Veliko Tarnovo (Велико Търново, also transliterated as Veliko Turnovo), meaning Great Thorny City in Old Bulgarian, is a mountain city located in the north of Bulgaria. It has often been called the "City of the Tsars", as it was historically the capital of the Bulgarian political entities. 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.
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.
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 by arrangement), 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.
There is a small railway station in the town and it is possible to get a taxi to the centre of town from there for about 3-4 lev. There are also local buses going just by the station, go to the bus stop next to a small restaurant building. There are buses at least every 20 minutes, and it costs 0.50 - 0.60 lev. You should have small money with you. A bus ride to center takes about 10-15 minutes.
An alternative is to get a train to a larger railway station at the nearby town of Gorna Oryahovitsa. You could then take a bus, minibus or taxi from Gorna Oryahovitsa station to Veliko Tarnovo. Taxi from Gorna Oryahovitsa to Veliko Tarnovo should cost 8-10 lev - you can ask for fixed price if you want to be sure.
If you are planning to take the train to another country, tickets can't be bought at the train station. There is a ticket office for international tickets on the main street, 19 Stefan Stanbolov (they only take cash, no cards) and they are open M-F 08:00 to 16:00.
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 lev) 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 17 lev.
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 costs 0.70 lev.
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 0.80 lev initial fee, and 0.60 lev per kilometer afterwards. In general, a trip within the city limits shouldn't cost more than 3.5-4 lev. 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 lev.
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.
Shopska Salad is made from tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, peppers, and sirene (feta type) cheese; it is cheap and great as a snack. There are many restaurants and bars in Veliko Tarnovo and this will be one of the most common things on the menu.
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.
- 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.
- Zagorka Beer - Zagorka is one of the most popular types of beer in Bulgaria and is definitely worth a try if you are a fan of beer. The best thing is that it is very cheap in comparison to beer prices in Western Europe, as are other beers and alcoholic drinks in general in Bulgaria.
- Buljarka Beer - the local brand of beer, brewed just outside the town.
- Bottled Water - It is advisable to drink bottled water.
- Rakija - Bulgarian strong liqueour usually 40 vol% flavoured with anise.
- Sliwovitz - Plum brandy, often quite strong 40-60 vol%
- 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 lev 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.
- Veliko Tarnovo Camping (at Trinity Rocks Farm), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Campground with lots of tree shade surrounded by fields, hills and a river, offering toilets, showers, kitchen, dining room, lounge with satellite TV and free internet access, WiFi, fridge, cookers, microwave and BBQ area. Camping €5 (10 lev) pp/night.
- Hiker's Hostel. Beds from 20 lev 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 lev per person per night for a dorm, 30 lev 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 lev for twin room (3 rooms available). Friendly owner with free transport to and from the station.
- The Honey House Stables. Very relaxing place in Hotnitsa village, near Veliko Tarnovo. Is managed by Annie, a nice British woman that loves animals, of which there are a number on site. Guests have use of the shared bathroom, equipped kitchen and garden. The garden has outside seating for dinning and a relaxed area under a vine for lounging and reading. The house has wifi which is free for guests and a washing machine which is 4 lev per wash including soap. 20 lev single, 30 lev double.
- Rooster Hostel, 2a Kapitan Dyado Nikola Street (at the start of Samovodska Charshia, entrance from the back alley), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. 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.
- 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. $31.
- 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 lev). 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 lev 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 Budzludzha (the abandoned UFO building)