Despite being a member of the European Union, Bulgaria has so far not adopted the Euro and continues to use the traditional currency of the Bulgarian Lev. This means that prices are a lot lower in Bulgaria making it popular for Western visitors in particular.
The history of the Bulgarian Lev
Back in 1880, during the era that Bulgaria achieved independence from the Ottoman Empire, the Bulgarian Lev was implemented as the currency of a newly liberated country. Lev translates to Lion and this was the symbol of the independence movement in the country and a fitting choice of symbolism indeed.
Through the 20th century, the Lev stuck out two world wars and communism. The most trying time for the currency, however, came in the late 1990s when Bulgaria was gripped in post-communist depression and huge inflation. As a result, a currency board was introduced in Bulgaria in order to help the currency survive. The Bulgarian Lev was ‘fixed’ to the German Deutsche mark at an exchange rate 1000 lev = 1 Deutsche mark.
In 1999, the redenomination of the Lev was introduced which meant that the rate changed to 1 lev = 1 Deutsche mark. Shortly after, when Germany adopted the Euro, the exchange rate was fixed to 1 lev = 1.95583 euros and remains largely the same today.
Thankfully, these days the Bulgarian lev is a stable currency. It is used for all purchases in Bulgaria. Dollars and Euros aren’t accepted in day-to-day life so you should always have Lev on hand when traveling through Bulgaria. The only exceptions to this rule can be found at gas stations on the main highways that see a lot of foreigners passing through the country on their way to Europe or Turkey and haven’t had time to pay cash. With the widespread use of credit cards, however, this is dying out so don’t count on it. As always in Eastern Europe, cash is king!
Bulgarian Lev Banknotes
The Bulgarian Lev Banknotes are available in denominations of 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100BGN. The notes show prominent people from the country’s history such as Paisiy Hilendarski on the 2-lev note, the author of the first written Bulgarian history, and the authors Pencho Slaveykov and Aleko Konstantinov. All notes have a tactile feature for visually impaired citizens.
What can you buy with different Lev denominations?
The following list from Culture Trip is a great way to relate and get your head around the Bulgarian currency and shows you what you can buy with each denomination of Lev in Bulgaria.
2 Lev – Since the introduction of the 2-lev coin in 2015, the 2-lev note has been used less and less. 2 levs are enough to grab a decent coffee in the morning or a light snack. A bus or metro ticket costs between 1 and 2 levs depending on what city you are visiting.
5 Lev – A five Lev note will get you a large beer (0.5 l) in a bar or a portion of fries and a small beer at a restaurant a little out of the city centers. Many of the museums in Bulgaria cost 5BGN to visit.
10 Lev – Choose a middle-range family restaurant, and you can get a salad, a main course and a soft drink for 10BGN from the lunch menu. At dinner time, a ten-lev banknote will get you a fine salad in a restaurant in the center of Sofia.
20 Lev – this will get you a one-way second-class ticket for the train from Sofia to the seaside city of Burgas. For less than 5 more levs you can upgrade to first class.
50 Lev – This is the average cost for a standard double room in a basic hotel in small towns in Bulgaria.
100 Lev – this is a considerable amount in Bulgaria, especially when considering that the average monthly salary in the country is a little over 1,000BGN. You can book a guided day trip from Sofia to the Rila Monastery for example, or splurge on a room in a high-class hotel.
Currency advice in Bulgaria
1. The most frequently fake notes found in Bulgaria are the 20BGN. The best way to tell the difference between a genuine and a fake 20-lev note is to look at it against the light and check for the watermark in the top right corner. If there’s no watermark, it’s counterfeit.
2. Although foreign notes will be accepted in some places like the gas stations on main highways previously mentioned, keep in mind that the exchange rate will be very poor, so it is best to stick to using Bulgarian money.
3. Credit and debit cards are widely accepted in shopping malls, supermarkets, and food venues in the centers of the big cities. However, the small towns and shops out of the city centers tend to operate only with cash, so make sure you have enough with you.