Veliko Tarnovo (Bulgarian: Велико Търново, also romanized as Veliko Turnovo) is a historic city in the central-north of Bulgaria notable for its medieval ruins and its picturesque cityscape - it was built on the steep banks of the Yantra river as it snakes through the foothills of the Balkan Mountains. In the middle ages, Tarnovo was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396) and the partially restored ruins of the Tsarevets Fortress are the main sight of the city. Today, it's an university town with a population of about 66 thousand and the administrative centre of the eponymous region.
A town with very rich history, Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire and has long traditions in the culture of Bulgaria. The city is rich in museums and historical sites, combined with vivacious night life propelled by the students in one of the largest universities in Bulgaria. It is located around a major bend in the Yantra River that carved steep hillsides on which the Old Town is built. The Old Town is separated into 3 hills: Tsarevets, Trapezitsa, and Sveta Gora, while the New Town spills out into a flatter region to the west of the hills.
The first syllable of the city's name is pronounced similar to "turn" in English, with a hard R - TURN-ovo rather than TAHR-novo, as the romanized form of the name would suggest. The "Tarnovo" spelling is a result of the somewhat controversial official transliteration system that conflates two separate Bulgarian vowels, 'а' and 'ъ', into a single Latin letter - 'a'. In older sources in English, the name is rendered as Trnovo, Tirnovo, or even Tirnova. The likely origin of the name is the Slavic root for "thorn". The appellation Veliko ("Great") was added to the city's name in 1965, partially as a reference to its glorious past, partially to distinguish it from Malko Tarnovo ("Small Tarnovo") in South-Eastern Bulgaria. Journalists and people who write tourist materials sometimes use the nickname "'the City of the Tsars" ("tsar" being the Slavic title equivalent to "king").
Although Veliko Tarnovo's Gorna Oryahovitsa airport 4 km away is not open to passenger air traffic (it is possible to arrange private aircraft landings there), it is possible to fly to Bulgaria's capital city Sofia, or the coastal city of Varna and then by rail or modern coach to Veliko Tarnovo.
Veliko Tarnovo is one of the major stops on Line 4, which runs north-south from Ruse on the Danube to Stara Zagora in Southern Bulgaria, crossing the Balkan Mountains. Veliko Tarnovo is also very close to Gorna Oryahovitsa (less than 10 km (6.2 mi)), a smaller town known mostly as the junction between that line and the Sofia-Varna line, which runs east-west along the whole length of Northern Bulgaria, from the capital to the Black Sea.
It's possible to get to Veliko Tarnovo by rail from both Romania and Turkey. Between June and September, the Bosphorus Express international overnight train runs between Bucharest and Istanbul, once daily in each direction (about 21 hr end-to-end). From Bucharest, it departs from the Bucuresti Nord station, crosses the border at Ruse, and takes about 7 hr to Veliko Tarnovo; from Istanbul, it departs from the Halkalı station (not Istanbul's central station!), passes through Çerkezköy and Edirne, and takes about 14 hr to Veliko Tarnovo. Another option for Bucharest is buying a ticket to Gorna Oryahovitsa on the Bucharest-Sofia train (also once daily Jun-Sep). Off-season, rail travel requires changing trains at the border crossings.
Many national trains to Veliko Tarnovo require changing at Gorna Oryahovitsa; in that case, it can be more convenient to just buy a ticket to that town and then take a bus, minibus or taxi from Gorna Oryahovitsa station to Veliko Tarnovo. Assuming that your destination is the tourist information centre on Mother Bulgaria Sqr (ploshtad Mayka Bulgaria), the most direct route is almost exactly 11 km (6.8 mi) long and the taxi fare should be between 8 and 14 лв.
- 1 Train Station (Zhe Pe Gara, ЖП Гара). A smart yellow building, dating back to the year 1900. Due to the mountainous terrain, Veliko Tarnovo's station is awkwardly located in the outskirts of the city. You can get a taxi to the centre of town; keep in mind that most, if not all Bulgarian taxis do not accept credit cards. There's a bus stop 50 m (160 ft) east of the station, at the corner where the exit of the station's parking lot merges into a larger road, next to a small restaurant. There are buses at least every 20 minutes, and they cost 3 лв. (Outdated?) You should have small money with you. A bus ride to center takes about 10–15 minutes.
- 2 Railway Ticket Bureau, 19 Stefan Stambolov Str (on the main street of the Old Town; inconspicuous ground floor office right next door to a conspicuous "sex shop" with red signs). M-F 08:00-12:00, 13:00-16:45. If you want to leave the country by train: international train tickets are sold only in this office, instead of at the train station. There you can also get tickets/reserved seats in advance for national trains, in case you don't want to go all the way down to the train station. Cash only.
One of the main roads in Bulgaria runs through the city, so car transport is not a problem to and from the city. Since the town is located relatively in the centre of Bulgaria, it is quite comfortable to stop there for an hour to rest and get a glimpse of the sights.
Driving into and in the New Town is easy, but the roads in the Old Town are smaller, windier, and weren't designed for modern auto traffic, so it'll be easier to travel in the Old Town on foot. Also, you can't drive directly into the Old Town without first driving through the New Town. Bulgarian highway E85 tunnels under the old town as it follows the Yantra River, but it doesn't have direct access to Veliko Tarnovo at the tunnels.
Busses run approximately hourly from Sofia. Several buses daily run from Plovdiv north bus station (18 лв) and from Varna. The small bus station is ~1 km from the centre of town so arrange pickup during winter. The ticket for the busses, departing from Sofia to Tarnovo, costs about 25 лв. The Biomet coach tickets can be bought online (english website).
There are two minibuses per day to and from Plovdiv. They depart from Bus Station North in Plovdiv at 08:30 and 16:30, and take around four hours. Drop off is on the western edge of Veliko Tarnovo at a somewhat unofficial bus station.
Walking is the best way to see Veliko Tarnovo. The town is fairly large but everywhere is within easy reach including attractions such as Tsarevets, the medieval stronghold. In the Old Town, walking is preferable since the roads weren't designed for modern transportation and are cramped and curvy.
By public transport
Since Veliko Tarnovo is not that large, you'll probably never use it. Buses run from 07:00 till 21:00 with frequency of rides varying between 20 and 60 minutes. Buses #20, #50 and #40 go to Tsarevets. Bus 10 connects the city with Gorna Oryahovica railway station (but mini-buses are preferable). Virtually all bus lines go through the city center. Tickets can be purchased only in the bus from a conductor. The ticket is valid only for the current ride and cost 3 лв in 2023.
Taxis in Veliko Tarnovo are yellow and can be caught on the streets by waiving a hand or can be called. The passenger is charged 1.98 лв initial fee, and 0.60 лв per kilometer afterwards. In general, a trip within the city limits shouldn't cost more than 3.5-4 лв. Overall this means of transport is very reliable.
Although Veliko Tarnovo is generally a calm city, transportation by car could be very complicated due to the frequent traffic reorganisations. The maximum admissible speed within the city limits is 50 km/h.
The city is divided into an old and new parts. The old city is a collection of traditional renaissance houses scattered over the hills around the river Yantra and the new part consists of a mixture of communistic and modern style buildings.
If in Veliko Tarnovo, make sure to visit the castle of the old Bulgarian capital - Tsarevets. The medieval stronghold located on a hill of the same name, served as the Second Bulgarian Empire's primary fortress and strongest bulwark from 1185 to 1393. Housing the royal and the patriarchal palaces, it is a popular tourist attraction. The castle itself offers spectacular views of the town, surrounding hillsides, and the river below. The Tower of Baldwyn (also Baldwin Tower) within the complex allows for tourists to climb to the top and offers both spectacular views and an insight into how medieval towers wer designed and how they functioned.
Since most of the touristy old town (including both fortresses) is on a natural choke point caused by the Yantra, that part will feel more cramped and crowded with tourists, and anyone looking to see a less-touristed old town should go to the western half, where the city opens up. The only problem with this is that most of the museums and monuments are located in the choke point, and most of the western half is residential, but both parts still offer great insights to old medieval European towns.
There are various historical museums, located in Old Town, and an art museum on an island in the river. Nearby Arbanassi on the hilltop 4 km away is also worth a visit, a taxi will cost about 3-4 лв.
Right around where the old part widens, there is a large Monument to Mother Bulgaria, which commemorates Veliko Tarnovo's history as the former capital of the Bulgarian state.
Bars and restaurants worth visiting:
- Malkia Inter, Ivan Vazov 22 sr. Local cuisine, run by a nice family. It is cosy with lovely and interesting decor of a lot of musical instruments. Tasty food and inexpensive/
- Ego Bar and Grill. National and foreign cuisine, cheap prices. There are three "Ego" restaurants, at 17, Nezavisimost St., at 1, Slaveykov Square, and at the 3rd floor of Central Mall.
- Pizza Tempo, 4, Ivailo St. Pizza and national cuisine. Cheap prices.
- Shtastliveca, 79, Stefan Stambolov St. A menu with mainly Bulgarian dishes, and a nice view of Yantra River.
- Ethno, Stephan Stombolov St (near 'Shtastliveca' Restaurant). A mixture of Bulgarian and foreign dishes is on the menu.
- Hadji Nikoli Inn, 19, G.S. Rakovski St, Samovodska Charshia. Housed in a beautifully renovated old inn, this fine dining restaurant with Bulgarian cuisine on the menu offers home-made wine. Also doubles as a cafe (with an open air section) and a wine bar. Affordable prices.
- Bulgarian Lessons, Lioben Karvavelov (In the centre of town opposite the outdoor market), email@example.com. A small language school offering Bulgarian lessons by qualified tutors with PhDs who specialise in the teaching of Bulgarian as a second language.
- Free walking tour Veliko Tarnovo, ul. "Hristo Botev" 5 (Tourist Information Center), ☏ . Every day at 11:00hr a free walking tour. No reservation needed, just show up.
- Bulgarian Dances, Veliko Tarnovo internet portal for Bulgarian folk dance clubs and events, firstname.lastname@example.org. A list of all the folk dance clubs and groups in Veliko Tarnovo can be found here. Details on each club, location, rehearsal nights and contact details. The site is only in Bulgarian but has an English language version coming soon
- Cycling. The roads around Veliko Tarnovo are generally in good condition, making for pleasant (if sometimes rather hilly) cycling. A number of monasteries are close enough for cycling day trips. The closest and easiest is Preobruzhenie Monastery, approximately 5 km north-west of Veliko Tarnovo. It is also moderately easy to cycle to Arbanassi, although a few kilometres of climbing and high traffic may put off beginners.
Like many larger cities in Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo has a large regional brewery that produces its own brand of beer - Boliarka (bolyarka, the female form of bolyar, medieval Bulgarian noble/courtier).
- 1 Melon Live Music Club. Nice live music concerts at night time (around 11pm). During summer they do open air concerts in front of the Beaux Arts Museum. 3 лв live music concert.
Veliko Tarnovo offers a wide range of accommodation, from very cheap private rooms and hostels to 4-star hotels that can make you feel like you are in a Western European town or city. There is seemingly something to suit all types of people that are staying in the town.
- Camping Veliko Tarnovo, 70 Vasil Levski Street, Dragizhevo, Lyaskovets, ☏ , (mobile), email@example.com. A great campsite with free Wifi, newly fitted showerblock, fully equipped laundry, tents for rent, sports and leisure facilities, cafe/bar/shop on site. The owners, Nick & Nicky will try to help you with anything you need. You can even get your hair cut on site! Collection service available from Veliko Turnovo. Pitches from €8.
- Hiker's Hostel. Beds from 20 лв per person. Good quiet but central location and lovely view of the fortress. Free pickup service and very helpful English speaking staff. Free internet, Wi-Fi, breakfast.
- Hostel Mostel. 20 лв per person per night for a dorm, 30 лв per person per night for a double en-suite room. Free Internet access and Wi-Fi, free breakfast, and a free light meal and a local beer at night. Very friendly staff, who will do anything for you. Good value day trips available. Can organise tours to various attractions around VT including the infamous Buzludzha monument.
- Hostel Pashov. About 30 лв for twin room (3 rooms available). Friendly owner with free transport to and from the station.
- Rooster Hostel, 2a Kapitan Dyado Nikola Street (at the start of Samovodska Charshia, entrance from the back alley), ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: 13:00, check-out: 11:00. A lovely hostel which has been decorated by a well known Bulgarian interior designer: full of art works and with beautifully decorated rooms. There is a common room and a reasonably well equipped kitchen. Four shared bathrooms. It is immaculately clean and the family running it are really helpful with information and directions. Budget prices even for single/double rooms. The front rooms downstairs look over the town and valley, and upstairs the rooms are attic rooms but very spacious. €10.
- Guesthouse Diel, Rafail Popov str.6, ☏ . Mid range prices by Bulgarian standards, but still cheap. Stay a great small guesthouse (a family business) with very good rooms and have a great breakfast in the garden in the morning. In the same building is an English school for children located, so you might see them or hear the lovely sounds of children who are having a good time. In a few steps you are from the main street. Excellent quality at very affordable prices. The hosts speak Bulgarian, English and Russian. Call for bookings or search the well-known hotel booking sites. 60 лв for 2 persons in a room with bathroom incl. breakfast.
- The White House, St. Vastanicheska 85, ☏ . Mid range prices by Bulgarian standards but still cheap. Stay in large luxury self catering apartments close to Veliko Turnovo in the peaceful village of Tserova Koriya. Great quality at very affordable prices. 60 лв.
- Hotel Gurko. A very traditional style hotel with a popular restaurant and good quality rooms. Can be a little bit noisy and rooms over the reception and restaurant should be avoided by light sleepers.
- Studio. Just a bit more expensive than some other hotels but there is a difference. Excellent roof bar provides a good view of the light show (when it happens). Good breakfast and there is a restaurant. Decor is a bit dark and quirky and may not be to everyone's taste. Boutique fare all the way.
There are a number of 4-star hotels in Veliko Tarnovo with modern facilities and clean, comfortable rooms.
With a little common sense and respect for the locals, your stay in Veliko Tarnovo will be a safe one. It is a friendly student town with a lot of history and welcoming people.
- Arbanassi, a nearby village.
- Preobruzhenie Monastery, approximately 5 km north-west of Veliko Tarnovo.
- The city of Gabrovo to the south-west, at the foot of the Balkan Mountains, which has historic sites, a humor museum and impressive shopping and dining opportunities, is worth visiting.
- Nature Park Bulgarka, just south of Gabrovo, provides many out door activities opportunities for people who enjoy nature and hiking.
- The city of Rousse, border with Romania and on the way to Bucharest (11 лв). To go there go to the Prevotzi Zapad Bus Station (West bus station), it is 1 km west from the center so you can take local buses 10, 12, 14, 70 or 110. They have 8 buses daily, starting at 07:00.
- Visit Devetashka, a huge and stunning cave near to Pleven and only a few лв to enter. To reach it you must take the small country roads which are in terrible condition.
- Plovdiv buses leave several time through the day, this route will take you past Buzludzha (the abandoned UFO building)
|Routes through Veliko Tarnovo|
|Ruse ← Gorna Oryahovitsa (junction with Line 2) ←||N S||→ Tryavna → Stara Zagora|
|Merges with ← Ruse ←||N S||→ Gabrovo → Stara Zagora|
|Becomes ← Sevlievo ←||W E||→ Omurtag → Targovishte|