If you've made it this far, I'm so glad I haven't scared you off with my stories because seriously, I was blown away by Varna and I want you to see it!
Bulgaria is not usually on people's travel shortlist but I think it's time you updated your list already. Like sure, who doesn't want to go to Bali? But everyone's got the same Instagram shots from Bali, so if you're looking for something a bit different with all the awesome beach vibes, adventure and where your money seems to last forever (and flights are as low as £80 return - Luton to Varna) then read on.
The only time I'd heard Bulgaria mentioned by fellow Brits was in relation to skiing, but aside from that, when people heard I was going to Bulgaria I would be asked "Why are you going there?". But with flights so cheap and the pound stretching so far once you arrive, it'd be silly not to consider Varna for your next getaway. Situated beside the Black Sea, Varna has beaches, it has museums, it has history, it has great food and great culture!
Granted, I went slightly off season in September so I just caught the last of the good weather, but a couple of weeks beforehand would have also had you in good stead. The best times to visit Varna are between May and September with the height of summer in August at around 30 degrees(Celsius).
Here are some of the awesome things to see and do in Varna.
Art & History
Free Walking Tour
I recommend you start at the tourist information centre with this tour. They do free walking city tours (come rain or shine, unfortunately rain for me) throughout the center of Varna. The tour lasts for around 3 hours and takes you past most of the main points of interest around the city. The tour guide is very knowledgeable and will answer any questions you have.
The main religion on Bulgaria is Orthodox Christianity and has been since the 9th century. There are many churches in Bulgaria but a couple are really worth viewing inside and out.
Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral
Stunning architecture with Ottoman influence, this is one of the defining icons of the city. It is the largest church in Varna and the third largest in the whole of Bulgaria! Inside is filled with ancient religious murals and is awe-inspiring. Make sure you have a look inside.
Saint Nicholas Church
Another gorgeous little church, though maybe unassuming on the outside is full of beautiful old religious artwork. A peaceful vibe, with candles lit and people coming here to pray and show respect to their saints.
Art Galleries & Museums
There are many museums and galleries in Varna, depending on what you like, I'm certain you'll find one to interest you. Consider visiting the Contemporary Space if you like somewhere super chilled. I enjoyed the art displayed in the space there but I loved that there was also a cafe where you could grab a coffee and read a book in this contemporary art environment.
But you can also enjoy the Museum of New History, the Maritime museum, Archaeological museum, or even the Naval museum which has some pretty cool anchors and ships displayed as you walk past the museum in the Sea Garden.
The Sea Garden
The Sea Garden is an 850 deacre long stretch of greenery that runs alongside the sea. This public park serves as a city garden and seaside park to the many residents and tourists alike. Cyclists commute on this long stretch, fitness enthusiasts jog and children play in the gardens. You will see tourists taking photos by the large "Varna" sign by the large pillars that mark the main gateway to the gardens.
As well as the beautiful array of plant species from all over the world, you will find monuments dedicated to important Bulgarian figures throughout. A large sundial welcomes you into the garden as you pass the main gates and to the right you will see what used to be an open air theatre, which is now an Observatory and Planetarium.
Nicolaus Copernicus National Astronomical Observatory and Planetarium
This happens to be the first ever astronomical complex in Bulgaria. And indeed it is also the largest planetarium in the Balkans. It's a great place to visit if you have an interest in astronomy, but be warned that a lot of the information is in Bulgarian.
In the heart of the Sea Garden, and adjacent to the Dolphinarium as well as the Natural History Museum, this zoo has everything from bears to kangaroos.
Since 2007, the zoo has served as a rescue center for animals. With the assistance of the Regional Inspectorate of Environment and Waters of Varna, over 100 protected bird species have been rehabilitated and returned to nature.
Aquarium The aquarium in Varna is also hidden within the Sea Garden, it mostly exhibits over 140 fish species from the Black Sea's flora and fauna but you can also see some freshwater fish, Mediterranean fish as well as exotic species from around the world.
Natural & Man-made Wonders
Constructed in the late 2nd century AD, these ruins are the fourth-largest preserved Roman thermae in Europe and also the largest in the Balkans. They were once roman baths large enough to fit the entire city of Varna in, and for a very long time remained mostly hidden until its full uncovering beginning in 1959.
For a small fee of around 5 lev, you can go inside and have a look close up - I really recommend doing this as it takes you right back to the 2nd century!
Also known as the Cave Monastery, this is a medieval cave complex inbuilt to the side of a cliff! It stands on 2 levels 25 meters high carved into the limestone cliffside within a protected forest area known as Zlatni Pyasatsi. Orthodox Christian monks used to use this space within the 13th and 14th centuries and it's remained preserved ever since. You will see coins that have been left in crevices from religious people who seek to show respect and even may find prayers stuffed into these crevices - but you should note that this isn't allowed as it only damages the walls of the caves.
Pobiti Kamani (The Stone Forest)
Wow, this place is a MUST visit (though maybe not the way I went - read my last post for details). Known as the Stone Forest or the Stone Desert, this is a natural phenomenon in the middle of literally nowhere! The best way to get there is by car, you can get a taxi for around 25lev each way, but if you book a tour with the tourist information center in Varna, they have a tour both here and to the Aladzha Monastery for 25lev. OR you can do like me and try to take the bus for 2lev - that's 2 buses and a 40 minute walk but I DON'T recommend this (particularly not on your own)!
These stone pillars look man-made and are randomly standing over an area of 13km2. The ground is a fine sand, which would usually be found at the beach or in the desert, but the surrounding areas are (rather dry) fields and hills. They are naturally formed, though geologists haven't figured out how - some theories say that this area used to be a huge lake.
Definitely worth a visit!
Beaches & Spas
Aquahouse Thermal & Beach With 14 pools, both indoors and out, this is the biggest aqua and spa complex in all of Bulgaria. There are also saunas, steam baths, jacuzzis, salt rooms, a hamam, a gym, and a yoga studio. So if you're looking to relax or for a healthy retreat, this is the place!
It's right by the sea meaning it can draw on the natural features of the area; the sun, the sea and nature.
The really cool thing is that all the pools are naturally warm because it's using the water from its own mineral springs! There is also a lovely restaurant where you can eat some lunch and when you're done at the spa, you can carry on the chillaxing at the beach right next to the spa.
I rather enjoyed the views on this platform that extended out to sea, do I mean the sea view or the Statue of Neptune?
I also didn't mind posing as the little mermaid in this shell throne which happens to be right beside some cannons that point out to sea.
Golden Beach This major seaside resort is very popular with the Varna residents with shopping centres, sports facilities and a major water park. If you have a yacht to park, don't worry, there's a marine there for you and if you fancy some posh activities you can also go horse riding at a equestrian school.
There happens to be a rather large forest right next door also known as the Golden Sands national park. Hot water springs cascade from the nature park making this area so popular with tourists.
Now, I don't know if this is the actual name of the beach or just one of the bars but this whole beach front has a lot going on! Bars and restaurants form a barrier between the Sea Garden and the beach and the waves are gentle as they lap against the shore. The water of the black sea is not ... black, like I imagines but a lovely clear blue! Having a nice little swim, it wasn't too cold even in September and it was almost like a swimming pool!
I enjoyed grabbing a fresh orange juice or a cocktail, some fresh deep fried whitebait and some much needed sun time. Most of the beachfront bars were very reasonably priced with the exception of one rather posh bar, The Sea Terrace, which was particularly popular after hours. It offered some great views over the beachfront and some great quality food and drink.
Head to the Makalali bar or Cubo, which apparently is where the cool kids hang out! You won't be disappointed by the cocktails, I can personally vouch for that. ;)
Food & Nightlife
Aside from the beach bars, Varna has so much to offer in terms of food and nightlife. From markets to cafes, from bakeries to tapas bars and even hidden underground bars!
There are many street markets around Varna city center. People come from the mountains or the local villages with produce from their areas to sell in the city. Fruits, nuts, honey or even books are among the things you can buy in these street markets and it all looks incredibly delicious!
Пекарна „Жонел“ as the sign displays, was my absolute favourite bakery! I went here daily for the tastiest Tutmanik (Bulgarian cheese bread). A warm and soft traditional bread usually made from white flour stuffed with white hard cheese, it's usually made on special occasions or for a family breakfast.
The queue at this bakery was always out of the door, which just goes to show how popular it is. Make sure you pay a visit!
This cafe had a really large selection of teas, coffees and cakes to choose from. Being right by the fountain, I really enjoyed the chilled out vibe!
I loved that this cafe was all about organic, fresh, free-from produce! They make fresh, raw cold-pressed juices, healthy freshly made dairy free salads and sandwiches, natural raw and vegan desserts (which taste amazing)!
This gorgeous little place had all the Greek tavern vibes that I had from my time in Thasos but with an absolutely stunning garden and beautiful overhanging vines full of juicy grapes.
I'd suggest enjoying a drink and a snack here as it's pretty overpriced for what it is and I wasn't all that impressed by the food. The atmosphere certainly made up for it!
The Brick Bar
I loved the vibe here, they did shisha for those who enjoy a smoke and they did a great Aperol spritz and some really tasty nibbles! Inside, there's live music to vibe to - it's really packed though, especially on the weekend.
Kultura Speakeasy Bar
So when 3 guys I met told me that they wanted to take me to a bar that's actually hidden in a basement, I wasn't sure whether or not to believe them. But it turns out, this speakeasy is exactly that - a hidden bar in a basement! You walk into what appears to be apartments, then you head downstairs and ring the bell, then someone looks through the letter box and asks you for the secret knock - if you know it, you're in!
It's very popular so the tables get booked up pretty quickly, so make sure you book in advance! They have some really unique drinks - I enjoyed the one with tequila and coconut!
Piano Bar Sinatra
Atop the 5 star Cherno More hotel, this bar has the most stunning views over Varna! With top-notch cocktails and mixers, live music and even Brazillian dancers - I had a fantastic time in the event that was being held at the bar. So, to be honest, I actually found one of the waitresses (who turned out to be a singer also) very rude and snobby - but my friends and I found out that this was something we should have booked in advance. The entry was 15lev, which is very expensive for Bulgaria (but cheap for the UK), but I don't believe this was a normal evening. It was money well spent as I would definitely say, with the dancing, singing & drumming - it was unforgettable!
So there you have it! These are only some of the awesome spots for you guys to check out. I really hope you will consider adding Varna to the bucket list!
Let me know what you think, and if you have any questions.
Ciao for now,