Bansko, once a quiet village in the foothills of the Pirin Moutains, has now become an ever expanding town with half-built, half-empty apartment blocks continually pushing its perimeters further outwards. Presently, a town of two halves but previously inhabited by Thracians, Romans, Byzantines and the Slavic Peruns tribe; many traces of archaeological remnants – fortresses, burial mounds, baths and, as always, legends – have been uncovered around the locality. Later, during the Revival era, Bankso’s clans became a wealthy population through merchants and crafts-people settling here and their fortress houses, characterised by high walls and large gates, are built from a mix of heavy stone and wood, and are now attraction in themselves.
Fast forward to the present day and you’ll find the growth of winter tourism has brought property developers, mostly British and Russians looking for a fast buck, but yet have aided the transformation of Bankso into a competitive winter resort. However, retaining much of its Revival charm and, in combination with its amazing location close to the Rila, Pirin and Rhodope mountain ranges, the region has emerged as a great place to explore natural landscapes.
Despite being better known as a winter resort, its summer activities are also becoming more popular in recent years: hiking, sports, mineral pools and festivals are all a draw to entice visitors for spending their summer holidays here. Although less busy out of the winter season, the area is increasingly offering the tourist plenty to experience so here are the 10 best things to do in Bankso during Summer:
What would usually be under vast, white blankets of snow during the winter, opens up to a new breath of life in the heat of the warmer months. A nature reserve protected by the World Heritage List, the Pirin Mountains with its high peaks and pine-scented air has a network of well-marked trails. Bankso is the starting point to some of the most popular peaks in the area: Golyama Todorka, Muratov Peak and Mt Vihren; the latter of which is the second highest mountain in Bulgaria and can be done on a relatively easy trek, even if you’re not a pro.
Further afield, take the lift from Dobriniste and explore the vast landscapes of Bezbog where there are a variety of routes that can be done with or without a guide, depending on your experience and if you have a decent map! Walking past waterfalls, along riverbeds and through dense forestry where the ground is littered with pine cones makes you realise how little life has changed in these wild mountain pathways as you’re sure to bump in to shepherds, pick your own wild herbs and fruit and wonder if our modern life even exists. You can also choose to spend a night in one of the many basic huts (hija) and wake up to stunning scenery the next morning to continue your hike.
2. Ride a Train
A Romanian, red engine leads this short train all the way from Septemvri to Dobriniste, near Bankso, and travels through the Rhodope, Rila and Pirin Mountain ranges. Famous for its narrow gauge line (760mm) and slow-travelling heights, the journey usually takes around six hours but there are no hard and fast rules up in these gorges and valleys. The only thing to do is sit back and enjoy the leisurely ride through the 25 station stops and 125 kilometres of stunning backdrops that it encompasses.
However, if you don’t fancy doing the journey in its entirety, you can just do a return trip to Velingrad, a well known spa town and still get to experience the spiral heights of the Northwestern Rhodopes without going the whole distance. If you do want to complete the voyage, you can travel onwards to Sofia or Plovdiv from Septemvri. Train details can be found here or read about my journey here.
3. Or Ride through a Slide!
In its second year, the longest inflatable slide in Europe is one of Bankso’s newest attractions. Stretching 350 meters, it’s located in Banderishka Polyana and you can pay for return tickets on the Gondola to get you there and back. Once you’re at the top there are other activities to get involved in such as mini golf, football, inflatable castles, swings and playgrounds.
There is an abundance of hotel pools where you don’t have to be a guest, just pay an entrance fee when you visit. Popular with tourists are Astria, Belvadere and Regnum hotel complexes, the latter of which has great water slides for kids. You’ll find many of the major hotels have indoor and outdoor pools to cool off and have fun in and are also equipped with excellent spa facilities for when you really want to pamper yourself or are feeling the pain after a hike!
There’s a wealth of mineral and curative water sources throughout the area and you’re bound to feel the health benefits from spending a few hours in one of the pools. Visit the smaller towns of: Dobriniste where you’ll find Alpha SPA and Pool – the largest mineral swim pool complex with hyper thermal, sulfate, sodium, fluorine and solicit waters; or, visit Banya, rich in mineral water springs, pool complexes and the village’s public baths date back to Roman times.
5. Old Town
The old, original neighbourhood of Bankso, typically characterised by decorative stone dwellings from the Revival period, is where you’ll find a labyrinth of narrow, cobbled streets and alleyways. Visit The Holy Trinity Church, famous for it’s bell tower, the statue of Bulgaria’s famous philosopher, Paisiy Hilendarski and explore the museum houses of Velyan, Nikola Vaptsarov and Neofit Rilski. Enjoy the laid back atmosphere in one of the many bars and restaurants in Vazrajdane Square or take a walk in the shaded park close by.
From the Square, walk upwards through Pirin Str, a long pedestrianised street, with numerous shopping opportunities of souvenir shops selling rose products, clothing, pottery or jewellery. Just beyond the top of the street is where you’ll notice distinct architectural differences as you hit upon the modern apartments, hotels and bars surrounding the gondola area and higher.
6. Taste some delicious food
Bankso has some fantastic restaurants where you can eat your way through Bulgarian scrumptious cuisine. You’ll notice plenty of old ‘mehanas’, traditional Bulgarian restaurants, behind the stone walls of the old quarter and although there’s not much variety between the menus, there’s plenty of seasonal salads, soups, fish and meat dishes including the popular favourite, Kapama, a mixture of meat and vegetables stewed in an earthenware dish.
For a more contemporary helping of cuisine, try one of the new eateries opening up such as the Smokey Mountain Restaurant for mouth-watering smoked burgers and ribs. Or, out of town, visit the Dam Krinets Restaurant, a fish farm next to a pretty dam which specialises in trout or carp, grilled or fried.
7. The Dancing Bears Rehabilitation Park
The Dancing Bears Park is borne from an international charity project of Four Paws Foundation, a non-profit organization which funds this sanctuary for mistreated bears. They’ve created a space which replicates the natural habitat for these former circus bears who need to be taught from scratch how to behave like bears, free from the environment of dancing and performing. Each bear has its own territory with access to water and plenty of space for climbing.
Guided tours are available between April and November so you can see first hand the bears in their wooded enclosures. It’s located in Belitsa, tucked in an area of natural forests, lakes and valleys but the track up to the Park can be bumpy ride!
8. Other Sports
If you’re the more adventurous type when it comes to mountainous sports, there are some great opportunities for kayaking and rafting. For those who prefer more calmer waters, choose the Mesta River for a more chilled ride where you can meander and enjoy the surrounding nature. The second river that flows through the Pirin National Park is the Struma which forms the Kresna Gorge and is more of an extreme adventure.
For those of you wanting a 2 wheeled adventure, there are 7 main biking routes, ranging from beginners to the hardened trails and Bansko hosts a number of mountain bike events throughout the year. There are also several options for horse riding, golf, fishing, rock climbing and hang/para gliding in the region.
9. Take a Day Trip
There are numerous tour operators offering day trips from Bankso if you don’t have your own transport. Visit Rila Monastery a little over an hour’s drive away and one of Bulgaria’s main tourist attractions. The monastery houses two churches, History Museum, Cookhouse, Hreliov’s Tower and a library which stores literature dating back for thousands of years. It’s easy to be consumed by the painted frescoes, towers and stairways and seemingly never-ending archways.
.Alternatively, visit Melnik, the smallest town in the southwestern Pirin Mountains. An architectural reserve with 96 of its buildings listed as cultural monuments, Melnik is famous for its unusual landscape of sandstone formations, cliffs and pyramids, as well as it’s red wines and there are a number of vineyards worth calling in to. Closer to Bankso is the historical village of Kovachevitsa where you can step back in time to yet more unique Bulgarian architecture and authenticity.
Representing all genres of Jazz, the Bankso Jazz Festival is the biggest of its kind in Bulgaria and hosts a range of worldwide artists. Held on an open air stage in Nikola Vaptsarov Square with smaller concerts being organised in other local venues, the event is over a week long and is all free. 2017 is special because the festival will celebrate its 20th anniversary.
Bankso also hosts a variety of other festivals including pop, opera and film, all of which usually take place in the main square.
Happy travels 🙂