Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria might be the coolest city I’ve never heard of.
It’s like something out of Lord of the Rings. You have a river that bends so sharply it doesn’t look real, and that riverbend is covered in a massive horse statue, then surrounded by an amphitheater of houses, cafes, restaurants, and bars.
I don’t blame you if you’ve never heard of Veliko Tarnovo. But here are the must see sights and best things to do if you’re like me and spend two nights in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.
5) Visit Tsarevets Fortress
(This may be #5 on the list, but it’s the number one thing to do in Veliko Tarnovo, so just do it).
Veliko Tarnovo is home to a massive fortress on a hill called Tsarevets Fortress. It’s a medieval fortress and it’s immediately obvious why it was strategically important: you can see over the surrounding countryside and river from the easily defensible position.
Tsarevets Fortress is large, and you can walk the grounds across multiple hiking routes. It’s worth budgeting a few hours.
Tsarevets Fortress has existed since the 1100s. If you’re visiting in the high season, there are even regular shows. If you’re visiting in October or November, like I did, then there are still plenty of cool nooks to explore in and around the fortress.
If you’re going to do one thing in Veliko Tarnovo, you should visit the Tsarevets Fortress. Oh, and it’s only 6 lev / $3.50 USD.
4) Walk to the Monument to the Asen Dynasty
Like something out of Lord of the Rings, Veliko Tarnovo is home to the “Monument to the Asen Dynasty.”
No, that’s not a monument from Wheel of Time. The Monument to the Asen Dynasty is a ridiculously large statue of four horses in the center of Veliko Tarnovo, each pointing a different direction.
I don’t know what the Asen Dynasty is. But I do know Veliko Tarnovo was a historic capital in the area, and this fantastic monument has something to do with that. Hey, you’re on the Wandering Boozebag – not Wikipedia. Look it up.
(Okay, here’s the basics: three brothers founded a dynasty in the 12th century in Bulgaria, rebelling against the Byzantine empire and starting their own Bulgarian empire, and Veliko Tarnovo was their capital; the city erected the Monument to the Asen Dynasty in 1985 to celebrate the 800 year anniversary of being Bulgaria’s capital).
3) Take the Free Walking Tour
There wasn’t a free walking tour in Veliko Tarnovo when I visited, but there is one now. You can take the Veliko Tarnovo walking tour every day at 11am from the main tourist office.
Like other free walking tours, the Veliko Tarnovo free walking tour is a good way to get a lay of the land, get oriented, and determine what you should see during the rest of your visit.
At 2.5 hours (!), it’s surprisingly long for a walking tour, but it’s still well worth it.
2) Take Photos from the Veliko Tarnovo Sky Walk
From the main street of Old Town Veliko Tarnovo, you’ll see the entrance to the Veliko Tarnovo Sky Walk. It gives you panoramic views over the best parts of the town, including the river valley and the surrounding towns.
I didn’t visit the Sky Walk, but I did grab a $1.50 beer from the café right below the Sky Walk because I didn’t know there was a Sky Walk. My picture is pretty much the same.
1) Explore Old Town Veliko Tarnovo
Old Town Veliko Tarnovo is worth spending a half day exploring. It’s not large, but there are cafes, restaurants, bars, and historic sights to keep you entertained.
Focus your attention on Gurko Street, which is one of the oldest and most historic streets in town.
Other Things to Do in Veliko Tarnovo
Take a Trip to the Crazy Communist Buzludzha Monument: My hostel (Hostel Mostel) had an organized tour to an old, communist monument in the mountains called the Buzludzha Monument. Also known as the Communist spaceship, the building was used for communist meetings during the Cold War. Today, it’s an abandoned structure that you need a 4×4 to visit – but you can find plenty of organized tours. If you have an extra day, then it’s definitely worth a visit. It’s 1.5 hours away (or, you can visit from Sofia or Plovdiv).
Check Out the Sound and Light Show: Veliko Tarnovo has launched a public light show featuring the history of Bulgaria. It’s a spectacular audiovisual event that’s worth attending if you’re in town on show days (shows occur year round, but they don’t happen every day).
Take the Cable Car to Trapezitsa Hill: Tsarevets is the best medieval fortress in Veliko Tarnovo, but Trapezitsa Hill is the second best. Unfortunately, it’s in ruins, but you can still take a cable car to the ruins and get fantastic views of the region via a cable car.
Take a Day Trip to Arbanasi: Arbanasi is 4km from the center of Veliko Tarnovo and is technically part of the city, but it’s separate from Veliko Tarnovo and worth a visit on its own. You’ll find centuries-old churches, multiple historic monuments, and a pretty riverfront community. If you’re taking an organized day trip to Veliko Tarnovo, you might stop at both Veliko Tarnovo and Arbanasi.
Where to Stay in Veliko Tarnovo
Veliko Tarnovo is a student town, so there are plenty of affordable places for backpackers to stay. There are also hotels for all budgets. It’s a good-sized city with multiple accommodation options.
For hostels, I stayed at Hostel Mostel. It’s one of the better-rated hostels in town, and it still only costs $12 to $15 per night 6 years after I visited.
For hotels, even $30 to $80 gets you some of the best hotels. Again, you’re in small town Bulgaria, so you might as well enjoy it.
As with most parts of Eastern Europe, Airbnb and similar sites are a great way to find a local place to stay in a residential part of the city at a cheap price.
Final Word: Veliko Tarnovo is Worth Visiting!
I visited Veliko Tarnovo in 2016 and I had never heard of it.
It’s 2022 and I still hear people rarely talk about Veliko Tarnovo.
That’s their loss! Veliko Tarnovo is an incredible city with an historic fortress, multiple fantastic monuments, and plenty of places to get traditional Bulgarian food.
Oh, and it’s also ridiculously affordable to visit.
If you’re backpacking through Bulgaria, then Veliko Tarnovo is worth a stop.