A journey to Veliko Tarnovo, the third Medieval capital of Bulgaria

A journey to Veliko Tarnovo, the third Medieval capital of Bulgaria

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North of the Balkan Mountains (Stara Planina), and south of Danube, a river meanders beautifully between the hills. These hills are covered by lush forests, villages, and picturesque agricultural fields on their plateau-shaped tops. But they keep secrets from the past. And the biggest secrets are located in Veliko Tarnovo- the third Medieval capital of Bulgaria. Let’s go on a journey to Veliko Tarnovo and explore it in detail!

About Veliko Tarnovo

Veliko Tarnovo is a big city, located in the hilly area north of Stara Planina (the Balkan Mountains), called Forebalkan, where two of its ranges (Arbanasi Plateau and Tarnovo Heights) are cut by the Yantra River. The beautiful meanders of Yantra and its tributaries form a maze-like terrain, excellent for ancient forts and other ancient military constructions. That’s why this place was chosen to be the capital of Medieval Bulgaria.

One of the Veliko Tarnovo landmarks- Ascension Cathedral
One of the Veliko Tarnovo landmarks- Ascension Cathedral

Today, Veliko Tarnovo is a modern city, like every other big city in Bulgaria, but the well-preserved archaeological and historical sites, as well as its Old Town, presenting the architecture from the Revival time, combined with the beautiful terrain, made the city a well-developed tourist destination.

A lot of tourists visit this city every year, enjoying its ancient and newer places of interest, but not all of them dive deeper to understand what they are observing. So, let’s get into the details, starting from the city’s and the country’s history.

History of Veliko Tarnovo

Veliko Tarnovo is one of the oldest cities in Bulgaria. Its beginning is unknown, but the first remnants of the city date from the dawn of human history.

Thracian period (unknown to 4th century AD)

The first known inhabitants of the Bulgarian lands were the Thracians. Probably, there were more ancient people before them (since there are discoveries with older dating, different than the familiar Thracian artifacts), but we don’t know their name, and almost nothing about them.

So, the Thracians (and maybe the people before them too) discovered the hills around the Yantra River and built their settlements at the two river banks. Today, we can find some remains of them like pieces of pottery, stones from forts, and more.

Early Byzantine period (4th to 6th centuries)

This area became a part of the Roman Empire in the middle of the 1st century AD, but, the Romans built a new, bigger and stronger fortress not earlier than the 4th century. Besides the main fortress on the Tsarevets Hill (on the left bank of Yantra), there were forts on the hills Trapezitsa and Momina Krepost (on the right bank of the river).

Fortress walls around the Yantra River
Fortress walls around the Yantra River

Remains of churches were discovered on the hills, as well as coins from the Byzantine emperors from that period. It means that Christianity was already introduced in these lands.

Early Slavic and Bulgarian period (7th to 11th centuries)

The Slavs gradually settle around the lands of modern Bulgaria. Soon after them, the Bulgars also arrived. They destroyed or transformed the former Byzantine fortresses on the hills beside Yantra River, and built their own.

The area of today’s Veliko Tarnovo quickly became a part of the First Bulgarian Empire. From the remnants found around the Yantra River, we know that the forts were used by the Bulgarians mainly for military purposes.

Middle Byzantine period (11th century-1187)

After the fall of the First Bulgarian Empire, the Byzantines develop the city, and many aristocrats built their residences there. Most of them were so-called “Trapezites”- the military obliged to protect the mountain passes of the Stara Planina (the Balkan Mountains) people. Soon the city became the main center of the Bulgarian resistance against the Byzantines.

Capital period (1187-1393)

After the successful revolt against the Byzantine Empire, the brothers Peter and Asen established the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, and proclaimed Tarnovo as its capital. The capital was built on Tsarevets Hill (on the left bank of the Yantra River), and it became the political and cultural center of Medieval Bulgaria.

During this period, Veliko Tarnovo (at that time called “Tarnov”) experiences its Golden age. It consists of two main fortified parts- Tsarevets, where was the King’s Palace, and Trapezitsa, both divided by the Yantra River. Besides them, there were several other forts in the area, established for military purposes and the protection of the capital. There were also 16 Orthodox monasteries and settlements around them.

However, in the 14th century, the Bulgarian kingdom slowly went to decline, due to separatist fighting and the pandemics (the Black Death) in Europe. At the same time, the Ottoman Turks invaded the Balkans, besieged the city in 1393, and conquered it, ending the existence of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom.

Ottoman period (1393-1877)

During the Ottoman power, many Turks settled in the city, turned most of the churches into mosques, others just destroyed, and only a few remained. Nevertheless, many Bulgarians also remained, and organized several revolts against the Ottomans, although unsuccessful.

The King’s Palace and other buildings on Tsarevets and Trapezitsa were gradually abandoned, but the inhabitants of the city settled west of the isthmus that connects Tsarevets to the rest of the Tarnovo Heights.

The Old Town of Tarnovo- Varusha
The Old Town of Tarnovo- Varusha

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Bulgarian Revival came, with many rich Bulgarians working for independence from the Ottoman power. At that time formed what is now the Old Town of Tarnovo (today’s Varusha Quarter) with its old traditional Revival style architecture.

Modern period (1877 until now)

Tarnovo is liberated by the Russian army in 1877. However, it doesn’t become a capital, mainly due to its terrain- forts are no longer needed in modern times. Instead, Sofia appeared to be much more convenient for the capital of Bulgaria.

Nevertheless, the city remained one of the most important spiritual centers of Bulgaria and proceeded to grow and flourish. New quarters were built, further and further westward.

In 1944, the Communists came to power, and they industrialized the outskirts of the city. However, they preserved the ancient remains, added to the city’s name “Veliko” (“Great”), thus it became Veliko Tarnovo. The city growth further, before and after the fall of Communism, and in 2008 it was declared as the historical and spiritual capital of Bulgaria.

Veliko Tarnovo today

So, if you open the map of Veliko Tarnovo, you can see the shape of the city. The large part of the city in the west is new, built in the 20th century. Then it suddenly becomes narrow, surrounded by a complex meander of the Yantra River. Here is the Old Town- Varusha, with its Revival-style houses.

Beyond its narrowest part, it widens again like a T-shape. Here is Tsarevets- the hill of the Bulgarian kings. It is surrounded by a partially restored fort wall and turned into an open-air museum.

At the right banks of the Yantra River, the Old Town and Tsarevets are surrounded by several hills. On the north is Trapezitsa- another open-air museum. On the east are the hills of Arbanasi and Momina Krepost. These hills are covered by lush forests, but many ancient remains can be found there.

Cityscape of Veliko Tarnovo
Cityscape of Veliko Tarnovo

Finally, on the south is the hill of Sveta Gora (Holly Wood)- the Orthodox center of Medieval Bulgaria. Today, there is a beautiful park on the hill, a new city quarter, the Veliko Tarnovo University, and the spectacular Asenevtsi Monument with the Art Gallery on the hill’s western extension.

Our journey to Veliko Tarnovo

All of the above, as well as the stunning views of Veliko Tarnovo that we have seen only on postcards and the internet, attracted us to include the city in our “northeast Bulgaria” itinerary. We came from Plovdiv, crossing the Stara Planina (The Balkan Mountains) at Shipka pass, visited the old town of Tryavna, and arrived in Veliko Tarnovo from the southwest.

We spent two days in Veliko Tarnovo and its surroundings and visited most of its places of interest. So we can say that we successfully got what this amazing city offers.

Let’s go on a walk in Veliko Tarnovo and around.

Places to visit in Veliko Tarnovo

If you visit Veliko Tarnovo and wonder how to explore it to get the best of it, let’s make your journey easier by dividing the city into several areas:

  • New city
  • Old Town- Varusha
  • Tsarevets Hill
  • The eastern side of Yantra
  • Tarnovo Heights
  • Arbanasi Plateau

Let’s start with the New City.

New City

This part of Veliko Tarnovo is just an average modern Bulgarian urban place with houses, housing complexes, boulevards, malls, and industrial zones. Unless you like shopping and nightlife, there is nothing special here, but it can be a good place to spend the night.

The Old Town- Varusha Quarter

The Old Town is located on the isthmus connecting Tarnovo Heights with Tsarevets Hill, as well as west of it. So, if you go to visit Tsarevets from the New City, you would inevitably cross through the Old Town. Don’t be quick to skip it!

Varusha is a nice place for walking. You can enjoy not only its beautiful streets with old Bulgarian traditional houses but also stunning views of the Yantra River meanders and the hills behind it. There are also some nice cafes and restaurants that well-fit the Old Town atmosphere.

Samovodska Charshia

The most attractive part of Varusha is the so-called Samovodska Charshia. It used to be the main trade street of the old Veliko Tarnovo during the Ottoman period- the place full of life, with markets, craft shops, workshops, as well as local inns. Today, here is the best place to buy some souvenirs and enjoy the local food.

Samovodska Charshia in the Old Town- Varusha
Samovodska Charshia in the Old Town- Varusha

More places of interest in the Old Town

Besides just walking around the streets of the Old Town, there are several points that are worth visiting:

Sarafkina’s House

Sarafkina’s House is a Revival-style house, presenting a lot of artifacts and art pieces from the 18th to the beginning of the 20th centuries, in old traditionally designed halls. Entrance fee: 6 BGN for adults, 2 BGN for children. Sunday and Monday- closed.

Archaeological Museum

The Archaeological Museum presents artifacts from several thousand years ago to Medieval Bulgarian times. Here you can find a lot of remnants, found in and around the city. A good educational place, before you visit Tsarevets and Trapezitsa. Entrance fee: 6 BGN for adults, 2 BGN for children.

Revival and Constituent Assembly Museum

The Revival and Constituent Assembly Museum presents the Christian art from the 13th to 19th centuries, historical artifacts from the time of the Bulgarian Revival, and from the Constituent Assembly in 1879. Entrance fee: 6 BNG for adults, 2 BGN for children.

Revival and Constituent Assembly Museum
Revival and Constituent Assembly Museum

Museum of Prison

It used to be a real prison built by the Ottoman Turks in the 19th century and functioned until 1957. Now the Museum of Prison is turned into a museum presenting the life of the prisoners. Entrance fee: 6 BGN for adults, 2 BGN for children.

Museum of Contemporary History

As its name suggests, the Museum of Contemporary History presents artifacts from the post-Ottoman period. Its main idea is to show the capital era inheritance in the new modern times. Entrance fee: 6 BGN for adults, 2 BGN for children.

Museum of Illusions

Although this is an entertainment, off-topic museum, the Museum of Illusions is a nice place to relax. It creates various kinds of illusions of space that make your experience in Veliko Tarnovo more colorful. Entrance fee: 12 BGN for adults, 8 BGN for children.

Cathedral Rozhdestvo Bogorodichno 

It is built in 1844 by the famous Bulgarian architect Kolyu Ficheto. Today, it is one of the landmarks of Veliko Tarnovo.

Multimedia Visitor Center “Tsarevgrad Tarnov” 

This is a unique museum, presenting scenes from the history of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. The scenes are made of sculptures of people from that period. Entrance fee: 10 BGN for adults, 5 BGN for children.

Tsarevets

This place is the main reason for visiting Veliko Tarnovo: Tsarevets- the Hill of the Kings. In other words, this should be the core of your Veliko Tarnovo journey. And the best way to do it is after you cross the Old Town with its places of interest, walk through the isthmus to the gate of the Third Medieval capital of Bulgaria.

In the fortress of Tsarevets
In the fortress of Tsarevets

Tsarevets is surrounded by the Yantra river from almost everywhere. Significant parts of its fortress walls are preserved or restored. The walls are built around the hill and today, on its top you can see the restored Ascension Cathedral. It doesn’t look like the traditional churches in Bulgaria, but more like a palace or a castle.

North of the Cathedral, you can see the ruins of the King’s Palace, as well as many other ruins of aristocrats, military leaders, and other Tarnovo citizens.

Tower of Baldwin

Back to the gate and turn left. Follow the wall and you will reach the Tower of Baldwin- the restored Southern tower of the fortress, where, as the legend says, King Kaloyan imprisoned the captured Crusader’s Emperor Baldwin after the battle at Adrianopolis in 1205. Finally, go to the northern end of the fortress. Here you will see the Skull Rock- a sharp rock, used for executions.

To explore Tsarevets, you have to buy tickets from the ticket corner in the square before the fortress gate. Entrance fee: 10 BGN for adults, 5 BGN for children.

Now, let’s go out of the fortress and cross the Yantra River.

Asenevtsi and Sveta Gora

This is one of the first things that you can see when you look from the southern panoramic terraces in the Old Town. The Asenevtsi Memorial is a spectacular monument of the four kings- Asen, Peter, Kaloyan, and Ivan Asen II, the most notable kings the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. They are like four horsemen with a giant sword to the sky between them.

Right beside the monument is the Art Gallery. It presents pictures and sculptures of famous Bulgarian artists. Its building, together with the Asenevtsi Memorial and the whole location offers amazing views of the city at the other bank of the Yantra River.

The best way to reach it is to back to the New City, beside the Monument of Mother Bulgaria and Marno Pole Park, and cross the bridge to Asenevtsi.

And if you go east of the Asenevtsi, you can reach the hill of Holy Wood (Sveta Gora) and the Veliko Tarnovo University. It has its own museum, and the area offers more great views of Tsarevets Hill.

From here, you can back to the left bank of Yantra, to the foot of Tsarevets, because there are more things that you can see there, out of the fortress.

The Monument of Asenevtsi
The Monument of Asenevtsi

The foot of Tsarevets Hill

When you cross the bridge into the Old Town, turn right. There is a road that surrounds the hill of Tsarevets and it passes by a lot of interesting places on its way.

The first place is the newest attraction in Veliko Tarnovo- the Park of Miniatures. This is an open-air exposition of many famous Bulgarian landmarks in diminished size.

From there, the road goes east of the Tsarevets fortress, to the point below its northern end. On its route, it passes by many Orthodox churches that have existed before the Ottoman conquest, has been destroyed and now rebuilt like St. Peter and Paul, St. Ivan Rilski, Church of the Assumption, and Holy Forty Martyrs Church.

Here you can also see the Shishman Baths– another restored Medieval building, used by the last kings of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. Beside it is the picturesque Vladishki Bridge, built in 1774.

Let’s cross the Yantra river again. Here is the Arbanasi Plateau, and there are more amazing things to see.

Trapezitsa

This is the “Second” Medieval Tarnovo- the part of the city beyond the Yantra River. It was built on the Hill of Trapezitsa and was surrounded by its own fortress wall, separated from Tsarevets. Here you can see ruins of many churches, Medieval houses, and the fortress wall.

One of the fortress towers is restored and can be seen from the Old Town and Tsarevets. There is a well-arranged museum that tells the story of Trapezitsa and the whole city.

You can observe Trapezitsa from the aside, but only when you enter the complex, you can see the details, and they speak a lot. To reach it, you have to go to Trapezitsa Railway Station, at the western side of the hill- from the road to Arbanasi, from the road to Ruse, or by train from Veliko Tarnovo Station.

Trapezitsa from aside
Trapezitsa from aside

Once you arrive there, you have to buy your ticket: 16 BGN for adults and 12 BGN for children. Then, you ascend by a short cable car to the entrance of the fortress.

Around Veliko Tarnovo

Let’s back to the road from Veliko Tarnovo to Arbanasi that descends from the gate of Tsarevets, and let’s proceed to the village of Arbanasi. Actually, you can see its first houses from the heights of the city, because it is only 5 km away. But only when you visit Arbanasi, you can understand why it is worth visiting, diving into its unique quiet Revival atmosphere.

Arbanasi

Arbanasi is a small village existing from Medieval times. Its houses are built in a traditional Revival style, but different than the style of the Old Town in Veliko Tarnovo. The houses in Arbanasi are mainly designed with stone walls and their yards are surrounded by stone fences.

Only walking on the calm and silent streets of the village is enough to make you feel peaceful tranquility. But if you want to dive more deeply, you can visit some of its museums and churches. There are several beautiful churches like Holy Archangels Michael and Gabriel, St. Mary, Church of Nativity, Monastery St. Nikolai the Miracleworker, and St. George, the last turned into a museum.

There are also two house-museums that present the life of the Revival times in the area, as well as its history- Konstantsalieva’s House, and Hadjiiliev House. And if you finish exploring Arbanasi, you can proceed beyond it.

Arbanasi- Konstantsalieva House Museum
Arbanasi- Konstantsalieva House Museum

More of the Arbanasi Plateau

The Arbanasi Plateau, like most of the plateaus on the Earth, is flat on its top, covered mainly by agricultural fields. But its slopes are steep and look like a mountain, covered by forests. Here you can find some caves like Kalugerska Dupka (Monk’s Cave), as well as some nice places of relaxation like Ksilifor, located on Ksilifor River that reaches Yantra from the east and divides the main Arbanasi Plateau from the neighboring Momina Krepost ridge.

Another road goes to Lyaskovo Monastery that is related to the history from the Ottoman times. And the meadows around it are great for a picnic.

The western side of the Arbanasi Plateau also offers some interesting places of interest. Here is Garga Bair– the hills that rise north of Trapezitsa, and here you can walk on a beautiful trail to the Patriarchal Monastery “Holy Trinity”.

On Tarnovo Heights

Let’s back to Veliko Tarnovo and explore the area west of Yantra River. Here is the main urban part of the city, but north of it, you can find another beautiful trail. It leads to the Transfiguration Monastery, and on its way, it passes some beautiful natural sights. The most beautiful of them is the waterfall Kartala.

How to reach and explore Veliko Tarnovo and around

Veliko Tarnovo is one of the largest cities in Bulgaria, and it is easily accessible by a well-arranged road and railroad network. There are regular buses from Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, and Ruse, as well as trains from these cities.

Find your transportation to Veliko Tarnovo!

The best way to reach Veliko Tarnovo is by car. You can come by your own car, or rental car to the city and explore it conveniently. Or, you can travel to Veliko Tarnovo by other transport and rent a car for 2-3 days in the city. Yes, there is a well-developed public city bus network, as well as taxis, but by your own car is much better.

Find the best rental cars for Veliko Tarnovo!

However, if you want to explore the Old Town and Tsarevets, better park your car outside of this area- it is narrow and it is difficult to find a place for your car. I made the mistake to park my car in a restricted place and the municipality workers took it by a “spider” to a penalty parking lot. Then I take it back for 50 BGN (only), but in any case, it was not the best part of our Veliko Tarnovo journey.

So, better park your car out of the Old Town and just walk. The Old Town and Tsarevets are not too large and walking is the best and safest way to explore them. Then, use your car to visit farther places like Trapezitsa and Arbanasi.

Accommodation

Since Veliko Tarnovo is a well-developed tourist city, there are plenty of places to sleep- from budget to splurge hotels everywhere. Many of them are located in the New City, some of them in the Old Town, and some- in the outskirts of the city. So, you can choose your hotel HERE, depending on your location preferences, luxury requirements, or your budget.

Many of these houses offer accommodation
Many of these houses offer accommodation

A good choice would be sleeping in a local guest house. There are a lot of guest houses in various locations that are not only comfortable but also provide a nice art and cultural atmosphere, as well as beautiful views of the most spectacular places in the city. Among the best guest houses, I would recommend HiStory INN, Base Camp (in the Old Town), and Kings View

Check for a place to sleep in Veliko Tarnovo!

But if you are looking for something more special, I would recommend sleeping in a traditional house in Arbanasi, or in a hostel.

Arbanasi guest houses

The whole atmosphere of Arbanasi makes spending the night there a worthwhile experience. There are many guest houses in the villages, but among them, I would recommend Diabora, the Guest House with the Wooden Plough, and Vanda.

Hostels in Veliko Tarnovo

Hostels are great places to meet other travelers and to share your travel experience with them. Besides, they are cheap. Check out these hostels in Veliko Tarnovo: Rooster Hostel, Architects House, Hostel Mostel, and Hikers Hostel!

Seasons in Veliko Tarnovo

Every season in Veliko Tarnovo has its own beauty. The climate is mild as in most of Bulgaria, so you can’t expect anything extreme or dangerous.

Summer is hot, and the surrounding hills are covered by lush green forests. It is not the best time for hiking, especially during the mid-day under the sun, but is still excellent for exploring the city. The only dangerous thing would be a thunderstorm- avoid hiking in such weather!

Fall and Spring are mild, full of colors. The forest is covered in yellow, red, and green in fall, and the weather is mainly sunny. And it is fresh green in Spring, just the weather is more often rainy.

Sometimes winter is cold and snowy, and it created another “clothing” of the whole landscape. But even without snow, with only naked trees, it still remains beautiful.

Our journey to Veliko Tarnovo was in summer, and we enjoyed it in the beauty of this season. We left the city and proceeded our journey to our next destination- the Rocky Monasteries of Ruse. And our time in this amazing city gave us a lot of impressions about the nature of Northern Bulgaria, the history of the country and the local culture.

Take a look at some travel books about Bulgaria:

     

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Veliko Tarnovo is the third capital of Medieval Bulgaria. It is an incredibly beautiful city due to its unique natural location. At the same time, it takes you back in ancient and Medieval times. Read this guide about Veliko Tarnovo, its history, its places of interest and more travel tips! Veliko Tarnovo is the third capital of Medieval Bulgaria. It is an incredibly beautiful city due to its unique natural location. At the same time, it takes you back in ancient and Medieval times. Read this guide about Veliko Tarnovo, its history, its places of interest and more travel tips!

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