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How to spend a weekend in Bansko, Bulgaria's adventure hotspot

The Bulgarian resort is known for its winter sports, but its lively taverns, local crafts and outdoor adventures make for a memorable escape year-round.

Published 9 Mar 2021, 06:06 GMT, Updated 9 Mar 2021, 12:54 GMT
Autumn hiking in Pirin National Park, just a short drive from the town of Bansko.

Autumn hiking in Pirin National Park, just a short drive from the town of Bansko.

Photograph by Getty Images

There’s something a little Brothers Grimm about Bansko in winter. Wooden houses rise haphazardly from a blanket of snow, stone chimneys send puffs of meat-scented smoke into the air and bears, wolves and jackals prowl the ancient pine forests. With the town’s identity drawn from the great outdoors, it’s little wonder it feels so atmospheric.

Clinging to the slopes of southwest Bulgaria’s majestic Pirin Mountains, Bansko is perhaps best known as the country’s largest winter resort, where the savvy ski set comes for some of the best powder east of the Alps — at a fraction of the cost. And while the neon-lit ‘new town’, built at breakneck speed to accommodate the growing number of winter tourists, can teeter towards feeling a little overdeveloped, the old town centre retains its charm. Tourists who tear themselves from the pistes are rewarded with a maze of cobbled streets, handsome mansions and traditional taverns (known as mehanas), where veal stews and slow-roasted boar dominate the menus.

But when the ski season dies down, Bansko sheds its winter coat to become an adventure playground. Its sweeping green landscapes are an ideal terrain for a host of outdoor activities in the summer months, from hiking in the hills and zip-lining above the treetops to rafting through winding gorges. 

Day one: culture & crafts
 

Morning

Start the day by calling into the hole-in-the-wall bakery on Tsar Simeon Street for a banitsa (Bulgaria’s beloved filo pastry snack, laced with butter and cheese), best washed down with a glass of boza (a traditional sweet-and-sour fermented wheat drink). After fuelling up, set off on a two-hour walking tour of Bansko’s old town centre with Bansko Free Tour. The route takes in the town’s key sights, including the former homes of local literary luminaries and the 19th-century Holy Trinity Church, and also explores the town’s long-standing traditions of crafts, from masterful woodwork to weaving. 

Afternoon

Rest your legs with a stop at Banski Han, an old mehana known for its homemade bob chorba (bean soup spiced with paprika and mint) and garlic parlenka (flatbread). Afterwards, wander down to Velyan’s House, an 18th-century property that once belonged to the eponymous Bulgarian painter. It’s now an art and history museum, decorated with intricate wood carvings and striking murals. If you’re looking to pick up your own piece of local art, head to Pirin Street, the main drag, where craftspeople tout their wares — colourful ceramics and carved wooden spoons are typical of Bansko. 

Evening

Nights in Bansko’s old town are about two things only: wining and dining. Settle in for a Bulgarian feast at local institution Mehana Obetsanova, an 18th-century tavern where sheepskins cover the hand-carved chairs and waistcoated waiters glide around the room. Take your pick from a menu that champions meaty mains, such as braised lamb shanks, barbecued pork and slow-cooked veal. From here, amble over to Wine Bar 25 for a nightcap. The candlelit bar serves some of Bulgaria’s finest wines and excellent cheese and meat platters, which can make a delicious dinner on their own, especially if you’re after a light dish.

Bansko in springtime, with the Pirin Mountains in the background.

Photograph by Getty Images

Day two: the great outdoors
 

Morning

Rise early to explore the UNESCO-listed Pirin National Park, home to mountains, glacial lakes and swathes of ancient pine forest. How you explore this outdoor playground is up to you: in summer, choose from a guided hike or horse-ride to Muratovo lake or Mount Vihren, Bulgaria’s second-highest peak. In winter, meanwhile, there are 30 miles of blue, red and black slopes for skiers and snowboarders. Before setting off for the day, stop by Le Petit Nicolas for sandwiches to go (the smoked salmon and cream cheese baguette comes highly recommended).

Afternoon

After a day in the mountains, ease aching muscles in one of the local baths. There are a number of modern spas drawing on the area’s thermal waters, but Izgreva Hotel Complex in Banya offers a rustic alternative. Heated by mineral springs, its three open-air pools are kept between 32C and 45C degrees, and for just seven lev (£3), you can bask in the balmy waters while soaking up views of the Pirin Mountains. There’s a particular appeal during the colder seasons, when a plunge in the steaming stone pools requires a bracing, barefoot tiptoe across the snow.

Evening

Once rested, it’s time to hit up Bansko’s nightlife. Join the ski crowds for two-for-one cocktails and live music at après bar Happy End, followed by a late-night DJ set — and a karaoke session if the mood takes you — at the indoor-outdoor Bar 360. If you’re not into the party scene, or you’re visiting in the quieter summer months, opt for a cooking class at a local’s house. You’ll learn to make specialities like kapama (layers of meat, sauerkraut and rice cooked in a clay pot) and rakia, Bulgaria’s national tipple, made from fermented fruit.

Three of the best day trips from Bansko
 

Whether it’s a journey through wine country or a trip to see glimpses of ancient monastic life, most excursions from the town are easily undertaken by car or via organised tour

1. For culture: Rila Monastery

On the forested slopes of the Rila Mountains sits one of Bulgaria’s most celebrated architectural marvels. The Rila Monastery, famed for its striking black-and-white archways and daffodil-yellow domes, has been home to Eastern Orthodox monks for more than a millennium and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1983. Visitors often arrive on day trips from Sofia, but the monastery is closer to Bansko and can easily be visited independently or on a tour. For an immersive experience of the lives of Rila monks, consider staying the night in one of the guest cells. 

2. For wine-tasting: Melnik

Set amid towering sandstone cliffs and ancient ruins, the town of Melnik is considered Bulgaria’s wine-making capital, having produced wine for more than 600 years. The picturesque town — home to just 300 people — can be explored on a full-day wine-tasting tour from Bansko. As well as stops to sample the town’s signature red, Melnik 55, at a number of local wineries, most tours include a visit to the medieval Rozhen Monastery, the Melnik Pyramids (the town’s landmark 330ft-high sandstone formations) and Kordopulova, a grand house built in Bulgarian National Revival style.

3. For sun and sea: Kavala

How about swapping stews for souvlaki? It might feel a world away, but Bansko is just a couple of hours’ drive from the port of Kavala, sitting pretty on Greece’s Aegean coast. There’s no denying the appeal of the sandy beaches and seafront restaurants along this stretch of northern Greece, but there’s plenty more to tempt history and architecture buffs across the border, too. Highlights of a visit here include the well-preserved aqueduct and the picturesque, pastel-coloured old town, which is squeezed onto a narrow peninsula and dwarfed by a rambling hilltop fortress. 

Colourful detail at the UNESCO-listed Rila Monastery, on the forested slopes of the Rila Mountains.

Photograph by Getty Images

Five unmissable mountain adventures
 

1. Rafting

From March to October, following the winter snowmelt, the river Struma becomes an aquatic adventure course. Rafting BG runs whitewater rafting and kayaking tours that follow a 7.5-mile route through the stunning Kresna Gorge, with rapids ranging from grades two to four, depending on conditions. 

2. Rock climbing

Just over a mile from Bansko, Pirin National Park offers climbing routes for all levels. Further afield, Vihren peak attracts experienced climbers with its 1,300ft marble and limestone wall. Summer Bansko is the best port of call for booking a trip. 

3. Zip-lining

There are two zip-lining options near Bansko. The first, operated by Rafting BG, sends visitors flying on a 100 metre-long line above the raging Struma. The second, at Mountain Club Bulgaria in Dobrinishte, offers a series of adult- and child-friendly zip-line jumps that help you gradually build up to the highest zip-line. 

4. Canyoning

For the ultimate adrenalin rush, don a helmet and life jacket and take to the Vlahina river, where you can abseil beside waterfalls, whoosh down natural water slides and cliff-jump into crystal-clear stone pools. Book a tour with Summer Bansko

5. Paragliding 

Bansko’s thermal winds make it the perfect place to paraglide. Experienced paragliders tend to come prepared with their own equipment, but newbies can take to the skies during the winter months on a tandem flight with Fly Bansko. T: 00 359 89 789 9370.

Three to try: Bansko's best mehanas
 

1. Kasapinova Mehana

This 18th-century inn once provided food and shelter to revolutionaries on the run. Today, it entices hikers and skiers with its lamb, pork and rabbit dishes — all slow-roasted in one of the oldest furnaces in Bansko — and extensive selection of wines. 

2. Baryakova Tavern

One of the oldest mehanas in town, Baryakova Taven is a long-standing local favourite. In winter, meats are prepared on an open fire while diners look on from pinewood tables. Come summer, it gets top marks for the breezy verandah overlooking a flower-filled courtyard. T: 00 359 88 953 4582.

3. Dedo Pene

In the heart of Bansko’s old town is the eccentric Dedo Pene, whose walls are covered with accordions, vintage projectors and rusty cowbells. Housed in a 19th-century building, the restaurant is known for its delicious katino meze, a traditional pork and vegetable dish cooked in a clay pot. 

More info

bulgariatravel.org

How to do it

Ryanair, EasyJet and Wizz Air fly to Sofia from Stansted, Luton and Gatwick. From Sofia airport, a shared transfer to Bansko (around two to three hours) with Lifts To costs £16 per person. 

Double rooms at the five-star Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena Bansko start at £63. 

Published in the March 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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