Tarnovgrad, Tarnovo, Tsarevgrad – “City of the Tsars”. This Bulgarian city had many names throughout the time, till nowadays is known as Veliko Tarnovo. It was once the capital of the mighty Bulgarian Empire (XII – XIV century). An empire whose territory covered much of the Balkans and stretched across three seas – the Black Sea, the Adriatic Sea and the Aegean Sea. With a distance of about 200 km from the capital nowadays, Veliko Tarnovo is easily accessible by a highway and first-class road. It is a particularly wonderful idea to pay it a visit if you are fond of old cities. It is located on the three hills (Tsaravets, Trapezitsa, and Sveta Gora) that are separated by the rounded turns of the beautiful Yantra river.
With a millennium history, this is one of the oldest cities in Bulgaria. If you are wondering “Which place should I visit first in this country?” – wait no more, and give Veliko Tarnovo a green light. Here I would like to share with you my list of top things to see in Veliko Tarnovo.
Visit Tsarevets Fortress
As you have noticed – this is not only the name of one of the hills but also the one of its fortress. It was the main Bulgarian fortification during the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (XII-XIV century) when Tarnovo was the capital. During the Middle Ages, Tsarevets is entirely built up with administrative and residential buildings. The fortification wall is the first to get your attention. The wall is 1100 m long, with a thickness of up to 3.60 m and over 10 m high. Мany defence towers are located along the wall. The main entrance once had 5 consecutive gates, one of which used to have a drawbridge.
The photos you might see before you go there are no match for the feeling you get when you see it for real. You will be able to imagine the guards in front of each one of the gates. You will see in your mind the archers watching from the towers. You will be able to immerse yourself in the medieval atmosphere where warriors load catapults and adjust their crossbows.
If your visit is in the summer, it is a good idea to go to the fortress in the morning. High temperatures during the day could be exhausting. An hour or two would be enough to explore Tsarevets, but don’t forget to bring a bottle of water with you. Another thing to consider is whether to stroll alone or explore with a guide. Personally, for me, the guide would add a lot to the experience, sharing stories that you would otherwise be unlikely to discover.
Patriarchal Cathedral and Royal Palace Complex
Once you’ve entered the stronghold, look at the top of the hill where you will see the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God. The patriarchate, like the royal palace, was once an independent fortress. The original church was built in the XIII and XIV century. The entire building was restored at the end of the XX century. Before you enter, take a moment and enjoy the view the elevation provides. From here you can see much of the city and the surrounding area. The large-scale murals in the interior of the church represent significant personalities and the most important moments of medieval history in Bulgaria. Teofan Sokerov is the chief artist responsible for the murals inside. But it will seem like there is something different. As if the paintings in the church are not like the other churches. Since the patriarchal church is a complete reconstruction, it has not been painted in the church canon.
(Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God)
Continue to the royal palace, which is located directly next to the patriarchal complex. In the palace of the Bulgarian kings lived some of the most famous and significant medieval rulers and their relatives. This is where the history of Bulgaria was once drawn. Because what you will see today are mostly ruins, having a guide with you will help you to imagine the once impressive royal palace complex.
The southeast tower was erected to guard the most vulnerable site of the fortress. The reason the tower has this very name is the fact that Latin Emperor Baldwin I of Constantinople was imprisoned there. At the same place, later Baldwin found his death.
To make the long story short – legends tell how Baldwin rejected the love of the Bulgarian King Kaloyan infidel wife, after which she accused the prisoner of trying to seduce her. Kaloyan failed to contain his anger when he saw his wife in tears and threw Baldwin in the precipice.
Take a stroll through “Samovodska Charshiya”
The ethnographic complex “Samovodska Charshiya” is one of the iconic landmarks of the city. Dozens of renovated and newly built Renaissance houses reveal the former appearance of this merchants’ street. In the past, there were merchants from surrounding villages gathering here, and the street itself became a trading hub. Not long after, many artisans, ateliers and small shops began to open their doors and welcome the people.
(Handmade ceramics on Samovodska Charshiya)
Today it is a wonderful spot where you can pick up a souvenir for your time in the city, as well as a nice place to walk and meet the locals. Samovodska Charshiya is always in my list of top things to see in Veliko Tarnovo
What pops in your mind when you hear “the four horsemen”? I know… just like most of us, you think about the four horsemen of the apocalypse. But that is not what the people mean when you hear them saying these words in the city.
Another thing you should definitely check on your list of things to see in Veliko Tarnovo is the Asenevtsi monument. Dedicated to the kings Assen, Peter, Kaloyan and Assen II, this masterpiece is an astonishing memorial of the Assen dynasty. The monument itself was built in 1985, exactly 800 years after the uprising of the brothers Assen and Peter, which led to the liberation of Bulgaria from Byzantine rule. In the middle of the composition is a giant sword, pointing upwards, as a symbol of the power and glory of medieval Bulgaria. The easiest way to get there is through the Stambolov Bridge. And because it would be a few extra kilometers, a bit further I will give you an alternative idea, from where you can see the monument.
Take a break
If at some point you feel tired and you need a break, do not wait and find my favourite spot for a refreshing drink in Veliko Tarnovo. “Shtastliveca” restaurant is a charming place with a breathtaking view. It will charge your batteries with its unique atmosphere. From the terrace of the restaurant, before your eyes will be revealed a panoramic view, in the center of which you will find the Asenevtsi monument. It will charge your batteries with its unique atmosphere.
(A view from the restaurant’s terrace)
You can find it on – “79 Stefan Stambolov Str.”, you can thank me later. Since it is a favourite of both me and many locals, it is a good idea to have a reservation. And try to answer one question: Whether the view complements the restaurant or the other way around?
By the end of the day, you will have gone through millennia of history. Stories of great rulers will be captured in your mind. Stories about love and passion. Stories of wars and betrayals. If you want to know more about Bulgaria, click here and find other amazing locations in the country. As we will all agree, memories are the most important thing when travelling. Well … memories and experiences. And you will have them all when you visit Veliko Tarnovo. You now have an idea of what to see and what to do in the city, but keep in mind that there is much more. Exploring the area, you will find your own discoveries.