Move over Italy. Forget the Greek islands. Ditch the French Riviera. In this guide we delve into the enthralling and beautiful Balkan corner of Europe to uncover some of the more off-the-beaten-track jewels of the continent. It’s Croatia vs Bulgaria; a showdown between the sea-washed land on the Adriatic and the mountain-scarred country on the Black Sea.
After a particularly tumultuous 20th century that involved political power struggles and war under the yoke of Russia and the breakup of Yugoslavia, both Croatia and Bulgaria are now once again welcoming tourists by their droves. They both offer handsome cities (Sofia, Dubrovnik) and eye-watering natural landscapes (Dinaric Alps, Carpathians), along with buzzy nightlife and a unique food scene.
But they are pretty different places. In one, you can spend your mornings sunning yourself on the side of the Adriatic Sea, hopping Italian-style hill towns, and uncovering Roman ruins. In the other, you can photograph haunting Orthodox church spires and ski down whizzing pistes in snow-dusted mountain ranges. Let’s unpick it a little more…
Bulgaria vs Croatia for beaches
Bulgaria might not be as famous as, say, Greece for its beaches. But this land on the eastern edge of the Balkan Peninsula tumbles into the Black Sea to offer a shoreline that runs for around 230 miles from Romania in the north to Turkey in the south. It’s a long bend of coast that offers all sorts, from built-up holidaymaker strands to remote and windblown dune scapes. For the most part it’s about sweeping dashes of yellow-beige sand backed by resort towns. Popular beaches in Bulgaria include:
- Sunny Beach – Bulgaria’s answer to Aiya Napa and Ibiza comes in the form of Sunny Beach, a long run of gorgeous golden sand that’s backed by sleepless party venues.
- Smokinya Beach – In the resort town of Sozopol, Smokinya Beach has wild camping options right by the waves.
- Pomorie Beach – A short drive out of Bourgas, this long and sandy beach is a family-friendly getaway with clean sands and beautiful views of the mountains overhead.
Then comes Croatia. Sorry, but there’s only one possible winner here, because this dog-leg of a country that zigzags down the Adriatic is a sheer stunner on the beach front. Highlights include the Makarska Riviera, where there are endless coves of pure white pebbles and turquoise shore waters filled with sea turtles and sardines. You’ve also got the pine-backed bays of islands like Mljet and Krk, along with the rugged cliffs of Istria, topped by stone pines and ancient Roman ruins. Be sure to check out…
- Stiniva Beach – Recently voted one of the best beaches in Europe, this hidden cove is flanked by high cliffs on the south side of Vis.
- Zrce Festival Beach – Pag’s best beach is long and sandy (unusual for Croatia), and is fast becoming known as a summer party mecca.
- Golden Horn Beach (Zlatni Rat) – The single best beach in the Adriatic for many, this incredible isthmus of glowing white sand and stone is a must for lovers of jaw-dropping coastline. Don’t miss it.
Winner: Croatia. It’s got some incredible coastline.
Bulgaria vs Croatia for nature
Mountains are the great defining feature of both Croatia and Bulgaria when you venture a little inland. But they are quite different ranges to be sure. Bulgaria comes scored by the swirling S-bend of the Carpathians, which begin way over in Poland before dropping into the Balkans and reaching all the way to the Black Sea. They hit a zenith in the protected Rila Mountains, at 2,925-meter-high Musala – the highest peak in the whole region.
That’s where the Rila National Park makes its home. It’s a doozy for hikers, with famous trails that link up the Seven Rila Lakes topping the bill. Further north is the 720-square-mile Central Balkan National Park, a land of springtime wildflowers that’s still stalked by feral wolves. Further east is the Strandzha Nature Park, packed with rhododendron forests and undulating grasslands on the Turkish border. There’s oodles to get through.
Croatia is different. It’s more rugged and rocky, with the tail end of the mighty European Alps crashing through its center. Here, they are known as the Dinaric Alps, and they offer some seriously dramatic moments where they rise right out of the Adriatic to peaks thousands of meters high – check out the sometimes-snow-capped tops of the Velebit mountain above the island of Pag, for example. And there’s more.
Deeper inland, Croatia offers the delights of the Krka National Park, a symphony of waterfalls surrounded by lush forests. Serious hikers might prefer to venture over to the Troglav region, where pine-studded valleys hit summits almost 2,000 meters up. But there’s also the sea, with protected islands like Lastovo replete with pine forests and empty bays of fish-filled reefs for both ramblers and snorkelers.
Winner: Draw. Both countries have magnificent backcountry.
Bulgaria vs Croatia for history
History buffs won’t be disappointed with a trip to Croatia. The land has been inhabited since prehistory, but was also colonized heavily by the Romans, who left grand amphitheatres and temples in their wake. Later on, a fragmentation of the country into city states gave rise to castle-topped towns like Dubrovnik and Rovinj, which are still among the most enthralling medieval spots in Europe if you ask us. If history is your number-one motivation to travel, be sure to check out…
- Diocletian’s Palace – The UNESCO World Heritage heart of Split cannot be missed, it’s a maze of ancient, Ottoman, Byzantine, and Gothic architecture like nowhere else on Earth.
- Pula Forum – The historic heart of Pula, a city in the north of Croatia, this area has temples built 2,000 years ago to honor the emperor Augustus, not to mention one of the most incredible amphitheaters outside of Italy.
- Dubrovnik – Yep, the whole city. Check out the muscular walls that were built in the 1400s!
The historic sites over in Bulgaria tend to be a bit more mystical, a touch rough around the edges, more off the beaten track. That doesn’t mean they’re any less enthralling. Nope – this country also boasts a human past of over 5,000 years, with periods of rule by the Greeks, the Persians, and the Slavs. That’s resulted in a real hodgepodge of heritage relics, including:
- The Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila – The Rila Monastery is the jewel in the crown of Bulgaria, with stunning Orthodox architecture, UNESCO status, and a past going back to the 10th century.
- Roman theatre of Philippopolis – A fantastically preserved Roman-era theatre that’s smack dab in the middle of Plovdiv’s downtown.
- Nessebar – Nessebar is hailed as one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in all of Europe. It’s now home to protected Byzantine bathhouse ruins and has cobbled lanes that weave around stoop cottages and crooked homes. It’s pretty incredible.
Winner: Draw. There’s history aplenty in both countries.
Bulgaria vs Croatia for nightlife
There are parties going on in both these spots. You’re most likely to find happening all-nighters in Bulgaria in the summer months. That down to the pumping resort town of Sunny Beach, which is a Balkan version of big 18-30s resorts of Malia, Kavos, and Aiya Napa over in Greece. It’s got a throbbing strip filled with discos and bars brimming with reps that offer free shots and pub crawls. If that’s not your thing, then Sofia is also worth considering. As the capital, it has a much more local nightlife scene, with underground rock bars and cocktail joints. Check out the district of Ulitsa Rakovski for some of the most happening venues.
We’d say Croatia turns on the hedonism just a little more than Bulgaria. Strangely, it doesn’t have a full-on 18-30s town like Sunny Beach. What it does have is the uber-chic yachters mecca of Hvar, which converts into one big champagne and cocktail party between May and August most years. Head to the main marina or hit one of the beach clubs nearby to feel the vibes. Also don’t miss Split, the current home of the HUGE EDM blowout that is Ultra Europe. Croatia is also a hub for booze cruise parties, where you hop on board a boat for a couple of days and dance on deck every evening.
Winner: Croatia. Although the nightlife in Bulgaria isn’t bad at all!
Bulgaria vs Croatia for ease of travel
Getting to Bulgaria has become way easier than it used to be. That’s mainly down to low-cost airlines in Europe. The likes of Ryanair and Wizz Air now link to Sofia Airport (which was recently totally refurbished), offering direct connections from London Gatwick, Bergamo, Basel, Charleroi, and Dublin. They turn a trip that would once have been an all-night train from Budapest into just a few hours, though you can still catch the locomotive if you’re feeling adventurous. The main gateways to Bulgaria from the air are Sofia, Varna, and Burgas.
There are now tonnes of flight links into Croatia – far more than into Bulgaria. That’s because this Adriatic country is a major sunshine and sand hotspot. The result? A lot of flights with BA and Ryanair and others are seasonal, meaning they only run May to September. Zagreb Airport is the largest in the country, but we’d actually recommend looking for connections to Split or Dubrovnik if you want to hit the beaches and the islands (as most people do). Croatia is also linked to Italy by boat, from ports like Bari and Ancona just across the sea. What’s more, bus connections from Budapest and Trieste shouldn’t take too long.
Bulgaria vs Croatia for cost of travel
Bulgaria is still considered one of the cheapest countries for travelers in the whole of the EU. It’s nowhere near the same wallet-busting level of its Western European compadres, like France and Germany. You can get a cappuccino in a coffee chain for a mere 2.36 BGN ($1.40). A 500-mil domestic beer is about the same as that, with an average cost of 2.50 BGN ($1.60) – yep, for a whole cold one! Even rent is affordable, with the average cost of a city flat in Sofia coming in at about 850 BGN (just over $500), and Airbnb long-term lets costing a touch more than that. Basically, this is a fantastic place if you’re looking to vacation on a budget.
Prices in Croatia have shot up in recent years. It’s now one of the pricier locations on the Balkan Peninsula, more in line with Italy than with Bulgaria. You can expect to pay in the region of 11 HRK ($1.60) for a cappuccino here, while some of the top-range hotels go for in the region of 850 HRK ($135). Public transport remains very affordable, with one-way bus tickets coming in at just 10 HRK a ride – that’s about $1.50. Beer in Zagreb (the Croatian capital) is likely to be more expensive than beer in Sofia (the Bulgarian capital), though, with 500-mil priced at about 16 HRK ($2.50).
Croatia vs Bulgaria for things to do
Bulgaria offers adventure travelers a real glut of backcountry pursuits. When the snow falls, the resort of Bansko is the place to be. It’s got 75km of marked runs on the north side of the Pirin Mountains. In spring and summer, you can hit the endless trails of the Rila National Park or escape the Rat Race down in the Rhodope range. Culture lovers can plan whole trips hopping monastery after monastery here, too with the Rila Monastery usually topping the bill. There’s souvenir shopping in Nessebar, along with plenty more history, and partying to be done in Sunny Beach. Pretty diverse, eh?
Croatia is more of an out-and-out sun, sand, and sea place. Most people – but not all – come for the beaches and the coves. They are plentiful, with the Makarska Riviera and the western side of Istria proving our favorite regions year after year. You can laze and sunbathe the whole time if you’d like, but don’t forget that Croatia is a yachting mecca. Charters for a week can see you whizzing across the Adriatic to find empty coves to call your own. Then there are the historic towns, like Rovinj, Motovun, and Sibenik, all charming mishmashes of narrow lanes and piazzas with fantastic Italo-influenced eateries.
Bulgaria vs. Croatia – Conclusion
The truth is that Bulgaria and Croatia are quite different countries. Yes, they both inhabit rugged, mountainous corners of the Balkans, but they are on opposite sides of the peninsula. That means Bulgaria offers the soaring heights of the Carpathian Mountains, while Croatia is crumpled by the ends of the Dinaric Alps. It means one spills into the Black Sea (Bulgaria), while the other has the shimmering beaches of the Adriatic (Croatia).
Culturally, Bulgaria is more influenced by the east. It has mystical Orthodox monasteries and onion-domed churches. Croatia’s past is linked more to Italy, so expect piazza towns and castles with Gothic architecture.
Overall, we’d say the beaches are better in Croatia but both countries boast some jaw-dropping backcountry for hiking. Bulgaria is the cheaper of the two (by quite a way, too) and offers more unique experiences, like skiing in Bansko and touring old town Nessebar.