Located in Bulgaria’s heart, Veliko Tarnovo is a testament to the rich tapestry of history, culture, and natural beauty that defines this enchanting Balkan country. With its cobbled streets and medieval architecture, this picturesque town invites visitors to step back in time and immerse themselves in an experience that transcends the ordinary.

Perched on three hills, this city is a cultural gem that seamlessly weaves its historical significance with breathtaking natural beauty. For those passionate about history, Veliko Tarnovo stands as the former capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, offering a captivating journey through time. Today, it is a thriving student city with a youthful energy that seamlessly blends old and new. 

Embarking on a journey to Veliko Tarnovo from Sofia is a breeze, and we recommend the freedom of a rented car for a fast route with a scenic drive. Most car rentals are very cost-efficient, but for best offers, check out CarRental.deals.

For those opting for guided tours with Balkan Trails, you should know private transportation is seamlessly arranged throughout your entire tour, ensuring a hassle-free exploration. We advise against taking the train but suggest exploring bus options for convenience and faster rides. 

Veliko Tarnovo: Historical Marvels

Former Capital City

Unearthed by archaeologists, Veliko Tarnovo reveals evidence of a thriving settlement dating back to the 3rd millennium BCE, solidifying its status as one of the oldest cities in Europe. The layers of history embedded in its soil speak volumes about the enduring legacy of this ancient town.

Veliko Tarnovo experienced its zenith during the 12th century when it gained independence from the Byzantine Empire. This period marked the town’s golden era, flourishing for approximately two centuries until succumbing once more to Turkish occupation.

In a pivotal turn of events, the town regained its freedom in 1877, becoming the capital of Bulgaria for a brief yet significant two-year span before relinquishing the title to Sofia. This tumultuous historical journey shapes Veliko Tarnovo into a compelling destination, where each cobblestone and fortress wall whispers tales of resilience and transformation across the ages.

The Tsarevets Fortress

Perched majestically atop the hills overlooking Veliko Tarnovo, the Tsarevets Fortress is an iconic symbol of Bulgaria’s medieval glory. Dating back to the 12th century, this formidable fortress served as the stronghold of the Second Bulgarian Empire, playing a pivotal role in the nation’s history. 

The fortress is a captivating blend of architectural prowess and historical significance, surrounded by robust stone walls that once witnessed the ebb and flow of medieval power struggles. Within its fortified confines, visitors can explore the remains of royal palaces, churches, and administrative buildings, each stone bearing the weight of centuries of political intrigue and cultural richness.

Ready for a more futuristic experience in such an old structure? Try the dramatic music, multicolored lights, lasers, and chiming bells synchronized in a unique display: The Sound & Light show! This show projects a dazzling display of colored lights coordinated with sounds and music over the Tsarevets Fortress for an unforgettable viewing experience. This is a great thing to do with children, but it is just as entertaining if it’s just adults in attendance! 

Entry to the site for adults is priced at 10 Lev and is a worthwhile investment. Visitors can explore the fortification, towers, and various fortress buildings. The panoramic views from the battlements are exceptional, providing an excellent backdrop for capturing memorable photographs. Note that the fortress is set on a hill with a lot of uneven pavement, so good, closed-toe shoes are essential when you explore here.

The Asenov Quarter 

Explore the oldest part of the town in the Asenov Quarter, home to the famous Church of the Holy 40 Martyrs and the intriguing Trapezitsa Fortress ruins. Nestled beneath Tsarevets Hill, the Asenov Quarter emerges as a flourishing hub of creativity in Veliko Tarnovo, making it the ideal destination for those seeking an immersive cultural and artistic experience. This vibrant neighborhood boasts numerous art galleries, studios, and holistic initiatives, creating a dynamic space that celebrates and fosters creativity in various forms. 

Trapezitsa Fortress

Perched atop the picturesque Trapezitsa Hill near Veliko Tarnovo, the Trapezitsa Fortress stands as the second tower of the medieval Bulgarian capital, Veliko Tarnovo. 

Positioned strategically on the Yantra River’s right side, the fortress boasts natural defenses with rocky slopes and cliffs. Trapezitsa is debated, with some associating it with “table” and others with its trapezoidal-shaped shelf. Excavations in 1884 and 1900 revealed the foundations of 17 churches adorned with frescoes and colorful mosaic floors. Notably, Church No. 8, known as “Ivan Rilski,” housed relics brought by Tsar Ivan Asen I in 1195, offering a glimpse into Trapezitsa’s rich history as a center of nobility and senior clergy. 

The Old Town

Varusha, also known as Veliko Tarnovo’s Old Town, unfolds as a labyrinth of narrow, meandering streets, ancient residences, and breathtaking panoramas. Strolling through this remarkable district feels like a journey through history, immersing you in its unique architectural charm and serene atmosphere. Your time in the enchanting Old Town is certain to be a cherished experience, where every corner reveals a glimpse of the past, inviting you to savor the beauty of a bygone era. 

Gurko Street, a captivating thoroughfare in Veliko Tarnovo, features traditional Revival Period houses tightly clustered along a steep slope with stunning views of the Yantra River below. The street uniquely blends architectural beauty with nature, offering a mesmerizing glimpse of Bulgarian houses perched on the hill and the Yantra’s meandering path around Sveta Gora Hill, the Boris Denev Gallery, and the Asenevtsi Monument. 

Sarafkin’s house stands as an architectural gem in Veliko Tarnovo, situated on the historic Gurko Street, contributing to the town’s old revival charm. Originally built in 1861 for the boyar trader Dimo Sarafina, it later became renowned as Sarafkin’s house under the ownership of his wife, Anastasia Sarafkata. In 1981, the house underwent restoration and became part of the Regional Historical Museum-Veliko Tarnovo. 

Today, it houses the exhibition “Folk Art of Turnovo’s Region,” showcasing the distinctive features of national art prevalent in Veliko Tarnovo during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The fourth floor hosts separate exposition halls featuring “Crafts,” “Folklore Costumes, Clothes, and Ornaments,” and “Ritual Objects.

The Stambolov bridge

A historical landmark from 1892. The monument is about 700-800 meters away from the center of the historic area, so it shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes to get here by foot. The first freestanding cast iron bridge in Bulgaria spans a bend of the Yantra River in Veliko Tarnovo.  

Legend has it that upon completing the bridge, master builders and workers adhered to Bulgarian tradition, sitting beneath it as the first fully loaded ox and horse carts crossed, symbolizing their confidence in the soundness of their work. In a daring stunt on May 24, 1932, Bulgarian ace pilot Petko Popganchev flew his plane under the bridge, captivating onlookers who cheered and applauded. Some suggest this audacious feat was an unsuccessful attempt to impress a local lady.

The Mini Bulgaria Park

Not really a historical marvel… yet! But cool enough to be on this must-see list of landmarks!

Situated in close proximity to Veliko Tarnovo’s primary cultural gem, the medieval stronghold Tsarevets, Mini Bulgaria Park, offers a unique perspective right under Baldwin’s Tower. It showcases miniature replicas of Bulgaria’s most iconic landmarks and attractions.

Among them are the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the Ivan Vazov National Theatre in Sofia, the Monastery of St. Ivan of Rila, the Bachkovo Monastery of the Dormition of the Theotokos, as well as various palaces and strongholds from Bulgaria’s rich history. This miniature haven allows visitors to marvel at the country’s diverse architectural wonders in one centralized location.

Off-the-beaten-path adventures

Arbanassi village

Arbanasi, a village just four kilometers from Veliko Tarnovo, boasts a rich history dating back to the 15th century. Situated on a plateau facing Tzarevetz and Trapezitsa hills, its unique charm emanates from the architectural marvels of houses, fortified with high walls and massive wooden gates. Exempt from Ottoman taxes, residents thrived in craftsmanship and trade, leading comfortable lives.

To safeguard against plundering, two-story houses were equipped with hiding places, barred windows, and no terraces. Today, Arbanasi’s well-preserved houses, adorned with handcrafted woodwork, goldsmith’s, blacksmith’s, and coppersmith’s crafts, showcase the village’s enduring cultural legacy despite a plundering episode in the 18th century that left it deserted for years.

The Transfiguration Monastery

The Transfiguration Monastery is located 7 km away from Veliko Tarnovo, below the inaccessible vertical rocks over the left bank of the Yantra River, near Samovodene Village. It lies below the caves of Biskalski Venets in the Belyakovsko Plateau.

The biggest monastery in Veliko Tarnovo is worth visiting for its historical and cultural significance. Founded in the 14th century, this Eastern Orthodox monastery offers a glimpse into Bulgaria’s rich religious heritage. The complex features a church with well-preserved frescoes and architectural elements, providing visitors with a captivating journey through medieval art and spirituality. 

The Cave Church of Holy Trinity

The mysterious cave church of the Holy Trinity is a hidden gem nestled beneath rocky cliffs near Veliko Tarnovo. Carved into the natural rock formations, this cave church is a must-see for your itinerary to Bulgaria.

The Holy Trinity Church is known for its unique architecture, blending seamlessly with the natural surroundings. The cave’s interior features preserved frescoes that showcase intricate medieval artwork, providing a glimpse into the spiritual and artistic traditions of the time.  

Natural wonders of Veliko Tarnovo

The Yantra River, a defining natural wonder of Veliko Tarnovo, gracefully winds its way through the town, bestowing a sense of tranquility and scenic beauty upon the landscape. The riverbanks provide a picturesque setting for leisurely strolls, and the reflections of the historic architecture along its shores add to the enchantment. The Yantra River, with its crystal-clear waters, serves not only as a natural divider but also as a source of inspiration, contributing to the town’s idyllic ambiance.

Venturing into the Balkan Mountains surrounding Veliko Tarnovo unveils a world of natural wonders for hiking enthusiasts. The pristine trails meander through lush forests and reveal breathtaking vistas, offering a perfect escape into nature. Birdwatching enthusiasts will find the region rich in avian diversity, with various species soaring through the mountainous landscapes. 

Perched on the hillsides surrounding Veliko Tarnovo, the picturesque terraced houses are architectural marvels harmonizing with the natural topography. These charming dwellings, characterized by their traditional Bulgarian design, create a stunning panoramic tableau.

The terraced layout not only adds to the aesthetic appeal but also offers residents and visitors alike uninterrupted views of the town, the Yantra River, and the distant mountains. This visual spectacle is a testament to the seamless integration of human habitation with the breathtaking natural beauty that defines Veliko Tarnovo.

Culinary delights

Veliko Tarnovo delights in history and Bulgarian cuisine. Indulge in regional dishes such as banitsa and kapama, while Bulgarian yogurt from Bacillus Bulgaricus is a must-try: Kiselo Mlyako, often known as Bulgarian yogurt in the Western world and sour milk in its homeland, Bulgaria, stands out as a mildly sour-tasting yogurt, deemed the best and healthiest among contemporary dairy products. With an impeccable ancestry dating back at least 4000 years, this probiotic wonder is celebrated for its rich tradition and health benefits.

Here are a few meaty recommendations:

Try File Elena, a dried raw meat product made from chilled or frozen pork tenderloin. Named after the Bulgarian city of Elena, File Elena has historical roots in the Ottoman Empire era when selling pork was challenging for religious reasons.

Despite these obstacles, this delicacy boasts a winning combination of saltiness, aroma, and juiciness. Recognized with multiple awards, including at the 2010 and 2013 IFFA international exhibitions in Germany, File Elena is traditionally served as an appetizer, perfectly complementing a glass of wine or beer.

On this list, we also need to add Role Tra­pe­zit­sa, a raw dry-cured meat delicacy made from frozen or chilled pork collar of the highest quality. The name of this unique product derives from Tra­pe­zit­sa, the his­tor­i­cal hill in Vel­iko Tar­no­vo, which was once a Bul­gar­ian capital.

Here’s a short list of restaurants in Veliko Tarnovo:

  1. The Bell – stands out for its diverse menu featuring dishes from around the globe, focusing on distinctive Eastern European flavors. Catering to families and friends, the restaurant offers a specialized children’s menu, providing a delightful dining option for all.
  2. VkusoteriA – Kosoteria is a fast food restaurant in Veliko Trunovo. Its name means “taste,” and it is where you can enjoy delicious burgers of all kinds. The restaurant also provides a range of vegetarian options, desserts, and coffee drinks.
  3. Shtastliveca – “A collection of tastes and aromas” is the motto of the skilled creators and chefs at Shtastliveca, who have proudly showcased Bulgaria at numerous culinary festivals and competitions. The restaurant offers a memorable experience with well-prepared, delicious cuisine complemented by a magnificent view of Veliko Tarnovo’s old town and an elegant, homelike atmosphere.

Where to stay

In Veliko Tarnovo, the preferred lodging option is the charming guest house— quaint, family-owned establishments typically boasting up to 2 stars. These accommodations typically offer an array of double or triple bedrooms and apartments or studios. Whether booking individual rooms or opting for the rental of the entire house or apartment, these cozy retreats provide a personalized and welcoming atmosphere for visitors to the historic town. 

General Gurko House – a guest house with a rustic interior design

Gurko Hotel – a small hotel, three stars, with traditional dishes on the menu

Hostel Pashov – a cozy guest house

Veliko Tarnovo is always on our list!

Veliko Tarnovo is a romantic destination, perfect for couples and those enthralled by nature and history. Included in all Balkan Trails tours covering Bulgaria, this town promises a stress-free journey for maximum vacation enjoyment. For a seamless and delightful travel experience, contact us to plan your Veliko Tarnovo adventure together!