The Bulgarian Black Sea Riviera is one of the most attractive seacoasts in Europe. When summer comes, millions of tourists visit it to enjoy the beautiful beaches and the waves of the sea. Then, fall comes and the tourists leave because the sea becomes cold and not so attractive. But there are some spots which remain always attractive- throughout the whole year, and for many centuries. One of these spots is Nessebar- a town keeping secrets from the beginning of human history until today. Let’s make a journey to Nessebar, and dive deeper than its “tourist vacation” image.
Basic facts about Nessebar
Let’s open the map of Bulgaria, and focus on its Black Sea coast. There are two main cities- Varna and Burgas, and a mountain range called Stara Planina which reaches the sea in the middle. South of it you can see a bay. Look at the bay’s southern side- you will see a small peninsula which is almost like an island, connected to the mainland only by a road.
This is Nessebar (Несебър)– a typical “old town”. But it is not just old, it is ancient, with millennia-long history. You can see its traces everywhere. While you walk around its streets and old wooden houses, you can notice ancient stone remains beside them, dating from hundreds, even thousands of years ago.
Today Nessebar is much larger, including a new part on the mainland, and merged with the largest Bulgarian Black Sea resort on the western coast of the bay- Slanchev Bryag (Sunny Beach). So, now we are making a journey to the whole area including Nessebar and Slanchev Bryag, focusing on its nature, its history, and its modern resort image. All of this is the reason why Nessebar is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Nature of Nessebar and Slanchev Bryag
The nature of the coastal area south of Stara Planina is beautiful and full of interesting features. Apart from the semi-island of the old Nessebar, here you can find some of the longest and largest sand beaches in Europe. There are two main beaches- Sunny Beach, and New Nessebar Beach.
Sunny Beach is around 5,5 km long, and the New Nessebar Beach is only about 2 km. But at the same time, their width is huge. The beaches gradually turn into sand dunes deep inside the mainland. Unfortunately, today most of the sand beaches are destroyed by new hotel buildings, but there are still some of them in protected areas, where you can walk in a maze of dunes, covered partially by bush.
As of the Old Nessebar, during the centuries, it has turned into an island, then again has connected to the mainland by a thin isthmus, at least several times. The shape of the island itself has constantly changed too. All these changes affect the historical events of the city, from ancient times until now. Today, you can see some ancient remains even underwater.
History of Nessebar
So, let’s stand on the island, its isthmus, or on the mainland coast in front of it, and let’s travel back in time. Around 4000 years ago, the whole mainland area was covered by sand dunes, swamps, and forests. Probably at that time, or maybe even earlier, the first Thracian (or unknown) people established their first settlement on the island. It was a fishing village, and it remained like this for many centuries, until the Greek Colonial era.
Greek Colonial era (around 700 BC to 72 BC)
The new era for the village started with the arrival of Dorian Greeks from Megara. They established a fortified city on the peninsular island, called Messambria, and built two trade piers on both sides of the island. Even until today you can find remains of ancient vessels on the bottom of the sea around Nessebar.
During this era, the city flourished as a Greek colony. One of the most famous fabulists in the world- Aesop was born there in 620 BC. Messambria was in an excellent relationship with the local Thracians. At the same time, it was an independent city-state with its own currency. This era determined Nessebar’s ethnic and cultural image- predominantly Greek, as it is until today.
Roman era (72 BC to 395 AD)
In 72 BC Messambria was conquered by the Romans without resistance. No siege, no destruction. So, the old buildings were preserved, and the city’s development proceeded. As a result, Messambria became one of the most important seaports on the Black Sea coast and a large trade center. The city still proceeded to use its own bronze coins.
Early Byzantine era (395 to 812)
In the 4th century, the Roman capital remained Constantinople, which is much closer to Messambria. At the same time, Christianity was established as a state religion. As a result, many new Christian buildings were built on the peninsula-island. And due to its importance and proximity to the Byzantine capital, these buildings were designed by the best architects in the empire. Today you can see many of their ruins around the old town.
However, this golden era gradually passed with the establishment of a new port near Burgas. Messambria lost its importance and declined for almost 2 centuries. Meanwhile, the Bulgars established the First Bulgarian Empire, and in 812 they conquered the city.
Old Bulgarian-Late Byzantine era (812 to 1453)
During the next centuries, Messambria was passed several times between Bulgaria and the Byzantine Empire. Many Slavic Bulgarians settled in the city, renamed it into Nessebar, and mixed with the local Greeks. But the ethnic and cultural atmosphere remained Greek. At the same time, Nessebar entered a new Golden era, especially between the 12 and 14th centuries. Again, many new churches were established, as well as new public and private buildings. Some of them can be seen today.
Nessebar gained its previous importance as a sea trading port. The city established good relationships with the other Black Sea states, as well as the important Aegean and Adriatic states and cities. It was temporarily conquered by the knights of Amedeo di Savoya in 1366, but they returned it to the Byzantine emperor. However, new changes happened in the 14th century with the devastating Black Death pandemic and the Ottoman conquest.
Ottoman era (1453 to 1878)
The Ottoman Turks conquered and partially destroyed some buildings of the city in 1396, but later they left it. Although the whole Bulgarian Kingdom ceased to exist, Nessebar’s fate was different. It remained a part of the last Byzantine remnants until 1453. When Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans, they came to Nessebar again, but this time they didn’t destroy the city. They only formally “conquered” it, following an agreement with the locals, and remained it on its way, relatively independent.
With exception of several invasions from Cossacks in the 17th century, Nessebar existed in peace. More churches and monasteries were built, as well as most of the old Revival style houses that exist today. For practical reasons (mainly against earthquakes), they were covered by wood- the same style can be seen in the other old town at the Black Sea coast- Sozopol. From this era dates one of the Nessebar’s landmarks- the old windmill on the narrow isthmus.
Modern Bulgarian era (1878 until today)
In 1878 Bulgaria gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire, and Nessebar was included in its territory. Initially, it was in another decline due to the new changes in sea trade, political status, and economical development. But this is the time when the mainland also started to change.
First, the area around the Sunny Beach bay was found proper for a winery, so part of the forests and swamps were replaced by vineyards. The settlement in the mainland in front of the peninsula started to grow and soon became a part of Nessebar. Thus Nessebar was divided into “old” and “new” parts.
Then, during the Communist era, the authorities decided to turn the long Sunny Beach into a big resort. So, around 1960 they removed most of the forest and established Slanchev Bryag (Sunny Beach) along the whole bay coast. With this, a new flourish for Nessebar began- it quickly turned into a summer tourist destination, along with Slanchev Bryag and the neighboring smaller resorts- with all its positive and negative consequences.
Our journey to Nessebar
I remember the old Nessebar and Slanchev Bryag from my childhood. It was different at that time. Slanchev Bryag was not overcrowded by hotels as it is today, and much more nature could be seen. So now, after many years, we decided to visit it again. It was summer, but our goal was not just the beach (as it is for most of the visitors), we wanted to penetrate beyond the high summer tourist season.
We had friends in Nessebar, who currently have small hotels in Slanchev Bryag, and we decided to reside in one of their hotels- “Maya Hotel”. Yes, we had so nice memories with them, but there was something more- they are locals and they could share a lot of interesting things about the Nessebar and its history. Yes, they were literally a part of this history and personally remembered so many things.
So, I spent some time with them and learned a lot. This inspired me to think more about Nessebar, not just as a summer resort. Yes, during the rest of the time we enjoyed the beach of Slanchev Bryag, the touristy narrow streets of the old Nessebar, full of souvenirs and all kinds of attractions, and of course, the delicious seafood in one of the best restaurants- “Starata Kotva” (“The Old Anchor”), which again belongs to our friends.
And during our walk, we enjoyed the most interesting of Nessebar. There are a lot of places to visit in Nessebar. Some of the places are attractive only in summer, but there are many others worth exploring throughout the whole year. So, let’s take a walk around this amazing place.
Places to visit in Nessebar
No matter where are you coming from, if your goal is the old town of Nessebar, you would enter its peninsula through the Isthmus of Nessebar (unless you reach it from the sea). So, let’s start with it.
The Isthmus of Nessebar, the old Windmill, and the Fishermen with the Cross statue
The Isthmus of Nessebar is one of the landmarks, not only of the city but a landmark of Bulgaria. It is not a constant natural isthmus, but in the past, it has disappeared, making the old town a separate island, then gradually appeared again. It was in the 20th century when a good road was built on it.
A noticeable attraction on the Isthmus is the old windmill. It is built during the Ottoman era and has a long time served as a working windmill, using the winds from the open sea. Now it is only an attraction. It is wooden, established on a stone foundation, and consists of three floors. You can enter inside or just enjoy the beautiful view of the windmill, the old town behind it, and the seacoast around it.
And now, Nessebar has a new landmark at the other side of the Isthmus- the Fishermen with the Cross statue. It is established in 2006, and due to its excellent design, fitting perfectly the main theme of the city, it has quickly become another symbol and a favorite place for photos.
The ancient fortress
When you cross the Isthmus, the first thing you see in front of you is an ancient fortress, and the main street crossing it in the middle like through a gate. And yes, once it was the main gate of Nessebar.
Nessebar has been a fortified settlement since Thracian times, from around 8th century BC. Although in the beginning, it has been just a fishing village, its ancient inhabitants built the first walls for protection. Then, during the next centuries and eras, the wall has been partially destroyed, then not only repaired but even improved, until the Ottoman era, when it gradually lost its purpose.
Today, its main portion can be seen in the western entrance of the old town, but some other remains with traces from different times can be found in other places in the town, even underwater near the coast.
The streets of the old town
So, you pass through the main west gate of the old Nessebar and enter the atmosphere of its streets with old Revival style houses. Most of them are well-preserved, currently inhabited, and in summer their hosts offer Airbnb service or just rooms for guests, some of them could be offered throughout the whole year.
Yes, there is a clear difference between summer and the other seasons in the old Nessebar. In summer, there are crowds of tourists, and the whole place is like a vacation resort, full of attraction. But the rest of the year it is colder, silent, and even mysterious. There are almost no people on the streets, and the whole atmosphere is different, really worth trying.
The ancient churches
When walking around the streets of the old town, you will see a lot of churches and church ruins. Currently, 44 churches are discovered there. It is calculated that Nessebar is the place with most churches per capita in Bulgaria. Some of them are whole constructions, currently functioning, while others are ancient remains, but with well-preserved stone foundations and partial walls.
Here I will mention the most significant of them:
- Saint Mary Eleusa– one of the oldest churches in Bulgaria, dating from the 5th century. Today, only its foundation remained. It is located on the north coast of the peninsula.
- Saint Sofia– again dating from the 5th century. Not only the foundation but also its walls are partly preserved. One of the landmarks of Nessebar. Located in the eastern part of the center.
- Saint John the Baptist– dating from the 11th century. Well-preserved. Today, there is a small Archaeological Museum. Located on the northern side of the center.
- Jesus Christ Pantocrator– another landmark of Nessebar. Dated from 13-14th centuries. Located in the small park in the western part of the center.
- Saint John Aliturgitos– a medieval church, located right beside the Pier. Considered as the most beautiful one- another landmark of Nessebar.
- Dormition of Theotokos– this is a new church, dated from 1873, currently functioning. Located near the north coast of the peninsula. Its cross is used by the sailors- if they can see it, they are safe, if they can’t see it, there are reefs and shoals that they have to be aware of.
Other ancient remains
With such a long history, no wonder that you can find more remains from ancient times in the city. You can see stone ruins immediately after you enter the old town through the west gate. But here I would mention two of the more significant remains.
- Early Byzantine Terms– this is an ancient SPA complex, built at the beginning of the 6th century, during the reign of Emperor Justinian I The Great. Other emperors came to the terms for healing or just to relax, as well as the aristocrats of the society. Located beside the Saint John the Baptist church.
- Ancient theater– this is a beautiful amphitheater, located beside the Saint John Aliturgitos church near the pier. Actually, the present amphitheater is not ancient (it is built about 60 years ago), but a real ancient theater has existed in this place. Today, there are regular performance events in the summer, in the theater’s modern version.
Now, let’s look at something more educational. A city with such a long history can’t exist without museums. Let’s take a visit.
The museums of Nessebar
There are two main museums in Nessebar– the Archaeological Museum, and the Ethnographical Museum. Besides them, several churches are turned into museum exhibitions too. If you have enough time, every one of them is worth visiting.
The Archaeological Museum of Nessebar is located right beside the west entrance of the city, behind the fortress wall ruins. It presents a rich exhibition of artifacts, dating from the 2nd millennium BC until the Ottoman era. You can see ceramic vessels, parts of ancient boats and ships, weapons, art pieces, as well as Orthodox icons. The museum consists of 4 halls, as the last one is dedicated to the icons. Entrance fee: 6 BGN.
This museum is located in the eastern part of the peninsula, in one of the Revival style old houses. It exhibits a lot of artifacts from life in the Ottoman and the modern Bulgarian era. You can see traditional clothing, typical room arrangement, tools of the local business (fishing, winery), as well as many accessories related to art, religion, daily life, customs, etc. Entrance fee: 3 BGN.
The church museums
Several of the Nessebar churches are turned into museums. They are St. Stephan, St. Spass, Jesus Christ Pantokrator, St. Paraskeva, and St. John the Baptist. All of them are old, dating from Medieval times, currently not acting as religious places. But with their historical value, they are turned into exhibitions, presenting old murals, icons, religious artifacts, as well as art pieces. Entrance fee: 3 BGN, only in St. Stephan- 6 BGN.
The main Pier of Nessebar is located on its southwestern coast, not far from the west entrance. Once it has been a busy transportation hub, carrying passengers between Nessebar, Burgas, Varna, and Sozopol. But today its main building is closed.
However, the main attraction of the Pier is its coastal street, the local fishing boats waiting beside it, and the trade zone- a lot of souvenir vendors and small shops. There are also many restaurants, and their location at the Pier offers a bit of an adventurous atmosphere. And while you walk on the coastal street, you can always enjoy the beautiful Revival houses above it, as well as the church Saint John Aliturgitos and the ancient Amphitheater beside it.
This is the most important of Nessebar, at least from the human-made sites. Everything else is tourist attractions- hotels, malls, restaurants, amusement parks, bars, cafes, disco, etc., mostly located in the new part of Nessebar, and Slanchev Bryag. But let’s look into the natural places. Although a significant part of them is harmed by the rapidly growing hotel buildings, there is still a lot of natural beauty you can enjoy.
Old Nessebar coast
A walk on the coast of the old Nessebar peninsula is a real pleasure. The whole land above the coast is steep, and the old houses are rising above it. And there is an alley encircling the peninsula. It is especially beautiful early morning when you can watch the sunrise, or in the evening, when you can enjoy the cool evening breeze.
The alley goes on the north coast and reaches the easternmost point of Nessebar. There are reefs around the point and in summer you can enjoy its pure waters, showing the local marine wildlife. On the southern side, the alley passes by two small beaches and more reefs, until finally reaches the main Pier, and returns to the west entrance.
Now, let’s leave the old Nessebar and go to its new part. Again, this area is attractive only in summer for those who want to enjoy beaches and parties. But nature is nature, and it is beautiful throughout the whole year. And of course, the beaches are one of its main features on the sea coast. So, let’s go to the beach, but look at it as a natural place.
Southern Nessebar beach
This is one of the most beautiful beaches on the Bulgarian Riviera. It starts from the western end of the Isthmus and proceeds several kilometers to the end of Nessebar. The beach is wide, with fine golden sand, and with a lot of new attractions built beside it. Finally, it ends at Cape Acrotyria, where you can enjoy great views of the southern Bulgarian Black Sea coast.
Northern Nessebar Beach- Sunny Beach
Sunny Beach is one of the longest beaches on the Black Sea. Again it has excellent high-quality golden sand, and the sea is relatively shallow. In summer, especially in August, you can enjoy swell of big waves, good for surfing (such waves usually appear on the whole southern coast of the Bulgarian Riviera, from Sunny Beach to Turkey). But when the sea is quiet, water is crystal clear. And again, there are a lot of vacation tourist attractions along the whole beach.
The sand dunes
As I mentioned above, the two beaches of Nessebar are very wide, and a significant section of them gradually turns into sand dune areas. The sand dunes penetrate deep into the mainland, once creating a real mini-desert. Unfortunately, now this area is strongly reduced and destroyed by resort hotel buildings. But there are still places where you can enjoy the dunes.
The dunes around Nessebar and Sunny Beach present a very rare ecosystem with plants that can be seen only here. You can walk around the dunes and hide in their maze, feeling like entering another world (if you ignore the nearby hotel buildings that surround the dunes). In fact, once the Sunny Beach and the Southern Nessebar Beach were connected by the dunes, but now it can’t be seen anymore.
Here I mentioned the things that are worth seeing in every season. And of course, summer is still the best, because you can enjoy the beach and the seawater. But even during the other seasons, Nessebar is still worth visiting and exploring. But let’s see some important tips about it.
Being such an important place, Nessebar is well-connected by land to the rest of Bulgaria. There is the main road between Burgas and Varna, and there are other roads making shortcuts between Slanchev Bryag and the highway Sofia-Burgas. And there is Burgas International Airport, so you can travel to Nessebar directly by plane and bus from the airport. However, have in mind that public transportation to Nessebar is seasonable, so the timetable of buses is different during the high season and the rest of the time.
So, let’s see the options:
- By bus from Sofia to Nessebar: There are many morning buses, and dozens of overnight buses during the high season; and only 4 buses during the rest of the time. Ticket price: 23 BGN
- By bus from Burgas or Varna tossebar Ne: There are a lot of buses (at every 15-30 mins) from Burgas and less (but still frequent) buses from Varna during the high season. During the rest of the time, the buses are reduced. Ticket price: from Burgas- between 3,50 and 3,80 BGN, and from Varna- between 11:00 and 12:00 BGN.
- By bus from Burgas Airport: If you want to make the Bulgarian Riviera your first destination in Bulgaria, you can fly to Burgas, then you can take a bus to Nessebar (or Slanchev Bryag). Again, buses are frequent but still depend on the season. The ticket price is the same as from Burgas city. There are also private vans from the airport, for a higher price.
If you rent a car from Sofia, you can reach Nessebar within 3-3,5 hours. You have to drive on the highway to Burgas, and 25 km before Burgas you can drive on the shortcut to Slanchev Bryag through Kableshkovo.
Currently, there is only one option to reach Nessebar by sea transportation. This is the ferry from Sozopol, and it is working only in summer. There are ferries twice a day, and the price in one direction is 27 BGN. However, more ferries start operating from September’2020, connecting not only Sozopol, but also Burgas, Varna and Pomorie. Ferries to and from Sozopol will travel three times a day in the low season, and probably 6-7 times a day in the high season.
Once you reach Nessebar or Slanchev Bryag, you can easily move in the area, which is divided into old Nessebar, new Nessebar, and Sunny Beach. All these three places are not very large, so you can walk inside them on foot. In fact, within the old Nessebar, you don’t have other options- it is the smallest place and you can walk from the west entrance to the easternmost point for 10-15 mins.
In fact, you may need transport only if you want to move from the old Nessebar to Sunny Beach, or from the new Nessebar to the northern part of Sunny Beach. There are regular public buses between the Pier of the old Nessebar to the center of Sunny Beach- for only 1 BGN. And there are a lot of taxis (at least in the high season) that you can find everywhere.
There are also other, more attractive ways to move in the new Nessebar and Sunny Beach. One of the ways is by “tourist train”- there are many “trains” traveling in a short distance in various parts of the area. Another way is by horse carriage- this is more attractive (and more expensive).
And finally- you can travel by boat from the old Nessebar to Sunny Beach. It works only in the high season- between 10:00 am and 10:00 pm. Ticket price- 10 BGN.
Needless to say, there are a lot of hotels and rooms for guests in the whole area of Nessebar and Slanchev Bryag. In fact, the hotels in Slanchev Bryag are so crowded that many of them remain empty, even in the high season. You can find most of them on Booking.com, or just when you go there. Again, have in mind that most of the hotels and guest rooms are opened only during the high season.
However, here I would like to mention the small hotel “Maya” where we have been. Although it is not a luxury 5-star hotel, it is enough comfortable to provide a nice time during your stay. But the reason I mention it is the unique opportunity to meet with its owners. They are very friendly and can tell you a lot about Nessebar, its history, culture, and local life, as well as many stories. So, you stay in the hotel would be not just to spend the night, but also to dive deeper into the Nessebar’s atmosphere. Then, when you hear their stories, you can visit the old Nessebar and personally see the thing that they share.
Since the season is very important in Nessebar and Slanchev Bryag, let’s determine it clear. The high season is from July to the beginning of September. There is also a middle season, from the end of May until the beginning of July, when not everything is working, and transportation is less frequent. The rest of the time is low season, including fall, winter, and spring. In winter it is cold, humid, and often windy. When a cold wave comes from the northeast, it can be snowy, with very high swell waves reaching sometimes 3-4 m (great for surfing if it would be warm). And the city is almost empty, sleepy and silent.
Concerning the food, there are plenty of restaurants all around the area. But again, they are seasonable- most of them remain closed during the low season. In general, the restaurants in Nessebar, as well as almost everywhere on the Bulgarian Riviera are much more expensive than in the interior of the country. And again, the price is lower in the low season- in those restaurants which still work.
This is Nessebar, the special pearl on the Black Sea coast. We explored it in detail, then left it, driving to the other glimpse of history- Sozopol. But Nessebar remained as one of the favorite places I have ever been- a place that remains always attractive throughout the whole year, leaving great memories every time I visit it.
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