I don’t think anyone would expect me to recommend Bulgaria for a summer getaway. Nearly thirty years after the demise of communism, Bulgaria is a work in progress. Though not as polished as some neighboring countries, Bulgaria is bursting with culture. It’s also naturally beautiful, with beaches, mountains, and fields of sunflowers. Fun fact: Bulgaria is the sunflower capital of the world.

We started our ten day Bulgarian excursion in Varna, a charming beachside city. Varna balances a gorgeous seaside with one of the greenest parks in Europe, perched right above the ocean. There are fantastic restaurants and bars right on the beach, as well as in the cute and vibrant city center.

Varna is very family friendly and easy on dogs, which made it the perfect summer kickoff spot of our little group. We were even lucky enough to catch a street festival during our stay.

After getting our fill of sun and fun, we headed to the capital city.┬áSofia is admittedly off the radar. I knew virtually nothing about it until our first visit just over one year ago. It’s actually a very cosmopolitan city, and one of the most beautiful capitals in Eastern Europe. I really enjoy walking the narrow streets, passing my favorite florist and coffee shop each morning.

Sofia has so many amazing restaurants and bars, as well as beautiful parks and green spaces. It is also incredibly inexpensive, which I love because it means I get to try it all!

My absolute favorite restaurant in Sofia is Rakia Raketa. It puts a retro spin on Bulgarian classics, with a nod to Bulgaria’s long era of communist rule. It’s also a bar, with a huge selection of rakia, Bulgaria’s national drink. Rakia is a fruit based brandy. All of the food is delicious. I love their pork and beef dishes, but I’m actually most partial to their grilled vegetables. They’re probably the best I’ve had, and Rakia Raketa presents them in the simplest, loveliest way. Rakia Raketa is must for me whenever I’m in Sofia.

Bulgaria is now a top destination on my European summer travel itinerary. It’s off the beaten path, but that’s part of the charm. There aren’t many American tourists now…I’m expecting that to change soon. I suggest enjoying it now, before it becomes the next big European destination.