Our Bulgaria trip started in Veliko Tarnovo. The old capital of Bulgaria that emanates Medieval history, nicknamed the “City of Tsars.” It’s a common stop for travelers making their way through the country from Bucharest, Romania by train, but otherwise largely undiscovered. Perhaps for the lack of awareness of its hidden treasures. In this guide, we share Veliko Tarnovo’s best-kept secrets so that you can enjoy this magnificent destination and its unusual sights.
Tsarevets Fortress of Veliko Tarnovo
The majestic Tsarevets Fortress is undoubtedly Veliko Tarnovo’s symbol and the main tourist attraction. The entrance is a long uphill walk that builds importance and gradually unravels the stately size of the structure. The fortress dates back to the 5th-7th centuries and has been rebuilt multiple times and restored. Inside you will find remains of a monastery, churches, and houses.
Finish the tour at the Patriarchal Cathedral, perched on the hilltop inside the fortress. It was built around 1235 and has been restored since then. Unfortunately, the typical frescos had been replaced with unusual murals, which is why it no longer functions as a church but as a museum. If the paintings don’t impress you, the panoramic view over the town certainly will!
On Saturday evenings, the facade of the fortress hosts an impressive sound and light show that tells the story of Bulgaria’s past. The kaleidoscopic light show is free of charge, but if you’d like to have it accompanied by sound, you have to purchase tickets on the website. Check the dates and timings and get the tickets in advance because they run out fast! The complete show experience is usually free of charge on public holidays.
Wander Around the Old Town
The old town, our favorite part of Veliko Tarnovo, spreads across three rising and falling hills among dramatic curves of the Yantra river. Although much of it is uphill, you are too busy gawking to realize you are tired.
Strolling along the Yantra, you won’t miss the town’s second most impressive attraction – Asenevtsi Monument. This sword-like monument is dedicated to the three Asen brothers who founded a dynasty in Bulgaria, proclaimed themselves Tsars. They ruled their Tsardom from Veliko Tarnovo. The monument is connected to the city center by the Stambolov bridge. Walk across the bridge to capture stunning views of the city.
In the heart of the Old town lies a vibrant artisan emporium called Samovodska Charshia. It’s the best place to buy souvenirs and local arts and crafts. You can trust they were made on site because the shops double up as studios, and you can observe the work in progress. Many of these crafts are unique to Bulgaria, like the hand-carved figurines and the Kuker’s masks – furry monster costumes used in a ritual to ward off evil spirits for the arrival of spring. And the ornately decorated guveche pots -the equivalent of the Moroccan tajine.
After picking up your Bulgarian crafts, make your way to the quaint Gurko street for gorgeous river views, the Asenevtsi Monument, and sample some Bulgarian dishes. But more on that later!
Go on a Hike or Two
Bulgarians are the outdoorsy types. Therefore, many local traditions and celebrations involve going out into nature and sometimes climbing mountains. In our Bulgaria series (link), we will mention a few you can partake in.
As a warm-up, explore the many hiking paths in Sveta Gora Park. Then, we challenge you to another hike, which is difficult to find, but you are rewarded with the ‘swing of love’ and a breathtaking view over Veliko Tarnovo. A very picturesque spot!
On a day trip, you can make your way 2 hours out of the city to Prohodna cave, the longest cave in Bulgaria with two entrances. It’s an easy hike getting to it, but the sight of the two large holes fondly named ‘the Eyes God’ is absolutely worth it. The Milky Way adorns Bulgaria’s night sky in the summer, so camp at Prohodna overnight and capture incredible photos inside the cave.
Wake up at Dawn to Pick Roses
We recommend planning your trip to Veliko Tarnovo in May and June so you can partake in the Festival of Roses. The festival is held in Kazanlak, located 1.5 hours away from Veliko Tarnovo. One of the world’s best rose oils is produced from these roses handpicked at dawn to preserve their essential oils.
If you are not in town over these months, you should still make the trip to Kazanlak. First, visit the History Museum to learn about the Thracian groups of people which resided there and then hike to the mysterious Buzovgrad Megalith.
Join the First of July Morning Celebration
This celebration was born with the hippie movement during communism. It involves gathering with loved ones over song on the night before the 1st of July, rejoicing the freedom and greeting the sunrise together. It originally started at the wild beaches of Kamen Bryag, 3 hours and 40 minutes away from Veliko Tarnovo, but is now celebrated throughout the country.
Search for the Green Cheese Village
Bulgarians love their cheese; it is a common theme in many dishes. We’ve tried our fair share of varieties but have never heard of green cheese before. Have you?!
It’s a rare aromatic cheese covered in green mold that cannot be found anywhere outside the village called Cherni Vit, where it is produced. The locals in Cherni Vit have been shepherds for centuries, so this quest is for the true foodies reading. Luckily, the village is only about 2 hours away from Veliko Tarnovo.
Get Your Mind Blown by the Magnitude of This Monument
Located about two hours away from Veliko Tarnovo, the Founders of the Bulgarian State Monument can be seen from 30km away! It was built in 1981 to memorialize the 1300th anniversary of Bulgaria. The concrete sculptures in Cubist style represent Bulgaria’s Medieval rulers, and the mosaic murals tell the story of Bulgaria’s past. When capturing this communist-era giant on camera, have someone stand next to it for scale.
Best Hotel in Town, Hands Down!
We have stayed in many hotels over the years, but few left us with a feeling of gratitude like Casa Verdi did. Our little room with the view of the park was amazing. We truly appreciated the attention to detail by the owners of this little inn. The room was fabulous, the internet was strong, the cleanliness was perfect, and the breakfast was amazing. Infact, when we told them we were checking out very early the following day, they insisted on escorting us to the nearby restaurant to purchase some sandwiches for our journey the next day. Now, that’s service! We highly recommend!
Must Try Foods in Bulgaria
Bulgarians enjoy gathering with friends and family over food. Perhaps that’s why their hearty dishes come in such large portions. They are meant to be shared. Bulgarian dishes, similar to Romanian food (link), have Turkish and Green influences and feature meat, cheese, vegetables, and yogurt as the star ingredients. Here are the dishes you must try during your stay in Bulgaria.
You will find Banitza at every pastry shop and kiosk in Bulgaria. This traditional pastry is made with filo dough, butter, and cheese and is very addicting. You’ve been warned!
Lukanka is a kind of Bulgarian salami that varies by region and makes a delicious snack or apéro.
A Bulgarian summer classic, Taratov, made with cucumber, dill, garlic, yogurt, and water, will come highly recommended by every local. It’s a cold soup that tastes like watered-down tzatziki, and its origin is a touchy subject.
Another local favorite is the Shopska salad. It’s prepared with a few simple ingredients such as tomatoes, cucumber, onions, and pepper, topped with grated Bulgarian cheese called Sirene.
Guveche is named after the traditional slow-cooking pot where it’s cooked. This hearty stew features an array of Bulgaria’s star ingredients – mushrooms, beef, peppers, and onions, topped with Kashkaval, Bulgarian yellow cheese.
Patatnik is a filling dish prepared with grated potato and cheese that resembles a pie and hails from the Rhodope mountains on the border with Greece.
Try any three stuffed vegetables, such as stuffed eggplant, peppers, and cabbage rolls. The stuffing may be rice, meats, and other vegetables, so you should double-check at the venue.
Here are some other dishes we ate while in Veliko Tarnovo! We didn’t go hungry!
Where to Eat in Veliko Tarnovo
Head to the restaurant Shtastliveca for a traditional meal with a view. This restaurant originated in Veliko Tarnovo in 1997 and has spread all over the country since then. It was named after the pseudonym of one of Bulgaria’s writers, Aleko Konstantinov. The menu is constantly rotating, so you can return and delight your tastebuds.
Hadji Nikoli restaurant carries the same name as the Inn it’s located in, which was built in 1858. You can either dine at the gourmet restaurant and enjoy their selection of local wines or visit the cobble street-facing coffee shop.
Ego offers Romanian dishes and a fusion of local ingredients with Italian cuisine. It’s a great place to eat if you feel like mixing it up but feel guilty for not eating local food. Oh, and did we mention there is a terrace with a spectacular view?
Now that you know how incredible Veliko Tarnovo is, we hope you are inspired to explore it yourself. If you have any questions, please feel free to drop them in the comments below and let us know which Veliko Tarnovo’s secret surprised you the most!
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