Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Located in north central Bulgaria, picturesque Veliko Tarnovo was the medieval capital of Bulgarian tsars. The city was built into cliffs of the Yantra River — caped with a sprawling medieval fortress — and today retains much of its Old World charm. You'll find ruins, churches, and the most prestigious university in the country.
What We Love
Scenic Drive: To reach Veliko Tarnovo, most ships dock in Ruse and shuttle passengers the hour-and-a-half drive to town. This is actually a good thing. The scenery is gorgeous between the two towns, and the route cuts through rolling hills and field after field of sunflowers that Van Gogh would go nuts for.
Varosha Quarter: You can really get a sense of the town's historic atmosphere in this quarter. Be sure to stroll Gurko, Veliko Tarnovo's oldest — and prettiest — street.
Best Known For
Tsarevets Fortress: This reconstructed medieval fortress sits high on a hill surrounded by the Yantra River on three sides. It is the former seat of the tsars and holds the remains of the royal palace, 18 churches, and hundreds of houses. Originally built by the Byzantines in the 5th century and fortified by the Slavs and Bulgers between the 8th and 10th centuries, it saw its heyday in the 12th century when the city was the capital of Bulgaria.
Authentic Shopping: Forget tacky T-shirts and kitschy knickknacks. Head to Samovodska Charshia Square where artisans have been selling their wares on the cobbled Rakovski Street for centuries. You’ll find beautiful silver jewelry, leather goods, and copper pieces as well as artwork. Prices are extremely reasonable, and you'll often be buying your souvenir from the person who created it.
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Who It's Best For
Church Lovers: The most famous of the medieval churches is St. Forty Holy Martyrs built in the 1200s, where several tsars, members of the royal family, and aristocracy are buried. Other notable churches are the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God, Church of Saints Peter and Paul, and Church of St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki.
Don't Say We Didn't Warn You
Climb Carefully: Be careful out there. On the stairs to the market street you'll encounter uneven pavement and potholes, and there are unfenced drops at the fortress.
Beat the Crowds: The fortress is obviously the most popular site in town. Get there at the earliest opportunity to avoid the lines, and be aware that there are a limited number of English tours and very few signs in English.
Dena Roché is a Phoenix-based contributor to ShermansCruise whose work has been featured in Modern Luxury, Robb Report, and Destination Weddings & Honeymoons.