If you were to choose one destination when visiting Bulgaria then Veliko Tarnovo should be it. Being one of the oldest towns in Bulgaria it is rich in history and culture, lively in its nightlife and offers the visitor many attractions within its boundaries and surrounding areas.
Great Reasons to Visit Veliko Tarnovo
- Veliko Tarnovo has been declared a Balkan capital of culture, it has also been awarded ‘The most beautiful town in Bulgaria’ after a research was taken by a media poll.
- This medieval city also ranks 3rd in the most affordable tourist destinations in the world! (Compiled by travel search engine Trivago)
- In 2014 it was also awarded the friendliest hoteliers in Bulgaria.
- The ancient 3000 year city also awaits a UNESCO world heritage listing in the category for cultural landscape.
- Great base for visiting surrounding area and attractions.
- Many restaurants to choose, hotels and great nightlife.
It is no wonder that the number of tourists from all over the world has increased year on year for the past decade. It is estimated that over a million visitors now embrace the charm of the old capital. Within easy reach of so many other great places to visit, Veliko Tarnovo comes highly recommended.
City of the Kings Brief History
The city is built on three hills, Tsarevets, Trapezitsa and Sveta Gora.
Flowing between these hills like a meandering snake is the River Yantra. and rising majestically on the rocks from the gorge that the river has created over millions of years, houses and restaurants are stepped precariously one after another, like a stack of playing cards.Each building new and old supporting each other all seem to be defying gravity as you walk between their cobbled streets.
Often referred to as the ‘City of the Tsars’, Tarnovgrad, as it was called back in 1185 became the capital of Bulgaria after brothers Peter and Asen led a revolt and put an end to 160 years of Byzantine rule.
The brothers were declared Tsars and ruled the new Bulgarian Empire together before they were brutally murdered and succeeded by their brother Kaloyan.
For the next two centuries the 2nd Bulgarian Kingdom flourished and prospered under the Asen Tsars dynasty.
It wasn’t until the end of the Russo – Turkish war in 1879 that Sofia became the capital and the main administration centre for Bulgaria.
What to see and do in Veliko Tarnovo
Be prepared for a little exercise. Veliko Tarnovo is best explored on foot, it is not a large city and all the places of interest are fairly close to one another. Take your time and enjoy the walk.
If you are visiting in the hot summer months, ensure you have water with you and wear a sun hat………oh, and don’t forget your camera!
In 1965 the prefix Veliko, meaning ‘Great’ was added and the ‘grad’,meaning city was dropped and so became Veliko Tarnovo
Tsaravets Medieval Fortress
The most prominent landmark in Veliko Tarnovo and one of the most visited places in Bulgaria is the medieval fortress on the hill of Tsaravets.
Surrounded by the Yantra on three sides Tsarevets was the home of the aristocracy and became one of the largest cities of South Eastern Europe and the most important political, economical and religious centre of the empire and was often compared to Rome and Constantinople for its magnificence.
Within its thick walled enclosure were more than 400 house and 22 churches as well as 4 monasteries. The remains of the Royal palace complex can also be seen.
On the very top of the hill stands the restored church of the ‘Blessed Saviour’. It is now de-consecrated and a lift inside takes you to the top of the tower where fantastic views over the city can be seen. ( 2 leva for the experience) Take your camera.
The fee to Tsarevets is 6 leva per person and a discount for students and pensioners.
TSAREVETS FORTRESS SOUND AND LIGHT SHOW
NOTE. You may be told you MUST buy tickets to see the show, this is not true. You will only need tickets if you wish to view the show from the designated building which offers a more elevated view and includes the sound of the recorded music
The show is free to watch from Tsar Ivan Square located directly in front of the entrance to the fortress.
The difference between the free viewing area to the paid view is you can’t hear the music unless it is a public holiday show.
On these days the road is closed off to traffic while the show is in progress.
There are many other vantage points around the Tsaravets area too.
Throughout the summer months the spectacular sound and light show is a must to see. (Not to be confused with the 3d Laser show)
This is a unique visual audio attraction which only a few countries around the world can boast of something similar.
Through the power of music and illumination of coloured lights and lasers, the programme which lasts for about 20 minutes, recreates the history of the 2nd Bulgarian Kingdom from the uprising initiated by Peter and Asen until the fall under the Ottoman Empire in 1393 and then to the liberation of Bulgaria in 1878 from the Turkish Ottoman rule.
It represents the courage and determination of the Bulgarian people. The sacrifices made by revolutionaries and of Bulgarian and Russian warriors who gave their lives for freedom. The liberation is depicted when the bells ring out at the end of the show in celebration of freedom.
Depending on the time of sunset throughout the year its best to check with the Tourist information office for start times for the show.
Veliko Tarnovo Old Town
This area of Veliko Tarnovo is a must visit!
Situated halfway between the Mother Bulgaria monument at the city centre and the Tsaravets fortress and just off the main street is the lovely picturesque and cobbled street of Samododska Charshiya.
This is the main tourist part of the town and where you will find your souvenirs made by local craft persons.
Samovodska derives it name from the time women from the neighboring town of Samovodene used to bring their woven carpets and other handmade wares and sell them on the street The word ‘charisha’ comes borrowed from a Turkish word for ‘market square’
Twice a week market day would be held and it is said that one could not drop an egg from a house without it hitting someone on the head below. This alludes to the fact that it was very popular with shoppers who filled the narrow streets looking for bargains.
Today, you can still see the crafts people at work, copper-smiths, an armorer, wood carvers, weavers, confectioners, icon painters and other local artists, bakers and more.
There are many other shops to browse too and the prices are not vastly inflated for tourists compared with other areas around Bulgaria. We actually buy some of our ceramics from here as they offer a lovely choice of colours.
The street and its area consist of restored buildings from the National revival and post-liberation periods from mid 19th century
There are a few places to eat along the street, one notable inn is the Hadji Nikoli built in 1858 by the Master builder Kolyu Ficheto. Although the Hadji Nikoli is a lovely restaurant with white glove service in my opinion it is overpriced for the experience we received.
Don’t forget to try the coffee made in sand. Look for the wooden sign ‘ШЕКЕРДЖИЙНИЦА’ (sweet shop) ШЕКЕР is another word from the Turkish influence and means sugar.
Monument to the Asens.
The Asens monument can be viewed from many of the restaurants that tower above the river or from view points around the main street.
The monument a very prominent feature of Veliko Tarnovo.
To get to it on foot, you must walk down the road from the city bar ( a great bar with a pub type atmosphere) or Etar hotel and cross the Stambolov footbridge spanning the Yantra, from there it is impossible to miss it.
The monument features 4 horsemen facing in different directions wielding swords. It was built in 1985 in honour of the 800th anniversary of the Asen uprising.
It depicts the four greatest Kings of Bulgaria. Tsars Asen, Peter, Kaloyan and AsenII
The sword raised in the middle of the monument depicts the power and rise of Bulgaria under the Asen dynasty.
Art Gallery Museum
Next to the Asen monument is the Boris Denev art gallery.
In 1985 the first exhibition was opened and works from famous Bulgarian artists was shown with the theme of ‘Veliko Tarnovo in the eyes of Bulgarian artists’
The gallery exhibits over 5000 art pieces including prints and sculptures.
Veliko Tarnovo Day
If you are fortunate to be visiting Veliko Tarnovo on 22nd March, this is the official holiday of the city related to the historical triumph of Tsar Ivan Asen II over Teodor Komnin in 1230 AD, this is a great carnival day to enjoy.
Traditional music, dancing, street parades and entertainment for all ages all takes place in the streets of Veliko Tarnovo.
3D Laser Show
During the evening the spectacular 3D Laser light show takes place. This event takes place at the Asens monument and Boris Denev art gallery.
If you are coming to see it, get here early and I mean at least couple of hours before the show starts. Thousands of people by the coach load come to see it. Some of the best view points are along Gurko street or along the main street view areas. The show lasts about 20 minutes and along with the celebrations in the town during the day the whole atmosphere make it a fantastic experience.
Below the main street and between the River Yantra on your right is a lovely cobbled street named after Joseph Gurko (1828-1901) who was a Russian Field Marshal during the Russo- Turkish war.
Gurko street is below and runs parallel to the main shopping street. It rewards the walker with lovely views of the Asen monument and Sveta Gora along the meandering Yantra and gives some shade on hot days under the looming 200 year old dwellings above you.
There are a couple of shops and a restaurant along the way to sit and enjoy the view and take the odd photograph and near to the end of the street is Sarafkina house
The house was built in 1861 and was the home and business premises for the very wealthy trader Dimo Sarafina. The building has five floors and is now a regional historical ethnographic museum and records an interesting look into the history of the people of Veliko Tarnovo.
The well preserved house exhibits clothes and jewelry worn in the period and many of the Bulgarian traditions and crafts such as examples of painted eggs and breads at Easter time . On the top floor there are many photographs which give take you back in time to how the city and its fashion looked.
Veliko Tarnovo Multi Media Wax museum
Opened in 2013 the Multimedia Visitor Center “Tsarevgrad Tarnov’ is the first wax museum on the Balkans.
The museum is dedicated to the 2nd Bulgarian Kingdom and exhibits medieval crafts such as coin minters, smiths, masons and artifacts discovered by archaeological excavations.
It also shows weapons of the period and 28 life size wax figures such as the Tsars Kaloyan and Ivan Assen II.
The museum also displays a multi media hall showing films about the history of Veliko Tarnovo.
Photography Churches and Monasteries
If you wish to visit some of the churches check first at the Tourist Information centre in case you need to make an appointment. Some you do, some you don’t. This is because one person may have to oversee several buildings in the same area depending on when you visit.
Sometimes a fee is asked for inside photography of monasteries.
Continue to walk the few hundred meters down the road at the side of the fortress towards the river it will bring you to the old quarter of Asenova Mahala where the craftsmen lived and as such became the neighbourhood for foreign traders and artisans.
In this lovely old quarter you will find 3 historical churches with some significant importance to Bulgaria.
Holy 40 Martyrs Church
Next to the road bridge which crosses the river you can find the Holy 40 Martyrs church and is one of the most famous church’s in Bulgaria.
The church is dedicated to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste to commemorate a very important victory over the Byzantines which happened to place on the feast day of the martyrs, hence the dedication. It is also the place where Prince Ferdinand proclaimed the independence of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire in 1908.
Inside the church is stored historical records and the remains of many Tsars including Ivan and Kaloyan have been found within the grounds.
The church was faithfully restored after an earthquake in 1913.
If you wish to visit the other churches in Asenovo Mahala, enquire at the Holy Martyrs first as the other two are maybe unattended and locked.
Church of St Peter and Paul
Without crossing the bridge take the road to the right of the river and after several hundred metres you will arrive at the wonderful medieval church of St Peter and Paul.
Built in the reign of Tsar Kaloyan in the 13th century it was dedicated to the most important apostles in the Roman Catholic Church after the Tsar in 1204 signed a union with the Pope Innocent III and gave Kaloyan the title of ‘King’
If you wish to prolong your walk, continue along the road past the church with the river on your left and it will eventually take you around the Tsaravets hill and fortress and bring you back to below its entrance and back into the town.
Church of St Demetrius of Thessaloniki
Cross the river over the old wooden bridge and turning right you arrive at the church of St Demetrius (St Dimitar). It was here that the brothers Asen and Peter proclaimed the uprising in 1185 which led to the re-establishment of the Bulgarian Empire.
The church has been wonderfully restored and can be visited by appointment.
Veliko Tarnovo Town Centre
In the centre of town opposite the Tourist information office in a small park area, stands the statue of Mother Bulgaria, a monument to those who died in the Russo-Turkish war 1877-1878, the Serbian-Bulgarian war of 1885 The Balkan Wars. Of 1912-1913 and the Great war 1915-1918.
A fire is usually lit within the monument, symbolizing the gratitude of Veliko Tarnovo to the soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the name of their country and people’s freedom.
Behind Mother Bulgaria monument take one of the side streets and you will enter into Marno Polo park, here you can relax and enjoy several cascading water fountains. Take a stroll among the shade of the trees and enjoy a coffee or beer or whatever takes your fancy in one of the several cafes surrounding the park.
At the bottom of the park is an open stage where concerts are held. Check at the Tourist information Office for performances.
During December a Christmas market is held in the park with local crafts being sold as well as a small funfair and other entertainment for families.
Walking up the main street from Mother Bulgaria and the central Post office there are shops, restaurants, hotels and nightclubs. Walking the opposite way takes you towards the city market where tasty fresh fruit and vegetables can be bought.
Being the home to two universities this is a vibrant city with a great nightlife and friendly atmosphere. Sometimes the word ‘city’ makes people think of a sprawling metropolis with bright lights and having to watch over your shoulder.
Veliko Tarnovo has its pretty lights but with a population of only 70,000 it’s hardly a Metropolis, and you will not find a more safer or friendlier city to enjoy your holiday outside of Bulgaria.