According to many travellers to Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo (Велико Търново, Veliko Tŭrnovo) is the most beautiful city in Bulgaria. I had to see for myself (being utterly fond of Plovdiv and its remarkable sights). Even with the bar being set high, Veliko Tarnovo exceeded my expectations. It is just marvelous with its various layers, its Old Town, medieval buildings and wonderful nature. So here are my top 10 favourite things to do in Veliko Tarnovo.
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Best Veliko Tarnovo Sights
- Tsarevets Fortress
Hard to miss and one of the definite must sees in Veliko Tarnovo, Tsarevets (Царевец) stands towering above the meandering Yantra River. It dates back to the 12th century and guarded the then capital back in the day.
Sadly, the Ottomans conquered and burned the stronghold down in 1393, which led to the fall of the Bulgarian Empire. At least, you can still admire the grand ruins of the formerly grand fortress. There is a small entrance fee. The best time to visit is for the Sound and Light shows.
The entire fortress are is pretty big with nearly 4m high walls basically following the outline of the hill. In the centre of it all was the palace and on top of the hill the patriarchate, including the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God. This is basically the only intact building (it was reconstructed) and boasts amazing and unexpected looking (cause modern) frescoes inside.
- Hidden Communist Graffiti
One of the coolest things I got to discover in Veliko Tarnovo Bulgaria was the creepy Communist mural hidden away in an abandoned factory on the banks of the Yantra River. If you cross over at the steel bridge to the east of Tsarevets, you will see the old building. Turn left and follow the main entrance into the area, past the guard house and towards the stone steps.
From there you can already see the crumbling concrete walls covered in dust and graffiti. The mural itself shows an oppressing image of workers slaving away for the sake of a few well dressed consumers. Not sure how exactly that was supposed to motivate the factory workers.
A word of caution: The area is unguarded (when I visited) but it being abandoned, not entirely safe to visits. The buildings are falling apart so be cautious when walking around. Also, there is a lot of debris and trash lying around.Wear closed shoes and try not to enter the buildings.
- Saint Peter and Paul Church
Keeping in line with the medieval theme Veliko Tarnovo, you gotta visit this old and presitigious Orthodox church. It also was constructed in the 13th century and therefore presents itself in the typical architectural style, with cross dome and apse.
As the name suggests, it is dedicated to the Christian Apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The former saint became the first bishop of Rome (aka pope) and the second spread Christianity beyond the Roman Empire.
What is super special about this Veliko Tarnovo church are its three layers of frescoes on the inside. Their creation took more than three centuries, spanning the 13th, 15th and 16th century. Images naturally are very religious, depicting the the martyrs of Edessa, for instance.
- Saint Demetrius Church
Another stunning church in Veliko Tarnovo is the Church of St Demetrius of Thessaloniki. (Fun fact: Thessaloniki is over 500km away.) Again, it is a medieval Orthodox church. It can be found at the Northeast below Trapezitsa and Tsarevets.
The first time the church was mentioned in writing was by Byzantine chroniclers Niketas Choniates and Theodor Skutariotes. According to them, the church was built as a response to the rebellion by the Assen brothers who sought to make Bulgaria independent indefinitely.
Sadly though, Bulgaria also experiences the odd earthquake and such one destroyed the church in 1913. In the 70s, it was thankfully rebuilt.
- Saint Forty Martyrs Church
Tsar Ivan Asen II had this church built during his reign to honour his own victory near Klokotnitsa in 1230. The church grounds aren’t entirely complete anymore but still worthy of a visit. You can stroll around the remaining walls idly. There is no entrance fee.
Saint Forty Martys Church (църква “Св. Четиридесет мъченици”) is actually a basilica. Its inside walls were covered in murals, too. But what you can actually see are the outer decorations on the western walls.
Another great feature of the church are the historical records stored inside. Some of it is actually in Greek. The documents were placed by the tsar themselves as a tribute to his ancestors.
- The Monument of the Assens
Normally, you would expect a big monument like that of the Assens to stand tall on some mountain. But the central hills in Veliko Tarnovo are kinda occupied already. And since the city can be divided into upper and lower parts, why not build the tallest construction in the valley on Boruna peninsula, where it can be seen from practically everywhere?
Well, that happened but while you can spot it from afar, you can’t just walk over. There aren’t that many bridges. If you want to visit the Assens Monument, enter from the Stambolo bridge. From here, you can see the beautiful Old Town of Veliko Tarnovo.
The Asen Dynasty Monument is a striking black and features the three brothers who ruled Bulgaria, Assen, Petter and Kaloyan. Their heir was – you guessed it – King Ivan Asen II.
- Boris Denev Art Gallery
When you are done with gazing at the Asen’s Monument, turn around and take a look at (and inside) Boris Denev in Veliko Tarnovo. This is the City Art Gallery and displays modern Bulgarian art. The entrance fee is only 3 leva. On Thursdays, entrance is free of charge.
The building used to be an art school, a police and epidemiological institute and was erected in 1928. In line with the idea of turning the building into an art gallery displaying local paintings about Veliko Tarnovo, the tones used for reconstruction were gathered from the famous Rhodopes mountain.
The name giving artist, selected Boris Denev, loved Veliko Tarnovo and contributed quite a few artworks. Other artists on display include Nikolai Pavlovich, Dimitar Gyudjenov and Ilia Petrov.
Walk among the three hills Tsarevets, Trapezitsa, and Sveta Gora, rising amidst the meanders of the Yantra and you will find plenty of amazing viewpoints over Veliko Tarnovo. However, venture a little further and you will stumble upon quiet and quaint traditional Bulgarian villages.
The most renowned is Arbanasi village (Арбанаси) thanks to its typical Bulgarian National Revival style (like the village of Koprivshtitsa). Local tourists flock to this hidden gem to marvel at its various churches, monasteries and house museums.
Fun fact: the name Arbanasi derives from the Slavic word “Arbanas”, which referred to Albanians. But that’s not where the name came from. It actually was named after Ivan Asen II and his conquest of areas where Albanians resided. (Yes, the same Ivan Asen II who resided in Asen’s Fortress near Assenowgrad.)
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- Arbanasi Monastery of the Dormition of the Mother of God
- Monastery of Saint Nicholas
- Church of the Nativity of Christ
- Church of Saints Archangels Michael and Gabriel
- Church of Saint Athanasius
- Church of Saint George
- Church of Saint Demetrius
- Konstantsaliyata’s House
- Hadzhi Iliya’s House
- Arbanasi Palace
- Yantra River Walk
Not sure if you are a fan of nature walks like I am but the Yantra River is pretty nice. And such a walk easily combines the Veliko Tarnovo Old Town as well as more abandoned, natural stretches as well as parks. I’d say start from the Assens Monument and follow the park landscape towards Tsarevets.
You don’t have to make your way up, instead stay below and cross an old-fashioned wooden bridge into a real villagey part of the town. Here, you can also find the Saint Demetrius Church. If you keep following the bend, you will soon end up at the abandoned factory with the impressive Communist mural.
While the walk is nice, don’t expect dramatic landscapes. It really is just pretty and some areas, well, they do look rather sad. Fact is, Bulgaria is still basically “under construction”, there is a lot that Communism has swept under the rug and buildings need to be restored and funds gathered. If you ask me, that makes up a big part of Bulgaria’s charm. It’s not polished, its raw and beautiful at that.
- Gurko Street
After all this Veliko Tarnovo sightseeing, you might as well be hungry (for food or shopping). That’s totally possible! In fact, after I was robbed in my hostel (disclaimer: could happen anywhere – and travel mishaps happen to me a lot. I wrote a book about it.), I did just that.
You can find modern and traditional styles and it’s all really affordable. I got the cutest Bulgarian-style blouses in Veliko Tarnovo.
From Gurko Street in Veliko Tarnovo, you can see the Yantra River and Asen’s Monument. Plus, you can start your walk to Veliko Tarnovo’s Old Town from here. A popular spot to dine and rest your head is Gurko Hotel.
Brief History of Veliko Tarnovo
Veliko Tarnovo is one of the oldest settlements in Bulgaria (like Plovdiv and its seven hills) and its origins can be traced back to the 3rd millennium BC. During the Midle Ages it became the strongest fortification of the country and the subsequent political, economical, religious and cultural centre.
The name Veliko Tarnovo (Велико Търново) literally translates to Great Tarnovo. But the name the city often goes by is actually “City of the Tsars”. After all, Veliko Tarnovo used to be the capital of the formerly great Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 and 1396) until the Ottomans took over.
What is left of the grand medieval buildings still today has lures over 440,000 tourists visit each year. The main Veliko Tarnovo attractions are located on and around the three hills Tsarevets, Trapezitsa, and Sveta Gora that surround the Yantra river. It’s all super picturesque!
Weather in Veliko Tarnovo
The weather in Veliko Tarnovo is humid continental, which means that summers are warm and winters cold. The best time to visit Veliko Tarnovo is in summer as it has the hottest temperatures (27-30°C/80-86°F).
Unless you prefer milder days, then visit in late April and early autumn (11-26°C/52-79°F), which is also off season and has the least rainfall.
In fact, I absolutely loved my visit in April as cherry blossoms appeared everywhere and you can see the tradition of Martenitsa in action.
A Martenitsa (мартеница) kinda looks like a red and white friendship bracelet with two tiny dolls attached. It is made out of yarn and given to loved ones. The red and white colours are meant to bring good health and each represent life/passion and purity respectively. While the male doll is usually white, the female is red. In essence, the unity of these two figures symbolize Mother Nature, the snow, sun and the balance of life.
Traditionally, you need to be gifted your Martenitsa by someone who is close to you. Then, you will pin it (or more – depending on how popular you are) to you or your clothing until you see a migrating stork or swallow and can attach it to a blossoming tree. In spring, you will see a lot of trees decorated by Martenitsa.
Veliko Tarnovo Hotels
If you are wondering where to stay in Veliko Tarnovo, there are quite a few hostels and hotels around. When it comes to hostels, I can recommend Hostel Mostel. It’s a pretty lowkey hostel, nothing fancy but the staff are great. Breakfast and dinner are included and made fresh every day.
Hotels in Veliko Tŭrnovo with traditional Bulgarian charm are Hotel Bela Neda and Gurko Hotel. Gurko Hotel is very cosy and only a ten minute walk away from Tsarevets Fortress and 1km from the local coach station. Bela Nela is a little bit further up in Veliko Tarnovo Old Town.
In case you do want to enjoy a more modern vibe, try the tasteful Hotel Priyateli. It offers wonderful balcony views and its central location is unbeatable.
How to Get to Veliko Tarnovo
From Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo
If driving is no issue for you and you are planning a Bulgarian roadtrip anyway, schedule in three hours on your way from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo. The fastest route is route 4.
Alternatively, you can take a bus, which takes a little over 3 hours. There are a few leaving Sofia daily on their way to Kavarna. Check Biomet’s timetables, for instance. A bus ticket usually costs between $8 and $13.
As always when travelling Bulgaria without a car, trains are a viable option. However, they take longer (up to 5 hours in total!) and aren’t really cheaper with prices between $9 and $10.
From Plovdiv to Veliko Tarnovo
From Plovdiv to Veliko Tarnovo, the trip isn’t actually much shorter. It also takes roughly three hours by car. (Forget taxis!) The drive is relatively straightforward; you follow route 55.
Trains take up to 7 ridiulous hours, so don’t even consider them. Instead, take the bus in Bulgaria. Prices range from $9 to $14. Check the timetable online. Double check if your bus leaves from South or North bus station.
How Long to Stay in Veliko Tarnovo?
I hope you now have a better idea of what to do in Veliko Tarnovo. It’s not a big town by all means and you can easily plan a day trip from Plovdiv to Veliko Tarnovo. However, to really explore Veliko Tarnovo, stay at least two days. In case you enjoy hiking and more off the beaten path destinations, add yet another day and venture forth into the villages of Arbanasi, Dragomirovo or Vishovgrad. Plus, there are amazing caves nearby. Check out Emen!
The ideal duration to stay in Veliko Tarnovo would be three days. One, to see the old fortresses and visit the medieval churches. Another to stroll throughout the Old Town of Veliko Tarnovo an go shopping. The last, to explore the surrounding hills and villages.
Veliko Tarnovo Travel Packing
Travel Insurance –As with all travels, you cannot go travel without being adequately insured – that includes medically. Accidents may happen, stuff gets lost, etc. Better be safe than sorry and travel insurance isn’t actually that expensive. (Try German national insurance and you know what I’m talking about.) By the way, the Bulgarian health system is great and sometimes even free of charge.
Bulgaria Guide Books – There is only so much a blog post (or series on Bulgaria) can cover. If you want an in-depth guide on all the cool sights, restaurants, the background information and more cool places, such as the Pink Lakes in Burgas, check out Lonely Planet. They’re seriously the best.
Maps – Ok, yes we live in a digital age and there are plenty of wifi spots around Bulgaria’s bigger towns. BUT, you might need an offline map in case you haven’t gotten a Bulgarian sim card (they’re real cheap). I always use maps.me and download the respective area maps before heading out. Having a map and navigation is very practical as most signs are in Cyrillic and you might not be sure where to take a turn as you can’t read that fast (if at all).
External battery – You will most likely be on your feet all day, walking between historic buildings, feastin on great Bulgarian meals and maybe hiking around the countryside. Throughout the day you might quickly find your phone battery depleted after all the photo taking, map looking and so forth. That’s why I always bring my handy external charger and short charging cable along. You never know when you might want to call a taxi and then the phone’s dead. Not good.
Tell me: Which Veliko Tarnovo attraction is on your radar now?
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The Beginner’s Guide to Travelling Bulgaria by Bus
Thanks for the great review!
I recommend you to visit Veliko Tarnovo in september 21, 22 and 23, 2018 – we are celebrating 110 years of The Independence Of Bulgaria. The largest celebrations happen in Tarnovo.
The “Tsarevgrad Turnov – Sound and Light” show on Tsarevets fortress and 3D mapping show on the art gallery “Boris Denev” is a must-see! :-)
https://www.veliko-tarnovo.bg/bg/ (bulgarian language only)
Thanks for more info on the Sound and Light show. I unfortuntately didn’t make it it when I visited but hopefully others can seize the chance.