Veliko Tarnovo is the less-visited gem of Bulgaria. While it may not be as famous as Nessebar, or as old as Plovdiv, Veliko Tarnovo has cemented itself into Bulgarian history and culture. As one of the largest cities in northern Bulgaria, the town has played a major part in the development of the country. For those who may not be that familiar with the extremely turbulent Bulgarian history, the country has changed hands over a half a dozen times and has claimed independence 3 times since its first in the 7th century AD. While Sofia has been the capital of the region for the past 600 years, during the reign of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396), Veliko Tarnovo was the capital and where all the action took place. After decades of repression under the Byzantine Empire, the rebellion leading to their second independence was started in the town and eventually lead to Bulgaria's increased power.
What to do
The main attraction in the city and pretty much the single reason that most people will come to Veliko Tarnovo, the Tsarevets fortress is stunning both during the day and night. With the uprising against the Byzantine Empire starting in the town, the new tsars decided to make Veliko Tarnovo its capital and thus needed a fort to rival all others. Tsarevets was born at the top of one of the many hills in town, completely encased in a heavily fortified wall. With only three gates including the main draw bridge, the fortress developed into a full city complete with hundreds of residences, workshops, churches, a theatre, and even a massive secondary fortress-palace of over 50,000 SqFt. With the limited tourism in the city, it gives you unprecedented access through the fortress including walking on the 12 ft thick walls, climbing centuries-old towers, and almost complete access to the palace. In many spots, you will be completely alone with just your thoughts and the ruins. At the very top of the hill sits a church that has been torn down and rebuilt repeatedly. Today's church was reconstructed in the 20th century and finally opened again in 1981 to mark the 1300th anniversary of the Bulgarian Empire. The interior of the church is covered in some of the most unique church murals out there!
At night, the entire fortress is lit up in coloured lights complete with synchronized music. If you are not willing to pay for a seat in the viewing spot, you can stand at the base of the fortress and see all the lights but will miss the musical aspect of the show. If the one fortress is not enough for you, you can always check out the Trapezitsa on the opposing hill.
Not far from the base of the Tsaravets Fortress stands a series of museums set in historic buildings. These are the Prison Museum, the Museum of the Bulgarian Revival and Constituent Assembly, and finally the Archaeological Museum. The Museum of the Bulgarian Revival and Constituent Assembly is the spot where the first constitution of the Third (and current) Bulgarian Empire was signed.
Churches of Veliko Tarnovo
When visiting Veliko Tarnovo, it is important to not be afraid to continue down the hill past Tsaravets as much of the history of the town sits close to the river's edge. In this area, there are a series of churches including Holy Forty Martyrs, Church of the Assumption, and the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. On the other side of the river (and stunning Vladishki Bridge), stands one of the most important churches in all of Bulgaria. The Church of St Demetrius of Thessaloniki is built upon the spot in which brothers Asen and Peter announced the rebellion against the Byzantines which lead to the Second Bulgarian Empire. This empire cemented Bulgaria's legacy in the Balkans as a powerhouse until the Tsaravets Fortress was finally conquered almost 200 years later. This area is very local so don’t expect many tourist restaurants or shops which is a nice reprieve.
Art Gallery and Asanevtsi Monument
Sitting on a major bend of the Yantra River, overlooking the oddly stacked buildings of downtown, a large black obelisk with 4 rearing mounted horses at its base, the Asanevtsi Monument is an homage to the great rulers of the Second Bulgarian Empire. This is the perfect spot to capture a sunset as the sun reflects off the buildings across the river giving an excellent silhouette of the monument. In addition to this, there is a fantastic art gallery and viewpoint along the same peninsula.
Samovodska Charshia Market
These market streets are the ideal spot to get any souvenirs from your time in Bulgaria. Unlike many of the other markets, most stores in this area sport a badge in their front window proving authenticity. If the store has one, you know that anything purchased there will be handcrafted in Bulgaria. Pick up some amazing ceramic plates designed in front of you, or a copper Bulgarian coffee set banged out while you sample some slow drip! If souvenirs are not up your alley, you can also have a nice set of tea or coffee accompanied by traditional pastries in a fabulous café!
Covid Conscious Activities
With Covid-19 being such a huge factor in daily life, it is important to take steps towards a safer holiday like trying to limit your daily contact with others. Keep up to date with the latest local advisories and information.
Veliko Tarnovo has some of Bulgaria's top museums, most important churches, and art galleries. While these may not be the most Covid conscious activities, the city makes up for this with the one of a kind Tsarevets. As the entire mountain top is part of the castle, you can aimlessly wander around hundreds of buildings and cobblestone streets laid 700 years ago for hours on end. Try taking a self-guided walking tour to learn more about the city while staying socially distant from others. The space is so large and few tourists make it to Veliko Tarnovo so at least this activity is somewhat Covid conscious even if the entire city is not. You can also rent a car and head south for a drive through the mountains to Buzludzha- the crumbling Communist meeting space of the mid 19th century.
Where to Stay
The city is built along the steep banks of the Yantra River. We found that for a city so beautiful and historic, the overnight tourism industry is still a little behind the times leading to low supply. While there are a number of hotels, they seem to be at a bit of a higher premium than Bulgaria is usually known for. AirBnb seems to be at a minimum as well, probably related to the high local population and historically low overnight tourism in the city. If you can, try to stay close to Stefan Stambolov Street as it is the main thoroughfare in the city and well located to most attractions. As a general statement, we are past the point in our lives to choose hostels as our main accommodations but we are very happy we decided to stay at Hostel Mostel. We usually shy away from hostels as the price for 2 people is often just a few dollars less than an Airbnb or Pension, but with limited other options, we chose the private room at Hostel Mostel. Not only is their staff super friendly and knowledgeable, but the hostel also provides a vegetarian breakfast and dinner which (even as a heavy meat-eater) was very good and filling.
How to get there and around
The tourist area of the city pretty much runs alongside Stefan Stambolov Street ending with Tsaravets up on the hill. There are a number of bus lines that run through town and to the area surrounding however most of your time will likely be spent walking. This is with the exception of getting to and from the city. Due to its age and location along the steep banks of the Yantra River, the train station is not in town, sitting by itself outside of the city. We highly suggest to take a cab and not attempt to walk into town especially at night as the route would not be very safe to walk. Even to the furthest point in town, the cab should only be about 10 Lev. While this is the main train station for the city, it is not very well connected to the main lines in Bulgaria. If you are coming from most major cities, you will likely need to change trains at Gorna Oryahovitsa. If that is the case and you have a long connection time, we highly suggest taking the local bus from Gorna Oryahovitsa to Veliko Tarnovo. At only 6 Lev it is super reasonable and runs a few times an hour so a much better option than waiting several hours at an almost bare train station.
While it is a long day, the best day trip from Veliko Tarnovo is to head south through the mountains to the Kazanluk Valley. If your trip is in the spring, the valley is covered in massive roses of all colours. Roses have been grown in the area for centuries and produce a number of rose products including about half of the world's rose oil. In late May, there is even a festival with more rose products than you can imagine. The area is also home to hundreds of Thracian tombs dating back several thousand years. Last but not least, make sure to check out Buzludzha- the former home to the Bulgarian Communist Party. The building looks like it is straight out of a Sci-Fi movie! This massive circular building cannot be toured anymore but gives a spectacular view of the mountains. There are also a number of monuments in the area allowing for some unique pictures of the flying saucer look-a-like.