…what immortal hand or eye could frame thy… beauty?*
Veliko Tarnovo is a city in north-central Bulgaria, which is proudly positioned on three hills known as Sveta Gora, Trapezista, and Tsarevets. It is nestled on the Yantra River that so beautifully runs around its hills. From a bird’s eye view, it is spectacular: all you can see is the many turns of the river and the vegetation concealing it. Blue and green prevail. There is so much nature here. It has this allure that makes you forget who you are and where you are. Retreating to one of its nooks and crannies, you can take a break from the fast-paced world and just marvel at the awe-inspiring hills.
Due to its central location, Veliko Tarnovo is easy to reach by bus or train from the biggest Bulgarian cities of Varna, Sofia, Ruse, Plovdiv, Burgas and Stara Zagora.
Locals often joke that there are three main directions here: taking the stairs, heading uphill and going downhill. Translated: you will never get bored as you are wandering around, plus your legs will become much stronger. That said, you will probably get sore muscles the first time you are visiting, so get ready to put your endurance to the test.
The cobbled streets, old housing, and Orthodox churches are just part of the amazing scenery which you will witness once you start exploring the sights.
What to See in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
The Tsarevets Fortress
Without a doubt, the most popular destination is the Tsarevets Fortress. It’s steeped in history. Positioned on the namesake hill, it draws hundreds of tourists each year. Let your imagination run wild as you discover ancient ruins and get a feel for the medieval world. The stronghold became the most important place when Tarnovo was declared capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. In the very center lies the castle complex. Here lived kings or tsars Ivan Asen II, Kaloyan, Peter, and Asen. On the top of the complex is the patriarchal church, which was restored some time ago. Its interior depicts numerous murals. The bell tower, which can be accessed by an elevator, offers a panoramic view of the area.
Sound and Light Show
It’s worth mentioning that the fortress is where the famous Sound and Light show takes place. If you are wondering what to see in Veliko Tarnovo, don’t miss it. It’s emblematic of the city and the thing that makes it stand out from other places in Bulgaria. You will quickly get carried away by the dramatic music which blends perfectly with the chiming bells, lasers and multi color lights. Unmissable! The audiovisual show tells of a few key moments in the Bulgarian history with a strong focus on the siege of Tarnovo by the Ottomans. The good news is that one can watch it for free on holidays and special occasions. It’s hard to put into words how splendiferous it is. You just have to go see it.
Getting to the Tsarevets Fortress is an experience in and of itself because you have to walk through the old town. If you can, stick to the Gurko Street. Tucked away off the thoroughfare, this quiet and peaceful place overlooking the river is one of the true gems of this city. Take a moment to admire the breathtaking scenery where the water and the sky merge into an endless bliss. If you are a hopeless romantic, you will surely appreciate it. Prolong this moment by taking pictures, stopping for a rest or dining at the nearest tavern.
Another must-see is the Asenevtsi Monument. It was erected back in 1985 to commemorate the armed uprising of the brothers Petar and Asen in 1185, which resulted in the liberation of the state from the Byzantine Empire. The impressive monument represents Ivan Asen II, Kaloyan, Petar and Asen on horseback. In the middle is a huge sword which symbolizes the prosperity and power of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Right in this place, they sometimes put on a magnificent 3D mapping light show.
The Wax Museum
Did I mention the city has its own wax museum? A popular tourist attraction where history comes to life, the Tsarevgrad Turnov Multimedia Visitor Center showcases a selection of sculptures recreating memorable events and famous people from the Second Bulgarian Empire. 29 magnificent wax pieces are on display, featuring Tsar Ivan Assen II and Tsar Kaloyan. Take a trip back in time and feel the authentic atmosphere. The exhibition is open to visitors Mondays through Sundays all year round. It is located within close proximity to the Tsarevets Fortress.
The houses on the hillside are still very intriguing to me even after all these years. They are arranged in a funny way, overpopulating the hillside. It’s as if they are clinging to the rock. When I look at them, I often wonder how they ended up there. Obviously, someone constructed them, but how did they manage to build anything up those steep and hard-to-reach slopes? And it’s even crazier to think that there are actually people living there. Every single day. I swear some of the houses are situated so close to the edge that the windows oversee nothing but a huge abyss. I don’t even want to think about what happens if you accidentally drop something. Ugh, it’s gone forever.
When Not to Visit the City
While this Bulgarian city is gorgeous throughout all seasons, I have to warn you the best time to go sightseeing is spring and autumn. Let me tell you why.
Avoid going there in summer
When it’s boiling hot outside, that’s not the place you want to be in. And don’t get me wrong, it’s still very beautiful with its surrounding vegetation, interesting architecture, and vintage coffee houses. If you are lucky enough, you will get to see those white puffy clouds, which I like to refer to as the highlights of the sky. But that’s only when the temperatures run in the middle spectrum.
When the scorching heat comes into play, you want to be hundreds of miles away, preferably on the beach, sipping your summer cocktail. Even huge green trees with spreading canopies cannot provide enough shade to save the day. Undeniably, stone plus heat equals unbearable heat. At this point, all you can do is wait for the pouring rains. Summer really has no mercy on the residents.
Do not visit during winter
During winter, the city is still romantic and so fairy, yet hardly walkable, with heavy snowfalls making it impossible to travel. On top of that, ice frequently forms on the ground, transforming the streets into free skating rinks. Not to mention, cold adds to the unpleasant experience. All of the above factors can ruin an otherwise great holiday. Sightseeing in this Bulgarian city is not recommended at this time of the year unless you are very adventurous.
*An allusion to The Tyger by William Blake (I was bold enough to replace the word symmetry with beauty just to fit the context better)
Watch the amazing 3D mapping light show on the Asenevtsi Monument and the gallery in this video.