In my 'Bulgaria section' you can find many more places to travel to!
In September 2016 I made my longest trip through Bulgaria so far. I rented a car, then drove to Kalofer, Kotel, Veliki Preslav, Shumen, Pliska, Provadia and the Ovech Fortress, Varna, Balchik, Dobrich, Silistra, the Srebarna nature park and Targovishte. Quite a trip for just five days! I must say I was very impressed by everything I saw. Bulgaria is lovely to visit in September - the weather was pleasant and certainly the big heat has gone. Yet, short sleeves could still be worn. The destination of my trip was Varna - I thought it would be too short to go for just the weekend. There's over 450 kilometres from Sofia so quite a long ride. There is so much to see on the way, no matter the itinerary you choose. In September, especially later in the month, you will find many hotels to have rooms. Yet, there's the national holidays 6th of September and 22nd of September, so these are certainly more crowded days. Apart from that, you can follow your senses and see where you end up.
As I eventually got to Varna, Bulgaria's third largest city, I directly loved its vibe. It has a very well maintained center - yet you notice it's a port city. It feels rough around the edges and has a particular kind of cool, obviously that is best observed in good weather. People leisurely walk, run or skate through the Sea Garden and everyone seems relaxed. The city has a large pedestrian zone lined with beautiful buildings. You truly feel in Southern Europe. If you're in Bulgaria in the summer months, or are staying for a longer time, Varna is a must-see. The sea is right next to the Sea Garden park so you can have a swim nearby. There's better beachside resorts north and south of Varna but it will all depend on your preferences. Also, Varna offers good transport connections with the whole of the country as well as the neighbours.
The city's name
I think Varna is a pretty name for a city. The name itself makes me think of a seaside city. There are several theories on where the name derives from. Just a few of these; the Proto-Slavic word "varn" = "black" or the Iranian "bar" or "var" = "camp/fortress". Interestingly, in the state of Illinois, there's a village named after Varna.
A bit of history and what to see in the area
Even though it's not known to many, Varna lies in an ancient area. Many settlements have existed at this exact spot, as early as the 5th millenium BC. Fascinatingly, the largest gold treasure known in the world was found in this spot. It lied in the Necropolis, which was accidentally discovered in October 1972 by Raycho Marinov. The necropolis consists of 294 graves. Yet, 30% of the Necropolis has not yet been excavated.The total weight of the treasure's gold, from one tomb, is about 1,5 kilograms. The gold treasure was found on the skeleton of man 45 years old at the point of dying. Obviously there was an important ceremony when this man was buried. The discovery of this treasure caused a large interest worldwide - it's truly a huge find. Yet, many are unaware of the treasure's existence. It's hard to fathom the incredible advancements the Thracian tribes made on the territory of Bulgaria - and much of it will remain unknown. Yet, the things we found are truly fascinating. The techniques used and the details on these findings can be studied forever. One of the many findings in the area. Should you want to see the treasure - it tends to move around the world but its homebase is Varna. Best to contact the museum. If you find yourself in Varna and the treasure is on tour, do visit the Varna Archaeological Museum. It is fascinating and has, for example, a permanent exhibition on the earliest human traces. These date back to the Early Paleolithic Age (about 100 000 BC).
This advanced civilization was quite diverse - even the Iranian, Eurasian nomads Scythians inhabited the area Many horse ornaments and bronze artefacts are still found to today. Likewise, the Thracian tribe Getae lived in the area as well. The Getae famously left us the Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari - about 150 kilometres from Varna but absolutely worth a visit. Around 280 BC, the Celts started entering the Balkans and got to the Black Sea coast as well. Many artefacts - again bronze - with their symbols remain. These then also got used by the Thracians and spread. Despite the area of Varna (back then the nearby settlement of Odessos) being diverse, the tribes seemed to be tolerant and generally got along.
Odessos itself is one of the country's oldest settlements - established around 550 BC. Without success, the Odessos was attacked by Philip II of Macedon. He was the king of the Ancient Greek Kingdom of Macedon from 359 BC until 336 BC. However, Philip II later surrendered to Alexander the Great, in 335 BC to be exact. Centuries later, in 15 AD, the region became part of Moesia. However, the city kept a certain type of autonomy. The Moesia province is named after the Moesi people, yet another Thracian tribe. The province one time reached from current western Serbia to the Black Sea. Until the Seventh Century, Moesia stayed a part of the Eastern Roman Empire. Moesia had always been quite wealthy due to large harvest of grain and the abundant mineral water - even though the province did suffer many barbarian invasions in the Third Century. So, also Odessos grew to be quite wealthy. Many thermae (hot baths) were built - they once covered 47 hectares. Nowadays, the Roman remains are the largest in Bulgaria. At their time, these baths were the fourth largest in all of Europe and the largest in the Balkans. In Europe, only the Baths of Caracalla and Baths of Diocletian in Rome and the baths of Trier were larger. Check this page of general interest on Roman bath houses if you want to know more about what they used to look like. Google 'Rimski Termi' to find the place where you can admire the ruins.
Ruins of twelve basilicas were found, meaning Odessos was a center for Christianity. Very interestingly, it is suggested that the declaration of independence from the Byzantine Empire, in 681 AD, was signed near current-day Varna (Source in Bulgarian). In addition, it's suggested that the First Bulgarian Capital was a city named Theodorias, located on the shore of Lake Varna. Then, the capital was moved to Pliska, more inland near modern-day Shumen. Later on, during the Middle Ages, Varna played a role in the development of the Cyrillic script. A place for writing, that was part of the Preslav Literary School was opened. Then, later on, Varna grew to be of large importance as a port city. Eventually, in 1444, the Battle of Varna took place. The Ottomans, under Sultan Murad II, defeated Vladislav (Wladyslaw) III Jagello, first king of Poland but at that point the king of Hungary and Croatia.
Initially, the battle was expected because Murad II resigned and left the throne to his son Mehmed II. He was only 12 years old. However, Vladislav III Jagello did expect a battle to occur. Hungary (Vladislav III Jagello) co-operated with Venice and Pope Eugene IV and prepared an army of crusaders. Mehmed II, however, insisted his father to take care of this battle because of his lack of experience. And so it happened. The Crusaders were severely outnumbered by the Ottomans and seen the dire circumstances, the 20-year-old Vladislav took his chance and tried to capture Sultan Murad II directly, together with 500 Polish knights. No luck - he was beheaded and his head was displayed on a pole. It was then taken to an Ottoman court. In honor of Vladislav losing his life in the battle, his name was changed to Władysław III Warneńczyk. Bulgaria would remain under Ottoman rule for four more centuries.
During the Crimean War (1854–1856), British and French soldiers fighting against the Russians set base in Varna. However, cholera broke out and also, a part of the city was destroyed by a large fire. The first railroad in Bulgaria was opened later - it connected Ruse and Varna and linked Constantinopel to Europe. The port area grew considerably and Varna developed as a city. The Russian troops whom had entered in 1878 gave the city back to the Bulgarians. Then, Varna was also the front of yet two more wars - the First Balkan War and First World War. Varna later grew to develop and eventually turned into a mass tourism destination, as people couldn't travel to Western Europe easily before 1989. Nowadays, luckily, the future looks bright and Varna is attracting many visitors from all over the world.
What to see in Varna
If it isn't clear by now - you will have no reason to be bored in Varna. The history is just endless and not only that - you can admire the architecture of a city that developed itself into a tourism when the architecture was just stunning. You can find Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Baroque, Neoclassicism, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Modernism - the classic work of many Bulgarian and French architects. Walking the central streets, you will feel the glamour and grandeur of the past - but also you'll feel the city developing and looking forward. I must say the Wikitravel page lists a good couple of sights you shouldn't miss. I would make sure to visit the Park Museum „Vladislav Varnenchik“ Парк-музей „Владислав Варненчик“ as well, you can find the Memorial of the Battle in Varna there! And, just in case you love brutalist, communist monuments, the Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship. It goes without saying that visiting the Sea Garden is a must!
What to see outside Varna
Outside Varna, I can definitely recommend the Aladzha Manastir (15 km). Check this page for a bus connection, it leaves the train station at 8:00.
Also, the Pobiti Kamani are interesting. The name means 'The rocks which got hit'. They are just rocks randomly standing in awide field - but beautifully so. Find more information - including how to reach the place, on this website. This website is The Free Varna Tour, which unfortunately doesn't work as of 2015, 2016 and 2017.. There is, however, the Varna Green Tour, a bike tour! Check beforehand if it works as I couldn't confirm.
You may use taxis in Varna but be extremely careful - as this is a touristy area you never know what you'll be charged with unless you know the right company or watch the meter very closely. According to Wikitravel, reliable companies are OK Trans (OK Транс), Varna (Варна), Evro (Евро),Triumph (Триумф Такси), Alpha taxi (Алфа такси). Typical price is around 0.79 leva (0.40 euro) per km. Perhaps it's best to call a taxi or arrange one from a hotel. Best is to bring a local, as is the case anywhere!
Where to eat and sleep
Varna, being Bulgaria's third largest city, has quite a lot to offer in terms of restaurants and hotels. On where to eat, just refer to Tripadvisor. This is a big city that I unfortunately have few occasions to visit. So, things change and are outdated quickly. You may find many restaurants, including reviews, by doing a Facebook search as well. I encourage anyone to give tips in the comment section below!
There's several business hotels, small guesthouses, yet also various beach resorts north and south of the city. It will depend on whom you are traveling with and what your transport is. If you come by car, it might be nice to look a bit outside the center but there's no need to go far. Should you spend the night, Varna has a beautiful Sea Garden that you should definitely stroll through on a warm evening. The choice is endless, you could obviously walk into any hotel - although chances are they are fully booked through summer. Also, you could check Booking.com for availability and then just walk to a hotel - they might offer good deals as opposed to booking online. I can also recommend the website Bgstay, it has several nice guesthouses and especially for the coastal area, you'll have many places to choose from! I spent the night in Albena, which is an old-style beach resort with many family hotels. I liked the place but I came for some rest - if I wanted to party, I'd choose another place. Either way, I enjoyed the whole coastline.
The pictures right below are from Balchik - a unique place with a mediterranean feel that I certainly would revisit!