There are state-run hospitals, private medical centres and local polyclinics in Bulgaria. Doctors are extremely well qualified and able, but they are often let down by poor equipment and facilities. Nurses are efficient but often without the friendly, personal touch that makes hospital treatment bearable. You will not find many English speakers, so try to take a Bulgarian friend with you if you do need hospital treatment, or take advice from your embassy.
All travellers are entitled to free emergency medical and dental treatment, but must pay for medicines (tourists and Bulgarians pay a fixed fee: 6.10lv in 2020).
Citizens of European Union countries need to obtain a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which entitles you to medical treatment on the same terms as Bulgarian nationals, though this is not a substitute for comprehensive medical and travel insurance, which should also be arranged. In the UK the EHIC is obtainable online or from post offices using form T7. Once the UK fully leaves the European Union, documentation requirements for its citizens may change. Check before travelling.
All foreign visitors should have valid medical insurance for the length of their stay, especially since access to public hospitals is not always easy to arrange. The availability of private medical treatment is on the increase and it is not expensive for foreigners; keep your receipts if you intend to claim on your travel insurance. Every town will have several pharmacies (look for the sign ‘Аптека’). Most have familiar proprietary brands on sale and can offer advice and recommend a local polyclinic.
Bulgarians believe that crime is at a high level, though it is actually much lower than in the UK. Regarding general safety, be careful, but don’t be worried. Theft, particularly of cars, is the most common crime in cities, but very rare in the countryside. However, there are plenty of inexpensive secure car parks available in cities.
Obviously you should behave with reasonable caution, particularly in crowded places such as markets and bus and train stations, as you should in any country. Keep money and expensive belongings out of sight, wear a money belt, and have your handbag across your body rather than on the shoulder.
There have been reports of drivers being stopped by con men posing as policemen and being asked to pay on-the-spot fines. You should play dumb and ask to be taken to the police station to have someone translate what you have apparently done to break the law. Similarly, it is probably best to be cautious if someone tries to flag you down to help with a breakdown, or, in the case of single male travellers, to be cautious if a ‘damsel in distress’ tries to attract your attention.
Bulgaria regularly experiences earth tremors, normally minor, registering up to 4.5 on the Richter scale.
In Sofia and on the coast the dress code for women is much the same as elsewhere in Europe, but in rural areas people are more conservative and, if you plan to travel alone, you should undoubtedly dress to camouflage rather than impress. You will certainly be stared at and commented on or even propositioned, but a firm rejection should suffice. As always, it is much better to avoid awkward situations than to have to get out of them. Travel with friends, or join forces with another solo traveller, especially in potentially hazardous places like overnight sleepers on trains.
Foreign and local businesswomen are treated in the same way as their male colleagues. Generally you will find Bulgarian men gallant in a way we have become unused to in the UK, opening doors and seating you at the table, for example. In both the private and public sectors there are many successful Bulgarian women, though attitudes to women are in general a little more conservative than in the UK, particularly among the older generation.
Although homosexuality is no longer illegal, outside the main cities and resorts there is little tolerance towards gay people. Overt displays of affection and flamboyant dressing should probably be avoided.
Travelling with a disability
Travellers with a disability, particularly wheelchair users, will find Bulgaria difficult. Few places have disabled access, many pavements are in poor repair, and many of the attractive old towns have steep and/or cobbled streets. New buildings are obliged to provide suitable access, but until the roads and pavements leading to them are better, there will still be problems. Public transport such as trams and buses are not adapted for wheelchair users, or those with walking difficulties.
Specialist UK-based tour operators that offer trips to Bulgaria include: Enable Holidays, Disabled Holidays, and Disabled Access Holidays.