The other day, my mom sent me a concerned message of me withholding important information about the country I was living in at that time: Bulgaria. Is Bulgaria safe? Especialy if you do Bulgaria solo travel? Mom heard terribly concerning stories about armed police, the mafia and generally it doesn’t appear to be a good idea. It took me a while to convince her otherwise, Bulgaria really is safe to travel, solo or not. And since there is plenty of prejudice against Bulgarians floating around (and the media isn’t helping), here is my take on safety in Bulgaria.
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How Are Women Treated?
Unlike in many other Western European countries, I’ve never had a problem with catcalling in Bulgaria. People are very friendly on the Balkan peninsula. In fact, I should add it to my favourite countries to visit as a solo traveller.
Of course, sometimes the experiences are different between female solo travellers and local women actually living in a place. So I asked my Bulgarian friend Maria from Travelling Buzz. She had the following to say:
“I have been living in Sofia for 10 years now and I never had an unsafe experience. Compared to many other popular European capitals, Sofia is not a place where I feel threatened. Of course, having a basic common sense regarding your safety applies in any situation and any place.”
Safety on the Streets & Pickpocketing
In some parts of the country, it shows that Bulgaria is one of the poorer European countries. After the fall of Communism, the country has slowly been rebuilt but some areas have been pretty much left as they were.
As a result, some areas might feel a little bit dodgy but overall, I’ve never felt unsafe. There is some pickpocketing happening, but mainly in touristy and crowded areas like Sofia’s attractions the resorts and beaches of Varna, Sunny Beach and Burgas, for instance.
Occasionally there are burglaries in hotel rooms, so always lock your valuables away in a safe and lock all doors and windows as well.
Inquire at your reception or tourist information if there are any local areas to be avoided – especially at night. For Sofia, that’s the area around the train station. If you have to walk here, follow the tram tracks or just take the tram. (Bonus tip: If you get on the tram with luggage, buy two tickets – one for your luggage.)
How Not to Look Like an Obvious Tourist
Obviously, most scams and pickpocketing happens to tourists. So one way – aside from general caution – is to make yourself not look like such an easy target. Wear smart casual clothes, leave big backpacks at home and don’t show off that you have money.
The latter is easy to tell in Bulgaria with a ton of shopping bags and jewellery on you. Bulgarians like to keep it simple.
It’s helpful to download an (offline) map onto your phone, such as the free maps.me. This way, you always know where you are and can get to your destination easily. Do advance research on where you want to go, set your pins and have the route calculated for you.
No need to ask for directions. People are generally very nice and will want to help you. The main idea here is to not look utterly lost.
Classic Travel Scams in Bulgaria
There isn’t anything new here in Bulgaria when it comes to travel scams. However, if you haven’t travelled extensively like I have (I’m at four years straight now), you might not be too familiar with them. So here they are. There’s no need to be overly worried, just be informed and cautious. And this doesn’t just apply when you are in Bulgaria for solo travel. So no need to excessively worry “is Bulgaria safe?”
- Money Exchange – Only exchange money in banks, licensed exchange points or hotels. Avoid changing counters and never do it on the streets! Exchange rates can be fake or fake money handed out. You don’t want that.
- Overcharging – Check if your taxi is official and turns the metre on. Ask for club prices at your reception to avoid paying too much and not knowing it. Always check bills in case you are charged too much. Maybe they rewarded themselves with an extra service fee or snuck on an additional item. Usually, they won’t fight you over it and will refund you rightaway.
- Roadside stops – During our roadtrip, somehow the emblem was stolen. There have been reports of car tires being punctured, victims distracted and belongings sneakily stolen. Just like anywhere, better lock your car doors.
- Gifts – The rule of thumb is: never accept seemingly free gifts from strangers. Chances are the handmade bracelet, rose or trinket isn’t free at all. Once you accept it, you can’t return it and will be hounded to pay for it. When people walk up to your table to sell little things, that’s a different and legit thing.
- No tickets – This isn’t necessarily a scam per se but really, you should get your tickets for public transportation in advance. Otherwise, have exact change and buy it from the driver. However, they might be busy or won’t respond to you and you wouldn’t want to be caught and fined.
- Entertainment distraction – As with many crowded shopping streets, you might find the occasional seller or entertainer. A flock of people might gather around and that’s an easy way for pickpockets to strike. Keep your hands on your bag and camera around your neck to be on the safe sied.
Safety on Public Transport
Speaking of public transportation, Bulgaria is generally safe in that respect. The metro in Sofia is secure and there is police/security present. Avoid getting into trouble by buying your ticket in advance.
If you are riding on busy trams and buses, there is some danger of being pickpocketed. As always, use common sense and know the mains safety hacks for solo travellers.
Safety on the Roads
People aren’t driving too crazy but still more on the aggressive and fast side. It’s better to use underpasses for busy roads. Jaywalking is common but you still have to be very careful as cars don’t care very much about pedestrians.
If you start hitchhiking, you will quickly notice that seatbelts for anyone but the driver seem to be mandatory. In the cars that I hitchhiked in, there weren’t any seatbelts in the back. With rentals cars, there are. Seatbelts are mandatory, so if you have one, use it!
In case you are taking a taxi, double check the prices in advance or have your reception call a trusted service. Taxi rip offs do happen and there are illegal taxis around, which will definitely charge you more. Official taxis are labeled and yellow (a few are green) and have the rates on the passenger door window. You can hail them off the street but usually they are busy.
The best way to get a taxi AND know the prices upfront is the app TaxiMe. Uber is a tad more expensive and not as common. Taxi prices are per km, not fixed between destinations.
Here are some more tips for taxis in Bulgaria.
All over Bulgaria, you can see a lot of stray animals roaming about, both cats and dogs. I’ve been told that’s because after the fall of Communism the majority of citizens could no longer afford pets and released them to fend for themselves.
As a result, there are stray animals everywhere and they are often malnourished and carry diseases. Stay away from the poor souls. Most of them appear to be friendly but some can be really aggressive as happened during my July Morning disaster. Other than that, I’ve only experience barks no bites, so Bulgaria is safe nonetheless.
Actual pets, however, aren’t much better either. Walking around towns and villages, dogs often fall into aggressive overprotective mode. It can be quite scary. Many dogs aren’t leashed either.
What You Need for Extra Safety in Bulgaria
- Travel insurance – This should be a given for any trip you are planning, but you definitely have to have travel insurance. This includes your medical insurance as well because you never know if an accident will occur or you will get sick, no matter how healthy you are or how many vitamins you are taking daily.
- Visa & passport – For EU citizens, you don’t need to get a visa if you’re staying for less than 90 days. If you exceed 90 consecutive days, you need to register with the local immigration office. For US citizens, you can stay a total of 90 days over the period of six months. They are very strict with this, so don’t overstay.
- Cash – Bulgaria is a cash heavy country. Visa cards aren’t accepted across the board though in big cities, like Sofia and Varna, you can find plenty of restaurants and hotels that accept your visa card. Upon hotel check in, you will need to show your passport.
- Local sim card – Being part of the EU, you can generally get away with a sim card from another EU country for a bit but then it stops working or you will be charged roaming fees. Local sim cards (including wifi) are really affordable, so why not invest in one? Bulgaria does have free wifi hotspots, such as at airports, in city centres, cafes and restaurants. But to be flexible on the go, a sim card is the way to go. If you can’t be bothered, get the skyroam portable wifi and use day passes.
- Vaccinations – As with all travels (including in your home country), vaccinations are recommended. For Bulgaria, they are not obligatory. It would be wise to get rabies vaccination, especially because of the many stray animals. Rabies vaccine lasts two to five years (and should be no later than 10 years).
Is Bulgaria Safe to Travel?
Absolutely! The media likes to paint Eastern Europe as a poor and criminal place but really, it’s not. Crime levels are low. Bulgaria is multicultural and multireligious, locals are very welcoming and hospitable and it’s easy to get around.
Yes, there are scammers, but so there are in most countries. If you went to Barcelona or London, for instance, you’d have to worry so much more about pickpocketing or maybe even terrorist attacks. Bulgaria remains rather peaceful.
There you have it. So when are you gonna travel Bulgaria?
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