A quaint cliffside city lies just under a three-hour drive away from the bustling city life of Sofia – Veliko Tarnovo has become one of my most loved places in Bulgaria and today I want to share with you why I love this small Bulgarian city so much! It is not only the perfect weekend getaway but also a wonderful pitstop for travellers as they make their way from one end of Bulgaria to the other. But Veliko Tarnovo is so much more and I hope that today’s post will convince you to add it to your travel bucket list for 2022!
Veliko Tarnovo is situated on three hills, Tsarevets, Trapezitsa and Sveta Gora rising amidst the meanders of the Yantra river. The city was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396) and during the Middle Ages, it was a bustling cultural and economic hub. Of course, today the city is a much more peaceful place but it still can offer something for every traveler’s taste – from picturesque cobblestone streets for long strolls under the bright summer sun, through historical sites like the Medieval fortress that dominates the city’s skyline, to extremely delicious cuisine and wine experiences.
We visited Veliko Tarnovo as part of our summer holiday in August 2021 and loved every little bit of our stay there. We planned the trip with the invaluable support of my brother, Nikola, who used to study in the city’s university. The majority of the recommendations in this post are actually his own – they made our stay much less troublesome and pleasant.
So here are our top picks on where to stay, what to do, and where to eat in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.
WHERE TO STAY?
Veliko Tarnovo offers a great variety of accommodation for every traveler’s taste – from inexpensive hostel options, through stylish apartments overlooking the Yantra river, to small and big hotels for every price range. When we were searching for the most appropriate accommodation for our stay, we had a few criteria to take into account:
- Effortless and, if possible, free parking as this has proved to be a bit problematic in the city center
- Close to major road junctures so that we can exit the city easily for the next stop of our holiday
- Still relatively close to the city center – we decided against using our personal car in the city and relied on taxis instead
- Good price per night as we were staying for just one night in the city
After an extensive search throughout Booking, we found the Raya Garden Park Hotel – a recently renovated hotel in the Sveta Gora city park. The hotel location was perfect for our needs – it is outside of the city center, but still relatively close for a taxi ride (approximately 6 BGN in one direction). It is located in a beautiful and quiet area with a breathtaking view over the whole city. If you visit Veliko Tarnovo in the summer, you will have the chance to enjoy your breakfast (included in the price for the room) on the beautiful balcony that overlooks the panoramic view of the city. The breakfast itself was very good as well – a good variety of healthy choices (e.g. chia puddings, a selection of seasonal fresh fruit), meat and cheese for sandwiches, traditional Bulgarian pastries and delicious baked goods.
The rooms were recently renovated so the interiors are modern and stylish. Possibly the only disadvantage was the very small bathroom (the shower was literally above the toilet seat) but it was not a huge issue for us as we stayed just for one night. However, I understand that it can be a big deal if you are visiting with children so maybe it is worth checking with the hotel staff if there are any accommodation options that can be a bit more comfortable for families.
WHAT TO VISIT?
Surprisingly, there was a lot to do and see in Veliko Tarnovo and 24 hours were not enough for us to cover it all! Below you can find the places that we did visit along with some sites that we have already included in our itinerary for our next visit to the old Bulgarian capital.
Tsarevets Fortress is one of the most popular things to see in Veliko Tarnovo and for a good reason! The fortress complex includes the Royal Palace, the fortress wall, the Patriarchal church and Baldwin’s Tower, named after the Latin Emperor Baldwin of Flanders, captured during the Battle of Adrianople in 1205 by Tsar Kaloyan. According to the legend, Baldwin was imprisoned in this tower after the battle and died there.
The place is packed with history but it also offers a spectacular view over the city. I’m not going to spoil the surprise, and you shouldn’t Google it either! Just make the trek to the top and step inside to see this very unique place for yourself. If you visit in the summer, make sure you bring lots of water because Veliko Tarnovo is a very hot city during summer and you will need lots of hydration to make the stepp trek!
Tsarevets Fortress also offers a spectacular laser light show – the Sound and Light Show operates all year round, regardless of the weather and can be watched for free on public holidays. On all other occasions, private showings may be booked for a fee, by request (on these occasions the show can be watched from the viewing hall located behind the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin). Full schedule can be seen on the official website.
We were lucky to visit Veliko Tarnovo on a day with a free show. You can watch it from numerous places around the city but we found that the best view is just behind Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin and under the official panoramic terrace where ticket holders watch the show.
- Samovodska Charshia Market street
This section of Veliko Tarnovo has a lot of promise but doesn’t quite deliver. The picturesque street is fun to walk down, but you won’t need to spend too much time here. It has “workshops” where people make wood carvings, knives, art, and other traditional pieces, but like most places it’s mostly devolved into overpriced souvenir shops and not much else.
- Holy Forty Martyrs Church and Vladishki Bridge
The Forty Martyrs Church, in the old Asenova quarter, was built in 1230 to celebrate Tsar Asen II’s victory over the Byzantines. It was used as a royal mausoleum and then as a mosque by the Turks, before its reuse as a church after Bulgaria’s liberation in 1878.
No other church in Bulgaria keeps so much history as the St. 40 Martyrs church in Veliko Tarnovo. It has witnessed historical events and personalities of three Bulgarian states for a period as long as a millennium. In this church you will see the graves of several Bulgarian rulers and a Serbian Saint, as well as artefacts from the First, Second and Third Bulgarian states.
- Panoramic pictures at the sky walk
In 2014 a group of architecture students chose Veliko Tarnovo for the annual EU summer project. In two weeks, they built a small sky walk that allows for amazing panoramic views not just of the cliffside city but also the winding river, nearby hills, the monument, and more. The entrance looks like a wooden cube, and it’s easy to find on the main street in the Old Town.
Other places that we have added to our bucket list for our next trip to Veliko Tarnovo include:
- Regional History Museum
- Museum of Prison
- General Gurko street
- The Swing of Love
- Hotnitsa Waterfall
- Emen Canyon
- Transfiguration Monastery
- Kroshuna Waterfall
- Devetashka Cave
WHERE TO EAT?
Veliko Tarnovo is a bustling young city (meaning full of young people) so it’s no surprise that you can find all sorts of restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries and pastry shops, hipster bars and loud clubs. Depending on how much time you have in the city and what you are interested in, you can have a nice coffee and a piece of cake in the morning at Stratilat cafe, then have a nice sandwich on the go from VkusoteriA for lunch, followed by delicious ice cream at Gellato Fresco. For dinner, stop by Shtastlivetsa for some traditional Bulgarian cuisine or Tempo for the best Italian pizza in the city, and finish off with a cocktail and a panoramic view over the city at Lino bar.
If you are okay with driving around, I would highly suggest trying the food in Asti – it is outside of the city center but it was the place with the most delicious food we tried in Veliko Tarnovo. Thank you, Niki, for the wonderful recommendation!
Have you ever visited Veliko Tarnovo? What were your impressions of the city? Let me know in the comments below!