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Learning To Ski in Bansko, Europe’s Affordable Snow Resort

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Updated: 28th January 2020

Hello, Europe in January. That month of seemingly never-ending grey weather. Where winter days roll on forever, and sunlight appears in fleeting moments. Well, this year, I had a plan to beat all that. I was heading to a new country, Bulgaria, to pick up a new hobby, skiing – and I was pretty pumped. Bansko is one of the most affordable Ski resorts in Europe, and it’s also ideal for all levels, including beginners.

I’ve always fancied the idea of skiing but have been put off by the high prices. Scuba diving is already one of my greatest holiday hobbies, and although it isn’t cheap either, I wasn’t keen to add another huge hobby expense to my winter in Europe travel list. Luckily, however, it does seem there are some relatively cheap places to learn to ski, and Bansko convinced to give it a shot.

The great thing about Bansko is that the resort caters to all levels. While there are plenty of easy slopes and a big lesson area near the main restaurants, it also has a couple of blacks and this year played host to the AUDI FIS Woman’s World Cup, so even as a non-skier, I read that as a sign of quality. While there was some natural snowfall during my visit, I was there at the start of the season, and the powder guns were fired up daily to ensure the pistes were perfect.

Is skiing in Bansko affordable?

So, how affordable is Bansko? Well, to give you some ideas, Snomads, the company which I arranged my accommodation with following a kind offer, offer private rooms from £200-£400, depending on the time of the season, and also offer their chalets for private hire, which is ideal if you have a group who want to get away together.

But that price doesn’t just include your room for a week; it amazingly also packages up your transfers to/from Sofia airport (though it’s pretty easy getting to Bansko anyway), breakfast daily, six three-course dinners, unlimited wine and beer with dinner, access to the sauna and hot tub at the Chalet, and daily transfers to/from the first Gondola with your gear.

From the top of the mountain at Bansko Ski Resort
From the top of the mountain at Bansko Ski Resort

But what about the other costs? How do they add up? One thing I really appreciated about Bansko was how forgiving it is to first-timers. For example, the Ski lessons didn’t need to be booked in blocks, so you wouldn’t have to commit to, say, a package in advance. You could decide the night before if you wanted another lesson, thus managing more of your costs. While it did save you a little to book in batches, the price of a two-hour group lesson cost 60LV (about £28).

My accommodation at Snomads handily had gear rental available on-site, so you didn’t need to head out and could get fitted on arrival. Again, they don’t force you to rent for the whole week and can rent just by the day should you wish, although gear for the full week is only around 150LV (£73) and clothing was also very, very cheap if you didn’t want to buy all the gear for the first time like me.

Other bargains around the old town and resort at the bottom of the slopes included massages for 50LV (£22) and two drinks for 5LV at their cheapest, which is about £1.20 for a G&T or mulled wine, say. Food is also pretty affordable, especially at lunchtimes. We found an excellent place that did a set menu of three dishes and a glass of wine for 9LV (£4), so to summarise, Bansko is rather wallet-friendly.

Bansko’s Best Chalet: Staying at Snomads Chalet Diana Ross

Welcome to Chalet Diania Ross, the winner of Bansko’s Best Ski Chalet 2023 and nominated for World’s Best Ski Chalet 2023 in the World Ski Awards.

It was my first time staying in a Chalet, and I really enjoyed it. Chalet Diana Ross, where we called home, had little disco touches to it, and Snomads have a few other lodges in Bansko. Accommodating up to 24 guests if every bed is full, I was a bit worried it might be really hectic, but the week I stayed there, there were only five of us. I think it is rare it would ever be full, as that would mean every room and bed was taken, and between solo travellers, etc., it’s likely not that often – though, to be fair, there is certainly enough space.

There’s a lot I loved about this lodge, including plenty of green initiatives at Snomads. Still, I think we can all agree those prices are headliners, being a far cry from the most famous Italian and French resorts and making for a less substantial initial investment for a first-timer like me. It turns out I wasn’t the only one either. A fair few of my Instagram followers messaged to say they learned to ski at Bansko and loved it, and a couple had even stayed with Snomads, too!

The bedrooms were spacious with en-suites, basic but comfy and private. There were a couple of different lounge areas, one at the reception and dining area, where little homemade snacks or mulled wine would be waiting for us to return from the slopes on day one. Downstairs, next to the sauna, was another lounge area with loads of board games and a Nintendo 64; the hot tub sits outside next to the rental gear shop and provides welcome relief after a day locked in Ski boots.

Another thing I really appreciated about Snomads as a solo traveller was that although there are single supplement rates listed, they said they very rarely charged them as they enjoy having solo travellers come and stay – always music to my ears.

Importantly, the staff at the Chalet were super friendly, and as it was one of the quietest weeks of the year, we were spoiled with lots of attention from the whole Snomads team, not just those at Chalet Diana Ross. Being in the EU, there were a fair few native Brit staff here, but for visitors from outside Europe—note Bulgaria is not (currently) in Schengen, so for serious travellers that have burnt through their Schengen visa allowance—Bulgaria is a great alternative.

Local Tony, a Bulgarian master of serving great wines and making anything you could want arranging to happen, was nearly always on hand for questions and to help, and my only gripe with Snomads is it would have been nice to have a couple more local staff perhaps. The hosts were so lovely and became more like friends by the end of the trip, but being in a Chalet with the meals served would have made a chance to interact with a few more Bulgarian locals easier.

Three-course meals came out of the kitchen every evening, and the team easily catered to vegetarians and vegans, another bonus as the Balkans aren’t famed for their plethora of plant-based dishes. There is a real focus on using only local and market produce, so fish, for example, was ordered in the morning and picked up, and the menus were a mix of local and international dishes. Tell these guys any dietary requirements before you arrive, and they will have you covered.

Drinks in the Chalet could be picked up from the Honesty Bar, where you grabbed what you wanted and noted it in a book. Craft beers were independent and locally sourced, and wine was organic and local, too, while drinks were included with meals. Breakfast always offered up cooked and buffet options, while the evening meals provided a chance to catch up with everyone after a day on the slope and, indeed, a feast.

Currently, Snomads’ season is from December until April, and they are soon to be launching cultural and culinary tours in the summer, too – which can be arranged by booking through the website. It’s also worth noting the internet in Bulgaria is seriously good, and thus, Bansko has become quite the digital nomad hotspot.

How do Snomads’ sustainable ski lodge credentials stack up?

With the aim of being carbon-neutral, including setting off all guest flights, the team get hands-on at the end of each season and personally plants in a designated area the number of trees they need to “offset” their carbon footprint (my views on relying on carbon offsets aren’t so favourable, but it’s something). They also have dedicated recycling bins around the property, not so common in Bulgaria, I noted, and a ‘toothbrush amnesty’ to trade your plastic one in for bamboo.

Some of these steps aren’t the most bold. But, more impressive was the staff were always up to something with a green focus, whether it was making eco-bricks from non-recyclable plastics to picking up local beeswax to make kitchen wrap – there was a commitment here from all the staff, and certainly no greenwashing going on at an individual level..

Food and drink were more affordable in the town
Food and drink were more affordable in the town

What are the slopes and ski scenes like in Bansko?

But what about the slopes and skiing? I mean, that’s why we are here, right? Well, being a first-timer I don’t think it would take much to impress me, but I travelled to Bansko with my friend Vicky who has skied many times and in many places, and the resort got a huge thumbs up from her too.

To get up the mountain, where the Ski Resort is located, you’ll be dropped off at the Gondola in town by the Snomads crew, or you can walk if you are nearby. The Gondola was quick to get on when I was there, but I have heard at peak times, such as New Year, the queue can get reasonably long to protect the heritage status of the Pirin National Park; there is only one main Gondola. The ride up by Gondola takes around 30 minutes, stopping at a mid-station, although there is also a road taking you up to the top.

Note that you’ll still need a lift pass when you reach the top to get to the slopes, so if you take a taxi all the way up, it will double your costs. If you are having a day when you don’t fancy skiing but want to head up, you can get a return ticket for the Gondola at a lower price.

There are about 14 different pistes in Bansko, consisting of blues, reds and a couple of blacks, and none seemed overly crowded during my January visit. There is also a ski road of about 7km that leads back into town, so you don’t need to take the Gondola down. At the top of the Gondola is a collection of restaurants and bars, often with entertainment, but be aware the costs are much higher here – a pizza, for example, is about 22LV (£10). On most of the slopes, there are also bars/snack places to stop off at for some mid-aprés ski!

Learning to ski in Bansko

I took a couple of group lessons, which were great, and you have a choice of early, mid-morning or afternoon. For those wanting longer group sessions or private lessons, they are easily arranged. There are a few different operators for lessons in Bansko, but on Snomads’ recommendation, I went with SkiMania, which they organised for me.

The groups were relatively small, around four people, and split into very defined levels, from complete beginners to those wanting to improve their technical skills. We were all at various levels in the lodge, and while Vicky took a more advanced class to improve her skills, another fellow beginner stayed with us, doing runs and coming down the ski road by day three.

I wasn’t as naturally good at skiing, and although I loved being up in the mountains and the snow, I only ended up Skiing for the first few days of the trip thanks to a leg injury. Luckily, that isn’t a problem, given there is plenty more to enjoy in and around Bansko.

What I appreciated as a newbie is with my lift pass, I could go up all the chairlifts to admire the views from the very top, and here in Bansko, they let you also come down the chairlifts if you want, so you don’t have to decide between taking on a run you aren’t ready for or missing out altogether.

Bankso Old Town is backed by snow-capped mountains
Bankso Old Town is backed by snow-capped mountains

Bansko Ski Resort and Old Town

Bansko’s old town is about a 20-minute walk from the Gondola and even less from Snomads and is a welcome contrast to the apes, ski bars, and busy atmosphere of the newer resort part.

Cobbled streets and traditional restaurants line the little streets here, punctured by the occasional house museum and a beautiful Eastern Orthodox church, although photos inside most churches in Bulgaria are banned. You get some smashing views of the mountains here when the mist lifts by late morning, and you can easily spend a half or full day wandering around the small area and discovering each little corner.

Up towards the Gondola, where the newer part of the resort is, there are plenty of restaurants, bars and rental shops, but also a bowling alley, ice-skating rink, and the odd karaoke bar and club – all of which I tried and tested on a particularly Rakia heavy night. Speaking of Rakia, they have a vast homemade vat of the stuff at Snomads, which you can enjoy freely!

What else to do in and around Bansko?

If you fancy extending your trip after skiing in Bansko or want to take a day trip while in town, here are a few places you could add to your Bulgaria itinerary.

Pirin National Park

Pirin National Park is actually where the Bansko Ski Resort is, and also a top-rated summer destination for hiking and hunting out magnificent lakes. However, between December and April, it’s a true winter wonderland of green pines and snow-covered peaks, and you can also snowboard and snowshoe alongside skiing.

Relax in the Hot Springs

Okay, so this is a fact I had no idea about: Bulgaria is home to the second-largest number of hot springs in Europe after Iceland, making it one of the continent’s best wellness destinations. And in Banya, the next village along from Bansko, there are plenty. One afternoon, we arranged a group trip there with the Snomads crew, where, alongside the bar and hot springs, massages were also available. The cost of transport, entrance, and drink was 40LV (£19, 2020), and the same was applied to a message.

Enjoying the hot springs in Bansko, Bulgaria
Enjoying the hot springs in Bansko, Bulgaria

Day trip to Rila Monastery

Perhaps the most popular attraction in Bulgaria is Rila Monastery, which is often taken as a day trip from Sofia. But as the monastery is in the snowy mountains, it is actually quicker to reach from Bansko.

Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, the monastery dates back to the 10th century. At its peak, over 200 monks would have lived in the 199 bedrooms here, although now only about ten reside. Over the years, it has been attacked and almost razed, most notably by the fire of the Ottomans. However, it’s always been rebuilt.

Parts of Rila Monastery are off-limits to day-trippers, although there is a chance to spend the night staying in one of the basic and traditional rooms that the monks once used. I had no idea about this before my visit. Otherwise, I’d have absolutely stayed overnight — what a cool experience. You can ask Tony at Snomads (if staying there or at your own lodge) to arrange a tour or driver for you if you don’t want to hire a car. Maybe even schedule a detour to one of the nearby wine towns, such as Melnik, en route.

Take the slow train to Plovdiv

It is highly recommended, if time allows, that you add on a visit to Plovdiv after your Ski trip. Bulgaria’s second city was one of Europe’s Capitals of Culture for 2019, and the gorgeous Old Town is packed with history, architecture, street art and decent bars. I really enjoyed it, especially the old ornate details on the Royal Blue wooden houses, and the ruins of the Roman theatre. A night or two will allow you to see the main sights, and if you are feeling brave, you can forego the pricy transfer for the nearly five-hour narrow-gauge slow train through the mountains.

The old Roman amphitheatre in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
The old Roman amphitheatre in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Start or end in Sofia

Transfers from Sofia Airport were included with Snomads, but try to add a night before or after your trip to soak up a sample of the country’s Capital. I didn’t give myself much time here at all, as I’ve never heard glowing reviews, but from what I saw, Sofia is actually a pretty cool city with a fair bit to see — perhaps a return visit will be needed.

15 replies
  1. Clare M. says:

    I’ve just got back from skiing in Bansko, the first time I’ve skied in Bulgaria. We had a great time although being half term the gondala queues were pretty bad at times so best avoided if you can.

    • Daniel James (Dan Flying Solo) says:

      Glad you had a great time Clare, I’m glad I missed the half term as I did hear the queues were quite bad – it was really quiet for us, but I think it was the lowest week of the season, imagine with just the one it can get even more hectic sometimes.

  2. Mo says:

    Thanks for the informating us and sharing your experience. I never thought Bulgaria is an Eldorado. Looking at the pictures and wondering how cheerful to experience skiing there in Bansko.

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