[AD] This post includes gifted accommodation, ski hire and equipment however, all opinions and photographs are my own.
If you are looking for an affordable skiing destination which is suitable for beginners as well as intermediates, then look no further than Bansko, Bulgaria. Situated in Pirin National Park, at the foot of the Pirin Mountain, Bansko ski resort offers tree-lined slopes, dramatic scenery and altitudes of 2,000m – 2,600m.
Bansko has rapidly become one of Europe’s most popular ski resorts due to its modern facilities, long ski seasons and good snow coverage from December to mid-May. Skiers and snowboarders alike are now travelling to the Balkans to seek out alternative and cheaper ski resorts away from the Alps. With 75km of uninterrupted ski runs, it comes as no surprise that Bansko was crowned “Best Ski Resort in Bulgaria” from 2013 to 2018 and is due to host the AUDI FIS Ski World Cup in winter 2020.
Travelling to and from Bansko
Bansko is situated in south-western Bulgaria and is approximately 160km from Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital approximately 3 hours.
Direct flights depart from London Heathrow, London Stansted, London City and London Luton to Sofia. Flight times are an average of 3 hours, with a 2-hour time difference on arrival. Airlines that fly to Sofia include Wizz Air, Ryanair, EasyJet, Bulgaria Air, Lufthansa and British Airways. I would recommend booking tickets well in advance of your departure date and checking airline sales online when tickets can be discounted.
When I visited Bansko I travelled from London Gatwick to Sofia Airport. I am often limited in terms of my annual leave allocation and source the quickest mode of transport available to travel.
N.B. When arriving at Sofia Airport, it often takes a long time for luggage to be taken off the aircraft and on to the carousel. It will eventually arrive, but just be warned. Grab yourself a coffee and be patient. I was met by a representative at Snomads who had kindly arranged my airport transfer via an air-conditioned bus, which took me to the centre of Bansko.
It is possible to travel from London to Sofia by train. However, journey times are approximately 48 hours and have involve 5 changes. You firstly need to board the Eurostar from London to Paris, then take the TGV Duplex to Munich before boarding an overnight sleeper train in Lisinski to Zagreb.
Day 2 is spent travelling from Zagreb to Belgrade by train in modern air-conditioned Serbian carriages. Please note that this train does not have food on board. The final part of the journey is on the Balkan Express between Belgrade and Sofia. There are various routes that you can take with different options available, depending on what time of the year you are travelling. Tickets are purchased for each individual leg of the journey so the cost will vary according to the route you choose.
If you trying to reduce your carbon footprint, then perhaps opting for a bus from London to Sofia is the option for you, with half the CO2 emissions compared to a train. Journey times take an average of 1 day 22 hours. Bus companies that currently operate include Flixbus, Eurolines and Union Ivkoni.
Whether you are skiing for the first time or are a seasonal regular, travel insurance is a must. Most travellers will already pay for an annual policy or purchase insurance in advance of individual trips abroad. However, it is important to remember that skiing is classed as a winter sport activity and is unlikely to be covered in your standard travel policy.
This means that you will need specialist ski insurance to cover the loss of a ski pass, damage, theft or loss of your own or hired equipment, as well as medical treatment in case you are injured.
If you do get injured whilst skiing in Bansko then there are first aiders on the slopes who can assist you. There are often ski instructors on the slopes too who can assist you in getting the medical help you require. There is a 24-hour medical centre at the main Gondola Station, as well as a hospital, dentist and pharmacies in Bansko town.
They often require you to pay cash, so make sure you carry some with you and seek a receipt so you can then claim this back via your insurance company back at home If you do have an accident, the best thing to do is to contact your insurer and they will advise you accordingly.
Where to Stay in Bansko
As an up-and-coming ski resort, there are now a range of self-catering apartments, chalets and hotels to choose from. You can stay close to the foot of the gondola, which may appeal if you have small children, or be just a short walk or taxi away depending on your preferences.
If you are looking for an eco-friendly chalet with a socially responsible twist, mulled wine on arrival and baked flapjacks, then I would recommend a visit to Snomads. They have 4 chalets in Bansko to choose from; the smallest, Supreme, sleeps 10 people, Destiny sleeps 18, Prince sleeps 20 and Diana-Ross sleeps 25.
I stayed in Chalet Prince which is the newest addition to Snomads. It is perfectly located in the middle of Bansko and a complimentary shuttle bus takes you and your equipment to the gondola each morning.
Choose from a variety of triple, double, or single rooms each with a mountain view and wake up to the smell of freshly baked bread, homemade jams and hot breakfasts.
Chalet Prince has a separate dining room and lounge which are perfect for the that post-ski chill and a table tennis area for recreation.
If your muscles are aching after a day on the slopes, unwind in the steam room or hot tub before enjoying a craft beer at the bar or unlimited wine with your meal.
Home cooked three-course meals are prepared every evening with locally-sourced products and organic food. If you do have food allergies or are vegetarian or vegan, then do let Snomads know in advance and they will cater for your needs. The menu changes seasonally and ingredients are freshly supplied from the local market. Some of my favourite dishes included spiced curry pumpkin soup, rainbow trout served with fresh vegetables and potatoes and lemon posset.
There is a real focus at Snomads to keep plastic use to a minimum. Their new initiative is to use plastic bottles and one-use plastics to make eco-bricks, while bio-water systems are used to help maintain chalet temperatures and efficient chalet heating.
Snomads chalets are affordable, costing €334 per person for the week, inclusive of airport transfers, an en-suite room, half-board food and wine and a complimentary shuttle to the gondola. If you are looking for great chalets in a prime location in Bansko, then Snomads is a must.
Ski Hire and Equipment
If you are a beginner then you may not own your own equipment. Whilst purchasing skis, helmets and boots can be great investments for the future, I recommend renting equipment for ease.
Do not panic about booking this in advance of your trip; you can arrive at the ski hire shop and they will kit you out with ski boots, poles, skis and a helmet. This will be done after you have completed a short form confirming your height, weight and shoe size. Ski boots will feel strange at first and slightly uncomfortable, but rest assured after a week of skiing you won’t want to hand them back.
If you stay at one of Snomads’ chalets then on your first day of arrival, all guests will be transported by minibus to Ski Mania to collect equipment, so you’re ready to hit the slopes without waiting in long queues. If you are there for 6 days, adult skis, boots and pole hire costs 150lev, which is approximately £70 and very reasonable.
Remember to purchase thick ski socks in advance and take note of what number is allocated to you on your skis. After you have had a few drinks at après-ski, searching for yours amongst hundreds of others can sometimes be difficult and skis can be similar in terms of colour and size.
Lift Passes and Ski Runs
You will need to purchase a lift pass in advance, (360 lev/ €185 for 6 days) so that you can board the 25-minute gondola and make your way to the main ski zone from the town. Be prepared; there can often be long queues in the morning around 9.00am, so aim to arrive at around 8.00am – 8.15am to beat the rush hour. In the morning there are two places to line up, but both move at around similar speeds and get you to the gondola in the same time.
There are 75km of ski runs and a choice of 6 blue, 11 red and 2 black runs which are suitable for beginners and intermediates. I started my first day on the nursery slopes. However, after 4 hours of lessons over 2 days, I was skiing blue runs and managed to complete 6 over the course of the week which was a real sense of accomplishment.
One of my favourite things to do was to head home on the Bansko Ski Road, which is 14km in length. Most skiers all ski down from the mountain together along the scenic route, stopping off at the Umbrella Bar for a quick drink before heading home. It is a really gentle slope and a great one for beginners.
If you have never skied before, then you will need to attend ski lessons. Some people prefer heading to their local ski dome before they travel to learn on the slopes, but if you don’t have time to do this then I recommend attending lessons in Bansko with a ski school instead. Experienced skiers will also attend lessons if they are looking for a refresher.
Classes are usually no more than 8 people and instructors will speak English. Classes will vary on your ability, so you will often be placed with those who are a similar level to yourself. If you would prefer to attend one-to-one sessions or a private group, then these are available. I chose to attend group classes for 2 hours over 2 days, which cost 110 lev, equivalent to £51.
I was a beginner when I visited Bansko and had not skied before, so 4 hours of lessons was sufficient for me to get my confidence and hit the slopes. However, do remember everyone is different and some may require more or less time, depending on how you get on. I was lucky to meet other skiers in my chalet who were more experienced. They assisted me on the slopes when nervous or trying new runs, which I think helped me improve and face my fears.
All lessons take place in the main ski zone, at the top of the gondola station. You are taken to the nursery slopes and taught how to turn left and right, how to stop and how to slow down. You are also shown how to use the small button lift and how to snowplough; all essential skills needed before hitting the slopes.
It goes without saying that you will fall over multiple times, and you will struggle to get up too but persevere, practice and enjoy it!
Bansko Old Town
If you are visiting Bansko for skiing, do ensure you have free time to explore the UNESCO Old Town. Charming narrow cobbled streets, stone clad buildings with terracotta-tiled roofs and distinctive architecture add to the town’s character and ambience.
The town is so picturesque, it is like something out of a fairy tale. There are plenty of local taverns and mehanas to choose from for a bite to eat or an evening drink, as well as Bansko Museum Complex, the Holy Trinity Church and the Spiritual-Historical Centre to explore.
Overview of Bansko from a Beginner
Before travelling to Bansko and learning to ski, I did not understand why skiing was such an addiction, or how people returned year after year seeking out new ski runs, sourcing out a chalet and new destination to travel to, whilst participating in a winter sport which I perceived as dangerous and challenging.
However, a week in Bansko changed this perception for me. I witnessed the crisp fresh mountain air and powdery snow each morning. I spent the first 25 minutes of the day climbing on board the gondola where I sat peacefully gazing out of the window appreciating the beautiful landscapes around me. Throughout the week, as I gained confidence in my abilities, I was able to ski down from Todorin Vruh, the highest point of the mountain at 2,746m; the views of the summit were breathtaking.
As I slowly descended, my heart was racing, and it was the first time I was absolutely terrified. I skied through the clouds and had to edge across the mountain when visibility was poor. I will never forget the snow-covered mountain peaks, and feeling so at one with nature. It was beautiful.
Skiing is an exhilarating and exciting sport. I have never felt such an adrenaline rush as I did on the slopes. I pushed myself to take on a new challenge and tick ‘learning to ski’ off my bucket list.
Would I recommend Bansko as a ski destination for a beginner? Absolutely! It’s a premium ski resort, with affordable lift passes and hire equipment. There are professional instructors who offer lessons, a great selection of blue runs and a lively après-ski vibe. This charming Bulgarian town is a beginner’s dream!