Veliko Tarnovo is one of Bulgaria’s most picturesque cities, and it’s on many tourists “must visit” list of places to see in Bulgaria for a reason. Veliko Tarnovo is located on the beautiful Yantra river, which forms a horseshoe around the city. The city is built on three hills, the tallest of which is called Tsarevets and is home to a massive historic fortress. Its unique architecture, Old World charm and status as former capital of the Bulgarian Empire are just a few of the many reasons Veliko Tarnovo is considered one of the most beautiful cities in Bulgaria.
It’s possible to visit Veliko Tarnovo as a day trip from Sofia, but it would be a very long day with much of your day in transport. I recommend giving it at least an overnight visit. Solo travelers may want to stay at the lovely Hostel Mostel, which has a free vegetarian dinner every night and delicious breakfasts, or you can choose one of the many guesthouses in the city center if you prefer more privacy.
Whether you opt for just a day trip or choose to stay for several nights, here are a few of our favorite things to do in Veliko Tarnovo.
What to Do in Veliko Tarnovo
1. Check out Tsaravets fortress
Veliko Tarnovo is one of the oldest cities in Bulgaria and is nicknamed “City of the Tsars” for the many Bulgarian tsars who called Veliko Tarnovo home over the centuries. The Tsaravets fortress, one of many Bulgarian Castles, was built atop one of the three hills of Veliko Tarnovo and served as the home to many of these tsars over the centuries. From 1185 to 1393, it was the main seat of power of Bulgaria and was home to the royal palace.
Today, the fortress is a little worse for wear, but the ruins still remain and give insight into the life of Bulgarian royalty in centuries gone past. The fortress is massive, composed of thousands of feet of stone walls, many of which are up to 12 feet thick, and covers a total area of over 50,000 square feet.
When there, check out the front gate, ruins of the palace, Baldwin’s tower, and the crazy church at the highest point on the hill, explained in more detail below.
2. See the strange paintings inside the Patriarchal Cathedral
The Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God (try saying that three times fast!) is located on the top of the Tsaravets fortress. It’s one of the strangest churches I’ve ever been in, with extremely unusual religious artwork inside. Whereas the outside of the church is very traditional, done in the Byzantine style with a traditional stone exterior, the inside is just straight up wacky.
The interior of the church wasn’t always so strange. It used to be incredibly ornate, with floor mosaics of multi-colored marble and gemstones like sapphire. The walls were covered in more traditional Orthodox frescos. However, the interior decor didn’t survive the years, and during the reconstruction efforts in the 20th century, the church got a decidedly unusual facelift. Artist Teofan Sokerov repainted it, depicting images of Bulgarian history in a modernist – and rather creepy – style. Because of these strange murals, the church has never been re-consecrated and is no longer in use today, except by curious tourists.
3. Get oriented with a free walking tour
There is a free walking tour in Veliko Tarnovo, meeting at 11 AM in front of the Tourist Information Center. It covers the Old Town, so you’ll learn about the unique architectural style that marks Veliko Tarnovo, important monuments and landmarks in the city, and plenty of interesting historical facts about the city.
Tours may not run outside the peak season (generally May to September) so if you want to ensure there will be someone there, you may want to message them on their Facebook page and confirm. While free, it is tip-based, so please don’t forget to bring some leva with you to tip your guides.
4. Walk across the Stambolov Bridge
The Stambolov Bridge is the beautiful bridge that spans the Yantra river, bringing you to a beautiful viewpoint where you can snap the iconic hillside photos of Veliko Tarnovo you’ve seen in virtually every blog post or Instagram photo of the city.
Built in 1892, the bridge is made of steel and concrete and was one of the first steel bridges to be built in the Balkans. Follow the bridge to Asen’s monument, admire the views, then sit down in the nearby café for a Shumensko (or several!)
5. See the Asenevtsi monument
Asenevtsi Monument, also called Asen’s Monument, is one of the main symbols of Veliko Tarnovo. It was constructed in 1985 as a celebration of the 800 year anniversary of Bulgaria’s liberation from the Byzantine Empire, which happened after an uprising orchestrated by brothers Asen and Petar. They then became the rulers of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom.
6. Check out the historic nearby town of Arbanasi
The town of Arbanasi is very close to Veliko Tarnovo, a few kilometers’ drive away. It’s famous for two main reasons: the presence of Bulgarian National Revival architecture and the beautiful Nativity of Christ Church pictured above.
It’s possible to do an organized day trip to Arbanasi, but the easiest and cheapest would probably just be to take a taxi, which should cost around 4 or 5 leva each way. There is also a bus to Arbanasi, but I haven’t tried this personally. It’s defnitely worth checking out, as the monastery is one of Bulgaria’s finest.
7. Eat with a view of the Yantra River
There are several restaurants on the main street in Veliko Tarnovo, ulitsa Stefan Stambolov, that offer both delicious dining and stunning river views from a privileged position on top of the hill. One of my favorite restaurants in Sofia, Shtastliveca, actually started their original branch here in Veliko Tarnovo.
The original Shtastliveca is still open and serves delicious Bulgarian staples, like shopska salad, stuffed aubergines, and mixed grilled meats as well as fantastic Italian food. I’m a huge fan of Shtastliveca and take all my friends to visit the branches in Sofia when they come to town, so you can’t miss the original branch in VT.
Another favorite of mine on the main street of Stefan Stambolov is the hilariously-named EGO Restaurant, which has the most delicious fried cheese and jam appetizer — seriously, so good!
8. Admire the interesting street art
Veliko Tarnovo has a lot of interesting street art throughout the Old Town, and it’s definitely well worth getting a bit lost on the streets that intersect with the main street to see what you stumble across. Veliko Tarnovo is quite small, after all, so you won’t wander far.
I loved what I found just wandering around, such as this crazy staircase leading up to houses on the hill!
There is also this large, full-size mural that you can’t miss walking down Stefan Stambolov. This style is particular to Bulgaria and you’ll find it in several cities around the country. If you know anything about this style of mural, shoot us a message — we’re very curious about them and would love to know more!
9. Take a day trip to Buzludzha
If you’re interested in Communist history, you can’t miss a day trip to Buzludzha, about 1.5 hours away from Veliko Tarnovo. This fascinating UFO-shaped structure was built as a monument to socialist communism in the1970s, at the site of a famous 19th-century battle between the Turks and the Bulgarians.
However, when the Communist government fell in 1989, the building fell into disuse and has been largely abandoned for the last three decades. While it is technically closed to the public, several people have worked their way in to see and photograph the decay, although there are now supposedly guards on site to discourage people from entering.