Some travel destinations grab you and never let you go. Those amazing places, through a mystery I can’t explain, put a spell on you and have you return time and time again. For me, Veliko Tarnovo, a mountain resort in Bulgaria, is one of those places. It gained its fame in medieval times as the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Spread over three hills– Tsarevets, Trapezitsa, and Sveta Gora– and overlooking the Yantra river, the “City of Tsars” greets you with beautiful landscapes, friendly people, and amazing food. The architecture, street art, and shopping just add to the overall atmosphere that is unique to Veliko.
My first drive through Veliko was on an eventful night – my first time driving the Mushroom (that’s my car) abroad. We were driving through Bulgaria on our way to Istanbul where we were going to spend New Year’s Eve. We stopped at a beautiful hotel for a quick break and an attempt to get directions. I remember thinking I’d love to come back and explore Veliko Tarnovo during the day. And so I did, years later, a few times. Just to make sure, you know! And just to be extra sure I am thorough, I plan to go again. If you’re wondering why you should visit (and why I can’t seem to stop going there), here are my top reasons to book a trip to Veliko Tarnovo right now:
Rich History and Culture
Famous for being the capital of a medieval Bulgarian empire that lasted for about three centuries, Veliko Tarnovo was one of the cultural centers of Europe during that time. The painting and architecture style of the Tarnovo Artistic School are world renowned, and so were the literary masterpieces created here. The buildings, in the old part of town, the fortress overlooking Veliko, they will all mesmerize you. I particularly love walking on the narrow, cobbled streets of the city in the evening, after a delicious dinner. If you travel in the summer, there are gelato stands everywhere. And the gelato sold here is to die for! Cheap too, just so you can’t help yourself.
Great Hotels that Won’t Break the Bank
Hotels in Veliko come in all shapes, locations, and sizes. Some of them are exquisite, the boutique hotels are boldly decorated, and the larger ones will take you on a trip down Communist memory lane. They are all comfortable, breakfasts are usually included in your room rate, and prices are more than reasonable, even during high season. It’s not that difficult to find a double room for around EUR 50 at any time and with as little as two days’ advance booking. Yup, did that a time or two, booked last minute. My favorite hotel is Concorde. I’ve booked it numerous times because of the red or purple decor in their VIP rooms. The Jacuzzi tubs, complementary champagne, and the Mojitos at the top floor bar might have also played a part in that decision.
Lick-Your-Fingers Delicious Food
Restaurants in Veliko Tarnovo are simply magnificent! The local dishes, anything else they cook from other European or Turkish cuisines, it’s just all so delicious, lunch and dinner should both happen a few times a day. The food is cheap, even at the higher priced restaurants. I once went there on a trip around my birthday and took three friends out for a meal. The price for a the whole deal (two courses for each of us, and lots of drinks) was about EUR 40. The local beer is also amazing.
When it comes to restaurants, I do have an absolute favorite – Shtastlivetsa. I know, I know, hard to pronounce!It’s on the main street, as you walk from the city hall towards the fortress, on your right. I remember being amazed by the amount of dishes on their menu. There were two pages of salads (about fourty different types), traditional Bulgarian dishes (including lots of guvech varieties which they served in a still sizzling pan), Italian dishes, French treats, and every type of vegetable and meat you can think of. And their garlic bread? To die for, I tell you 😀 Wash it all down with Zagorka for a taste of local beer, and you’ll have a perpetual smile on your face. Just be aware that some dishes might take a while, especially when the restaurant is full. They have a couple of floor inside, plus the terrace, so you might end up waiting for over an hour. Either go after lunch/dinner rush, or go before you reach the “I’m starving” point.
Veliko Tarnovo’s Dramatic Landscapes
Whether you visit the citadel, look down on the city from the many vantage points, or simply drive around, you’ll be mesmerized. You’re surrounded by mountains to start with, and the river and three hills that make up Veliko’s location further build on the scenery to take your breath away. The season doesn’t really make much difference. There’s always something beautiful to catch your eye.
I won’t be caught dead driving in Bulgaria during winter again, but it makes for a true snowy wonderland. My reason to avoid it? Well, let’s just say I drove through a freaking blizzard on my way back from Istanbul one year and it was a bit traumatic. Enough so that I avoid driving when it snows at all costs. So, my advice? Forget how gorgeous it all looks, don’t drive unless you are an expert in blizzards in the mountains. Fly in and take a bus or something.
The Street Art
You blink, and new street art pops up. Or at least it seems so, as with every visit to Veliko Tarnovo, there’s more street art to discover. And I mean art, big endeavors that always have me stop in my tracks to admire them. No random tags or spray painted names, but beautiful drawings adorning the walls of buildings, passages, and stairways. Unfortunately, I managed to lose quite a few snapshots of Veliko’s amazing street art. Not all of them though!
I love shopping in Veliko Tarnovo. You’ll find anything, from international brands like Hush Puppies, Dika, Nike, or Adidas (it is a Slavic, ex-Communist country after all, we love our Adidas stripes!), to local chain or artisan shops (leather work, handmade cosmetics, handmade jewelry, etc) that are perfect to hunt for a souvenir. The prices, as for everything in this city, are reasonable. Hunt for discounts if you can, and take your time discovering the local and imported brands.
Of course, there are bars, clubs, parks, and lots of monuments to explore as well, and those I’ve listed are just the top reasons to give Veliko Tarnovo a go. For a bit of a fun fact, you’ll spot a lot of nice looking cars and bikes on weekends, especially if there are weddings happening. They park in front of city hall, and then make a ruckus on the main streets. And teenage girls seemed to favor the same frizzy, big hair do for a few years in a row. It was quite heartwarming to come back to familiar places and people, and now that I’ve talked about it, I really, really need to go back! Who’s coming with me?
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