Veliko Tarnovo, top 8 things to do in the medieval jewel of Bulgaria

Also known as the “City of the Tsars”, Veliko Tarnovo is one of the oldest settlements in Bulgaria, with a history of more than five millennia. It is located on the Yantra river with its old town situated on three hills: Tsarevets, Trapezitsa, and Sveta Gora. on these hills, you’ll find the palaces of Bulgarian emperors, the Patriarchal Cathedral and many churches as it was the former main residence for nobility. 

Today, it is one of Bulgaria’s most beautiful and picturesque cities and a “must-see” for many tourists seeking the old charm of the former capital of the Bulgarian Empire. It is the perfect destination for a day trip from Bucharest or Sofia and here are a few things to see to make the most out of your trip: 

 

 

What to Do in Veliko Tarnovo 

 Visit TheTsarevetsFortress 

Built atop one of the three hills of Veliko Tarnovo, the Tsaravets fortress, one of many Bulgarian Castles served as the home to many of these tsars over the centuries. From 1185 to 1393, it was the main power of Bulgaria and home to the royal palace. 

Nowadays, although fallen against time and weather, the fortress’ ruins still give insight into the life of Bulgarian royalty in centuries gone past. The fortress is massive, composed of thousands of meters of stone walls. Once you get there, check out the front gate, ruins of the palace, Baldwin’s tower, and the peculiar church at the highest point on the hill, explained in more detail below. 

Cross the Stambolov Bridge 

Spanning across the Yantra river, the Stambolov Bridge will bring you to a beautiful viewpoint where you can admire the iconic hillside photos of Veliko Tarnovo. Built in 1892, the bridge was made of steel and concrete, one of the first steel bridges to be built in the Balkans. Follow the bridge to Asen’s monument, admire the views, take some memorable photos and enjoy a cafe at one of the nearby bars or cafes. Ask for a Shumensko (or several!)

Admire the unique paintings inside the Patriarchal Cathedral

At the top of the Tsaravets fortress, there is The Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God. It’s one of the most peculiar churches, with extremely unusual religious artwork inside. Yet, the outside of the church is very traditional, constructed in the Byzantine style with traditional stone wall exterior. But the interior of the cathedral wasn’t always this odd: it was once filled with ornaments, with floor mosaics of multi-coloured marble and gemstones like sapphire. The walls were covered in more traditional Orthodox frescos. However, the interior decor didn’t survive the passing of time and in spite of reconstruction efforts in the XXth century, the cathedral got an unexpected facelift. Artist Teofan Sokerov repainted it, depicting images of Bulgarian history in a modernist (and rather creepy) style. Because of these strange paintings, the cathedral has never been re-consecrated and is no longer in religious use today, but that didn’t stop the tourists from visiting it..  

 

Check out theAsenevtsimonument 

 

One of the main symbols of Veliko Tarnovo, Asenevtsi Monument  (also called Asen’s Monument) was constructed in 1985 as a celebration of the 800 year anniversary of Bulgaria’s liberation from the Byzantine Empire, which happened after an uprising orchestrated by brothers Asen and Petar. They then became the rulers of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom and the monument stands for freedom. 

Stroll through the Old Town and admire the street art.

 

Veliko Tarnovo has a lot of interesting street art throughout the Old Town, and it’s definitely well worth getting a bit lost on the streets that intersect with the main street to see what you stumble across. Veliko Tarnovo is quite small so you don’t need to go very far. You’ll love discovering the small details of the city like a fascinating staircase leading up to houses on the hill! 

There is also a large, full-size mural that you’ll see on your way down Stefan Stambolov street. This style is particular to Bulgaria and it’s also present in several cities around the country.  

 

Enjoy a picnic with a view of the Yantra River 

There are several restaurants on Stefan Stambolov, the main street in Veliko Tarnovo that offer both delicious dining and stunning river views from a privileged position on top of the hill. Shtastliveca is one of the best-known places like this and serves delicious Bulgarian staples, like shopska salad, stuffed aubergines, and mixed grilled meats as well as fantastic Italian food.  Another interesting place to go to on the main street of Stefan Stambolov is the hilariously-named EGO Restaurant, which has the most delicious fried cheese and jam appetizer. But if dining at a restaurant isn’t something you fancy and you’d rather spend more time outside, there are plenty of open spaces for picnics along the Yantra River. 

 

Go on a small trip tothe historic nearby town of Arbanasi 

The town of Arbanasi is located about four kilometres uphill from Veliko Tarnovo. It’s famous for two main reasons: the presence of Bulgarian National Revival architecture and the beautiful Nativity of Christ Church pictured above. What was once a bustling merchant city in the 16th century now makes for a relaxing getaway.  

In this town, there are some orthodox churches and a handful of houses dating back to the XVII and XVIIIth centuries. The large and traditional houses of Arbanasi are fortified with thick gates and stone walls. This would help the locals defend themselves against being often attacked and looted by Turkish bandits. The destruction caused by the looters eventually sent Arbanassi into decline during the late XVIIIth century. The Church of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel is the largest of churches and consist of an altar, separate areas for men and women, a chapel dedicated to Saint Paraskevi, a gilded Bishop’s throne, several frescoes, and icon paintings.  

 

Take a day trip toBuzludzha

If you’re into Communist history, you can have a day trip to Buzludzha, about 1.5 hours away from Veliko Tarnovo. This fascinating UFO-shaped structure was built as a monument to socialist communism in the1970s, at the site of a famous 19th-century battle between the Turks and the Bulgarians. 

However, when the Communist government fell in 1989, the building fell into disuse and has been largely abandoned for the last three decades. While it is technically closed to the public, several people have worked their way in to see and photograph the decay, although there are now supposedly guards on-site to discourage people from entering. 

 

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