Samokov (Bulgarian: Самоков, pronounced SAH-mo-kov) is a town in Central Western Bulgaria, under the slopes of the Rila mountain, 40 km (25 mi) south-east of the capital Sofia. It's the gateway to the mountain & ski resorts of Borovets and Malyovitsa nearby, and a minor tourist destination of its own.

Understand

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Statue of Zahari Zograf in front of the History Museum
 
Combined chitalishte (library) and war memorial
 
Map of Samokov

With a population of about 24,000 (2021), Samokov is the center of Samokov Municipality, which is a part of Sofia Province (Oblast). The ski resort of Borovets is up in the mountain, 10 km (6.2 mi) to the south-east.

Samokov lies in the Samokov Hollow, a high-altitude valley between the mountains of Plana to the north and Rila to the south. Right next to Samkov, on it eastern side, rises the relatively lower Shipochan ridge (1,100–1,300 m (3,600–4,300 ft) above sea level), a part of Western (Ihtimanska) Sredna Gora. The Iskar river - the longest river that runs entirely in Bulgaria - passes through Samokov in an almost perfectly straight line, south to north, before flowing into the largest artificial reservoir in the country, the Iskar Reservoir (15 km (9.3 mi) north of Samokov). Samokov's center and oldest parts are on the east bank of the river; the west bank has newer neighbourhoods and industrial objects.

Samokov's name hints to its distant past as a town of iron-workers and craftsmen - it refers to the large water-powered trip hammers that were used to crush iron ore from the surrounding mountains and then forge the refined iron into bars for trade (translated literally, samo-kov means something like "self-[moving] forger"). You can see a few of the huge hammer-heads and a scale model in the local history museum, and there's also a full-scale reconstruction of such a forge in a local park.

Zahari Zograf

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Zahari Hristov or Hristovich (1810-1853) is one of the most celebrated icon-painters of the Bulgarian Revival period (the epithet "zograf" refers to his profession, from the Greek zográfos). He was born and died in Samokov, and both his father and his older brother were also painters of icons, part of an art movement later dubbed the "Samokov School" by scholars. Zahari Zograf's work can be seen in a number of churches and monasteries in Bulgaria (including the Rila Monastery, a   UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Transfiguration Monastery in Veliko Tarnovo), as well as in the Great Lavra and the Zograf (Zographou) Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece. He's also considered one of the founders of Bulgarian secular painting, as he also made pictures with non-religious subjects, including several portraits and self-portraits.

Tourist information

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  • 1 Tourist Information Centre (Туристически информационен център), ul. "Otets Paisiy" 3 (in the Municipality building (east side of the main square), the entrance is on the short (south) side facing a small parking lot), . 8:30 – 12:00, 13:00 – 17:30 (closed Sa, Su). The website is in English.
  • 2 Visitor Information Centre of National Park Rila (along the riverside street on the eastern bank, a bit north of the riverside park). Easy to recognize renovated white house with a mountain goat mural. Samokov branch, the main office is in Blagoevgrad.

Get in

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By bus

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There are multiple buses daily between Sofia and Samokov, but they start at the tiny and not very tourist-friendly Bus Station South (signs are in Bulgarian, the staff doesn't speak English). The line is served by a number of small private companies, so intervals between buses can be as short as half an hour. Travel time is around an hour, depending on traffic.

  • 1 Bus Station (directly north-west of the pedestrian main square (Zahari Zograf Sqr)). Also the starting point of an hourly shuttle bus to Borovets.

By car

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From the north (Sofia): head east from the city centre on the large Tsarigradsko Shose Blvd. In the city outskirts, after passing through the large junction that leads to the airport, look on the south (right) side for an exit with signs to Samokov and Borovets. Follow Samokovsko Shose Rd south-east. On crossing the Sofia Ring Road it turns into National Road 82, which will take you to Samokov after passing by Lake Pancherevo and the Iskar Reservoir. Drive carefully - it's a mountain road and rockfalls are possible. Distance is about 60 km (37 mi), but it may take an hour depending on traffic and how carefully you drive.

From the east (Plovdiv and Pazardzhik): if you are in Plovdiv, your options are either Motorway A1 (Trakia), or the old National Road 8 which also passes directly through Pazardzhik - both lead to Sofia via Ihtiman (Ихтиман, 90 or 100 km (56 or 62 mi) from Plovdiv). If you chose Road 8, you will face another choice when you reach the small mountain town of Kostenets (Костенец, 85 km (53 mi) from Plovdiv) - you can either proceed north to Ihtiman, or get off onto the high-altitude Road 82 to Borovets and Samokov. In Ihtiman, the other option is Road 822, which runs at a lower elevation, merging into Road 82 north of Samokov.

From the west (incl. North Macedonia and Serbia): Road 62 connects Kyustendil to Samokov (80 km (50 mi), passing through Dupnitsa and its junction with Motorway A3 (Struma), which also provides connection to the south (Blagoevgrad, Sandanski and Greece).

Get around

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It's not a large town, so moving on foot is perfectly viable. There's only one urban bus line (№1), and both its schedule and route are somewhat irregular (page in Bulgarian on the Municipality website, it runs Monday-Saturday).

The town itself is attractive in and around its centre but there's a few ugly tenement blocks that remind you of the communist past. The town is nicely isolated from the surrounding villages which include Dospei, Reliovo, Rayovo, Shipochene, Beli Iskar, Govedatsi and the spa village of Belchin Banya.

  • 1 History Museum, ul. "Prof. Vasil Zahariev" 4 (you may have to ring the doorbell). Tu-Sa: 08:30-12:00, 13:00-17:30 (closed Su, M). Exhibitions include ancient and medieval artefacts, Samokov's past as metalworking and artisan centre (incl. glassmaking), early 20th century military history, an ethnographic collection of folk costumes and 19th century city clothing, and the Samokov Art School. It also has another, less-touristy website, but it's in Bulgarian. There's a statue of Zahari Zograf in front of the museum. The other sites managed by the museum are the Bayrakli Mosque, the town's Art Gallery, and the Petar Esov House (modern art gallery/atelier in an old house). Single site (e.g. the museum): adults 6 лв, children (6+ yrs) and pensioners 4 лв; daily pass for all sites (incl. Internet-based audio guide to Samokov sights): adults 8 лв, children and pensioners 6 лв; tour/lecture in "foreign language" (English?): 20 лв.  
    • Chitalishte-Monument Otets Paisiy (right in front of the museum) - the building was built between 1919 and 1923 to house the town's chitalishte (reading room/library/community centre), but also as a war memorial for the soldiers from Samokov and the surrounding villages who fell in the Balkan Wars and the First World War. The main facade is decorated with militaristic sculptures (eagles and medieval warriors), on two of the sides there are large slabs listing the names of the fallen in the specific battles. The name ("Father Pah-ih-see") refers to the monk Paisius of Hilendar, whose Slavo-Bulgarian History marked the beginning of the Bulgarian National Revival.
    • Monument to Chakar Voyvoda (on the southern side of the chitalishte) - 19th century leader (voyvoda) of a band of haiduti (outlaws/guerilla fighters against the Ottomans) who operated in the Rila Mountain
    • West of the chitalishte, across the street is the Large Cheshma - an Ottoman drinking fountain dated to 1662. A masonry cube decorated with stone carvings, with a spout on each of the four sides. It still works.
  • 2 Sarafs' House (Sarafska Kashta), ul. "Knyaz Dondukov" 11 (from the intersection by the history museum, follow the street north until the next intersection - the stone fence should be visible to the west (left)). Tu-Sa: 10:00-18:00 (closed Su-M). Built in the 1860s for a wealthy Jewish family, now it's an ethnographic house-museum about town life in the 19th century ("saraf" is the Persian/Arabic/Ottoman Turkish for "money changer"). The abandoned building in front of it is a synagogue. Adults: 2 лв, children and pensioners: 1 лв.
  • Zahari Zograf Square - Samokov's main pedestrian square, surrounded by a somewhat confusing set of pedestrian streets and alleys. There's a number of monuments and the buildings of several institutions, including the Municipality.
    • Fountain
    • Art Gallery Prof. Vasil Zahariev (Художествена галерия "проф. Васил Захариев") (2nd floor of low building on the eastern side of the main square, shared with the town library). Tu-Sa: 8:30-12:00, 13:00-17:30 (closed Su-M). Mostly works by modern artists born in or somehow connected to Samokov. Labels and explanations in both Bulgarian and English. See the museum entry for prices.
    • Monument to the Opalchentsi (Bulgarian volunteers who took part in the Liberation War - the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878).
    • Monument to Samokov's Garrison (south of the fountain) - a pair of Soviet-made artillery guns
  • 3 Bayrakli Mosque (directly north of the little park in front of the Bus Station; you may have to request entry at the History Museum nearby). The last surviving mosque in the city, now a listed monument of culture and an exhibition hall of the History Museum. It was built in the mid-19th century, and the pretty floral decorations on the inside are another example of the Samokov Art School - the Ottoman authorities commissioned local artists to paint them, the same Bulgarians who also painted Orthodox Christian icons. As of early 2024, the hosted exhibition is about the development of Samokov as chronicled in old photographs (late 19th-early 20th century). See the museum entry for prices.    
    • Chadar Cheshma (Umbrella Fountain) - west of the mosque, a fancy Ottoman drinking fountain in the shape of an umbrella or mushroom, decorated with the same style of floral frescoes as the mosque
    • On the south side of the Bus Station, there's a small water cascade with a sculpture of a mountain goat
  • 4 Dormition of the Mother of God Church (Metropolitan Church) (Hram „Uspenie Bogorodichno“ (Mitropolitska tsarkva)). A functioning Orthodox church, originally built in 1712 under Ottoman rule, expanded in the 1780-90s and again in the 1830s, while the bell tower and the colonnade at the entrance were added after the Liberation. Includes icons by Zahari Zograf and other painters of the Samokov School. The name refers to Mary's death ("falling asleep") in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, followed by her resurrection and bodily ascension into Heaven.
  • Tourist Garden Park (Bistritsa Park) - western side of Road 82 on its southern exit out of town. There's a large photo-friendly SAMOKOV sign, various playgrounds, restaurants decorated in traditional style, an open-air stage, etc.
    • 5 Water Hammer Forge (southernmost tip of the park, small parking lot by the SAMOKOV sign). W-Su: 10:00-19:00 (closed M-Tu). A full-scale, operational reconstruction of a 19th century samokov or madan forge, with a small museum inside and a glass wall. Adults: 2 лв, children: 1 лв.
  • Motocross Circuit
  • Ski
  • Fishing, boating and other lake-related activities on the Iskar Reservoir
  • Play golf in Ihtiman

Hiking

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Borovets is the starting point of one of the routes to Rila's highest peak, Musala (2,925.42 m (9,597.8 ft) above sea level), which is also the highest peak in Bulgaria and on the Balkans.

A daily fresh produce market and a big monday market selling clothing, hardware, bric a brac, hooky watches and designer gear are well worth going to.

The town is well served with restaurants serving traditional Bulgarian cuisine such as Kavarma which is a delicious mildly spicy meat stew with peppers and onions.

  • Old House.
  • Sonata.

Drink

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Sleep

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There are a few hotels and other lodgings in Samokov itself, but the real hotel concentration is in Borovets and the other resort villages up in the mountain.

  • 1 Hotel Arena (Хотел "Арена"), bul. "Iskar" 4B (on the east bank, south of the riverside park). Check-in: after 14:00, check-out: before 12:00. A large 3-star, newly built hotel (2012), directly adjacent to Samokov's new sports hall (hence the name). Singles, doubles and apartments, "Olympic sized" unheated indoor swimming pool, spa with sauna etc. Double: 110 лв (Mar-Nov), 130 лв (Dec-Feb), 172 лв (days around NYE)..


Connect

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Nearby

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Belchin

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The gate of Tsari Mali Grad

Belchin (Белчин) is a village 14 km (8.7 mi) east of Samokov, notable for its hot springs and the ruins of a fortress. It can be reached via Road 62 - the exit is on the north side, 12 km (7.5 mi) east of Samokov, roughly halfway between Samokov and the mountain/spa resort Sapareva Banya. Alternatively, Belchin can be reached directly from Sofia - take Road 181 up the slopes of Vitosha, to Bistritsa (Бистрица), then follow the same road south through a number of villages. After Popovyane (Поповяне), the road will change number to 6205. Shortly before it merges into Road 62, there's a crossroads - Belchin is to the west. There's also a thrice-daily local bus from Samokov, starting at the bus station.

  • 6 Tsari Mali Grad (Цари Мали Град) (on the hill south of the village; follow the brown road signs), . Nov 1st - Apr 12th: W-Fr 9:00-16:30, Sa-Su: 9:00-17:30 (closed M-Tu); Apr 13th - Oct 31st: same, but closes 1 h later. The ruins of a late-Roman/Byzantine fortress (built in the 360s, razed in the 570s), with wonderful views of the surrounding mountains. The site was "discovered" by treasure seekers in the 2000s, emergency archaeological excavations started in 2007, afterwards it was partially reconstructed as a tourist site in 2012-2013. The towers that flank the gate have been restored to their full height, as well as the Church of the Ascension (originally built in the 15th century on top of the ruins). There's an archaeological exhibition with finds from the fortress, a playground with a rope bridge, etc. West of the parking lot, there's also a small ethnographic museum about the village of Belchin itself and 19th century village life. A small "funicular" leads from the parking lot to the fortress itself (as of early 2024, it's out of order). Alternatively, there are two gravel paths, the steeper one starts by the St. Petka Church west of the parking lot, the other one starts on the east side. Fortress and ethnographic museum: adults 10 лв, students (6+) and pensioners: 7 лв; funicular ticket: adults 5 лв, students and pensioners: 3 лв; parking: free.
    • Right next to the parking lot is the St. Petka Church, built in the 16th century. Half-abandoned, it was restored in the 2000s.
  • 7 Mineral water drinking fountain (at the eastern entrance of the village). Decorated with an abstract human figure. There are benches and a playground.
  • 1 Amusement Complex Belchinski Bani (in Belchinski bani, 1 km east of Belchin). Small aquapark/public pool, fed by a 39 °C (102 °F) hot spring. There's a water slide, sunloungers, etc, as well as a paintball "battlefield", an archery range, and a karting circuit.
  • 2 Spa Complex Belchin Spring (access road leads north, right at the west entrance of the village). Expensive 4-star hotel with various spa facilities and pools supplied by the local hot springs.

Go next

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  • If you wish to continue exploring Rila Mountain, there's a number of towns, villages and resorts surrounding its slopes:
    • To the west: the spa and mountain resort of Sapareva Banya (starting point to the Seven Lakes of Rila), then Dupnitsa, and then to the south, Blagoevgrad. The latter two both offer transport options to the Rila Monastery, a   UNESCO World Heritage Site.
    • To the east: the small town of Kostenets, then at Belovo you can take a shortcut south to Yundula, Yakoruda and the Razlog-Bansko valley between Rila, Pirin and the Rhodopes.
  • Further away:



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