Thousands of years of history at a crossroads to many empires. One of the pleasant surprises on my travels. A place that was much more beautiful and welcoming than I expected. This is a place I would definitely return to.
And, it has a much deeper history than I imagined. I hate to admit it, but I didn't even know there was such a thing as the Bulgarian Empire.
Cathedrals and mosques
Sofia offers some wonderful architecture to enjoy
Throughout Bulgaria, there are fortresses that highlight the hundreds of years of changing empires
This is one of the cities that has been added to my list of very pleasant surprises. I had limited expectations for Bulgaria and its capitol. But, it turned out to be a lovely city, with very friendly people. It has a much more modern public transit system than I expected. The metro stations are clean and modern, most public busses have WIFI, and most of all, everything runs frequently and on time.
The city is spotless compared to places like Southern Italy, or Hungary, or Northern Greece.
Traffic runs smoothly, and roads are well marked in the capital.
Best of all, there is a fascinating history in Sofia from the Stone Age to the Roman Empire to the present.
Just on the south side of Sofia, and easily reachable by bus, there is Vitosha Mountain and dozens, maybe hundreds of trails. A highlight of hiking here is Boyana Falls. A steep climb of just over 1.5 miles up to the falls on very well marked trails. Best time to hike is April or later, as the mountain gets plenty of snow in the winter. Even in April, you will still find occasional snow and ice on the trail.
While in the area, take in Boyana Church. A small sanctuary that still displays the 13th century frescoes inside.
If you want to revisit the time of Communism here, take in the Socialist Art museum, a small museum of socialist period paintings, and a very nice sculpture garden outside. Also, visit the National Museum of History in a communist era building.
Downtown, there are many attractions to see within a short walk of each other.
The National Art Gallery is housed in a former palace. This gallery focuses primarily on Bulgarian Art from the 19th and 20th centuries. A few hundred feet down the street is an impressive archeological museum highlighting history of the area from the stone age to the Roman Empire.
Just a few minutes walk from these is the Sofia History Museum highlighting the city history from the 19th century to the mid 20th century.
But, the real highlights of central Sofia are the churches. The beautiful St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built between 1882 and 1912. This is the largest church on the Balkans and one of the 50 largest churches in the world. The city’s namesake is the 6th century St. Sophia Church with a wonderful crypt to visit. The Sveta Nedelya Church dates from the 10th century and has been rebuilt many times since. Just outside Sveta Nedelya church is a plaza, and a great place to find lunch. The Church of St George is a 4th century church and Sofia’s oldest building.
The second city of Bulgaria is all about Old Town, from the Roman ruins to the Bulgarian Revival architecture to the walking and shopping along Knyaz Alexander Street. But, don’t miss relaxing in Tsar Simeon Gardens and take in the singing fountains at night.
If you like parks, you can also enjoy the Bunardzhika Park and monument to Soviet Soldiers at the top of the hill. This is the best place to get a view of the city.
The Art Museum, Gallery Philippopolis, is quite nice, though small. The new building opened on April 15th, 2022. And, over 3 floors has a nice selection of art, primarily from Bulgarian and Eastern European artists. The gallery has a wider selection than the National Gallery in Sofia.
Highlights of Plovdiv
Built under where the center of Plovdiv is, you can still see parts of the stadium that was used nearly 2000 years ago.
1st Century Roman Amphitheater still used for performances today.
I read online that the best way to Plovdiv from Sofia is busses, that the trains were slow and bad. But, I did not find this to be the case. I took the train, and it was quite clean and arrived right on time. It is certainly not the high speed train that western Europe is used to, but the bus wasn’t any faster. And, personally, I like the train because you can stretch out better than on a bus. Plus, my fare from Sofia to Plovdiv was just under US $7. The only downside is that little to nothing will be in English, so you have to navigate the Bulgarian alphabet to make your way. For me, this was not an issue, as the employees at the station were quite helpful in making sure I found the right train.
Taxis are quite cheap in Plovdiv. A typical 10 minute ride to or from the train station should cost about US $3. For the rest of the time, I just walked. Plovdiv is not that large. I didn’t experience public transportation in Plovdiv, simply because it wasn’t big enough to need it. Once in the center of town, everything is a 5 to 10 minute walk away.
There are a number of trains that go to VT from different parts of the country. I came from Plovdiv, which is a route that takes about 6 hours, with 1 transfer in Stara Zagora. This is a pleasant ride, going over the hills that add to the scenery. My cost was 16.05 Lev (less than US$ 9)
Departing Veliko Tarnovo
I took the train north to Ruse, Bulgaria; a direct line that takes about 2 hours. My ticket for this train ride was 7.2 LEV (less than US$ 4). From Ruse, I picked up a train to Bucharest, a 3 hour ride crossing the border. This train cost 18 Lev (about US$ 10). Getting on the train for Bucharest in Ruse, you will hand your passport over to the border official, who will hang onto it for a while, before returning it to you prior to departure. Then, at the first stop into Romania, the officials there will board the train and collect all passports, stamp them, then return them to you again before departing that station (Giurgiu North). This can be unnerving for people not used to letting your passport out of your sight, but it is perfectly normal.
Veliko Tarnovo is not very large, and very walkable despite being built into the hills. However, if you like, taxis are plentiful and cheap. My taxi from the train station for a 10 minute ride was 5.5 lev (about US $3).
Veliko Tarnovo is really about The Tsaravets Fortress, which is an amazing structure used between the 12th and 14th centuries, but on an area that was inhabited since the first millennium BC. Protecting the town that served as the capital of the Bulgarian Empire, and housing a 52,000 sq foot palace complex, the fortress was finally conquered by the Ottomans in 1393. It is still topped by the recently rebuilt (1980’s) Cathedral of the Ascension of the Lord.
Across the gorge likes the second fortress, Trapezitsa. Though not as well preserved, and much less visited even though it only takes about 20 minutes to walk between the two, it is still an impressive area with a number of churches with 14th century frescoes and a grand gate to see.
Other highlights in VT are; Monument to the Assen Dynasty, or walk along the colorful main street, Stefan Stambolov for shopping and eating.