As the cultural capital of the Balkans and already voted Bulgaria's most beautiful city several times, Veliko Tarnovo in the north of the country attracts visitors with centuries-old architecture, diverse shopping streets and a wide range of cultural activities.
The top attractions of Veliko Tarnovo form a colorful mix of archaeologically valuable ruins, monumental buildings, interesting museums and modern shopping streets. As the former capital and most beautiful city of Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo is naturally on our list of the top 10 attractions of Bulgaria.
The city is located almost 250 kilometers from Sofia and can be reached by bus, train, car or even by plane via the nearby Gorna Oryahovitsa Airport.
The architecture in the center of Veliko Tarnovo takes visitors back in time. Many of the historic buildings are over 200 years old and give the streets and alleys a unique flair.
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The construction of Tsarevets fortress was started in the 12th century, first traces of settlement on Tsarevets hill date back to the 2nd millennium BC. Its immense size is often compared with the fortresses in Rome or Constantinople. Around the fortress, archaeologists discovered the remains of 400 dwellings, 22 churches and 4 monasteries during excavations on Tsarevets Hill.
From 1185 to 1393 it was the most powerful bulwark of the Bulgarians, until it was finally conquered and burned down by the Ottomans after a three-month siege. Thus, not only the Tsarevets fortress, but the entire Bulgarian Empire had fallen into the hands of the Turks.
Gigantic castle walls of Tsarevets
The entire complex was surrounded by a wall up to 10m high and almost 4m wide, which reached a total length of over a kilometer. It was reinforced with defense towers and could be crossed through three portals, which were about 20 meters apart. Balduin's Tower still commemorates the Emperor Balduin of Flanders, who died locked up in the tower at the beginning of the 13th century.
The main gate was secured by a drawbridge. After this wall came another with, again, 2 watchtowers and two portals, which enclosed an area of almost 5,000 square meters and surrounded the palace buildings. These included the throne halls and the king's chambers, as well as a palace church.
Patriarchate as the center of the fortress
At the top of the hill was the Patriarchate, the main church of the Bulgarian Orthodox. The area measuring about 3,000 square meters, in the center of which the Cathedral of the Resurrection rises, was once again surrounded by a circular wall.
The magnificent church with the bell tower, unusual for that time in the Balkans, can still be visited today, only in 1985 it was restored for the last time. The frescoes in its interior depict amazingly modern Christian motifs, as well as some scenes from the history of the Bulgarian Empire.
Tsarevets fortress today
The ruins of the magnificent Tsarevets Fortress were renovated in the middle of the 20th century and are among our top 10 sights of Bulgaria. The walls, towers, portals and the Patriarchal Church with its icon paintings are fully restored.
The notorious "Judge's Rock" ("Lobna Rock") can also be visited. From this rocky outcrop above the Yantra River, criminals and high traitors were once rightly or wrongly pushed into the depths, including the last Bulgarian patriarch.
As night falls, nighttime visitors to the fortress on Tsarevets Hill are treated to a spectacular show of laser lights, dramatic music and booming church bells that recounts the tragic fall of Veliko Tarnovo to the Ottomans.
Besides the impressive Tsarevets Fortress, which tells about the medieval importance of the city, the neighboring hill Trapezitsa also testifies to the earliest settlement. In order to extract from the ground all its secrets of the past, excavations are still continuing.
Sveti Georgi Church and Sveti Dimitar Church
Also part of the historical fortress complex of Tsarevets are the Sveti Georgi church and the Sv Dimitar church, which are also decorated with fantastic wall paintings. The latter dates back to 1185 and at times housed the relics of St. Demetrios of Thessaloniki under its magnificent frescoes. A tour can be arranged through the Tsarevets Fortress ticket office.
Church of the 40 Martyrs
Of the nearly 20 churches in the city, the Orthodox Church of the 40 Martyrs (Sv. Chetirideset machenitsi) on the right bank of the Yantra is one of the most significant. The entire monastery complex was built at the beginning of the 13th century in honor of the triumph of Tsar Ivan Assen II over the Byzantines under Theodor Komnin.
To this day, March 22 is an official holiday, when the "Sound and Light Festival" is held on Tsarevets Hill in the evening. Since then, numerous Bulgarian rulers have been buried in this church. Under the rule of the Ottomans, the church became a mosque.
Besides the medieval architecture, the precious Old Bulgarian memorial columns of Khan Ormutag, Khan Krum and Assen II, which provided scientifically valuable inscriptions, are also kept in the church.
Church Sveta Bogoroditsa
With its dominant steeple and large green domes, the main church of Sveta Bogoroditsa on Ulitsa Ivan Vazov is visible from afar. Inside, the ancient and therefore already somewhat faded murals are impressive.
Church Dimitar Solunski
Also of great importance for the city is the church Dimitar Solunski. Here the Bulgarian tsars Assen, Petar and Kalojan were crowned, which is why the church is also known as the "Tsar's Church".
Peter and Paul Church
The Church of Peter and Paul (Sveti Petar & Pavel) on Ulitsa Mitropolska, with its murals dating from the 13th to 17th centuries, is an architecturally valuable testimony to Byzantine and Bulgarian architecture. It is located on the northern slope of Tsarevets Hill and once housed the city library.
Historical museums of Veliko Tarnovo
There are about 15 museums to visit in Veliko Tarnovo. In the Museum of Rebirth and Founding Assembly, where Bulgaria's first constitution was once signed, and in the Museum of New and Recent History, costumes, paintings, furniture, photographs and documents revive the important role of the city in Bulgaria's ancient to recent past.
The Sarafkina House is also impressive to behold. In the style of the Bulgarian Revival, the five-story villa was built in 1861 for a wealthy banker and today shows how the rich and beautiful of Bulgaria resided in the 19th century through precious jewelry and silverware, the finest ceramics and ornate wood carvings.
The impressive Archaeological Museum building presents evidence of 5,000 years of settlement in the region, including Roman sculptures and pottery in the "Stone Garden," Stone Age and Bronze Age artifacts, and one of the oldest gold pieces in the world from a Neolithic settlement in the area.
Art lovers should pay a visit to the massive State Art Museum in Asenovtsi Park. The two-story museum, named after local artist Boris Denev, presents predominantly religious works and landscape paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries behind its neoclassical facade.
The impressive Assen Monument, which commemorates the medieval Tsar-Brother of Bulgaria, is enthroned on the forecourt.
Craftsmen street Samovodska charshiya
The medieval facades on Samovodska charshiya are particularly worth seeing. Former craft workshops from the 19th century are lined up here with modern stores, traditional restaurants, cozy cafes, nice galleries and souvenir stores. From fruit and vegetables to carpets, leather goods and other handicrafts to the finest Bulgarian cuisine, everything can be found here. Veliko Tarnovo's once most important marketplace has not lost its nostalgic flair.
Tip: Especially on the market days Wednesday and Friday, there is almost a folk festival atmosphere here with the corresponding crowds. If you want a quieter time to take a closer look at the facades and monuments along the street, you should avoid these days.
Less for shopping, but for magnificent views of the Yantra and unique vacation photos, the Ulitsa Gurko offers itself. The oldest street of the city with its winding house entrances and cobblestones an oasis of peace and contemplation.
Sights in the surroundings of Veliko Tarnovo
The idyllic area around Veliko Tarnovo invites you to outdoor activities and active vacations with numerous hiking trails and cycling routes.
Museum village Arbanasi
For example, you can take a walk to the museum village of Arbanasi, 4 km away, which offers an unforgettable vacation setting with archaic-looking churches and courtyards surrounded by lush vegetation. Rich merchants of today's Bulgaria and Greece once settled there, to whom the village owes splendid town houses and churches with magnificent murals.
The first eco-hiking trail of the country leads through the nearby Emen Canyon, which is one of the official natural sights of Bulgaria. The waterfalls and rapids of the Emen Canyon are bordered by rock walls up to 90m high.
Archaeological Reserve Nikopolis ad Istrum
A side trip to the archaeological reserve Nikopolis ad Istrum, 20km away, is also worthwhile. This Roman and early Byzantine city was founded in 106 by Emperor Trajan.
Monasteries around Veliko Tarnovo
Thanks to the great importance of Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgarian history, numerous monastery complexes were built around the city, some of which date back to the 10th century. Particularly impressive is the Preobrazhenski monastery, surrounded by caves and cliffs, about 7km from Veliko Tarnovo, the fourth largest monastery in Bulgaria.
History of Veliko Tarnovo
Since ancient times, Veliko Tarnovo in the north of Bulgaria has been an important crossroads between East and West. Veliko Tarnovo can look back on about five thousand years of history, accordingly many peoples and cultures have left their mark on the fascinating city on the steep banks of the Yantra River over time.
Both economically and culturally, the city experienced its heyday in the Second Bulgarian Empire. After the Byzantine rule, Veliko Tarnovo became the capital in 1185 and was the scene of great founding and popular assemblies. The so-called "Constitution of Tarnovo", the first constitution of Bulgaria, which became independent in 1878, was also adopted here.
Soon after, the famous Tsarevets Fortress was built, which protected both townspeople and cultural treasures from enemies with its mighty walls. Its remains today represent one of the most significant sights of Veliko Tarnovo.