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Architectural Styles

In some Bulgarian towns like Smolyan or Sozopol one particular architectural style tends to dominate the urban landscape, but cities like Varna and Sofia are a mix of many different periods. Each building recants much about the historical period it was built in. Many of the styles echo a forgotten classical period and others attempted to provide practical affordable shelter.

Architecture from the Second Bulgarian Empire- During the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396), architecture from the renowned Tarnovo School reigned. Residential dwellings from this time fall into two groups depending on the status of the occupants: Bolyar Houses and Mass Dwellings.


Tsarevets has the best example of Bolyar houses, built for the rich and ‘L’ shaped. They were divided into a living sector and one for business. They were surrounded on all sides by tall stone walls. Mass dwellings fell into two subcategories: those that were partly dug out of the earth and those that were built above ground. Houses, which were dug into the earth, were inhabited by poorer unskilled labourers. In some of the semi-dug dwellings, the rear of the house was fully under the ground, but the façade was exposed. Houses of this ilk were either built with wood and covered with straw or reed or built from stones bonded together with mud with a timber roof.

National Revival Architecture -Probably the most famous architectural period in Bulgarian history is that of the Bulgarian National Revival, a period of Bulgarian Renaissance during the 19th century just before Ottoman rule ended.

This period inspired architects to recall and recreate all things Bulgarian. Architecture from this period is still visible in old Bulgarian towns like Tryavna, Kopravishta and Veliko Tarnovo.

Many of the houses from this era housed rich merchants who demanded spacious interiors.

Perhaps the best example of this architectural style can be found in Plovdiv’s Old Quarter (see below), where the steep, winding cobblestone alleys are filled with colourful houses which expand with each storey.


Each of the upper storeys is supported by large timber- framed brackets. This cleverly resolved the shortage of ground space by providing roomy upper floors.

The large bay windows were usually where the main reception rooms were, whist smaller ones housed cupboards and kitchen areas.

Both inside and out there are plenty of trompe l’oeil floral paintings and many exterior columns are decorated in a technique known as alfranga.


Rhodopean Stone - The museum town of Shiroka Laka is famous for its authentic Rhodopean houses set in tiers on both banks of the river.

The houses here were designed in true Rhodopean style by local craftsmen. Most consist of two storeys with a large bay window supported by timber corbels. There are lots of built-in cupboards and a small cellar with a hiding place.

The houses are surrounded to the back and sides by tall white walls concealing the courtyard from passers-by. Courtyards tend to be small, paved with slabs with a stone drinking fountain in the middle.

Rhodopean architecture was conceived at the time of the National Revival, but it differs from typical examples of the period because the mountain relief does not allow sprawling buildings.


Neo-Baroque - Similar to neo-classical, this style imitates the true Baroque period.

It evolved around the 17th-18th centuries and was a favourite of many Austrian architects, who had a strong influence in Bulgaria. After Sofia became the capital, architects from the Austro-Hungarian Empire arrived in the country and introduced new ways of design and construction.

Examples of this style are the Sofia Military School, the Military Club and the Synagogue.

However, possibly the best example is the Royal Palace, now home of the National Art Gallery on Battenburg Square in Sofia is a typical example.

It was constructed in two parts; the first section was completed in 1882, having been designed by Austro–Hungarian architects under the guidance of Viktor Rumpelmayer.

This section contained the administrative ground floor, the ballrooms and the service third floor. The second section was constructed under the architectural guidance of Viennese architect Friedrich Gruenanger.

Neo-Classical - Derived from classical Greek and Roman architecture, this style evolved around the mid-18th century, both as a reaction against the Rococo and Baroque styles. During this period, interiors and exteriors were inspired by the discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Buildings were topped with triangular sections above the portico and window frames were turned into gilded mirrors, fireplaces were capped with ornate temple fronts. Walls were decorated with flat motifs often painted in monotones like cameo paintings. The interior was bedecked with medallions, vases or busts often suspended on swags of laurel or ribbon. Walls were painted in ‘Pompeian red’, pale tints, or stone colors. A classical example of this style today is the Bulgarian National Bank headquarters in Sofia, which was designed by notable architects Ivan Vasilyov and Dimitar Tsolov and built between 1934 and 1939.

Neo-Byzantine - This type of architecture grew from the Revival Period. Many examples exist in the design of religious, institutional and public buildings. It incorporates elements of the Byzantine style associated with 5th – 11th century Eastern Orthodox architecture.

Buildings from this period are characterised by round arches, vaults, domes, brick, ornate decoration, mosaics and plastered reliefs. It was first developed in Imperial Russia and spread into Eastern Europe. The best example in Bulgaria is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which was built in 1882.

Ideas for your home - If you are in the process of looking for a home with character or perhaps considering renovating your Bulgarian home to reflect the correct era or local style, this insight into Bulgaria’s architectural history has hopefully given you a few helpful hints into the type of architecture common to the country. If your home has authentic characteristics, you need to check whether it is the subject of a preservation order and ensure that you use skilled builders and craftsmen who will preserve the current style rather than obliterate it.

Remember, a home, which has been lovingly restored or preserved in all of its former glory will attract a greater degree of interest than many of the characterless new builds, which are sprouting up all over the country.