Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria – beautiful medieval architecture, breathtaking scenery and a cultural experience to remember
A sunny weekend and the promise of a few degrees extra made me jump at the chance to see the autumn colors and the wonderful old architecture of Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.
It was on my list of weekend getaways for a while, being so close to my home in Bucharest (4 hours’ drive), but passing through it on my way to Thassos Island (GR) this summer made me finally decide to visit it.
Because I love little houses on the hillsides (you know the song, right?) and because I was sure it would look amazing all dressed up in autumn colors. And it did!
But the charming little town of Veliko Tarnovo is also a beautiful city break destination in Europe for architecture, history and nature lovers.
Set on three impressive hills – Tsarevets, Trapezitsa, Sveta Gora, and crossed by the deep blue Yantra River, Veliko Tarnovo offers a fairytale scenery, blending new and old architectural gems with one of the most grandiose defense buildings in Europe – the Tsarevets Fortress.
It’s considered to be one of the oldest cities in Bulgaria, with a history of more than five millennia, and it’s historically renowned for being the former capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire.
Why Visit Veliko Tarnovo & Insights
Top reasons to visit Veliko Tarnovo
- Medieval Architecture – beautiful hillside houses, reminding of Ronda, Spain (read more about Veliko Tarnovo architecture)
- The Breathtaking Scenery – hiking is a must, and the landscape is beautiful, especially during the autumn
- The Tsarevets Fortress and the historical sites – great for history aficionados
- A budget-friendly destination – it’s one of the cheapest city break destinations for Europeans
- Time-friendly destination – one weekend is enough to visit all the points of interest in Veliko Tarnovo
- The Abandoned Places – perfect for the urbex photographers
Visiting Veliko was more interesting than expected, although I must admit it’s not a destination for tender hearts and luxury seekers.
The city has some lovely spots, like the medieval houses and cobblestone streets nested on the hills, great natural landscape, but it’s also a very peculiar place, where the former regime left its painful marks as well as plenty of abandoned sites that vibe in contrast.
And if abandoned houses are a pretty common thing in old European cities, seeing a beautiful abandoned church was out of the ordinary, at least for me. Also, finding a semi-abandoned hotel invaded by nature (but still hosting tourists) was intriguing and creepy at the same time.
The strange part of my trip to Veliko Tarnovo was the awkward timing – on the Saturday of the Dead, a Christian – Orthodox holiday also celebrated in Romania, but with a Bulgarian cultural twist that was a spooky revelation for me.
On the Saturday of the Dead, the Bulgarians print A4 sized white papers with the portraits of their dead and place them next to every door, but also at every info point in the city. Therefore, some streets looked like an obituary. I admit this is probably the most peculiar custom I’ve seen in my journeys so far.
One lovely thing I’ve noticed in Veliko Tarnovo is the artsy vibe of the city, attracting young people to the Art University, one of the traditional art schools in Bulgaria.
Top Attractions in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Colorful medieval houses and cobblestone streets
The beautiful architecture located in such a surreal landscape was my number one reason to visit Veliko Tarnovo. All the little houses adorning the hilltops and overlooking the river made me jump with enthusiasm the whole weekend. There aren’t so many points of view, but I kept photographing each one at different times of the day just because they looked so very pretty.
Two cobblestone streets made my heart warm:
Gurko, the most beautiful street in Veliko, and our “residence” for the weekend,
Samovodska Charshiya, the lovely cobblestone street in the old town, filled with craft shops of all sorts: pottery makers, copper workers and wood workshops, and many other interesting small shops.
Tsarevets Fortress, one of the most grandiose defense constructions in Europe
It’s one stunning fortress, standing majestically on the Tsarevets hilltop, surrounded by multiple stone-made defense towers that embrace the hills on many levels, so no wonder it was compared to Rome and Constantinople with regards to its imposing posture.
The original settlement dates back to the 4th century, but the fortress underwent major restoration works between 1930 and 1981. It houses a Royal Palace Complex and Patriarchate (the top church), amongst hundreds other fortifications, buildings, homes, temples and monasteries. For more historical insights about the fortress, please see this article.
As an amateur painter, the most amazing part of my visit to Tsarevets Fortress was seeing the new church painting style inside the Patriarchate (the church uphill) for the very first time. The harsh brush strokes and the grandeur of the murals depicting historical scenes from the Second Bulgarian Empire inside the church baffled me.
Asen’s Monument and the Art Gallery
The impressive monument dedicated to the Asen’s Dynasty, the founders of the medieval Bulgarian state, is located on a small island surrounded by the meanders of Yantra River and can be seen from almost any part of Veliko Tarnovo.
We arrived at sunset, and the place seemed so unreal, caressed by the last rays of light, that it looked even more imposing than seen from above. There isn’t much to say about the sculpture I kept calling a mausoleum; it represents 4 chevaliers, a prophet like sculpture and the huge sword in the middle of them all, but it is a symbol of freedom and autonomy brought by the Asen’s Dynasty, so do pay a visit.
The Art Gallery next to it also houses a small coffee shop, if you want to stay more.
Sarafkina House is an architectural gem, dating back to 1861 that used to be an old merchant’s house, now turned into an ethnographic house-museum. Unfortunately, it was closed on Sunday and we weren’t able to pay it a visit, so make sure to check the schedule ahead.
The Abandoned Places
- The abandoned medieval church on the hill, near Gurko Streets, is such a beautiful place to visit. Its door is closed, but the small courtyard in front looked so delightful that I had to tell you about it.
- The semi-abandoned hotel, filled with vegetation on the first two floors and located on the riverbed, has a communist type of architecture and it’s the most peculiar building in Veliko Tarnovo. It still accommodates tourists, so be careful not to book there, unless you’re staying on Halloween or something.
- The abandoned building in front of the Tsarevets Fortress also has a pretty architecture, so you might want to stop by for a few minutes before visiting the main attraction.
The Street Art Scene
One surprising thing about Veliko Tarnovo was the vivid art scene. Just like in Lisbon, the abandoned buildings were turned into visual playgrounds for local artists, some pretty talented. Graffiti is the most common type of street art in Veliko Tarnovo, and now I’m curious about the street art scene in Sofia, which I’ll probably visit sometime next year.
Other attractions in Veliko Tarnovo: Ethnographic Museum, Archaeological Museum, Historical Museum and Forty Martyrs Church.
What to taste and where to eat in Veliko Tarnovo
Even if it’s my 11th trip to Bulgaria and I know Bulgarian dishes are pretty tasty, I was a bit surprised by the local food. And that’s probably because the other 10 trips were taken at the seaside, where seafood is king and queen. But Veliko Tarnovo is in the mountain area, so be prepared to find an interesting mélange of Turkish and Russian dishes.
3 foods to try in Veliko Tarnovo would be: the veal or lamb meatballs with mushrooms served on a hot “lava” pan, the cheese pastry and any goat cheese plate, the Bulgarian Tarator – a cucumber and yoghurt soup that’s a bit different from the Turkish or the French versions, even if the ingredients don’t vary that much.
Tip: Local beer is not that great, but you might want to have a taste of a local wine.
Shtastliveca is one restaurant I would recommend in Veliko Tarnovo because of its tasty dishes, fast service, and good location. We also tried Ego, the other recommended restaurant in Veliko, but we found its dishes to be a bit too greasy for our taste, so maybe limit your meal here at a tarator soup.
Both restaurants offer beautiful panoramas, but the terrace at Ego unveils the whole valley in one unforgettable vista.
Where to stay in Veliko Tarnovo (and what hotel to avoid)
Gurko Hotel was our option because it offered the greatest panorama over the Yantra valley, it was close to the old city center, and it offered parking on the spot (it was a car trip for us, so it mattered).
We got a good enough studio, with nice furniture and a balcony, but there is some room for improvement when it comes to the bed and its sheets, and the very thin walls (our neighbor coughed all night, so sleeping was a bit difficult).
Looking over the valley from Gurko Hotel, I couldn’t be more thankful for not making the mistake of booking a night at the semi-abandoned hotel! It’s called Veliko Tarnovo Hotel and it’s the creepiest place you’ll ever see!
This semi-abandoned place is a “mammoth” type of hotel, probably dating back to the communist era, and it has two whole floors invaded by vegetation. The really creepy part is the location – right on the riverbed; now, if you add this to the sub-Mediterranean influences on the temperate climate of Veliko Tarnovo, snakes and other small reptiles are not so scarce as one might think.
So, whatever you do, please make sure you don’t book a room at the creepy hotel! 🙂
When to visit Veliko Tarnovo
Autumn is the perfect time to visit Veliko Tarnovo, and November is even better. The temperatures are pretty high – we had 20 degrees C on both days, and the foliage change on the hills makes the trip even more beautiful.
The clear sky with fluffy white clouds constantly reflecting on the Yantra River was a delight, as well as the misty mornings over the valley.
How to get around Veliko
Veliko Tarnovo is a small medieval city, so no need to rent a car. You can walk to all the attractions in the city, but you must always be prepared for hiking. So don’t forget your most comfortable shoes and the good spirits!
Best photo spots in Veliko Tarnovo
- The Gurko Street
- The terrace of the Ego restaurant
- The Asen’s Monument and especially the bridge leading to it from downtown Veliko
- The Tsarevets Fortress
- The terrace of the restaurant located above the Multimedia Visitor Centre Tsarevgrad Tarnov – the restaurant is not always open, but it’s the only place that offers a spectacular view of the fortress; the public terrace right next to it works just fine for side views of the fortress, in case the place is closed.
- The bridge between the two tunnels located at the entrance of the city.
Travel Tip for a holiday in Bulgaria:
If you’ve never visited Bulgaria before, I recommend you take a tour of the country that includes Veliko Tarnovo, Rila Mountains, but also the seaside destinations like Balchik, Varna and the Golden Sands. I hear Nessebar and Sofia are also very nice destinations, but I have not yet visited them (probably next year).
If you have any questions about this destination, please let me know in the comment section.
Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria | November 2016 | All Mobile Photos – Copyright ©AnaMatei
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