Trip planning:The bigger cities in Bulgaria have many western hotel brands, but you can usually save by staying at an apartment hotel. Try the centrally located Niky Hotel in Sofia and Antonio's Apartments in Varna, both of which start at 40 euros per night. In the mountains, you can stay in a guest house such as Kapsazov's Guest House (from 30 euros per night) in the village of Kovachevitsa, which is known for its owner's spectacular home-cooked meals. You'll easily be able to afford the nicest hotel in Plovdiv, the Hotel Hebros, a grand 19th century Renaissance house where rates start at 89 euros per night.
Late August flights from New York to Sofia start at $1,036 round-trip, including taxes and fees, from Airfare.com. It's best to rent a car to get around; you can rent economy models at the Sofia airport for about $35 a day. Dimitrova says the main roads are modern and lightly traveled, while the country roads may be worn and harder to navigate, so be alert.
To learn more about the country, visit the Bulgaria State Tourism Agency website.
Berlin is Europe's butterfly—albeit a funky one—having metamorphosed from the epicenter of Hitler's Third Reich to the symbol of the Iron Curtain to finally, in the last 20 years, a mecca for artists, hipsters, and cultural alchemists. It's sort like Greenwich Village 20 years ago mixed with some of Tokyo's modernism, and punctuated by reminders of the past, both the darker days and the more splendid imperial era.
"The city is dynamic—it's always changing and there is always something new to discover," says Heather Ellis, a Pennsylvania native who now lives in Berlin. "Berlin is literally alive with history in a way that no other city in Europe is. It's young because of its students, full of culture because of its artists, and a bit unpolished because of its past, which makes it seem like the visitor has stumbled onto something truly special. It is also much cheaper than any other major Western European city."
With literally hundreds of museums and galleries and thousands of restaurants, shops, and nightclubs, there's no shortage of things to see and do in the city. Be sure to pick up a Berlin WelcomeCard, (16.50 euros for 48 hours, 21.50 euros for 72 hours) which offers free public transportation and half-price admission to more than 130 attractions. Some must-see museums include the Gemaldegalerie (8 euros), which houses some of Europe's top collections of 13th to 18th century art and the Pergamonmuseum (8 euros), which displays Greek and Roman antiquities and Islamic art. Sarah Steinberg, an engineer from Boston who studied in Berlin, highly recommends the Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie (Berlin Wall Museum; 9.50 euros) and the Judisches Museum (5 euros), a sobering and powerful museum focusing on Jewish history in Germany. "It is seriously amazing and one of my favorite museums in all Europe," says Steinberg.
You should take some time to walk around the city and explore its different neighborhoods. "If you're here on a Sunday, I would say do as the Berliners do: Have lazy brunch in Prenzlauerberg (a pretty neighborhood with lots of cafes and shops) and then spend the afternoon at the Mauerpark Flea Market (one of several weekend markets in Berlin where you pick up some real bargains)," says Ellis.