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Special thanks to Raya for guiding me through her hometown

On a bright autumn Sunday, I had agreed with my colleague Raya to meet up in her hometown. Blagoevgrad, to be precise. As I boarded the bus around 12:00 from Sofia, just an hour and half later it arrived at my destination. A smooth patch of highway and little traffic on the road made it a pleasant trip. As I arrived in Blagoevgrad, I noticed how relaxed the atmosphere felt. Especially compared to Sofia, a large and hectic city. The bus station of Blagoevgrad seems not to have changed in many years and does have its charm. Buses leave to several villages, such as Dolno Osenovo near the Rila Mountains. Also buses south to for example Petrich stop in Blagoevgrad. Raya picked me up with her car, which we then left home to continue walking. The center is pedestrianized and lovely to walk through in all seasons. This autumn it was still very sunny, as is often the case. Likewise, it was warmer than in the capital.

Directly I noticed the young population of the city, Raya pointed out this is because the city is home to the American University and the South-West University. Many students from all over the globe have found their way to this city and really make it feel alive. The city is the economic and cultural center of the southwestern part of Bulgaria. Besides, Raya explained that it's an excellent city to grow up. Many young families settle in town to give their little ones a careless youth, which I imagine you can definitely have in Blagoevgrad. The city is mostly attractive because of its location, close to mountains and close to sea (in Greece however). Apart from that, Sofia is a short ride away and so are Serbia and Macedonia. An ideal, strategic location for a town. The fresh air is noticeable and as you can see the mountains right from the center, you truly are surrounded by nature. The one drawback, however, is that there's little opportunity to work apart from some jobs that offer a far lower salary than in Sofia. Some people commute to the capital daily. If only there was more (well paid) work, it would be even more wonderful to live in this cozy town. Still, the city does have the sixth strongest economy in the country and the many clothing stores, restaurants and coffee places show this.

As we continued our walk through the center, we came across the main square with the American University, the post office (an inexplicably large building) and some nice parks. Eventually, we reached the old part of the city. This is located on the other (eastern) side of the Blagoevgradska Bistritsa river, that splits the center in two. Actually, the old part, known as 'Varosha', was only constructed during the Ottoman era. Not to say the city did not exist before, the ancient settlement Scaptopara emerged at 300BC and later fell under the Roman empire. Varosha, nowadays the old center, was built during the Bulgarian Revival which arose during the Ottoman reign. The city was named Cuma-ı Bala by the Ottomans. It was only named Blagoevgrad in 1950, after Dimitar Blagoev (founder of Bulgarian socialism). What is left from Varosha is the fully intact Church of the Presentation of the Mother of God from 1844 that can be visited. Right outside the gates is a spring pouring fresh water that can be drunk.

We had a wonderful lunch at restaurant Tsarski Klub, right in the Varosha quarter (Bistritsa Street no. 1, Tel.: +359 (0) 899943708 / +359 (0) 896374566). We then continued our walk along the Blagoevgradska Bistritsa river, on the western side right north of Hristo Silyanov Street. The path leads north for a few kilometres, along several nice coffee places and restaurants. Eventually we got to the Bachinovo Park, where we watched the lake with a couple of beautiful swans. The whole path is for pedestrians and cyclists only and it is such a pleasant walk right beneath the hills. If you keep walking, another kilometre northeast of the lake, is Park Hotel Bachinovo. There are many other places to spend the night in town. And, as the city is full of students, hearsay is there is a good nightlife as well. A good place to have coffee is on the upper floor of the city's shopping mall, 'Mall of Blagoevgrad' on Todor Aleksandrov Street. Eventually, I took the last bus home (which left Sunday afternoon around 18:00) with a good impression of this lively city that is so close to Sofia but yet so rarely visited by foreigners. Apart from the many international students of course. Let me know in case of any questions about Blagoevgrad or any other place in the country.

If you travel south coming from Sofia, there's plenty to see on your way. Make a detour and visit Dragoman, Tran or Zemen. In southern Bulgaria, near the Greek border, Petrich, Pirin village and Gotse Delchev are worth your visit as well. So are Bansko and Razlog, halfway between Sofia and Greece.

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