Although it’s not a particularly large city, there are plenty of things to do in Veliko Tarnovo. People sometimes call it the “City of the Tsars” because it used to be the medieval capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire.
This is one of Bulgaria’s most exciting cities, drawing in many tourists with its impressive architecture, castles, museums and historic sites. Especially history lovers will have a field day in this centuries-old city in north-central Bulgaria.
Bulgaria has a few great cities, most notably the capital city Sofia and Plovdiv. Veliko Tarnovo, however, is right up there. Its Old Town, medieval architecture, as well as beautiful natural scenery, make it one of the top Bulgaria cities to visit.
Where Is Veliko Tarnovo?
Situated in an area where the Yantra River twists and turns its way through the north-central Bulgarian landscape, it’s home to a magnificent Old Town, which is spread out across three different hills.
- Tsarevets: home to mighty Tsarevets Fortress, palaces and a cathedral, as well as residential houses and fortified walls.
- Trapezitsa: location of the remnants of Trapezitsa Fortress and numerous churches, and a great museum.
- Sveta Gora (literally “Holy Mountain”): wooded hill south of Tsarevets and Trapezitsa, a medieval religious center and now a public park.
From Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo, it’s 220 kilometers to the east or about 3 hours by car. Located 210 kilometers northeast of Plovdiv, you can get from Plovdiv to Veliko Tarnovo in approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes.
Top Things To Do In Veliko Tarnovo
The Old Town and surrounding hills are where you’ll find the majority of the top sights in Veliko Tarnovo. Filled with tourist highlights, it’s a pleasant place to explore on foot.
Admire Tsarevets Fortress
During the two centuries when Veliko Tarnovo was the Second Bulgarian Empire’s capital, Tsarevets Fortress was the most important of all castles in Bulgaria. Perched atop Tsarevets Hill, this glorious stronghold is incredibly preserved. It’s without question one of the absolute top things to see in Veliko Tarnovo and a major tourist attraction in Bulgaria.
Tsarevets Fortress is home to fortified walls, the medieval palace of the Bulgarian kings and the patriarchal complex with its library, monks’ cells, scriptorium, and Patriarchal Cathedral St. Ascension, the “mother of all Bulgarian churches.”
Additionally, this vast fortress also comprised more than 400 residential houses, about 20 churches, and four monasteries.
Watch The Evening Sound And Light Show
One of the most popular tourist attractions in Veliko Tarnovo is the “Tsarevgrad Turnov Sound & Light Show.” This spectacular show combines dramatic music, chiming church bells, laser beams and multi-colored lights to tell the story of Bulgaria’s eventful past.
The show is held year-round and takes place in rain or shine. It doesn’t, however, take place every single day. So, you either have to be lucky to see it during your visit or plan your visit around show dates. This audiovisual spectacle is free on public holidays, while there’s also an option to book private viewings for a fee. Free shows can be watched from Tsar Asen I Square right in front of the Tsarevets Fortress main gate.
You can find a full overview of the Veliko Tarnovo Sound and Light show program here.
Stroll Through Gurko Street
Named in commemoration of a Russian General with the elaborate name of Iosif Vladimirovich Romeyko-Gurko, who liberated Veliko Tarnovo in 1877 during the Russo-Turkish War, Gurko Street is one of the prettiest streets in the Old Town.
Numerous gorgeous old buildings line this historic paved and cobbled street. It makes for a wonderful stroll and offers glimpses of the Yantra River along which it runs.
Watch Craftspeople At Work At Samodovska Charshia Market
One of the most fun places to visit in Veliko Tarnovo is the Samodovska Charshia Market. This historic marketplace is where local farmers sold their products and produce in the late-19th century. As the market grew more extensive, it spread through cobbled Rakovski Street, eventually encompassing many inns, bakeries and traditional craft workshops.
The area was renovated dramatically in the 1980s, recreating the bustling vibe of its heyday a century earlier. Now, the marketplace consists of beautifully restored houses, which house various workshops for everything from pottery and wood carving to weaving, painting, copper working and knife making.
See The Asen Dynasty Monument
After leading an uprising against the Byzantine rulers in the late-12th century, the three brothers Peter, Ivan and Kaloyan Asen founded a mighty dynasty in Bulgaria.
They would rule the country for several decades; a time now referred to as the Second Bulgarian Empire.
While first calling themselves Emperor, they’d later change their title to Tsar. Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of their realm.
The Asen Dynasty Monument was erected in 1985, celebrating 800 years since the brothers designated the city as their capital. Overlooking the Old Town and the Yantra River, the monument is a huge sword surrounded by statues of the first four Asen rulers.
From the Asen Dynasty Monument, there’s a fantastic view of the Old Town with its building-covered hillsides.
Take The Cable Car To Trapezitsa
Across the Yantra River from Tsarevets lies Trapezitsa Hill, home to the second medieval fortress in Veliko Tarnovo. Unlike Tsarevets, however, it’s mainly in ruins.
While once an imposing structure, described as the “glorious city of Trapezitsa” in medieval texts, the area now encompasses ruined and partially renovated buildings, most notably numerous churches.
There’s also the Trapezitsa Architectural Heritage Center and Museum. Established quite recently, this museum exhibits the fascinating history of this once-fortified hill. The museum lies near the upper station of the cable car, which is a super-fun way to ascend this beautiful hill north of the Veliko Tarnovo Old Town.
Visit The Transfiguration Monastery
Situated only 7 kilometers north of the city center, a visit to the Transfiguration Monastery is one of the best things to do in Veliko Tarnovo. This Eastern Orthodox monastery lies in the Yantra River’s Dervent gorge.
Although historians aren’t 100% when exactly it was founded, many agree that it must’ve been sometime in the 11th century. Later, in 1360, during the time Veliko Tarnovo was the Second Bulgarian Empire’s capital, the monastery gained autonomy in the order of Tsar Ivan Alexander. The Ottomans later completely destroyed it, but donations allowed father Zoticus of the Rila Monastery to rebuild it in 1825.
Nowadays, the Transfiguration Monastery is famous for its colorful icons, frescoes, and murals, as well as other lavish decorations.
Veliko Tarnovo Churches
As such an ancient city in a very religious country, Veliko Tarnovo is home to numerous churches, most of them either medieval or Bulgarian Renaissance. You’ll notice church spires all over the city—these are the three most significant churches in Veliko Tarnovo.
Holy Forty Martyrs Church
Its construction commissioned by Tsar Ivan Asen II, the Holy Forty Martyrs Church commemorates the tsar’s victory against the Epirus king Theodor Comnenus in 1230. Over the following decades and centuries, the church became the setting of several significant events.
For example, at least two Bulgarian tsars are buried here—Tsar Kaloyan and Tsar Ivan Asen II and his wife. Another significant event was the proclamation of Bulgarian independence in 1908, which took place in this church.
Church Of Demetrius Of Thessaloniki
One of the most historic churches in Veliko Tarnovo, the Church of Demetrius also has strong historical ties to the rebellion of the Asen brothers. Located on the right bank of the Yantra River, just outside the Trapezitsa fortifications, it’s among the city’s most beautiful large buildings.
However, a powerful earthquake almost completely destroyed it in 1913, leaving only parts of the original frescoes and the apse. Reconstruction took place between 1977 and 1985, so most of the current building is relatively new. The surviving frescoes are, obviously, the greatest treasure in this church.
Patriarchal Cathedral Of The Holy Ascension Of God
The Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God, also known as the Ascension Cathedral, stands atop Tsarevets Hill in the heart of Tsarevets Fortress. Built directly on top of a late-Roman basilica, it used to be the seat of the patriarch of Bulgaria from the late-11th century until the Ottomans destroyed it 1393.
Although the church’s ruins have been a national monument since 1927, it wasn’t until 1978, however, that renovation works finally began. The reconstruction was finalized in 1981, which marked the 1,300th anniversary of Bulgaria. Opened to the public in 1985, it’s now one of the best things to do in Veliko Tarnovo.
Best Museums In Veliko Tarnovo
By now, you should have a pretty good understanding of the historic and cultural wealth of Veliko Tarnovo. Ancient fortresses and beautiful churches, picturesque streets, and craft shops,… there are plenty of things to do in Veliko Tarnovo. For more detailed information, exhibits and displays, you can visit the following museums.
Sarafkinata Kashta Museum
As Veliko Tarnovo grew into a center for commerce, trade, administration, and the military during the Bulgarian Revival period, lots of new houses sprang up around the city. One of those most beautiful surviving buildings from that era is Sarafkina’s House, constructed in 1861.
Meant to become the residence of wealthy tradesman Dimo Sarafina, he died before it was finished. Built on a steep hillside, it features a fascinating design. The northern façade faces the road and has two stories, while the south side facing the river has no fewer than five stories.
It currently houses a fascinating ethnographic exhibit and offers a beautiful insight into how a well-off family may have lived in 19th-century Bulgaria.
Hadji Nikoli Inn Museum Art Gallery
Built for Hadji Nikoli, a well-known tradesman, in 1858, the Hadji Nikoli Inn is one of Veliko Tarnovo’s cultural treasures. It’s a masterpiece of Bulgarian Renaissance architecture, a magnificent building that somewhat looks like a palace.
What’s so unique about this historic inn is that it’s the only surviving one of the 70 inns that once dotted this old city. Beautifully restored, it now houses a wine bar, restaurant, café, museum, and an art gallery. It’s arguably the most important historic house in Veliko Tarnovo, a fantastic spot to grab some traditional Bulgarian food and learn more about the city’s rich history.
With its numerous ruins and historic buildings, Veliko Tarnovo has enormous cultural riches. One of the best places in Veliko Tarnovo to explore local history is the Archaeological Museum. It retraces the 1,000-year-old history of the city and region, with a strong focus on the Second Bulgarian Empire.
There are, however, also exhibits focusing on prehistory and millennia-old artifacts, Antiquity, Roman and Byzantine times.
Museum Of The Bulgarian Revival And Constituent Assembly
Housed in the old Turkish “konak,” the seat of Turkish authorities, the Museum of the Bulgarian Revival and Constituent Assembly showcases the evolution of Christian art during the Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria.
There are numerous icons, wood carvings and other works of art. Another part of the exhibition focuses on the economic development of Veliko Tarnovo, most notably on craftsmanship. You’ll find various items related the crafts like goldsmithing, leather-making, pottery, and blacksmithing. Additionally, the second floor houses documents and objects retracing the local struggle for independence during Ottoman rule.
Finally, on the third floor is the restored Constituent Assembly hall, the very place where the first Bulgarian Constitution was written and signed. In 1879, that was.
Best Day Trips From Veliko Tarnovo
Set in a beautiful landscape in north-central Bulgaria, the city is also a great starting point for a handful of amazing day trips. If you have some time left after visiting all Veliko Tarnovo attractions listed above, you can rent a car and visit one or more of the destinations below.
Roman Ruins Of Nicopolis Ad Istrum
In the village of Nikyup, just 20 kilometers north of Veliko Tarnovo, you’ll find the Roman ruins of Nicopolis ad Istrum. Founded by Roman Emperor Trajan in the first decade of the 2nd century, it grew into a thriving Roman and the early-Byzantine town under Hadrian, the Antonines and the Severan dynasty.
Its location is no coincidence, though. Nicopolis was on the crossroads of the two main roads in the Danubian Roman provinces, a major strategic point. The town expanded greatly and over time became fortified and contained numerous houses, religious buildings, and workshops.
Visitors can explore the ruins of this once-bustling Roman town, a hotspot for people fascinated by Roman history in northern Bulgaria.
The gorgeous Krushuna Waterfalls are about 80 kilometers to the northwest of Veliko Tarnovo, near the village of Krushuna and Krushuna National Park. They’re a super-popular destination because of their setting amid lush woodland scenery and travertine pools and cascades, which are so characteristic of the Balkans. Famous examples of those are Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia and the Kravica Waterfall in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A hiking trail leads to the cave where the springs are located.
Located near the Krushuna Waterfalls, the Devetashka Cave is the perfect addition to the falls. Together, they make for one of the best Veliko Tarnovo day trips. The cave is about 2 kilometers from the village of Devetaki—a narrow trail leads from the village to the cave.
Part of a public part, the Devetashka Cave is a couple of kilometers long and features stalactites, stalagmites, imposing natural halls and speleothems. Several large holes in the ceiling allow sunlight to enter the cave, beautifully illuminating the interior.
Although it’s technically a part of the Veliko Tarnovo municipality, the village of Arbanasi has so much to offer that it deserves at least a full afternoon. It’s only 4 kilometers from the city center but set on a high plateau; it’s definitely its own community.
This is a top-rated attraction near Veliko Tarnovo, renowned for its numerous historic monuments, churches dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, and wonderful Bulgarian Revival buildings. Major highlights include the Church of the Nativity of Christ, the Church of Saints Archangels Michael and Gabriel, Arbanasi Palace, Hadzhi Iliya’s House, and the Monastery of Saint Nicholas.
Central Balkan National Park
An hour and 30 minutes by car southwest of Veliko Tarnovo, Central Balkan National Park provides a fantastic opportunity to explore Bulgaria’s natural scenery. Situated in the middle of the country, it occupies the central and highest parts of the Balkan Mountains. It’s the third largest protected area in Bulgaria and one of the largest in Europe, about 85 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide on average.
This magnificent park also encompasses nine nature reserves, whose ancient beech forests are part of UNESCO’s Primeval Beech Forests World Heritage Site. You’re in for some of the best hiking, cycling, and horseback riding in the Balkans when you visit this national park. Wildlife watching is also particularly great here, the park being home to wolves, wild goats, otters, royal eagles, and various other alpine birds. There are sheer rock cliffs, impressive waterfalls, wooded valleys, grassy mountain ridges, and empty peaks.
Now you know all the top attractions and things to do in Veliko Tarnovo, which will you tick off first?