Melnik is a tiny cultural city in the Blagoevgrad Province of Bulgaria. Melnik is actually the smallest town in Bulgaria and is only able to keep its incorporated status as a city due to its historical importance. There are just 385 inhabitants of this mountain village and pretty much all of its buildings are historic landmarks. The town was founded over 1,000 years ago and has been ruled by various empires including the Bulgarian Empire, Ottoman Empire, and Russians.
Melnik is known for its remote location in the Pirin Mountains as well as its winemaking tradition and agrarian culture, historic buildings, and quaint small-town charm. Just outside of town are the famous Melnik Earth Pyramids, a geological formation that was formed by erosion.
Here are some of my favorite things to do in Melnik as well as how to get there and where to stay.
How to Get to Melnik, Bulgaria
Melnik is located in the southwestern corner of Bulgaria, about 175km south of Sofia. Sofia is the best starting point if you are taking public transportation, as there is one direct bus that departs daily. This trip takes around 4 hours, but the return to Sofia is the next morning, so be sure to arrange overnight accommodation in Melnik.
If you are traveling by car, you can come from anywhere and travel on your own schedule! This is by far the easiest option. From Sofia, a drive to Melnik takes around 2.5 hours.
If you are traveling from outside Europe, you can fly into Sofia or Thessaloniki. While coming from Greece requires crossing a country border, it is a nice way to include Melnik on a Greece itinerary especially if you have the time.
Things to Do in Melnik
Melnik Earth Pyramids
The Melnik Earth Pyramids are a widely visited natural phenomenon overlooking the town from the north at the foothills of the Pirin Mountains. Their height is nearly 100m and there are pleasant hiking trails to and through the bizarre formations. The pyramids were declared a natural landmark in 1960 and are home to rich flora and fauna.
The Rozhen Monastery of the Nativity of the Mother of God is a medieval monastery in the Pirin Mountains near Melnik. The monastery church was built sometime in the 16th century although there is archaeological evidence of settlement here as early as the mid-13th century and it is known that some buildings were constructed in the 13th or 14th century.
Fire destroyed the monastery in the late 17th century but with the help of rich Bulgarians, was restored in the early 18th century.
Worshippers from around the world come here to pray at an icon dedicated to the Mother of God for health and happiness. The monastery also boasts well-preserved medieval frescoes, stained glass windows, and unique carvings.
The nearby Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius houses the tomb of Bulgarian revolutionary Yane Sandanski. To get here, you can hike 3km from Melnik through the pyramids, or take a short 10 minute drive outside of town.
The Kordopulova House is the best-preserved Renaissance house in the Balkan peninsula. It was built in 1754 for a Greek wine merchant and his family. The house is located in the centre of Melnik and offers a wine tasting package in addition to a regular tourist ticket.
Visitors can see the traditional architecture, stained glass, Venetian murals, wood carvings, and more. There are four levels, connected by seven staircases. The living room is the largest room in the house, with two levels of windows looking out in every direction.
The Bolyarska House, or Byzantine House, is a medieval monument dating back to the early 13th century. It was built as the primary residence for the despot Alexius Slav and played an important strategic position in the defenses of the fortress and town. Many consider it the oldest Byzantine building in the Balkans.
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, it was a richly furnished building with marble floors, marble fountains, mosaiced walls and floors, stained glass windows, and more. The Bolyarska House was inhabited until the early 20th century, however today it is only a ruin. Archaeological excavations revealed a small 13th century church and a water reservoir near the tower.
Wine Tasting at the Wine Cellar Pri Shestaka
Melnik wine is very famous. It is said that Winston Churchill himself used to order barrels of the wine every year for himself and his guests! The local variety, known as Shiroka Melnishka or Broadleaf Melnik, grows only in this region, and has a very unique taste. The red wine is bold, fruity, and exotic, with notes of strawberry, pepper, and tobacco.
Wine has been produced here for millennia – in the Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer mentions Melnik wines. Modern winemaking tradition here dates back to the 14th century. Be sure to try a variety of wines, and then purchase some to bring home.
Once you have tasted your way through the Melnik wines at the wine cellar, you’ll want to visit the Wine Museum to create your own bottle of wine to take home. The wine bottle is filled, corked, and sealed with wax, then you can label it with a date, names, photo of loved ones, or whatever you wish.
A premium ticket to the wine museum includes a wine tasting, done directly from the barrels of wine in the cave vault of the museum. But in addition to this unique experience, you can also explore the traditions of wine production in Melnik, see tools and equipment for the production, and view photos of the long history of winemaking here.
Where to Stay in Melnik
While there are several small guesthouses in Melnik, by far my favourite and the best one in town is the luxurious Zornitza Family Estate, a Relais and Chateaux property. This charming family home was born out of a dream to create a “place where luxury and nature are in perfect harmony.” The property offers just six villas that can accommodate 3 adults or 2 adults and 2 children per villa. Villas are spacious and comfortable, with sumptuous furnishings and stylish interiors.
The property boasts one of the best restaurants in Melnik – aEstivum. This fine-dining establishment serves upscale cuisine and boasts a wine list of almost 300 wines from around the world (and Melnik). There is also Bistro 55, a less formal dining experience with a fusion menu from Bulgaria, Asia and America. Zornitza also has a wine cellar and a degustation room that can be rented for private parties.
Other experiences on the Estate are the Zoma Spa, a winery, golf lessons, and an eco farm where you can see the ingredients and products that end up in the aEstivum dishes or on the breakfast table.
Melnik is a small but delightful historical town in the mountains of southern Bulgaria. It is off the beaten path, yet boasts a rich past and a number of unique natural and ecological attractions. Melnik is a must-see on your next trip to the Balkans!