This Bulgarian town is the perfect location for cheap winter fun on the slopes.
Why: Get more skiing and snowboarding for your buck in Bansko. Considered one of Europe’s best snow-sport bargains, the Pirin Mountain gateway town is particularly popular with first-time skiers and families. Don’t expect black diamond runs or the glitz of Zermatt. Even with a recent building boom resulting in new lifts, more hotels, and improved access to the slopes, Bansko remains true to its no-frills, low-cost roots.
“Bansko is a brilliant budget option and well served with snowmaking machines, which makes it a low-risk option if you should arrive when there’s no natural snow,” says Sean Cronin, a journalist for the National in Dubai who took his family of five (plus two grandparents) on a Bansko ski holiday last season. “(Bansko) manages to be both homely and edgy in a weird sort of way—like the picture-postcard frosted Alpine village but with a neon-lit sex shop plonked randomly on the main drag.”
Where: Bansko is in southwestern Bulgaria close to the borders with Macedonia and Greece. It is the gateway town to Pirin National Park. The closest international airport is about a hundred miles north in the capital, Sofia.
When to Go: Thanks to its snowmaking capabilities, Bansko’s ski season can run from mid-December until as late as May. Avoid school holiday weeks such as Christmas break, the first week in February, and Easter vacation, when hotels and slopes are packed with families.
What to Pack: There’s no pressure to dress to impress on the slopes. Bring a warm and weather-resistant ski jacket, waterproof ski pants (or warm pants made from quick-dry fabric), a thermal base layer (T-shirt and leggings), warm and waterproof gloves, at least two pairs of ski socks, sunscreen, and ski goggles or sunglasses. If you’re a first-time or infrequent skier, borrow skiwear from someone at home, or rent ski jackets and waterproof pants in Bansko.
Cheapest Route: The public bus from Sofia to Bansko costs only about seven dollars U.S. If you’re bringing skis or a snowboard, however, you may not be able to carry it on the bus. The Bansko Express shared shuttle is more expensive (about $29 one-way, reservations required), but you may want to splurge for the convenience. There’s no extra charge to carry winter-sports equipment, and the shuttle drops you directly at your Bansko hotel. In Bansko, walk and use taxis to get around.
Activities Offered: Skiing, ski lessons, and snowboarding are the main draws. Riding the gondola does double duty as an activity (scenic ride) and the way to get from Bansko to the two main ski areas, Chalin Valog and Shiligarnika. Most runs are beginner or intermediate. Shiligarnika has a dedicated snowboarding park with ramps, rails, and other man-made and natural terrain features.
Currency to Bring: The official currency is the Bulgarian lev. One United States dollar is worth about one lev 78 stotinki. Convert dollars at the currency exchange in the Sofia airport and at banks in Bansko. Use ATMs to withdraw additional cash. Large hotels and retail stores usually accept credit cards.
Cultural Tip: Unless you’re staying near the base of the gondola, it can be a hassle to lug your skis or board back and forth from your hotel each day. It’s worth the added expense to rent an equipment storage locker near the gondola.
Inside Tip: Save money by booking equipment rentals and lift ticketsonline before you go. A three-day ski package including lift pass and ski, pole, and boot rental costs only about $140 (U.S.) when purchased in advance.