The vast majority of visitors remain on the Black Sea Coast, visiting other coastal towns and resorts. Varna, Bulgaria’s third city, is the most interesting of the big urbanisations on the shore, with an old-fashioned elegance and promenades leading down through parkland to the sea. It's worth hunting out its Roman baths and excellent archaeological museum, which helps make sense of the region’s historical background. The city has its own beach, and though it is not especially clean thanks to the proximity of the port, the shanty-town of clubs and bars is lively. A shuttle-bus runs between Golden Sands (see below) and the centre.
Burgas is less appealing and further away from most of the more southerly Black Sea resorts; tourists in the south tend to visit smaller coastal towns such as Nessebar, an ancient trading town on a spit of land, recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage site for the quality and quantity of its Byzantine and Ottoman buildings but unfortunately also close to Sunny Beach (see below), so crammed with tourists during the main part of the day. Less thronged is Sozopol, a former Thracian fishing settlement built out on a promontory into the Black Sea, now something of an artistic community, with narrow cobbled lanes and terraced restaurants with sea views.
Of the big Black Sea resorts, Golden Sands is the original playground of the apparatchik, set in sloping woodland and fronted by 3.5km of beach. Hotels are intricately packed side-by-side, which creates a convivial feeling. After dark, the main promenade comes alive with shows and there’s a jaunty, fairground atmosphere, with portrait artists, archery and shooting galleries, mechanical bucking bison, stalls where you paint your own ceramics, and photographer's studios that dress you in vintage clothes. The big discos are up in the woods behind. Resort-based kids’ activities include sports contests, puppet shows, pony-riding and discos, and there’s a slalom slide and water park, mini-golf, bouncy castles and mini-golf.
Sunny Beach, based around a 7km stretch of beach, is bigger, and although it has all the same attractions as Golden Sands, they are more widely spread, so visitors tend to stick to the vicinity of their own hotel. People-watching in the resorts can be highly entertaining, with young Scandinavians and Germans out and about in search of a party, and middle-aged Russians out and about in unfeasibly tight leopard-skin trousers. And there’s always likely to be a Cossack show or a troupe of whirling dervishes somewhere in the vicinity.
While the immediate hinterland to all the resorts is not especially interesting, Bulgaria has a couple of stunning mountain ranges with excellent hiking, wildlife and rural monasteries providing accommodation, as well as inexpensive beginner-to-intermediate winter skiing at Borovets and Pamporovo.
If you want to extend your family holiday by travelling inland, car rental is inexpensive but road signs are not so common and may well be in Cyrillic script, so you will need a good map. The best inland destination is Veliko Turnovo, a charismatic cobbled hilltop town that looks like something transported out of Tuscany, and that was once Bulgaria’s capital. Extensive ruins of the 5th-century Byzantine Tsarevets citadel encircle one of the hilltops, and several of the former palaces and merchants’ houses in town have been converted to galleries, restaurants and hotels.
For many centuries the dominant power in the region was the Ottoman empire, and indeed Istanbul is closer to the Black Sea coast than Sofia. During the season there are fast ferry services to the Turkish city from Black Sea resorts, usually selling packaged visits with one night’s accommodation included.
The Bulgarian capital Sofia, 500km from the coast, is essentially a business travel destination (Bulgarian culture and architecture took a bit of a pounding during Communism).