Bulgaria’s third city is a Black Sea Port and has been a summer retreat for everyone from Bulgarian nobility to young party-going holidaymakers for more than a century. Young things in their late-teens and 20s can hit Varna’s bars and nightclubs, but people of all ages will find something to their taste here.
The oldest gold treasure in the world (6k years-old) is on display at the city’s archaeology museum and if that’s not enough you can see fantastical natural rock formations, hike through a real desert, travel back to communist times or spend hot days chilling on a sandy beach by the Black Sea.
Here are the best things to do in Varna:
The Sea Garden
A massive park that runs along the seafront and cuts into the city for quite a way too, the Sea Garden is a national monument of landscaped architecture.
This is where Varna’s citizens come to relax and have fun at attractions like the Dophinarium and zoo for families, and casino for grown-ups.
The Sea Garden has plenty to see and do, but on a blistering day nothing beats an easy restorative wander along the broad promenades, next to flowerbeds and in the shade of the palms and deciduous trees.
As you walk see if you can find the statue of Yuri Gagarin in the Alley of the Cosmonauts: Gagarin himself inaugurated this part of the garden in front of large crowds in 1961.
Varna’s Roman heritage has given the city a trove of precious artefacts, but the Gold of Varna exhibit pushes the Archaeological Museum up the list of must-sees.
This is what most visitors come for: A collection of gold and precious items recovered from the Varna Necropolis, where Thracian graves date back an amazing 6,500 years.
This makes the Gold of Varna the oldest gold treasure in the world. These artefacts have toured the word and contain numerous pieces of jewellery, utensils and other decorative items.
One tomb at the necropolis, probably belonging to a chief or priest, was loaded with 1.5 kg of gold!
Just beyond Varna’s northeastern suburbs is an astounding Orthodox cave monastery complex that is part of a protected natural area just in from the coast.
These caves are man-made and have been purposely carved from the face of a 25-metre-high karst cliff. It’s one for the sure-footed, as some of the terrain can be tough! Inside the monastery you can see boasting mosaics that have survived very well, and medieval frescoes that have been partly lost.
From there you can walk the short trail through the forest to get to two catacombs.
The shining copper domes of this majestic church form one of the city’s postcard scenes.
The cathedral was built not long after the Bulgarian Liberation from the Ottomans by the Russians in the late-19th century, and was modelled on the temple at Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg.
More than 50 of the icons that you can see in the church’s cavernous interior were donated by the Russian Tsar Nicholas II in the early 20th century, and much of the other decoration that you can see inside was added in stages because of war.
For instance, the huge stained-glass windows weren’t installed until the 1960s.
Battle of Varna Park Museum
This museum marks the site of one of the pivotal moments in European late-medieval history. At Varna in 1444 a Hungarian-Polish Christian Army was defeated by Sultan Murad II’s Ottoman Army.
This gave way to several centuries of Turkish dominance in the region, leading right up to the late-19th century.
The park is set to the west of Varna and its buildings feature a permanent exhibition of 15th-century weapons and armour picked up from the aftermath of the battle.
Take time to explore the rest of the park, because the city’s mausoleum is here as well as Thracian barrows containing tombs from 4,000BC.
A little further on from the battlefield is a strange natural phenomenon at what is the only desert in Bulgaria.
The Stone Forest is a field of stone columns, some seven metres high covering an area of about 13 square kilometres.
These columns are hollow and have been formed by a process known as methane oxidation caused by tiny organisms, but it’s difficult to believe they’re not man-made.
The columns well worth a few snaps, but you can also have a look around the only desert on the European continent apart from Tabernas in Spain.
Varna Roman Baths
Just to the southeast of Varna is a bath complex that once belonged to the Roman city of Odessus.
These baths date back to the year 100: They’re among the largest Roman Thermae to survive in Europe, and only second of all those outside Rome.
One section of the building is 25 metres tall and you can clearly make out all of the original facilities.
You can even see the remnants of the typocaust, which heated the baths via a network of underground pipes. Elevated walkways give you a bird’s eye view, and the baths are unforgettable at night when they’re all lit up.
For a blast from the not too distant past, Varna’s Retro Museum sheds light on the city during socialist times.
The museum is set in the Grand Mall and has curated pretty much every aspect of daily living from the 20th century that you could care to think of.
There are Bulgarian cigarettes, kitchen utensils, vacuum cleaners and cosmetics. These are next to wax figures of the most prominent public figures, like the singer Emil Dimitrov, and of course Todor Zhivkov, the head of state throughout this time.
The marquee attraction here though is the collection of 50 cars, with boxy Skodas, Trabants and Volgas, plus a Chaika limo that transported Politburo members.
University Botanical Garden
If you’ve brought the whole clan with you to Varna this is an afternoon out that everyone can get behind.
You could visit the peaceful surrounds of this 360-hectare park and arboretum for a simple stroll or to take a picnic in the shade.
The Botanical Garden opened in 1977 and contains 300 species of plants and bushes.
If you come in early-summer you’ll be treated to the lovely spectacle of the gardens’ 250 species of iris and 30 rose species in bloom.
The Wonderful Rocks
These weird rockforms were awarded “National Phenomenon” status by the government in 1949.
Like the Stone Forest it’s a landscape that needs to be seen to be believed.
Here are what you can only describe as 50 metre-stone needles that stand on the riverside like the towers of some great abstract fortress.
The rocks are limestone and their alien shapes are the upshot of eons of wind and water erosion.
Rock climbers love these bluffs, though if you’re just a casual walker you’ll get a great view of the needles by following the tunnel that cuts beneath them.
This unusual attraction helps both tourists and Varna residents get in touch with Bulgaria’s old ways.
It can best be described as an open air museum that you can stay in.
There are five traditional houses here, as well as a restaurant built from stone and wood sourced locally.
You can see the area’s typical crafts and clothing at the ethnographic museum and you can also catch performances of traditional dance, songs and various rituals rooted in Bulgarian folklore.
The complex is in a true country idyll, next to a river and beneath green hills dotted with cattle that even provide the milk for yoghurt served at the restaurant.
Museum of the History of Medicine
The University of Varna hosts the only attraction dedicated to the history of medicine in the Balkans.
It’s not just for budding doctors; there’s a chronology of medical practice in Bulgaria since Ancient Thrace through the Ancient Greeks, Romans and the early days of Bulgarian independence, each era represented by authentic artefacts discovered locally.
The museum displays some 4,000 medical volumes, as well as natural history exhibits covering the timeline of human development in the region.
Modern medicine is also covered, in the form of an x-ray machine and ultrasound scanner.
This was once a monastery, but in the in the years that followed the Bulgarian Revival, the head of state Prince Ferdinand I hired architects from France to design the formal gardens around a French-style chateau.
He imported plant species like the Atlantic cedar for the grounds, and greenhouses were put up to winter the gardens’ exotic plant species such as palms.
A winery was also built in the monastery’s converted cellar, complete with a small bottling plant.
Today the palace is a summer residence for the president, but visitors can take a turn around the gardens with their topiaries, and visit most of the palace’s outer buildings.
In summer the temperatures in Varna soar to the high-20s, but luckily you’ll always have the option of cooling off at this Black Sea resort a quick drive or bus ride up the shore.
A quiet, family-friendly choice is the private Nirvana Beach with an undeveloped seafront equipped only with a beach bar.
The main beachfront of the resort looks a bit like a Mediterranean destination such as Marbella, with high-rise apartments, hotels over bars and nightclubs, next to a broad strip of the golden sand that gives this resort its imaginative name!
Amusement Park Varna
One for the little guys, Varna’s Amusement Park is part of the Sea Garden and will help kids burn off some of that excess energy.
It’s a series of little attractions and rides, including bumper cars, carousels, mini-roller coasters, a lake with dinghies, a Ferris wheel and trampolines with a kind of bungee rope contraption that kids will want to bounce on for hours.
Older children and teenagers won’t find too much to entertain them, but this park is ideal for the littler members of the family.