Many tourists come to Bansko because they know it is one of the top and most affordable ski resorts in Europe. But after spending a few months in this mountain town, I got to know its other side – centuries-old culture, hot springs, a UNESCO-protected nature park, traditional food, luxury travel, fine dining, nightlife. Bansko is so much more than a winter resort – it is an all-season destination where you can experience both Bulgarian hospitality and cultural diversity.
Stay at Bulgaria’s best luxury hotel
I approach and choose to stay in Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena Bansko as I have always associated the chain with great quality and tradition. Sadly, Kempinski ended their contract with the hotel in Sofia that I remember since childhood. It had an authentic Japanese restaurant that used to make me feel as if I was traveling to Japan. Now the only Kempinski hotel in Bulgaria is in Bansko and it is also voted as the best luxury hotel in all of Bulgaria. I decide to spend a night there and experience this for myself as someone who is passionate about luxury travel. The journey starts when one of the Ladies in Red greets me at reception, gives me a personal welcoming letter and confirms my dinner reservation for two.
It feels as if I am in Switzerland – the room is designed in Alpine style with wooden furniture and warm colors. And I get to treat myself with fine handmade chocolate while enjoying the sunset mountain view from my balcony.
“All the hotels of Kempinski are somewhat unique. This is what Kempinski is about. We try not to have standardized hotels in every part of the world but look at what the individual hotel can bring to the portfolio. What makes this hotel unique is certainly the location. We are a ski in and ski out in the winter and also have fantastic access to the Pirin National Park in the summer,” Carsten Seubert, General Manager of Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena Bansko tells me later on.
Live cooking and fine dining
The hotel has two restaurants where you can experience a different kind of fine dining while observing how your food is prepared in an entertaining way. I and my friend Vlad meet at the Come Prima Restaurant for a three-course a la carte dinner. We order different dishes in each course and have a little competition – who will make a better choice. Vlad’s salad with duck gives me food envy but I then order a sea bass with broccoli mousseline and almandine butter that beats his main course choice. Final eliminations during the dessert course. “So who won?,” the waiter Vini is also excited about our little challenge. Forest fruit tart with yoghurt ice cream versus mango and passion fruit mousse with caramelized banana. Tough decision. We agree that we are even.
Another food experience I loved was the breakfast buffet at the Gallery Restaurant. Speaking of food competitions, this buffet beat every 5-star breakfast I have had before from all over the world. Yoghurt and milk with different percentage of fat, fresh berries, a hot station for omelettes, pancakes, and sausages, bread and cheese choices, salads, cereals – the abundance of choice made me wander for a while, wanting to try everything. I can tell the quality of a hotel by its breakfast buffet and I would give this one a Michelin star if I had this kind of authority. Even if you don’t stay in the hotel it is definitely worth visiting it for breakfast.
Get active, regardless of the season
In the winter, you can ski or snowboard even if it is for the first time – there are slopes with different levels of difficulty from beginner, medium, advanced to cross-country and off-piste. And one of the greatest summer activities in Bansko, and perhaps in the Balkans, is the 350-meter water slide that goes downhill from the top of the mountain. You can also explore the nature park on a bike or at the back of a horse. Rafting, paintball, fishing – there are so many opportunities and zero excuses to go outside, get active and recharge.
Hit the spa after an active day
My most favorite part of Kempinski’s spa is the outdoor jacuzzi. At night, there are colorful lights and a great view of the starry sky. During the afternoon, it is a great place to catch some sun rays, even if it is cold and snowy outside. Bansko and its surrounding towns have an many mineral hot springs with healing properties. For a more local experience, you can also go to Banya village. There are also a few natural hot pools in the mountain that very few people know about. Perhaps you can try and find one of them.