Once the capital of Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo is one of Bulgaria’s most picturesque cities. Many of the things to do in Veliko Tarnovo revolve around exploring the city which is set above the winding Yantra River on three hills. The largest of the hills, Tsaravets is home to the famous Tsaravets Fortress, a symbol of Veliko Tarnovo and a great starting point for your visit to Veliko Tarnovo.
Veliko Tarnovo is a relaxed city with a large university and student population. Veliko Tarnovo is a great weekend destination for visitors from Sofia, Plovdiv and Romania tourists heading towards the Black Sea resorts of Bulgaria.
Why not head on over and find out what to do in Veliko Tarnovo?
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Why Visit Veliko Tarnovo?
Once the capital of the second Bulgarian Empire and also the location where Bulgaria’s constitution was written, this was the home of the Bulgarian Tsars. You’ll find history here, you’ll also find stunning natural beauty and this is a great place head off into the countryside around.
Historically Veliko Tarnovo was a trading area for merchants travelling between countries in the area, trading goods between the Black Sea and the Balkan peninsular. Because of its location, Veliko Tarnovo still receives many visitors who travel between Romania, Serbia and the Black Sea resorts.
Where is Veliko Tarnovo
Located in the north of Bulgaria about 90 minutes south of the border with Romania, Veliko Tarnovo is easy to reach by public transport from Bulgaria’s major cities of Sofia and Plovdiv. Trains between Bucharest, Romania and Istanbul also stop here, making it an easy stop on a trans-European trip.
How to get to Veliko Tarnovo
The closest airport to Veliko Tarnovo is Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital city.
Getting to Veliko Tarnovo by Car
Travelling to Veliko Tarnovo by car is the easiest way to get here. Bulgarian roads in this part of the country are good – but be sure to buy a vignette. Travelling in this area with a car also enables to you take some of the great trips to areas near to Veliko Tarnovo, such as Buzludzha – which we’ll talk about later in this article.
We travelled easily from our summer base in Bansko heading off on a trip through Europe, first stop Veliko Tarnovo.
Getting to Veliko Tarnovo by bus
Bus connections to Veliko Tarnovo are easy. You can easily get to Veliko Tarnovo by bus from Plovdiv, Varna, Sofia, Burgas and Ruse (near the Romanian border).
Getting to Veliko Tarnovo by train
There are direct trains from Plovdiv and Ruse to Veliko Tarnovo. Trains from Varna and Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo stop at the 7kilometre distant station of Gorna Oryahovitsa. You can, however, take a train to VT or a bus or a taxi. This is the connecting station for the Bucharest, Istanbul train too. Details on Bulgarian trains (in English are here).
How to get around Veliko Tarnovo
It is easy to walk around Veliko Tarnovo, but you can also easily take a bus. Most of the buses in town go through the city centre. Buy bus tickets from the driver (they cost 1 BGN leva each). If you’re taking the bus to Tsaravets Fortress, you can get there on buses number 20, 40 and 50.
Taxis are also easy to catch. There’s a set rate of 0.80 BGN Leva and then a charge per kilometre of 0.60 BGN leva.
Map of Veliko Tarnovo
When to Go to Veliko Tarnovo
Veliko Tarnovo is HOT in summer, you’ll see temperatures climbing above 30 °C / 86 °F. This is also the busiest time for the number of tourists in town. It is also cold in winter, December through February are the coldest. We think that April – May and early autumn are great times to visit, you’ll find fewer visitors a milder climate and especially if you visit in autumn some glorious fall colours.
Where to Stay in Veliko Tarnovo
There are many options – and highly rated options of where to stay in Veliko Tarnovo.
- We recommend the sparklingly clean, friendly and well-lit Gile Guest House – where we had a private room with a private bathroom. Breakfast is now provided, but there is a breakfast room, with coffee and hot drinks provided. Bring your own food and self-cater here. Free parking is also provided here. Check out options and prices here.
- Hostel Mostel is a backpacker-friendly hostel providing free breakfasts and a series of organized day trips too. – check options and book now.
- The Hotel Studio has great views of the Tsaravets Fortress Sound and light show (for free!) as well as free parking, a lobby bar and a breakfast buffet – check your options here.
- The highly recommended General Gurko house is a self-catering house for up to 6 people, with private bathrooms and a glorious balcony. Check prices, reviews, and availability here.
- The charming Gurko Hotel and Mehana on Gurko Street is cosy with lots of nice Bulgarian homely touches and great dining experience. – check options here
Best Things to do in Veliko Tarnovo
Veliko Tarnovo is a city that is easy to explore on foot – bear in mind though, that the city is based on three hills and steps will always be in your routes! It’s a great city for wandering around and exploring under your own steam.
Take a free walking tour of Veliko Tarnovo
We always try to orient ourselves to a new place by taking a walking tour on the first day of our visit. Veliko Tarnovo’s free walking is an excellent place to start. It meets in front of the Tourist Information Centre at 1100 each day. Depending on your tour guide you’ll get a wealth of information not just about Veliko Tarnovo, but also about the history of Bulgaria as well. The Veliko Tarnovo free walking tour focuses on the old town of Veliko Tarnovo, pauses by the main Veliko Tarnovo attractions and the guides give great advice on places to eat and other spots to stop at and spend longer at. The tour lasts for around 3.5 to 3 hours.
You don’t need to book on the tour, just turn up at 1100.
Visit the Tsaravets Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo
Veliko Tarnovo (sometimes VT, sometimes Tarnovo, but never Veliko) traces its history back to the 3rd century BC. It was during the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire – between 1185 and 1396 that the city became the economic, political, cultural and religious capital of Bulgaria. There is still, in VT at least, a mild rivalry about whether VT was the better capital of Bulgaria when compared to Sofia.
The name Veliko Tarnovo translates as “Great Tarnovo” – however, it has always been known as the city of the Tsars because of the number of Bulgarian Tsars who called this place home.
Their home was the Tsaravets Fortress, built on one of the three hills of Veliko Tarnovo. It contained the royal palaces and was the home of the second most important power in Bulgaria at the time, the church.
The Tsaravets Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo is the symbol of the city. In ruins today, and has been since the Ottomans destroyed it in 1393. The Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God at the highest point of the fortress was reconstructed and contains an interesting interior.
It’s best to arrive at the Tsaravets Fortress first thing in the morning, it’s much more atmospheric without other people there. The views of the city are lovely. Entrance costs are 6 BGN Leva and its open from 0800 until 1900 (0900 – 1700 from November to March), but tickets from the ticket office on the opposite side of the road prior to arriving at the gatehouse. The signage as you approach from town is in Bulgarian only (it’s in English on the fortress side of the ticket office).
There’s no particular route to take around the Tsaravets Fortress – but do start at the top. If it’s open, there is an elevator at the back of the Patriarchal Cathedral for a little additional altitude that costs 2 BGN Leva. Steps and trails are uneven and there is no one or anything stopping you clambering over and climbing what you want.
Also make sure to head to the Baldwin Tower as you stand at the top of the fortress, with VT to your right and the Cathedral behind you, Baldwin’s Tower is at the far left point. You’ll get lovely views over the city and also another VT attractions, Mini Bulgaria (more on this soon).
Visit the Patriarchal Cathedral St. Ascension
The Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God is found at the highest point of the Tsaravets Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo. It’s best to head here first when you visit the fortress, more because it allows you to orient yourself with the layout of the fortress itself and plan any routes you may have.
The exterior of the church is traditional, the interior is now not so traditional, however following renovation efforts in the 20th century the interior was repainted by artist Teofan Sokerov. The style is unique and represents Bulgarian history. The interior provokes very differing opinions from visitors and as a result of the décor the church was never re-consecrated following the renovation.
It is well worth a visit and we’d be interested in what feelings the décor provokes in you!
Watch the Veliko Tarnovo Sound and Light Show
The laser sound and light show is one of the most popular things to do in Veliko Tarnovo. This show runs only on special dates and holidays – you can check the schedule here and book your ticket here.
Source: Klearchos Kapoutsis [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]
Tickets for the show including the sound are available for a special platform – the Veliko Tarnovo sound and light show illuminates the Tsaravets Fortress and sets lighting to music. If you want to just watch the lights for free, then the best spot is on the steps of the Veliko Tarnovo Orthodox Church.
Mini Bulgaria in Veliko Tarnovo
Don’t have time to see the rest of Bulgaria during your visit to Veliko Tarnovo? Never fear! Head on over to the Mini Bulgaria attraction and you can discover all of Bulgaria in miniature in an hour! This 1:25 scale model park shows you the main highlights of Bulgaria for a fee of 10 BGN leva for Adults and 5 BGN Leva for Children. If nothing else you’ll get an idea as to the other areas of Bulgaria that you want to visit. You can see part of the park from Baldwins Tower in the Tsaravets Fortress.
Visit the Asenevtsi Monument in Veliko Tarnovo
As a celebration of the 800th anniversary of Bulgaria’s liberation from the Byzantine Empire, the Asenevsti Monument was unveiled in 1985. The Asenevtsi Monument, or sometimes the Asen Monument is an important symbol of Veliko Tarnovo.
The monument features three brothers, rulers of Bulgaria, Asen, Peter and Kaloyan. Asen and Peter orchestrated the uprising that led to the liberation of Bulgarian in 1186 and then became rulers of the second Bulgarian Empire. The fourth ruler represented is Ivan Asen II, who ruled after them. The monument shows them all riding rearing horses while holding swords.
What’s unique about this is that the tsars circle an enormous sword pointing, skywards. It’s said that this is positioned like this as to drive the sword tip first into the ground would make the hilt look like a cross. As this monument was raised while Bulgaria was still under a communist regime that was an issue.
While you can view the monument from the many outlooks of the old city, you can also cross the river Yantra to it on the Boruna peninsula. Take the Stambolov Bridge and enjoy the sunset down here.
Visit the Museum of National Revival and Constituent Assembly
The title of this museum might be a bit of a mouthful, but it’s an important place in Veliko Tarnovo.
We don’t necessarily recommend that you go inside, but you should stop by this place that is particularly important in Bulgarian history. Originally this building was built in 1872 and it was a town hall in Turkish times. It was here that Bulgaria’s first National Assembly was held to write the country’s first constitution in 1879.
Visit the Sky Walk Veliko Tarnovo
One of the best views of Veliko Tarnovo is from the Sky Walk. This came about in 2014 as a result of the annual European Union Architecture summer project. In a two week period, the architecture students built a skywalk, leaning out over the vertiginous cliffs of Veliko Tarnovo. The views from the end of the walkway stretch over the river, the Asen monument and the buildings below. Find the Veliko Tarnovo Sky Walk by spotting the wooden cube in the old town.
Walk along Gurko Street in Veliko Tarnovo
Closer to the river Yantra, Gurko Street is a cobblestoned street that runs through the lower part of old town Veliko Tarnovo, you can take this street to the Stambolov Bridge to see the Asen Monument. There’s also a great hotel down here, popular for stunning views and great dining options too – check out the Gurko hotel here.
The street is named after the Russian General Gurko who liberated the then Tarnovgrad in 1877 during the Russo-Turkish War.
Samodovska Charshia Street
This street (mostly pedestrianised) at the heart of the historic centre of Veliko Tarnovo was originally where farmers, artisans and travellers came together to sell goods. There used to be a series of hostels along here – in a similar fashion to those places on the Silk Road, where merchants gathered, stayed and kept their goods in a secure area.
The houses here are Bulgarian National Revival style – which is an early 20th-century style, when the Bulgarians, post-liberation from the Ottomans, attempted to regain their cultural identity. You’ll find artisan craft shops here interspersed between tourist souvenir shops.
Take the Funicular up Trapezitsa Hill in Veliko Tarnovo
For a great view of the city, you can take the funicular up to the top of the Trapezitsa Hill one of Veliko Tarnovo’s 3 hills. There is a ruined fortress at the top, on top of a roman site that dates to the 13th century BC. You can also hike up here by yourself. It costs 6 BGN Leva to enter and the funicular is a further 10 BGN leva.
Visit Veliko Tarnovo’s Churches
Bulgaria is not a religious country. Orthodox Christianity has been the official religion of the country since 865, however, Bulgaria is a secular country that allows for freedom of religion. While more than three-quarters of the population claim to be Orthodox Christians very few regularly attend church. During the communist era in Bulgaria religion was very much out of favour. However, there are still several churches in Veliko Tarnovo worth a look for a variety of reasons. Here are two of our favourites.
Saint Peter and Paul Church
Originally constructed in the 13th century is worthy of a visit for the three layers of frescoes inside. Created over three centuries, they are, however, fragments.
Saint Forty Martyrs Church
Built in 1230 this basilica was built by Tsar Ivan Asen II (one of those represented on the Asenevtsi Monument) to honour one of his victories near Klokotnitsa over the Byzantines. It’s free to enter and is a 20-minute walk from the old town. There are important historical records stored here and also the remains of a few medieval tsars including Kaloyan and Ivan Asen I. It was also here that Prince Ferdinand I proclaimed Bulgaria’s independence from the Ottoman Empire on September 22, 1908.
Where to Eat in Veliko Tarnovo
You’ll find many street bakeries in Veliko Tarnovo and its possible to eat relatively cheaply, the city does, after all, have a large university and student community as well as a big population of digital nomads and international travellers.
However… There are two great places to eat here in Veliko Tarnovo that are worth splurging on.
The first is the hotel Mehana Gurko, on Gurko Street. Here you’ll find a traditional mehana style its cosy has great views over the river and the Asenevtsi monument and provides great Bulgarian staples.
The second – Shtastlivetsa – which means “Lucky Man” has several locations in the city, all as good as each other, the old town location has great views if you can get here early enough to grab one of those tables. The old town location is however cavernous and spread over several floors. Shtastlivetsa services inventive takes on Bulgarian traditional dishes. And it is absolutely delicious. House wine are good and (for VT) cheap.
You can read more about Bulgarian food to try in our guide here
Day Trips from Veliko Tarnovo
There are a variety of places to visit around Veliko Tarnovo depending on your interests – we’ve picked two of the most popular. Both are easy to reach if you have a car. It’s not possible to reach Buzludzha by public transport, so you will need a car or a tour to get there, but it’s such an incredible location it is well worth it.
Take a Day Trip to Buzludzha from Veliko Tarnovo
Built as a monument to socialist communism in the 1970s on the site of a famous Turkish-Bulgarian battle in the 19th century, the Buzludzha monument resembles a UFO landed on earth mixed with an evil villains lair. Entrance to the area is free, but it’s not possible, for safety reasons to enter the building itself. There are guards on-site and there are also plans to renovate the monument and turn it into the museum. Bear in mind these are Bulgarian plans and they have no set timetable.
The Buzludzha Monument is 1.5 hours from Veliko Tarnovo, which is the most convenient base to visit it from.
The landscape around here is particularly stunning. You can drive to the top where there are a few parking spaces. We shared our visit with only one other car. It is gloriously empty and the views are magnificent.
The best way to take a day trip from Veliko Tarnovo to Buzludzha is to rent a car, you simply have that much more flexibility – and you can wrap in a day trip to Arbanasi and other places too. Check out car rental prices here.
Take a Day Trip to Arbanasi from Veliko Tarnovo
The small village of Arbanasi is located 4 kilometres from Veliko Tarnovo. The village is famous for the frescoes at the church of the Nativity of Christ, the Arbanasi Monastery and the Bulgarian Revival architecture of the house museums here.
In the 16th century, this was a busy trading town – evidence of which you can see in the traditional houses – with high, thick stone walls and gates. Explore the restored Kostantsaliev House Museum which once belonged to a wealthy family. You’ll see the original construction and heating system as well as the kitchen and servants quarters. While the museum is normally open from 0900 until 1800, between November and March you need to make special arrangements to visit. Entry fees are 5 BGN Leva per person.
Final Words on Veliko Tarnovo
We really loved our visit to Veliko Tarnovo and can’t believe we waited so long to visit! It’s a lovely city to explore and hang out in. It’s a great location to take a few day trips from and its a great starting point if you’re heading north into Romania like we were! Enjoy and let us know if you have any questions!
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