7 Tips for Making the Most of Crowded Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik is one of the most visited cities in all of Croatia— and for good reason. The Old City is encircled by ancient city walls and when you walk through the gates, you’re instantly transported through time. Inside is a maze of narrow stone streets, medieval palaces and cathedrals, and restaurants around every corner. Not to mention, its location on the Adriatic Sea makes for postcard-worthy beaches, so you can combine sightseeing with just the right amount of relaxation.

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The fact that Dubrovnik’s Old City is a historical treasure is no secret, though, and the city is visited by thousands of tourists each year. Of course, its reputation as the filming location for Game of Thrones and the Star Wars movies has only increased the city’s popularity.

While I typically get rather turned off by places that are overrun by tourists, I have to make an exception for Dubrovnik. There’s just something about this charming medieval city that lures you in and leaves you wishing you could stay longer. And with a few tricks up your sleeve, you can make the most of the city despite the crowds.

Here are a few tips I picked up during my visit that will help make your stay in Dubrovnik even more enjoyable:

1. Visit in the Shoulder Seasons

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My favorite time to travel anywhere in Europe is during the shoulder months: April and May in the spring and September and October in the fall. The shoulder seasons are a great time to travel because the weather is still nice (not too cool, not too hot), and there are typically fewer tourists around. This is the case with Dubrovnik as well. I visited in April and while the water was still chilly (though we did manage to jump in, even if only for a few minutes!), the weather was a perfect 70 degrees. We had no issues with restaurants being open or tours operating, either. Don’t get me wrong, there were still many people in the city (especially more than we were used to after traveling through the Balkans in the winter), but fewer than I’d imagine flock to the city in the summer.

2. Walk the City Walls in the Morning

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Stunning views the whole way around!

Walking the ancient city walls that surround the Old City is one of the most popular activities in Dubrovnik and is a must-do: the views are spectacular! However, the walls can get PACKED, especially midday when big crowds of people arrive from cruise ships. To enjoy the walls at your own pace and be able to take as many photos as you want without people passing through, it’s best to go in the morning. We visited right when they opened at 8am and did not regret it!

 

Generally, avoiding the midday crowds is also a good idea when wandering around the city and going out to eat as well. It’s much less crowded early in the mornings so you can get some nice photographs (such as the ones above) without a bunch of people in them, and it’s better to eat dinner out when cruise ships have left rather than lunch.

3. Stay Outside the Old City

Staying outside the Old City is a great way to enjoy all it has to offer while having the option to take a break from the crowds in a quieter part of Dubrovnik. Dewey and I stayed in an apartment that was about a 10 minute walk from Pile Gate, the main entrance to the Old City, with a view overlooking the water and the city from our balcony.

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View from the balcony

Admittedly, we had to climb quite a few stairs to get home as Dubrovnik is a hilly city, but the view was worth it! We enjoyed exploring the Old City and then retreating to our apartment for a glass of wine on our balcony in the evenings.

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As you can see, many steps!

Staying outside the Old City will also help you save money on accommodation as it’s much cheaper and allow you to see other parts of Dubrovnik beyond the walled city. It’s a win-win!

4. Visit the Less Popular Sveti Jakov Beach

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When visiting Dubrovnik, most people go to Banje Beach to hang out by the water. It’s located right next to the Old City, so it’s understandable that it’s the most popular. However, if you’re willing to venture a bit further away from the city, I highly recommend visiting Sveti Jakov (St. Jacob) Beach. It’s about a 20 minute walk from the Old City, but the walk is easy and enjoyable with many views looking out over the Adriatic along the way. Plus, the beach itself is beautiful and because it’s a bit away from the city center, there were far fewer people there. Dewey and I referred to it as our secret beach, but we are happy to share the secret with you all!

Tip: Along the walk there is a cool turn off you can take that leads to a bunch of rocks that have been flattened on top so you can sit and watch the sunset over the Old City with no one else around. I came here a few times to journal and do yoga and it was so peaceful. If you put Sveti Jakov Beach into your GPS, follow the directions about 15 minutes until you pass three benches on your left. There will be a staircase leading down to the water on your right just passed the benches, and it will take you to the rocks.

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View from the hidden rock spot

5. Get Ice Cream at Dolce Vita

What’s better than ice cream on vacation!? When you enter the Old City, there is a café right on the main drag that sells ice cream. However, don’t be tempted to go here. The lines are often so long they block the street! If you’re looking to cool off with a big scoop, seek out Dolce Vita café. It’s right off the main street and it’s way less busy. Both Dewey and I can attest that the ice cream was delicious (they had a Ferrero Rocher flavor!!) and we didn’t have to waste time standing in long lines.

6. Take Advantage of Dubrovnik’s Many Excursions

A excellent way to explore Dubrovnik without all the crowds is to take an excursion, and Dubrovnik offers many. You can take boat tours, visit nearby islands, scuba dive, jet ski, hike, and much more.

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While we were there, we did a sea kayaking tour. It was such a fun, inexpensive way to learn about the city’s history from a local guide while also getting in some exercise. Not to mention, views of the ancient city walls from the water were breathtaking. If you’re interested, you can find the tour we did here.

Another excursion you can take is to the island of Lokrum, which is just a 15 minute boat ride from the Old City with ferries running every hour. It’s a picturesque island with forests to wander as well as rocky cliffs and a beautiful lagoon.

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Enchanting lagoon on Lokrum

You can explore the ruins of a medieval Benedictine monastery, hike to an old fort built by the French for panoramic views of Dubrovnik, and stroll through botanical gardens. You can also have lunch totally surrounded by nature at one of only four cafes on the island. Not to mention, the island is covered with peacocks (if you’re lucky, they might show you their feathers) and bunnies! After spending a lot of time in the Old City, it was nice to escape to nature for the day.

 

7. Check Out Events Happening During Your Stay

I always encourage looking into local events when planning a trip, and being the popular city it is, Dubrovnik will likely have something going on while you’re there. It’s a great way to see what local’s are interested in and gives you a chance to do something different than the typical tourist activities.

We lucked out and discovered that the Dubrovnik Wine Festival was happening while we were visiting. We learned from local wineries about Croatian wine and tried the most delicious cheeses and meat from a nearby farm. The best part about the event is that it took us to a different part of the city, Sunset Beach in Lapad Bay, which was a lively area with many restaurants. We were there at sunset, too, and we quickly understood how the beach got its name! Dubrovnik is more than just the Old City, and I was happy to have had a chance to see other areas.

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Tip: If you decide to visit the Sunset Beach area (which I recommend), have dinner at Pantarul. Our host recommended it to us and said it was the best food in all of Dubrovnik— we can confirm it was delicious! Eating here is a good way to avoid tourist prices at restaurants in the Old City as well.

Our week in Dubrovnik was a highlight of my trip so far, and I highly recommend visiting this unique city. I hope these tips will help you manage the crowds and make the most out of your stay.

 


 

8 Things to Do in Mostar That Make it More Than Just a Day Trip

Surrounded by massive mountains with the aqua-blue Neretva River running through it and a remarkable stone bridge, the old town in Mostar looks very much like a fairytale. It’s a city that doesn’t get as much attention as some of its Balkan neighbors; yet, its diverse ethnic makeup, complicated past, and lingering Ottoman influence make it a rich travel experience worth more than just a few hours. Though still recovering from the devastations of a war only as old as I am, restoration efforts have come a long way, and the city offers picturesque views, alluring activities, and unique learning opportunities for the curious traveler.

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What I loved about Mostar is that when I arrived from Split in Croatia, I felt like I had traveled much further than three hours. Reminders of its Ottoman past are still prevalent in the city because Bosnia & Herzegovina is one of the few Balkan countries where many people converted to Islam and remained in the country after independence. Travelers can observe elegant mosques, Turkish-style houses, a market that feels similar to a Turkish bazaar, and hear the call to prayer five times a day.

If you’re thinking about visiting Mostar, I urge you to stay overnight. When the evening comes and the tour bus crowds go home, the city lights up and begins to feel magical. With less people around, wandering through the pebbled streets of the enchanting old town past colorful houses with roofs made of stone makes you feel as is you’ve traveled back in time.

Read on to learn about all of the exciting sights and activities Mostar has to offer and discover why you should keep this intriguing city on your travel radar.

1. Walk Across the Historic Stari Most Bridge

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The Stari Most Bridge is probably Mostar’s most recognized landmark. It was built in 1556 by the Ottomans and had the widest freestanding arch in the world at that time. It survived for centuries before it was tragically destroyed in the Croat-Bosniak War in 1993. Fortunately, it has been rebuilt using the same materials and original methodology, allowing tourists to be able to admire the impressive architectural feat once again.

You can also watch adventurous men diving from the bridge, a tradition that began in the 17th century as a way of impressing the ladies in the town! Nowadays, they’ll wait until they’ve collected about 30 kuna from an eager crowd and then jump 78 feet down into the water. If you are brave enough to jump yourself, they offer a full-day training course you’ll have to take before you can attempt it on your own.

2. Visit the War Photo Exhibition

Traveling is about getting to know another culture, and understanding the country’s history plays an important role in appreciating how the country came to be what it is today. If you’re planning a trip to the Balkans and are a history nerd (like me), having the opportunity to learn about the fall of Yugoslavia from the different viewpoints of the countries involved can’t be missed.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has long been a multi-ethnic region composed of Catholic Croats, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Orthodox Serbs. With the break up of Yugoslavia and the succession of Croatia, tensions between ethnic groups began to rise within the region, and the Bosnian War of 1992-1995 was the result of these ethnic divisions. The War Photo Exhibition is a powerful series of photographs that illustrates the tragedies of the war, in which the Stari Most Bridge was bombed, and gives you insight into the lives of civilians living in Mostar at the time. It’s an excellent way to understand the complex past of a city still healing and how it came to be the beautiful place tourists enjoy today.

3. Sit Riverside and Enjoy Mouthwatering Traditional Food

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Mostar has many restaurants with inviting terraces that overlook the Neretva River. Because Mostar is still a bit undiscovered, with the most crowded times being midday when tour buses arrive, it was easy for us to get a table at night right next to the river (another reason to stay overnight!).

Most of the restaurants offer traditional Bosnian and Herzegovinian food served in big portions at an extremely affordable price. Dewey and I split a platter of traditional food and a bottle of wine and our bill only came to $36.

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View from our table

The cuisine is similar to the rest of the Balkans with dishes like dolma and ćevapi, but some items are unique to the country’s diverse history. A specialty of the Mostar region specifically is Sogan Dolma which is onion stuffed with rice, minced meat, and seasoning. You must also try a traditionally Ottoman dish, Begova Corba (Bey’s Soup in English), a soup made of vegetables and chicken cooked until the broth is creamy and rich. It tastes like a chicken pot pie made into a soup! To finish, sip on a delicious coffee paired perfectly with a sweet treat like baklava.

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Begova Corba

4. Visit a Mosque & Enjoy Panoramic Views of the City from the Minaret

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View from the top of the minaret

There are many beautiful mosques in Mostar that, despite being damaged in the recent Bosnian War, have been restored and can be observed by visitors today. Though I had seen a few mosques throughout my travels in the Balkans, Mostar had by far the most, and the countless minarets piercing the sky throughout the city make for a striking view. One particularly well-preserved mosque built by the Ottomans in the 17th century is the Koski Mehmed Pasha mosque, which you can visit for a small fee. Take in the peaceful interior and climb to the top of the minaret for glorious views of the river, the city, and the surrounding mountains.

5. Observe the Cultural Mix of Architecture

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Mostar’s first high school built in the Moorish Revival style

Mostar has a diverse mix of architecture representative of its Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and former Yugoslavian past. Turkish houses and mosques sit next to apartments built in the geometric Brutalist style of the Socialist Era. Close by, administrative buildings constructed in the Neo-Renaissance style of the Austro-Hungarian Empire tower over the streets. In an attempt to celebrate cultural differences in the country while maintaining influence, the Austro-Hungarian Empire supported the construction of new buildings in a way that combined European designs with that of Mostar’s Ottoman past. The result was the unique Moorish Revival architecture. Mostar’s first high school is an extraordinary example of this.

6. Take an Informative Free Walking Tour

Free walking tours are one of my favorite ways to orient myself with a new city. Luckily, Mostar offers a free walking tour everyday that you can join (for more information on the tour times, click this link). Having a local share about his/her own country and traditions is always a valuable experience.

What I particularly enjoyed about the tour, though, was that the guide provided insight into life during the recent war, which gave us a better understanding of a complicated time. The tour takes you beyond the old town and shows you how much of the city is still in ruins. The guide even showed us photos of buildings that used to exist in the very spot we were standing but were bombed during the war. Taking a tour like this one was beneficial because it gave us a different perspective we might not have received had we just kept to the restored old town.

7. Browse the Markets

There are two markets held on the streets that lead to the Stari Most Bridge that you can wander. Similar to a Turkish bazaar, the market sells mostly Turkish crafts such as intricately decorated tea sets, jewelry, carpets, scarves, and gorgeous mosaic lamps. Some of it can be tourist junk, but amongst the corny souvenirs you can find some real gems. Grab an ice cream cone from one of the nearby cafes and take a stroll!

8. Explore the Surrounding Area

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Blagaj Tekija, the Dervish monastery

Mostar makes for a great home base to explore various destinations in the surrounding area. One of these destinations is the Blagaj Tekija, a Dervish monastery located beneath a massive cliff next to the sparkling blue Buna River. This was probably one of my favorite excursions so far. The water from the river is so pure you can drink from it directly. Just 30 minutes by bus or car, it makes for a perfect half-day trip. Dewey and I had fun exploring the monastery and then sat down at one of the many cafes that align the river for a peaceful outdoor lunch with an absolutely unreal view.

Another day trip you can take from Mostar is to see the Kravice Falls. As I was only in Mostar for two days (and wished I had more time), I didn’t have a chance to explore the park. The waterfalls are only about 50 minutes by car from the city, and our guide told us they’re stunning especially because they aren’t as widely known as other national parks like the Krka Waterfalls in Croatia. So, you can take in the nature without tons of tourists around.

My only regret after visiting Mostar is that I didn’t allow myself more time to explore Bosnia & Herzegovina. I have heard great things about Sarajevo, the country’s thriving capital , and I am definitely planning to include it in my future travels!

 


 

13 Traditional Bulgarian Dishes to Try

I spent about a month in Bulgaria and in that time I fell in love with Bulgarian cuisine. In fact, it was probably my favorite cuisine of all the countries I’ve visited so far.

Bulgarian history is complicated. The country has been a crossroads of many civilizations throughout time, and thus, its food is a collection of different cultures. Greek, Ottoman, and Slavic culture along with the country’s unique climate combine to make Bulgarian cuisine special.

It’s an ideal mix of fresh vegetables, yogurt, cheese, spices and grilled meat, but what I particularly loved about Bulgarian food was not just what they eat but how they eat it. Bulgarians cherish time with family, and eating together is one of the best ways to enjoy each other’s company. Traditional dishes are shared amongst friends and family over the course of a few hours. One night, Dewey and I went out to a traditional restaurant and we were seated next to three older Bulgarian men who were still there chatting, laughing, and eating after we had paid the bill (and we were there for 2.5 hours)! Bulgarians never rush to finish their meal, and the waiter will often leave you be until you call him/her back over to order more.

Here are some of the many delicious specialties you should try while vacationing in Bulgaria:

1. Banitsa

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If you’re like me and prefer savory over sweet dishes, banitsa is the perfect breakfast option for you. It’s a popular pastry made with filo dough, butter, and Bulgarian cheese and then baked in the oven. Though not low in the calorie department, it’s definitely worth a try. Plus, it’s a great for munching on-the-go while you explore the city. One of the tour guides I had in Sofia told me he eats one every morning!

2. Lyutenitsa

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Lyutenitsa is a spread made mostly of smashed red peppers and tomatoes and packed with flavor. There are many variations of it: puréed or chunky, spicy or mild, and different vegetables can be added as well. Most Bulgarians grew up eating their Grandmother’s homemade version on toast for breakfast. I wasn’t lucky enough to try the homemade kind, but fortunately it’s sold in grocery stores all around Bulgaria. I tried various takes on the spread, but my favorite was the chunkier kind with eggplant added. I ate it almost everyday I was there (I especially liked having it with scrambled eggs— though not typically eaten this way, I’d definitely recommend it). I even bought two jars to carry with me to our next destination!

3. Yogurt

It would be a crime to leave Bulgaria without tasting the yogurt (or to Bulgarians, “sour milk”). Bulgarian yogurt is so important that it’s considered to be a part of the people’s identity and something they are extremely proud of producing. Seriously, yogurt is everywhere and consumed in every way: as a dip, salad, cold soup, drink, or sold homemade in jars outside of locals’ homes! What makes their yogurt different is a special kind of bacteria, Lactobacillus bulgaricus (yes, even the bacteria is named after the country), that grows naturally in the Bulgarian climate. It makes the yogurt thicker and SO fresh. Locals believe it’s linked to good health, cures hangovers, helps sunburns, and can even make you live longer!

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My favorite dish that you’ll find on almost every restaurant menu was the yogurt salad. It’s made with cucumber, dill, garlic, and walnuts. It was so simple yet so refreshing especially before a heavier grilled meat dish. Another common dish that I didn’t have a chance to try (but I will on my next visit) is the cold yogurt soup called tarator, which is made with similar ingredients as the salad and eaten in the summer.

Even if you’re not a yogurt fan, give Bulgarian yogurt a chance. It’s unlike anything sold in grocery stores in the States!

4. Ayran (Sour Milk Drink)

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I became obsessed with this drink while I was visiting Bulgaria. It’s sour and slightly salty and made from the same Bulgarian yogurt mentioned above. It can be sipped with breakfast or lunch; I usually had it with a banana in the morning, and it kept me full for hours. You can find it served fresh in restaurants or sold by the bottle in grocery stores. It contains that same bacteria that’s in the yogurt, so it’s great for your health!

5. Shopska Salad

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Can you see the colors of the Bulgarian flag?

Every restaurant in Bulgaria will have shopksa salad on the menu, and that’s because its creation is tied to when the country was under Communist control. The government wanted to create a dish that represented Bulgaria and could be replicated and sold in every restaurant. So, the shopska salad was invented. It’s made with red pepper, cucumber, tomato, onion and topped with freshly grated cow cheese. The ingredients are meant to represent the colors of the Bulgarian flag.

Though no longer a Communist country, the shopska salad remains a staple of Bulgarian cuisine. What makes a shopska salad so delicious is the freshly grated cow cheese on top. Dewey and I found it so flavorful we didn’t need to add any dressing!

Nowadays, you can find many other salads offered on the menu, such as a shepard’s salad, which is essentially the same as shopska but with ham and egg. I found the produce in Bulgaria to be so fresh that any salad you pick will be tasty!

6. Rakia

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Rakia can range is color from clear to a yellowish tint

Rakia is the national drink of Bulgaria. It’s a fruity brandy with high alcohol content that is popular across all of the Balkans; however, Bulgarians argue that it originated in their country. Warning: asking a Bulgarian where it originated is a sensitive question! It’s a staple of Bulgarian culture and they believe it can help cure anything. Upset stomach? Drink rakia. Sore throat? Drink rakia. Headache? Drink rakia.

It can be made from various fermented fruit, though Bulgarians commonly use grapes, apricots and plums. It’s served in a small glass and traditionally consumed throughout the meal. Bulgarians never drink it without food, as it’s very strong— especially if it’s homemade. Though Bulgarians usually drink a few glasses of it during dinner, I suggest trying one glass with your salad or appetizer and switching to wine if you want to remember the rest of your meal!

7. Mezze

 

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Lukanka

Reflecting its Greek past, mezze is a big part of dinner out in Bulgaria. If you’re unfamiliar with Greek mezze, it’s essentially a selection of small dishes served as appetizers. I love this tradition. There’s just something so pleasant about chatting with friends and family, drinking wine (or rakia as the Bulgarians do) and enjoying small bites. Many different options are available to order, but most common is white cheese and dried meat called lukanka (Dewey’s favorite). I liked the stuffed vine leaves the best. Order a selection of plates, and be sure to take your time eating just as the Bulgarians do!

8. Stuffed Peppers

Peppers are found in many Bulgarian specialties, so it’s no surprise that they also eat them stuffed. Usually made with red peppers for more flavor, they’re filled with minced meat (either pork or veal), rice and a variety of spices. They can be either boiled or baked and sometimes even fried. You can order them as an appetizer or pick them up at a local market (check out the Ladies Market or the Central Market Hall by the Sofia History Museum) and have as a snack between sightseeing like I did!

9. Beans

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As a majority of the country is Orthodox, most Bulgarians fast around Christmas and have to avoid eating anything that comes from an animal. Thus, beans became a popular alternative for protein. The most common dish is the bean soup. It’s slowly cooked and full of spices. You can also find them roasted and served as a starter (like the ones in the picture above).

10. Kebapche & Grilled Meat

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Pork filets, kepabche, sausage, and a meatball

Okay, so kebapche (similar to ćevapi) is a dish common across all of the Balkans, but it’s still worth trying during a visit to Bulgaria. It’s a type of grilled minced meat similar to kebabs made with spices and often eaten with fries.

Bulgarians are meat lovers, so you can also find other grilled meat on the menu, such as meatballs, pork filets, roasted lamb, pork neck, and sausage. It’s all quite simple, but the spices make it so tasty!

11. Clay Pot Dishes

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Stew with pork, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, and peppers— still on fire!

Bulgarians make many wonderful stews and casseroles in clay pots— a tradition that stems from Ottoman times. You will find beautiful pottery sold all over Bulgaria, and that’s because they believe cooking with them adds more flavor, and I couldn’t agree more! They make many specialties with clay pots, but most common is a slowly cooked mixture of chopped vegetables with chicken, beef or pork.

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Onion pie baked in a clay pot

Various pies, soups, eggs, and more can also be cooked in these clay pots. The combination of the colorful pottery and the hearty flavors makes this tradition the perfect meal to eat after a long day of sightseeing.

12. Moussaka

The Bulgarians have a history with the Greeks that dates back to when the Thracian people first migrated to the area. So, naturally, there is a lot of Greek influence in their food. However, Bulgarians like to add their own twist to some traditional dishes like moussaka. Rather than making it with eggplant like the Greeks, they use potatoes, yogurt, yellow cheese and minced meat. I don’t have a picture because I didn’t have the chance to try it, but it’s definitely at the top of my list for when I return (especially knowing how delicious Bulgarian yogurt and cheese is)!

13. Bulgarian Wine

I had no idea wine production was a big industry in Bulgaria before I arrived, but I had fun tasting a variety of local wines with my dinner— especially red wine. I quickly learned that I didn’t need to ask the waiter whether the wine was dry because almost all Bulgarian wines are dry (which I prefer). Wine production dates back to Thracian times in Bulgaria and they are arguably as tasty (and WAY less expensive) as Italian wines!