Wanderlust took over me once again, so I decided to make a quick getaway for a weekend. This time I chose Bulgaria as my destination, making the trip my third visit to this country (at that time – now I think I lost count). But I must say, this was my favorite from them all. As I have a soft spot for medieval cities, I decided to see the ‘City of the Tsars’, Veliko Tarnovo. This was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire and is one of the oldest cities in Bulgaria. Moreover, it has an incredible stronghold – Tsarevets Fortress – which I just had to see!
Stairs. Stairs everywhere.
Before I start, I must warn you: if you are the type of person who likes to explore thoroughly the places you visit, then you should consider getting physically prepared for this city. There are long strings of stairs everywhere. It will leave you breathless. Literally.
First, let’s explore Tsarevets Fortress. If you’re not in a hurry, take my advice and reserve a whole day to wander around. I don’t even have to tell you how to get there, because you will know. The fortress is big, visible and it dominates the city’s skyline.
Before you dash towards the fortress, there are some things you need to know. First, look around. Somewhere on the left side there will be a ticket office. It’s nothing fancy, so you’ll probably have to look more than once to find it. Useful tip: If you are a student you can buy a ticket for 2 leva (1 euro), instead of paying the full price of 6 leva (about 3 euro). Perfect if you’re on a budget! Here it doesn’t matter if you have on you a national or an international student card. Moreover, every last Thursday of the month you can visit Tsarevets Fortress for free! How cool is that?
If you visit during summertime, make sure you take water with you because the heat is often merciless. Also, consider covering your head with a hat, a cap or a wide headband. If possible, start your exploration in the morning, take a break during noon and have a nice picnic under the cool shade of a tree, while enjoying the views. Also, be sure to stick around for the sunset and later on for a spectacular light show. And just to be sure you return in one piece, be careful how you walk. In some place there are potholes, slippery stone steps and even missing steps & handrails.
Now that you have your survival kit ready, you may proceed to walk the stone path that leads to the main entrance gates.
Explore the Tsarevets Fortress Complex
Except you are a skilled clairvoyant that can easily see past events, you might be a little disappointed with the lack of information boards translated in English. Don’t worry though, I have your back. The fortress stands up with two main attractions: The Royal Palace and the Bulgarian Patriarchy. However, you will find yourself surrounded by many other ruins, of all shapes and sizes. These are the remains of over 20 churches, 4 monasteries, 400 houses, several watch towers and more. Still, most of what you see today was reconstructed over the years.
PRO TIP: The Tsarevets Fortress comes alive with a breathtaking sound and light spectacular as night falls. Witness the history of Veliko Tarnovo come to life through vibrant projections and narrative, providing a memorable experience.
Visit the Bulgarian Patriarchy
Now head towards the church on the top of the hill. I personally prefer more the outside rather the inside, which has pretty dark and nightmarish frescoes. As I was breaking my neck to look at them, I stumbled upon a stone step and almost landed in the arms of another tourist. Needless to say that my tripping resonated even in the smallest corner of the church and everyone looked at me to see what happened. And what did I do? I smiled very awkwardly, muttered a silent ‘I’m ok’, then turned towards the exit. That’s exactly what any other normal human being would do, right?
Wander Through the Ruins of the Royal Palace
After leaving the top of the hill, I went to the Royal Palace. Even though it has lost most of it’s former resplendence, it’s fun to explore. Don’t be afraid to come closer, enter the dark chambers or climb it’s stairs. You can even get to it’s roof!
Enjoy the Views From the Walls and Watch Towers
Now it’s time to head towards the fortress walls. Be careful, don’t walk along the walls if you suffer of vertigo and always be very careful where you step. There are loose and slippery stones everywhere and for your own sake falling just isn’t an option. In some places, the walls are 10 meters high and if you still think you can somehow make it out alive, remember that hundreds of years ago, those walls were used to execute traitors by being pushed to their deaths.
From place to place, you can find watch towers that will give you a breathtaking view of both the city of Veliko Tarnovo and Yantra River.
If you’re spending the night in the city, make sure you come back to the fortress at 9:30 PM to see an audiovisual show that combines music, lasers and church bells.
Explore Samovodska Charshia
Veliko Tarnovo’s bustling market street is a veritable treasure trove of local goods and artwork. Samovodska Charshia is the ideal spot to purchase souvenirs and support local artisans, offering everything from handmade pottery to unique jewellery.
Visit the House of Velyan
Delve into the life of a wealthy 19th-century merchant at the House of Velyan, a beautifully restored mansion that offers a glimpse into the opulence and lifestyle of the era. Take time to admire the precious furniture and fine woodwork that have withstood the test of time.
Indulge in Bulgarian Cuisine
Take a culinary adventure to experience the flavours of Bulgaria. At regional restaurants that provide a genuine experience of Bulgarian hospitality, indulge in traditional foods like banitsa (a savoury pastry), kavarma (slow-cooked meat and vegetables), and mekitsi (fried dough delicacies).
Visit the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Veliko Tarnovo is a must-see for art lovers. The museum showcases an impressive collection of Bulgarian and international contemporary art, providing insight into the country’s artistic evolution.
The Assens Monument
What else you can do in this unique medieval city? Go sightseeing. Pretty impressive is The Assens Monument, a landmark easy to be spotted from many places of the town. It’s basically a complex of statues representing four horsemen with a sword in the middle of them. The statues depict four Bulgarian Tsars: Peter, Assen, Ivan Assen II and Kaloyan.
Other things to see in and near Veliko Tarnovo
Experience the Yantra Reka Festival: You’re in for a treat if your visit coincides with the Yantra Reka Festival! This yearly event combines music, dancing, and cultural performances that highlight the regional traditions and customs, providing a lively and captivating experience.
Admire the city’s aesthetics: Veliko Tarnovo has an unique architecture and a distinctive way of building houses right on the hillside, giving them a ‘layered’ look. Therefore, the majority of streets are made of stone stairs and are very narrow. Exploring these streets is sometimes exhausting, especially if you’re like me, meaning you’re not used to climbing more than 20 stair steps at once.
Discover Arbanasi Village: The lovely village of Arbanasi is only a short distance from Veliko Tarnovo. Explore cobblestone streets and take in the beautifully preserved 17th-century architecture as you travel back in time. Not to be missed are the Church of the Nativity and the Konstantsalieva House, both of which are covered in elaborate murals that depict historical events. Arbanasi Village is at a higher altitude than Veliko Tarnovo, so you will have a beautiful of Veliko from above if you take a moment to find the panorama spots.
Hike to the Waterfall of Karadzhov Stone: The trip to the Karadzhov Stone Waterfall, a hidden gem just outside the city, will be a delight for nature enthusiasts. This waterfall presents a refreshing escape and a chance to get in touch with nature because it is surrounded by lush greenery and tranquility.
Where to Stay in Veliko Tarnovo
If you love staying in unique places with a lot of history, I recommend the Architects House, where you will have nice, cozy stay. I think they only have quadruple rooms, so if you’re a larger group or a family, that could be convenient for you. They have great prices as well. Follow this link to learn more about the facilities of the Architects House or to book your stay.
Another hidden gem is Historic Apartment in the Heart of the City, which will give you the feel that you’re staying in a real museum. The attention to detail in this apartment is amazing and the price, while a bit higher than some other properties, is still too low for what you get by booking this accommodation.
Are you a young spirit and love to stay in budget-friendly hostels? Good vibes are guaranteed at Hostel Mostel, so check it out now to lock a great price!
If you’re looking after spacious and very clean rooms at a very affordable price, give Guest House Diel a try.
Is being close to the city center the most important thing to you? You’ll be pleased to find out that Pryiateli – Friends is not only very close to the restaurants, bars and attractions in the center of Veliko Tarnovo, but it’s also has great service and facilities. They have a spacious garden where you can have coffee and breakfast in the morning. What’s not to love about this?
Are you a couple looking for a modern studio apartment to spend a few days in a romantic atmosphere? How about J’ADORE Studio?
Ok, now it’s time to bring the big guns. If you really want luxury and don’t have a problem paying for it, go for Tsarevets Design and Spa. They have too many amenities to list them here, but just to name a few – you can expect a luxurious spa, an indoor swimming pool, free parking and super comfy beds! And another similar option is Yantra Grand Hotel, which is more expensive, but I feel it would be more suitable for business trips. Of course, in the end, you’re the judge, so choose whichever suits your needs best!
Need a full-blown place to stay in? Veliko Tarnovo has that as well. Just check out Bey House Royal Hotel and you’ll see what I mean. I know, its expensive and it’s not for everyone, but it’s so beautiful and tastefully designed. I would spend the money to stay at least one night there one day :)
I hope you now have a good idea of what’s in for you if you decide to come in this medieval paradise. Come on, The City of the Tsars has far more stories to tell!
If this post caught your attention and you want to find more about this country, you might be interested in reading 10 amazing facts about Bulgaria that you probably didn’t know!
Also, another very interesting attraction that you can reach in just 1 hour and a half from Veliko Tarnovo (by car) is St. Dimitrii of Basarabovo Monastery – the only active rock monastery in Bulgaria.