Located on the western edges of the Black Sea, the culture of Varna in Bulgaria is both ancient and modern. As home to the oldest gold treasure of the world, Varna’s history dates back to 4,600 B.C., long before civilizations even existed. But those more interested in modern conveniences won’t be lacking for things to do in Varna either, as the city played host to European Youth Capital 2017, allowing it to highlight its status as Bulgaria’s maritime capital.
My wife and I visited the city in 2013 as part of a 22-day road trip around Bulgaria and found several incredible sights that were worth our time and created a memorable visit, as well as some fantastic options for sampling some true Bulgarian and Balkan cuisine. Here are some of the areas top things to do in Varna that you shouldn’t miss on your trip!
The Gold of Varna is the crown jewel of this site, as it’s the oldest gold treasure known to man and is on display along with a skeleton that was buried with the golden treasure during the era. But the museum offers much more than simply the gold. It’s one of the largest museums in Bulgaria at 2,150 square meters of exhibitions, and many of it exhibits celebrate the multitude of cultural influences that have shaped Varna into what it is today.
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Varna’s history includes rule by the Thracian society, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire, and you’ll be able to marvel at treasures and artifacts from all of these distinct periods of Bulgarian history. Even the museum itself is a historic treasure, as Petko Momchilov designed the building with a neo-Renaissance style, a style that has remained since 1888 as the museum has expanded.
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Long before the name Varna first appeared, the Romans named the city Odessus and constructed bath houses in the 2nd century AD, allowing citizens to enjoy cold, warm and hot baths for a century. Today, part of the bath houses remain, leaving them as the largest preserved bath house in the Balkans and the fourth-largest Roman thermae overall.
Among the ruins, visitors can see the areas where the bath pools stood as well as the changing room and the vasilica hall, where the public would gather to discuss the events of the day. The baths were also a marketplace, and a few of the areas where the shops once stood are still in place today.
When the walls that surrounded Varna in ancient times came down, the Bulgarians knew exactly what to do with them. Compared to the Roman ruins, the Dormition of Mother of God Cathedral might be one of the newer places to visit in Varna, but as far as Bulgarian cathedrals go, it’s actually the oldest. The cathedral was constructed in 1886, and in one of his final acts as monarch of Bulgaria before his abdication of the throne, Bulgaria’s first prince Alexander laid the foundation stone for the cathedral. It’s been one of the main places for Bulgaria’s Eastern Orthodox believers to worship ever since, and a visit inside shows that it’s a true marvel even for those who don’t practice the Eastern Orthodox faith.
In a way, the cathedral is a joining of ancient and modern Varna. The stones from the city’s former walls formed much of the exterior of the church, while the beautiful paintings of the life of Jesus Christ and several Orthodox saints that adorn the interior came about nearly a century later, with many of them being completed during the 1960s.
Remember the Gold of Varna from the archaeological museum? This is the place that it was discovered, along with nearly 300 other graves. The Varna Necropolis is one of the most important burial sites from prehistoric times, and only about 70 percent has been excavated to date. The graves date back to the 45th century B.C., over 1,200 years before the Sumerian civilization existed.
Salads are very common in the Bulgarian diet, and this is one of the best places to enjoy a traditional Bulgarian salad, as well as pork filet, stuffed cabbage, white beans and other traditional Bulgarian foods. If you’re up for it, rakia is the traditional fruit brandy that’s popular in Bulgaria.
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It’s a strong alcoholic beverage usually made from grapes, and it’s believed to date back to the 11th century. Whatever you enjoy here, it’s a chance to enjoy a traditional Bulgarian meal in one of the few houses that dates back to the 19th century, a truly cool experience of stepping into the past.
For a truly fantastic Bulgarian meal, this is another Varna restaurant that shouldn’t be missed. The menu includes fish, potatoes and salad, but their real specialties are grilled meats, specifically sausage and barbecued ribs. Beyond the food, Staria Chinar sits right on the water of the Black Sea, giving you excellent views of the maritime backdrop that has shaped Varna’s history and future.
How much time you should spend exploring Varna depends on your interests and schedule. Two to three days should give you enough time to take in all of the historical sites as well as explore the aquatic activities of Varna’s maritime culture. Either way, you certainly won’t be lacking for exciting and fun things to do in Varna, a gem on the Black Sea that shouldn’t be missed when you make your way to Eastern Europe.