Touted as the city's top attraction, Tsarevets fortress (tel. 062/636 828; Apr-Sept daily 8am-7pm; Oct-Mar daily 9am-5pm; 5lev/$4.05/£2.50) must have been an incredible sight when the medieval walls that girdle the hill enclosed a royal palace, 18 churches, and over 400 houses, but there's not much left of these grand origins. Besides climbing one of the watchtowers for the views, or heading over to Execution Rock to shudder at the hopefully swift justice meted out to the king's itinerant subjects, the main attraction is the hilltop Patriarch's Church of the Ascension. Declared the "mother of all churches" in the Bulgarian Kingdom in 1235, it was restored in 1981 to commemorate Bulgaria's 1,300th birthday. Interiors are covered with starkly modern murals, executed in an almost monochromatic palette by a student of Svetlin Rusev, one of Bulgaria's most influential expressionists. It's a total contrast to the usual church interior. While a daytime wander around the fortress (plan to get here early or late, rather than during the draining midday heat) is mildly satisfying, the power that Bulgaria's once-impregnable capital exerted over southeastern Europe for 200 years is better captured by the stunning 40-minute sound and light show, when the fortress comes alive in the changing shadows, and stirring music charges through the battlements. The show, held once a week during summer (usually on a weekend night at around 9pm) or whenever a tour group hits town, is best enjoyed from the Assen II Square in front of the main entrance.
Once you've explored the Tsarevets fortress, stroll down to the view the Churches of Assenova or "Assen's Quarter," the medieval-era part of town that straddles the banks of the Yantra as it winds through the saddle between Tsarevets and Trapezitsa hills. The area was pretty much destroyed by an earthquake in 1913, but a few of the churches have been restored, the most impressive being the Sveti Dimitrius of Thessaloniki, where the bolyari (local nobleman) Assen and his brother Peter declared war on their Byzantine oppressors. The beautiful brickwork alternates bands of color with two kinds of brick, mortar, and stone and ceramic inlay for additional texture. It is typical of church construction during medieval times, which was heavily influenced by the Byzantine style, and you'll see more of this in UNESCO-listed Nessebar on the Black Sea coast. Located on the other side of the river is the recently restored Church of the 40 Martyrs. Frescoes here date from the 12th and 14th centuries, but the two pillars with inscriptions are what fascinate historians: One has an 8th-century inscription that reads: "Man dies, even though he lives nobly, and another is born. Let the latest born, when he examines these records, remember he who made them. The name of the Prince is Omurtag, the Sublime Khan." Four hundred years later, Tsar Ivan Assen -- inspired by the Khan's column -- ordered that his victories be inscribed on a similar pillar to let people know how his "benevolence" spared many.
Heading back into town, stop to photograph the pretty facade of the Museum of the National Revival and Constituent Assembly. Built in 1872 by the prolific master builder Kolyu Ficheto, who left an indelible imprint on the region (the statue in front is of him), it originally was a Turkish police station, where the 1876 April Uprising rebels were tried. A mere 3 years later the Ottomans finally were defeated and the First Bulgarian Constitution was proclaimed by Bulgaria's newborn parliament in these halls. Exhibits are captioned in Bulgarian, so there is no real reason to enter here or the adjacent Archaeological Museum. Either take a look at the Church of SS Konstantin I Elena (also built by Kolyu Ficheto), or wander picturesque Gurko Street. Besides admiring the tall, narrow 18th- and 19th-century homes (you can enter the Sarafkina House at no 88; Wed-Mon 9am-6pm; 4lev/$3.25/£2), the street has wonderful river views. On the opposite bank, perched in front of its own tiny hillock, is the Monument of the Assens. This phallic sculpture is a symbol of the city and it commemorates the powerful kings of the Second Kingdom: Assen I, Peter, Kaloyan, and Ivan Assen II, under whose reign the Bulgarian Medieval State reached its zenith. Behind it is the 19th-century building that houses the City Art Museum, which is not worth visiting. The other street worth wandering is Rakovski Street. It's almost as pretty as Gurko and was once the main trading street. Today it still is lined with well-preserved shops, now touting tourist souvenirs and various artworks of dubious quality. A short stroll farther is the House of the Little Monkey, so named for the stone "monkey" attached to the facade of the first floor (centered between the arches), and another building by Kolyu Ficheto featuring his trademark Fichevska kobilitsa -- the undulating wave that characterizes the roofline of his domestic architecture.
Surrounding Monasteries -- Twenty monasteries were built around Veliko Tarnovo during its zenith as capital of the Second Kingdom; 10 are within a half-hour drive. One of the closest is pretty Preobrazhenski Monastery. Follow the winding forest road that branches off the highway heading north to the Danube city of Ruse, and suddenly the trees clear to provide glorious uninterrupted views of the hills and valleys beyond. This sublime spot is where the Jewish wife of Ivan Aleksandur decided to celebrate her conversion to Christianity by building Preobrazhenski, meaning "Transfiguration," in 1360. Still officially "active," but guarded only by a monk, the monastery itself is largely in ruins, but the church frescoes are undergoing restoration. Don't miss Zahari Zograf's Wheel of Life on the south wall. Directly across the valley, also surrounded by dense vegetation, you can see the Sveta Troitsa Convent. There are other gems, like the Kapinovo, Kilifarevo, and Plakovo monasteries, but if you're looking for a lunch or dinnertime venue, head into the gorge that protects laid-back Dryanovski Monastery, as much for its peaceful riverside location and friendly monks, and stop for lunch at Andaka, the lovely riverside restaurant. And if you have decided to include Etura in your itinerary, be sure to fill up a bottle with the sweet-tasting water from nearby Sokolovski, meaning "the Falcons" -- appropriate, given the views.
Shipka Pass and Church -- About 60km (37 miles) south of Veliko Tarnovo, on the road to or from Kazanluk, you will traverse the historic Shipka Pass, scene of the most momentous battle between Russian-Bulgarian and Turkish forces in 1877, a battle that decided the fate of the war and delivered a decisive blow to the Ottomans. There are two monuments to mark the battle. One is the rather stern six-story Freedom Monument (daily 9am-5pm; 2lev/$1.60/£1), which requires a fair degree of stamina -- it's a steep flight of stairs just to the entrance, then many more to reach the top to take in the awesome views of the Balkan Mountains; and the Valley of the Kings (including Kazanluk -- a tiny, sprawling insect nest below). More accessible is the picture-perfect gold-domed Church Monument. Located at the foot of the pass, this -- like Alexander Nevski in Sofia -- commemorates the Bulgarian and Russian lives lost during the 1877 to 1878 War of Liberation.
Zheravna -- The charming architectural museum town of Zheravna is a contrast to Arbanassi and more authentic, thanks the town's local population (about 700). Depending on road conditions, this seldom-visited village lies 2 to 3 hours from Veliko Tarnovo, making it more suitable as an overnight stop on your way to the coast rather than as a day trip. But if you have not had a chance to explore the little museum towns scattered in the Pirin and Rhodope mountains, this is a must-see on your itinerary. A hodgepodge of cobbled streets lined with gorgeous 17th-century timber homes shaded by trees and sometimes covered with vines makes Zheravna pure, undistilled rural bliss. The most comfortable place to overnight is Hotel Liv (tel. 088 978 3971; www.hoteliv.com; 50lev/$40/£25 double, including breakfast), two 300-year-old homes recently renovated by Ivan and Vanya, who came here on holiday and fell in love with the village.
Madara Horseman -- Lying just over the halfway mark between Veliko Tarnovo and Varna, the UNESCO-listed Madara Horseman, a 95m-high (312 ft.) relief sculpture, was carved into the cliff more than 1,200 years ago. At least, the Greek inscriptions next to the carving date from the 8th century. Some believe the horseman predates these by many more hundreds of years, and is in fact the rider-god so revered by the Thracians. The relief is best viewed early morning (opens daily at 8am), or as the suns starts to set (closes 7pm in summer; 5pm in winter) when shadows help sharpen the lines of the horseman, whose steed appears to be trampling a lion, aided by his greyhound. The Madara National History Archaeological Reserve (admission 4lev/$3.25/£2) also comprises the remains of 8th- and 9th-century monasteries (also those of a 14th-century rock monastery), and you can take the cliff path up to the plateau above, where there are more ruins, this time of a 5th-century fortress, and wonderful views.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.