Varna in Bulgaria is rightfully known as the Pearl of the Black Sea.
After all, this is a 2600 years old city which:
- was founded by the Ancient Greeks;
- was the most important Black sea port between Constantinople and the Danube delta in the 14th century; and
- nowadays is a vibrant mix of beach life, cultural events and historical references.
A former Ancient Greek and then Roman colony, an early Christian centre, the stage of one of the last major battles of the Crusaders against the Ottoman Turks, at present Varna is the third largest Bulgarian city and also my home town.
Locally Varna is often referred to as the ‘maritime capital of Bulgaria’, as, come summer, it seems like half the population of the country and thousands of tourists from abroad descend on the city for its beaches and lively nightlife.
After a tumultuous recent history which saw the city losing some of its largest industries and undergoing economic hardship, things are being smoothed out. Varna looks and feels better and it offers the perfect combination of history, beaches and post-socialist reality to be appreciated by the intrepid traveller always on the lookout for the next unusual destination.
With this in mind here is the first part of fifty reasons to make you want to book a trip to Varna in Bulgaria straight away.
50 Reasons to Visit the Pearl of the Black Sea
1. Beaches in and around Varna are covered with soft fine sand in shades of gold. So much nicer to sunbathe on and play in than a back-wrecking pebbly beach.
2. The world’s oldest gold treasure was discovered in a large Copper Age necropolis just outside of Varna. An advanced civilization with unparalleled goldsmithing skills lived there in the 5th millenium BCE. To put it in perspective: this was before the era of Mesopotamia and Egypt of the pyramids! You can see this gold treasure in Varna’s Archaeological Museum which also has a fabulous exposition of Eastern Orthodox icons and archaeological artifacts.
3. Varna was founded at the end of the 7th century BC as a trading post by the Ancient Greeks who called the new city Odessos (most probably meaning ‘town on water’). The Romans called it Odessus. Its current name – Varna – has been in use since the 6th-7th century AD with one notable interruption.
4. Believe it or not, but in 1949 Varna’s name was changed to Stalin. (Yes, as in Joseph Stalin!) This was done in honour of the Soviet leader’s 70th birthday. By 1956 the political stance had changed and the city regained its centuries-old name.
5. Summer is the season when Varna comes truly into her own. Several vibrant beach resorts (like Sunny Day and Golden Sands) are only a short drive away plus the city plays host to a number of cultural events (like the Varna International Ballet Competition and Varna Summer International Music Festival).
6. Varna’s Sea Garden is the largest landscaped park on the Balkan peninsula. It is over 130 years old, about 8 km long and it overlooks the seafront giving quick access to the city beaches. The park is a pleasant place to go for a walk and serves as the green lungs of an otherwise overdeveloped Varna.
7. The world’s first ballet competition was founded in Varna in 1964. Half a century later it is still going strong, taking place every two years in July on the stage of the Summer Theatre. Some of the most famous dancers in the world were discovered after winning Varna International Ballet Competition. Among them are Mikhail Baryshnikov and Sylvie Guillem.
8. A big cup of rainbow-coloured slush puppy costs just over half a pound from one of the many colourful street stalls in Varna. A nice restaurant meal can easily cost less than 10 pounds per person. The very favourable rate of the British pound against the Bulgarian lev makes Varna a rather affordable destination.
9. A tall monument called The Pantheon crowns the longest alley in the Sea Park. Its full name is The Pantheon of the Perished in the Fight Against Fascism and it is a prime example of socialist (brutalist) art. Before the Fall of the Berlin Wall, teenagers from the secondary schools around town were required to spend a few days every school year as guards of honour of the monument and its eternal flame. Newly married couples would have their pictures taken in front of the Pantheon right after their marriage ceremony and before driving off to their reception. Nowadays, the eternal flame has long been extinguished, but The Pantheon still stands, having survived the cull of socialist monuments and memorials across Bulgaria in the early 90’s.
10. Just outside Varna is one of the few desert habitats in Europe. Most importantly, among the sand dunes stand up dozens of stone columns which are up to seven meters high. The so called Stone Forest is a one of a kind natural phenomenon. Several scientific theories and popular legends aim to offer an explanation how it came to be. Read more about this fantastic place here.
11. From Billa to Costa Coffee you will find the same multinational companies in Varna as all over Europe, so any sudden craving you may have will be easily satisfied.
12. At the same time, make sure that you sample the local cuisine with its skillfully grilled juicy pork meat, imaginative salads and irresistible brine cheese. Local tomatoes, fully ripened in the sun, are an unmissable delight. Read more about ten traditional dishes you must try in Bulgaria here.
13. The first railway in Bulgaria was built in Varna in 1866 and connected the city with Russe – a Bulgarian town on the Danube river.
14. Up until 1885 Varna used to be one of the stops of the legendary Orient Express. The passengers would reach Bulgaria after having travelled across Europe taking in France, Germany, Austria and Romania. Once in Varna, they would get a ferry to Istanbul.
15. The longest bridge in Bulgaria is in Varna. The Asparuhov Bridge is just over 2 km long. It passes over the canals connecting the Black Sea with the Lake Varna. It handles significant traffic every day.
16. A bungee club has a permanent spot on the 50 meters high Asparuhov Bridge. It organises bungee jumps daily during the peak summer season.
17. The best panoramic spot to take photos of Varna is just outside Galata – a former village turned into one of the city’s quarters. Galata is on the opposite to Varna shore of the Varna Bay. It offers unparalleled views of the whole city brimmed by the sea. It is particularly lovely at night as the most important buildings are illuminated with colourful lights.
18. Just 17 km outside Varna is the most important rock monastery on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. The medieval Aladzha Monastery was hewn in the rocks and was active between the 13th and the beginning of the 16th centuries. Read more about this fascinating place here.
19. Varna is less than an hour away from the capitals of the First Bulgarian Empire – Pliska and Preslav. Thus you can easily have a fabulous day trip exploring archaeological excavations, exciting museums and the remains of the Great Basilica. The latter was built during the Christianisation of Bulgaria 1150 years ago. Read more about Pliska – the first capital of Bulgaria – here.
20. In Varna you will find the forth largest preserved Roman baths in Europe, which are also the largest ones on the Balkan peninsula. The Roman Thermae were built in the 2nd century AD. Every five years they would serve as the centre of major athletic games. Read more about Varna’s Roman Baths here.
21. Night clubs and restaurants line the city’s waterfront and stretch onto the city’s beaches. In summer they are besieged by crowds ready to chill and party. There is something very nice about digging your toes in the sand while enjoying a leisurely chat with your friends and a cold drink and the sea is lapping just a few feet away from your table.
22. The first international music festival in Bulgaria was founded in Varna back in 1926. Nowadays it is called Varna Summer and it is still being organised every year. You can see the royal piano bought for its first edition in the Museum of History of Varna.
23. Talking about museums, don’t miss the Naval Museum in the Sea Garden. Among other things, there you will find a collection of real-life water- and aircrafts. Among them is ‘Druzki’ (meaning ‘Intrepid’ in Bulgarian). This is a torpedo boat representative of the torpedo boats which prevented the shelling of Varna by the Ottoman army during the Balkan wars. Another famous exhibit here is the yacht ‘Cor Caroli’ of the first solitary sailing round the world by a Bulgarian navigator.
24. The most iconic place in Varna is the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God. Everyone knows where it is and how to get there from any point in town. It is part of Varna’s history and urban mythology. Read more about it here.
25. Theatrical performances for kids are held both at the Puppet Theatre and its summer stage in the Sea Garden. Take your child there for an hour of magical stories. The language doesn’t really matter, as performances are geared to be understood by the little ones and are interspersed with lots of music.
Click here to read the second part of my exhaustive list with 50 reasons to visit the Bulgarian city of Varna known as the Pearl of the Black Sea. Have fun exploring this exciting city!
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