading further into the mountains, most visitors wait in line at the little stone bakery outside the monastery for a taste of mekitsa, a simple fried pastry. You’ll find shakers of powdered sugar on picnic tables to garnish the fresh treat. Pair yours with a dollop of Bulgaria’s famous tangy yogurt, the strain of which – lactobacillus bulgaricus – is considered a national treasure.

DO: Hike the 7 glacial lakes

After touring Rila Monastery, you’ll find more beauty hidden in the surrounding misty forests. We recommend setting aside a full day or two to hike.

The Rila Lakes Hike offers panoramic views of indigo lakes and misty forests.

The Seven Rila Lakes hike is about a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) loop. To access the trailhead, park at Pionerska Hut, then take the gondola above the treeline to Rilska Ezera Hut. If you don’t mind simple, hostel-like accommodations, the upper hut is open for overnight stays.

Most visitors can hike the Seven Rila Lakes in about three to four hours, though beware that rapidly changing weather or the swell of hikers on weekends could slow your pace.

If you choose to take the loop counter-clockwise, you’ll ascend immediately up a steep rocky ridge covered in alpine tundra. Prepare to catch your breath at the top while you drink in views of the first three indigo lakes.

The hike’s midway point is also its highest altitude. Those less suited to steep scrambles can avoid the pinnacle – but if you’re at all intrepid, the verdant panoramic views are worth the climb.

SEE: Wild horses

Whether you head for the Seven Rila Lakes hike or one deeper in the mountains of the park, you’re sure to catch a glimpse of Rila National Park’s wildlife. Because the park is covered by both forests and craggy peaks, from below the treeline to alpine plateaus and crests above it, you might see deer, eagles, wild boars or even bears.

Perhaps most enchanting are the wild horses you can find silhouetted against the sky on the stony outcrops above hiking trails. Depending on the day and crowds, the packs of horses sometimes wander closer to the path or stay within clear sight of adventurous climbers.

Take precautions to protect wildlife and yourself. Always keep your distance from the animals, especially the occasional brown bear. Never share your food with any animals, and always take out with you any trash or food waste you carried into the park.

DO: Soak in the hot springs

While it is possible to sleep in one of the national park’s mountain huts, head to nearby Sapareva Banya, a small town on the edge of the park, if you’re interested in staying in a hotel or rented apartment. And accommodation isn’t the only reason to visit.

According to the Official Tourism Portal of Bulgaria, Sapareva Banya is home to the hottest mineral springs in Europe. Deep beneath the surface, water heats up to 103 degrees Celsius (217.4 Fahrenheit) before exploding from a geyser in the center of town. Mineral-rich water sourced from less scalding springs in the village – 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) – makes a soothing apres-ski or post-hike antidote for aching muscles.

The town’s primary hot springs spa, Kotvata Aqua Club, situated near the center of town, isn’t the Instagram dynamite of, say, Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon. But the sulphuric waters have melted tension and soothed weary travelers since the ancient Thracian times – and, as a bonus, they are stunning to see.

SEE: The highest mountain in the Balkans

High up in the Rila Mountains, Musala Peak stands 2925 meters (9596.5 feet) above sea level. If you’re interested in climbing to the apex, you have a choice from several starting points.

If you’d like to trek to the highest point on the Balkan peninsula in one day, take the gondola as high as you can, to Yastrebets Peak (2,369 meters). Along the trail, hikers can rest and purchase basic snacks at three mountain huts. Remember that facilities and supply options are scarce the higher you go. Pack sunscreen, warm layers and plenty of water for the journey.

Those hearty enough to make the climb will be rewarded with views of stark peaks wrapped in sparse sedges, moss, and cold mist.

DO: Visit Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, or Plovdiv, the 2019 European Capital of Culture

Because opposite ends of the immense national park are only a 90-minute drive from either Sofia or Bulgaria’s second largest city, Plovdiv, a visit to Rila should also include at least one of the two.

A visit to Rila National Park should include a stop in Bulgaria's capital city of Sofia, home to 1,000-plus years of rich history.

Plovdiv emerged as a trending tourist destination when it tied with Matera, Italy, for the 2019 European Capital of Culture. The charming, artsy city offers a delightful gamut of cultural influences, from Roman ruins to the mostly pedestrian labyrinth of shops and restaurants in the Kapana district, which translates to “the Trap.”

Plovdiv is a charming city full of art, Roman ruins, and a walking labyrinth of shops and restaurants.

If you’re interested in exploring Bulgaria’s capital, make sure to show up for one of Sofia’s many free walking tours. Guides will unpack the city’s 1,000-plus years of history, from the Roman ruins adjacent to the newest Metro station to the Square of Tolerance, where a mosque, synagogue, Catholic church, and Eastern Orthodox cathedral stand nearby in harmony. In the compact center, you can indulge in street foods like banitsa, a savory handheld pastry, all while exploring a globally influential civilization.