After spending three consecutive summer holidays in Romanian beach resorts, in 2017 we decided that a change in scenery is more than welcome. We decided to visit Bulgaria that year mainly because of its proximity to Romania – but also the fact that many of our friends who went there had nothing but nice things to say.
Today, I will share my experience about Romania vs. Bulgaria and share with you my thoughts regarding the best of the two cheapest (and poorest) countries in Europe.
[Update notice] This article was originally published in 2017, but it got a much needed update in July 2020 to present my current opinion.
It was followed by a stay at the same hotel, but then Eforie Nord was a dud and one of the reasons why I decided that we’ve given one too many chances to Romania’s seaside. For now at least.
In case things are not that obvious already, I am only going to judge the two countries based on what their seaside resorts have to offer. I can’t make other types of judgement since I haven’t visited any other parts of Bulgaria for long enough to get an educated opinion, but since most people look at both countries as cheap touristic destinations, this should be just enough.
Even more so, I guess that looking at an area that’s so important for a country – like tourism is – helps paint a good picture on how everything will be in the rest of the country. I mean, if you can’t treat tourists right exactly in the place where you are supposed to, you can’t have better expectations elsewhere…
Why did we choose Albena, Bulgaria?
I did a lot of research prior to us leaving to Bulgaria and whoever does something similar easily finds out that Albena doesn’t stand out as one of the most popular destinations in the country. We chose it for two main reasons:
- it is very close to Romania. We were going to travel by bus from Bucharest and getting to Albena takes about 7 hours. Almost anything else in Bulgaria is way farther and you can’t keep a 4-year-old (our son) entertained for that long. At least not without going crazy yourself, haha!
- most people described it as a very chill resort aimed mostly at families and older people. We didn’t want to get there to party all night. We wanted silence, we wanted beautiful sea and beaches and opportunities to recharge our batteries. That’s exactly what we got!
Looking in retrospect now, after spending two more years in Bulgaria – one summer holiday in Golden Sands and one in their popular Sunny Beach, I can definitely say that Albena is the best choice.
Actually, we were supposed to be in Albena once more in 2020, but then the world went upside down. We had our vacation paid for early, but decided it’s too risky to go there. I still feel a pain inside my soul writing this and thinking how nice it would’ve been. Maybe next year!
Hotel Kaliakra in Albena vs Hotels in Romania
We went for this hotel mainly because it was an All Inclusive hotel. It also had great ratings on Trip Advisor and its Romanian equivalent, Am Fost Acolo. (Since our visit there, management was apparently changed and the hotel is, sadly, no longer that good).
Our son tends to choose food based on the way it looks (usually in photos in the menu) and then gets freaked out because he doesn’t enjoy eating broccoli with sweet and sour sauce or, even more often, because the dish he gets looks nothing like the photo.
In an All Inclusive deal, he sees the food right in front of his eyes and we can easily get a bit in our plate and let him taste it before making a decision. It was way easier this way (and definitely less expensive).
In Romania, we didn’t choose all inclusive deals and even though the restaurant prices were very low and we cheated breakfast from a nearby Lidl, at the end of the day things were very expensive when we looked at food and drinks costs. The same would happen in Bulgaria, where prices at seaside restaurants are similar to those in Romania.
I am very happy with our choice, though. Hotel Kaliakra – a 4 star hotel in Albena – is right near the beach, with all rooms offering an impressive sea view. They offer two types of rooms: Superior and Standard, the former being larger.
Click here to check out Hotel Kaliakra (and book your stay there)
We chose the Superior Room as I actually had the impression that there are two hotels: Kaliakra Superior and Kaliakra, with the former being the better one since it was a bit more expensive. But I was wrong.
It’s just one hotel, with two different types of rooms – the Superior Room is larger and has a direct view of the sea, while the other rooms have more of a side-view and are smaller, although it seems to be just as spectacular.
There is just one restaurant where everybody gets the same food and you have no other benefits for choosing the “Superior” room. Since we spend so little time inside anyway, we decided that if we are to ever visit again, we’d go for standard instead.
While there’s a lot of room at the pools, with just enough sun loungers, the food isn’t really the best around. I have no reasons to complain though: you definitely can’t go hungry during your stay and there are always a lot of things to choose from.
However, I was a bit disappointed with the quality of the food, although it’s much better and definitely a lot more varied than what you’re normally getting in similar All Inclusive resorts in Romania.
Check out some of the offers below:
Even more, the hotel advertised in many places that the fruits, vegetables and honey were all organic, while the Angus beef was locally grown and fed in a very healthy way. So that was indeed an unexpected bonus!
All inclusive hotels must keep costs low and it is expected for the food to be of a lower quality. However, we never had problems with anything running out and even though in some places – like where they were preparing barbecues or early in the morning with the omelettes – the lines war getting large, everybody got what they wanted.
The same thing happened in all inclusive resorts that we visited in the next two years in Bulgaria: Melia Grand Hermitage in Golden Sands and DIT Evrika Beach in Sunny Beach. The food was great (these were 5-star resorts) and never ran out.
In Romania, you always hear stories about certain, more special dishes not being refilled.
We were treated very well at the hotel by all staff: from the girls at the reception, to the waiters in the restaurants and the maids… everybody did a great job overall.
They were not all smiles and good mood as you’d like all people to be when you’re on vacation, but us people living in the Eastern side of Europe tend to smile a lot less than others… so we knew they weren’t actually grumpy. They were polite and nice, though – no problems here.
In Romania, we were always surprised with the rudeness of the staff. Except for our time in Hotel Dana in Venus, where the staff was very polite, everywhere else – from hotel staff to restaurant staff, things were horrible.
I still remember, shocked, that in one restaurant that we ate at (in Venus, Romania), the waitress was yelling at her customers from behind the counter to take their order or to get details about it. I’ve never seen anything like that – and even though that’s definitely not the norm in Romania – the quality of the service is not that high either.
Overall, I was very pleased with the Kaliakra hotel and everything it had to offer. The other two hotels that we’ve visited in the coming years also left us with a great impression and switching from 4 stars to 5 stars really improved things a lot (while the prices were still relatively low).
Also read: If you’re a fan of comparisons, why not check out my Budapest vs Bucharest article?
Bulgaria Beaches vs Romania Beaches
I didn’t know, before getting there, that Albena was nothing but a very small resort. I thought it was a place where we could find local people, houses and apartments – similar to Romania’s Eforie Nord. Instead, it’s more like Venus or other resorts in Romania. And very small too.
However, it’s extremely nice! The beaches are spectacular. For some reason, unlike the ones in Romania, they are never packed. Our hotel was full and there were many hotels in the resort… but the beaches somehow managed to be airy and extremely nice. It’s always good if you can go take a bath in the sea without rubbing elbows with other tourists…
The photo below shows the most crowded day during our stay there and even though some might consider that crowded, it’s not Romania-style crowded and it definitely felt very airy when you were there.
For comparison, here is how beaches in Romania usually look like (photo from our final stay in Eforie):
It was also surprisingly clean. The sand of Romanian beaches and the Black Sea resorts themselves are usually dirty, but for some reasons these were not, despite the fact that there were a ton of Romanian tourists there.
My favorite thing though was the fact that you could actually hear the sea in Bulgaria! Main main problem with beaches in Romania is that they’re filled with terraces and pubs that blast from the speakers hits from the 90s, in a contest to win the award for the loudest possible one.
You have people selling stuff – from sunglasses to all sorts and trinkets and various foods – and they yell like crazy to advertise them. They have rhymes that are usually filled with sexual innuendos and nobody seems to have anything about that. All in all, in Romania, even if you are right in front of a beach, you risk not being able to actually hear the sea.
Another interesting thing that we noticed about beaches is the fact that in Romania, you usually have to bribe the people who handle loungers to “reserve” your front row seats. This is atop of the regular fee that you have to pay and in most cases, it’s the first 2-3 lines that are “reserved”.
While we saw this practice happen in Bulgaria as well, there were always free loungers in the second row, next to the sea – and usually in the first one as well.
In terms of attractions, there’s not a lot to do in Albena. They have a really large Aqua Park which we didn’t get a chance to visit (but heard great things about)… and that would be it. A relatively small pedestrian street with small shops, several restaurants and hotels.
Definitely a place to go and relax, not waste nights in clubs or getting tired exploring the city. (Although there are several attractions nearby that local tour operators or even taxi drivers would love to take you to).
In terms of costs, prices are similar to those in Romanian resorts. In other words, not very cheap by Romanian standards, but surely cheap for people coming from the Western Countries.
And there was a lot of them: mostly people from Germany and other Nordic countries, as well as a lot of Russians. Definitely a lot more foreigners (even without counting the armies of Romanians) compared to what Romania gets – probably one of the reasons why the quality standards are a bit higher.
But back to prices, you could get a half liter bottle of soda from street shops for around one Euro, dinner at a nice restaurant was 10-15 Euros depending on what you went for and 1-2 euros for a beer or coffee.
There was a standard rate for taxis (of around 5 Euros) from the bus station to the hotels, which was heavily overpriced – it was an easy 10 minute walk to our hotel and even less to other ones. Probably the reason why most people only took a taxi when they arrived and not when they left, haha.
But price-wise, things are very similar here and you can expect to pay similar amounts in either country.
As I said, the thing that I enjoyed the most though was the silence. In Romania, there are pubs and bars on the beach and there’s loud music playing all day. You can’t hear the sea, you can’t think about anything but the loud music and the sellers yelling all day long (they all have hoarse voices because of that).
The main reason why I visit the sea is to actually hear the waves, relax and recharge my batteries. This is a lot easier done in Bulgaria, by far.
Bulgaria vs Romania: Who wins?
Looking at everything as a whole, the two countries are extremely similar. It’s the same sea, the same water, the same climate, the same vegetation around and most of the hotels (especially the older ones) have that same – slightly outdated – look both inside and outside.
However, Bulgaria managed to adapt better, up their offering and increase the quality of everything they offer, leaving Romania well behind, in my opinion.
From customer service to the clean beaches and clean resort, from the quality of the food and number of real-restaurants available (most in Romanian resorts are self service restaurants with very cheap, but very low quality food), to the hotels themselves… everything beats Romania.
Bulgaria is far from perfect. For example, they are way behind Turkey and way behind the Greece in terms of what they offer, but still well above Romania.
When I went to Bulgaria, I was very afraid. I heard a ton of scary stories – especially on how badly they treat Romanians, but instead I received high quality service and smiles from most of the staff.
Everybody asked us where we were from and as soon as they heard we’re from Romania, they threw a “Buna ziua!” (Good day) or “Ce mai faci?” (How are you?).
At the main restaurant, there was always somebody to greet us in Romanian and wish us good appetite. They did the same with all the other guests, all in their native language.
That would never happen in Romania. That never happened to us in Romania, even though the people there didn’t even have to speak a different language. And I am sure very few people foreigners can say it has happened to them.
So even though it’s the same sea, it’s the same flora – it’s basically the same thing – the small but important elements make the difference.
Contrary to our expectations, we felt much better in Bulgaria than we did in Romania. Even more – and sadder, in my opinion – we felt more welcome. So the winner in this case is obvious. Bulgaria is, at the moment, the better choice. At least when it comes to spending your summer vacation.