When you plan a journey to Bulgaria there are some places that you will see on almost every list: Sofia, Plovdiv, Belogradchik, Magura Cave and Veliko Tarnovo, just to mention a few of them. Today I will talk about Veliko Tarnovo in particular. Whether it comes to the Veliko Tarnovo castle, its surroundings or how to get there: I will try to cover as much as possible to make your trip to Bulgaria in the future more comfortable. But before I will tell you everything you need to know for your trip from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo, here are some random facts about Veliko Tarnovo:
- Veliko Tarnovo was founded more than 5’000 years ago.
- The first tourist hut in Bulgaria was built there in 1922.
- The rate of unemployment in the Veliko Tarnovo region is extremely low – especially compared to the European Union.
- The city is the biggest producer of plastic bags in Bulgaria.
- In 2013, 450’000 tourists visited Veliko Tarnovo.
Table of Contents
- 1 What to do in Veliko Tarnovo?
- 2 Transportation from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo
- 3 Best time to visit Veliko Tarnovo
- 4 Hotels in Veliko Tarnovo
- 5 Conclusion
What to do in Veliko Tarnovo?
To be completely honest, Veliko Tarnovo is clearly dominated by its Tsarevets Fortress, which is by far the most famous landmark of the city and yet alone worth visiting. However, there are also some other interesting sights that you should have on your radar.
So let’s just start with the Veliko Tarnovo Castle or also called Tsarevets Fortress. The medieval stronghold is built on a hill next to the city and served as the primary fortress during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1393) and is like I mentioned, the main tourist attraction of Veliko Tarnovo. In 1393 the Ottoman Empire conquered the Fortress and eventually burnt it down on 17th July. Therefor Tsarevets Fortress is a symbol of the fall of the Bulgarian Empire. Yet the fortress is not only an attraction because of its history, but also due to its impressive size and architecture. Sometimes it is even called the “Great Walls of Bulgaria”. The whole area includes a tremendous 4’872 square meters. On top of the hill, you can see the remarkable cathedral, which was reconstructed in 1981. During the Middle Ages, there were several buildings (over 400), churches (over 20) and 4 monasteries, that were explored by archeologists. For me, Veliko Tarnovo was an impressive place – something I’ve never seen before. In general, tourists love to visit impressive castles and fortresses, such as the world-famous Neuschwanstein castle in Germany. In my opinion, Veliko Tarnovo is one of the most spectacular pieces of architecture you can see in Europe. Though it is still pretty unknown nowadays.
Entrance: 6 Bulgarian Lev
Cliff of death
While I was walking around the area I also heard about the “Cliff of Death”, often called “Execution Rock” – which made me curious. Eventually, I found the cliff, on the opposite side of the entrance, and was impressed. It is a perfect location to take dramatic pictures if you have a drone in your photography equipment. It is basically an outcropping rock over the Yantra river which was (surprise, surprise!) used to execute traitors. They were pushed over the cliff and fell into the river. Pretty scary to be honest. If you are thinking about what to do in Veliko Tarnovo I would definitely add this place to your list.
Sadly this is something I couldn’t experience myself! Especially during summer time (but also for some other occasions), there are audiovisual light shows that lighten the fortress with lasers, lights and dramatic music. I saw some pictures of it and would love to see it! For upcoming events and pictures, you can check out their website with timetables.
Visiting the city
The term “visiting the city” is pretty unspecific – but it’s hard to nail it down better. The town of Veliko Tarnovo is like a surprise box: You don’t know really know what you’ll get. It could be amazing or disappointing. While walking or driving around in Veliko Tarnovo you will see some beautiful corners, but also some buildings in a really bad state. To witness the full potential of the city I’d recommend doing a guided walking tour, as there is a lot of history and street art to see that you will probably not find on your own.
This name sounds quite funny to me because it sounds similar to the German word “Gurke”, which means cucumber. I don’t know why I told you this to be honest, but let’s head to the more important parts: What is the Gurko Street? It’s a street that is located on a hill and also overlooks the river. The charming and old houses next to it seem to cling to the rocks. A very picturesque place, which I unfortunately just explored after my trip. If you head here on your trip and take a nice picture you can let me know and I will happily include it here.
I personally didn’t visit any of the museums in Veliko Tarnovo, because we arrived there quite late. However, there are some interesting options that you could take:
- Archaeological Museum (6 Lev)
- Museum of the Bulgarian Revival (6 Lev)
- Multimedia Wax Museum (10 Lev)
- Museum of Prison (6 Lev)
This is just a small selection, actually, there are quite a few museums. You can find more on this website. If you are interested in the history of this place or Bulgaria itself they are probably a great choice. However, you also have great options to do this before you came from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo.
Actually, this place is just some minutes away from the Tsarevets Fortress itself and there are two options to get there. You can just hike your way up or take a new built inclined lift which will bring you on top of this little hill. In contrast to the other fortress, you will have the chance to visit a modern visitors center with information and some exhibitions in English. However, the fortress is not as well preserved as Tsarevets Fortress and much smaller. Due to its location, surrounded by the Yantra river on three sides, it is still a nice place to visit. If you have the time you should definitely check it out – if not, the Tsarevets Fortress is, in my opinion, the better choice.
Entrance: 6 Lev (+10 Lev for the lift)
This place was a market square in the second half of the 19th century, where locals came to sell their home-grown products. Around the 1980’s the whole place was restored to become more modern and a new marketplace for the 20th century. Nowadays you can find various workshops (weapons, pottery, and more), Turkish sweets like in Istanbul and an old-school bakery in the lovely and beautifully renovated houses.
Transportation from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo
Getting around Bulgaria can be quite a challenge sometimes – you will probably know what I mean if you already read about my other trip to Belogradchik and the Magura Caves. Yet, the way from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo is not that hard – and you have numerous great options to choose from.
This is by far the easiest way to reach Veliko Tarnovo from Sofia. At least in my opinion. You can rent a car in Sofia and just drive for around three hours on Bulgarian highways. Like on all Bulgarian streets you have to be careful with the street conditions (there might be potholes), the trucks that lead to big traffic lines and some of the really aggressive drivers. But don’t be afraid – if you drive carefully you will not have a problem at all. You can take the same highway on your way back which makes this trip a perfect day trip.
With a guided tour
From Sofia, you can join some tours that will bring you to Veliko Tarnovo and Arbanasi, a picturesque village known for its rich history, by bus. All you have to do is paying the fee, which is around 100$ and you will be picked up from your hotel in the morning and brought back in the evening. In this kind of tours, all the entrance fees are included and you will have an English speaking guide that tells you more about the history and facts of those places. This is for sure a great option if you don’t want to plan much and have a relaxing time on a bus rather than driving a car yourself. You basically don’t have to worry about anything. You can book one of these tours right here. One of the drawbacks of the guided tours is that you have less flexibility – you can’t stay longer at a place if you like it – because the tour has a schedule that it will follow.
To travel from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo by public transport is absolutely possible and cheap – however, I didn’t trust them that much in the beginning. There are daily buses running from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo which will take between three to four hours. Luckily there is more than one company running this connection. You can find a timetable of one of them here. From what I heard and read from locals and some internet forums the buses operate fast and are really reliable.
The second option is taking a train from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo, which is not really recommended, as it takes you much longer than a bus – somewhat between four to six hours. If you still consider it you can check your connections on this website.
Private tour or taxi
This option is only a good idea if money doesn’t matter to you. You can take a private tour guide with you and pay him. Or even just take a taxi to Veliko Tarnovo. Yet, this will be really pricey and is basically a waste of money and I don’t recommend doing it. It is possible though! (You’d rather donate the money to me and buy a bus ticket though :P)
Best time to visit Veliko Tarnovo
Veliko Tarnovo is accessible during the whole year – and in my opinion also worth a visit during all seasons. During the winter months (December-February) it can be quite cold and also snowy. Not a reason to skip Veliko Tarnovo though if you stay in Bulgaria! On the other hand the two peak months in summer – July and August – can have extremely hot temperatures. In combination with the lack of shadow inside the fortress, this can be a deadly combination. In a nutshell I’d say that you can visit Veliko Tarnovo during the whole year, however, the peak seasons both have their disadvantages. Definitely keep an eye on the light shows that I mentioned at the beginning of the article, as they would add something special to your trip.
Hotels in Veliko Tarnovo
Once again I have to tell you that Bulgaria is a paradise when it comes to accommodation. You can find amazing and cheap hotels or hostels in every city. This also applies to the hotels in Veliko Tarnovo. I made a short list of three suggestions for every budget for you. These are some of the best-rated places to stay in Veliko Tarnovo: [Prices based on my own research in February 2018]
- Perfect hostel for solo travelers [15$]: Rooster Hostel
- Best price-value in Veliko Tarnovo [37$]: Guest Rooms Tsarevets
- Luxurious 4-star hotel in the center [83$]: Yantra Grand Hotel
When I stayed in Sofia for some days I was not sure if I should take the time to visit Veliko Tarnovo. If I knew what exactly I can expect I would change my mind completely: It is so much worth it! You definitely don’t do a mistake when you make a trip from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo and will not only experience one of the most impressive fortresses on this planet but also really interesting parts of Bulgarian history. It is also a great option if you plan to continue to Romania, as Bucharest is just 160 kilometers away from Veliko Tarnovo. I really enjoyed my trip there and also made some images I’m quite happy about. If you’re interested in seeing more images from my trip to Bulgaria be sure to check out my Facebook and Instagram page.
Have you been to Veliko Tarnovo or Bulgaria? How did you like it? Let me know in the comments!