Why visit Varna, Bulgaria? Well that’s simple. Varna, on Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast, has experienced more history than most cities. Its strategic importance as a port and its location at the crossroads of cultures has left multiple layers of times past etched into its surface. For example, the oldest gold treasure in the world was discovered in the Varna Necropolis and dates to 4,200 – 4,600 BC.
Since then there have been migrations of Thracians, Celts, Romans, Greeks and Byzantines and visitors from Armenian, Syrian and Persian. The Crusaders passed through, too, and more recently there were Germans and Russians; the latter stayed put following the end of WWII. And it’s all here to see, which is what makes Varna such a great place to visit.
The Golden Sands resort town is just up the coast for people seeking sea, sun and sand. However, it’s unremarkable in most respects and does little to provide insights into the region. For that you need to step out onto Varna’s streets…
Varna’s Many Museums
A good first stop is the archaeological museum, home to the ancient golden hoard. It’s a great introduction to the area’s ancient history and contains lots of great exhibits. You should allow a couple of hours if you’re going to get the best from the place.
If you’re still in the mood for some ancient history then head over to the Roman baths, 7,000 square meters of up-market cleanliness. When completed they were the largest public baths on the Balkan Peninsula and are, to date, the biggest ancient building unearthed in Bulgaria.
For modern insights into the region and its culture you should head over the Ethnographic museum, which covers the local way of life from 19th to the beginning of the 20th century. It’s a slightly moth-eaten affair but there are some absolute delights to be found in amongst the faded photos and national costumes.
Next up, stop off at the Varna History Museum, which offers a view up to more recent times and which boasts some truly great guides. My visit was brought alive by a one-on-one tour, which described more than I could have imagined. A compact but eye-opening experience that went a long way to explaining how the modern city came about.
For those with more esoteric tastes there are Museum of the History of Medicine, which is a little odd but free, and the Ship Museum, which is a surprisingly dry but does include entrance to a mini submarine – complete with an on-deck oven!
The city, itself, falls into two areas as far as the visiting tourist is concerned. The area around the cathedral [the outside is more interesting that what’s inside] is a little run down. The area backing onto the sea garden is more modern but a little lacking in character, although the garden itself is very pleasant on a sunny day. Expect to encounter some live music if the weather’s good.
Day trips from Varna
No visit to Varna would be complete without three out-of-town visits. The Park-Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship is exactly what you think it’ll be… but so much larger. As far as concrete Soviet propaganda goes this is something special. Be prepared to be amazed by the sheer size of the monument. It’s a long walk out of town so it’s a good idea to get a taxi there before heading onto your next destination, the Aladzha Monastery.
This medieval Orthodox Christian cave monastery, which sits in the forest behind Gold Sands, was carved into a 25 metre-high vertical cliff. It was in use from the 12th century and probably continued in use until the early 18th century. Be warned, finding a bus stop that’ll get you back into Varna is near Impossible. It might be advisable to arrange with your taxi driver to pick you up after an hour or 90 minutes.
No trip to Varna should miss out the stone forest, a natural phenomenon known locally as “pobiti kamani”, which roughly translates as “stones beaten into the ground”. The area, which is the only desert in Bulgaria and one of few found in Europe, is littered with massive hollow columns there were formed under an ancient sea. There are various theories about how they were formed but no one actually knows for sure. You’ll need to visit by taxi – your drive will wait for you during your tour.
When to visit Varna – and for how long?
Varna is definitely worthy of a long weekend visit and because of its location it’s still warm and sunny out of season. It might just be the place to visit in late April, just before the tourists arrive in numbers.
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This is a guest post by Anthony Clark, journalist, copywriter and longtime friend of the Ladies What Travel team. He loves beer, cheese and travel and is a genius when it comes to making the most of his annual leave.