By Mary Charlebois and Kevin Scanlon
GoNOMAD Senior Writers
Varna, on the Black Sea Riviera of Bulgaria, was the first stop of our journey. When the train clattered into the red and white Art Nouveau and Neo-Baroque station, we began talking about what the station must have been like in the 1920s when it was built.
Bustling porters would have carried trunks, hat boxes, and bags for well-heeled passengers boarding the Orient Express. The iconic train still stops here once a year. Like others leaving the train, we were ready to start our adventure in Varna, a pearl on the Black Sea Riviera.
Eight Weeks In Bulgaria Began With Varna
After hours of research to determine what EU, non-Schengen country would have the best cost of living and variety of landscapes, small towns, and cities, Bulgaria was number one on our list. We booked our flights and decided Varna would be our first extended-stay destination. We reserved two weeks in vacation rentals where we would stay in the town center near bus stops, shops, and eateries.
Why We Chose Varna
Varna is a port city facing the Black Sea located on the eastern coast of Bulgaria. It is the third largest city in Bulgaria, with a population of 335,000, covering 92 square miles. Varna is known for its beaches, seafood, international cuisine, ubiquitous green spaces, rich history, and budget-friendly cost of living.
For over 100 years, Varna has been a seaside holiday destination for Europeans. In the 1920s, it was a playground for the wealthy and famous.
Places We Loved In Varna
There are hundreds of things to do in Varna, but we didn’t try to cover them all. Instead, we chose places that interested us deeply, immersed ourselves, and took our time.
Varna’s Sea Garden is a scenic and expansive park that stretches along the Black Sea Coast for over 4.3 miles. Locals and visitors gather at the Sea Garden for its lush, cool greenery, scenic views, and holiday atmosphere. The park has walking paths, bike trails, and numerous beaches for swimming and sunning. It is perfect for a stroll or a picnic with family and friends.
Sea Garden has many attractions and amenities. You can explore ancient Roman baths, the ruins of an ancient fortress, and the Archaeological Museum, which houses an impressive collection of artifacts starting in the 6th millennium BC. The park also has a zoo, an aquarium, water slides, an observatory, and a dolphinarium. In addition, several monuments honoring Bulgaria’s heroes are in gardens and along pathways.
Beaches In Varna’s Sea Garden
There are numerous restaurants on the beach at Sea Garden. Most eateries and bars offer lounge chairs and umbrellas at no charge.
Museum of Archaeology
The Museum of Archaeology in Varna has an enormous collection of artifacts dating back to the 4th millennium BC. The exhibits are well-curated and arranged chronologically, providing an understanding of the region’s evolution.
The most popular exhibit is the Varna Gold Treasure, which includes gold objects, jewelry, and ornaments believed to date back to the 4th millennium BC. There is also an extensive collection of pottery, tools, weapons, and other artifacts from different periods of Bulgarian history. Docents are available to take a guided tour. Entrance is 10 BGN ($5.00).
Museum of New History of Varna
The Museum of New History of Varna illuminates the city’s modern history from the late 19th century. Exhibits include artifacts, documents, photographs, and multimedia displays that provide insights into the city’s political, economic, social, and cultural development during this period.
The museum has several sections dedicated to a particular aspect of Varna’s history, such as its industrialization, urbanization, and cultural diversity. One of the most exciting exhibits is the collection of photographs and films that depict the city’s growth and transformation over the years.
PRO TIP: Varna has many museums to visit. You will easily find one that interests you. Try Visit Varna’s museum list for details.
Saint Paraskeva Church
Saint Paraskeva Church in Varna was originally a tiny 14th-century family chapel. Located in the Greek Neighborhood, it is the oldest standing church in Varna. It is also the smallest. Like most Eastern Orthodox churches, the interior is covered with paintings of saints and biblical stories. Most of the icons are priceless treasures. The low wood ceilings are unusual. Most churches have domed roofs and/or towering ceilings.
PRO TIP: Plan your visit to the Museum of New History and Saint Paraskeva Church on the same day. They are located across the street from one another.
The Roman Thermae, or Roman baths, as they are called, are located in the city center of Varna. Built in the 2nd century AD, they are the largest baths in the Balkans. At 75,348 square feet, they are very large indeed. The baths are primarily ruins but still maintain the footprint of the walls and rooms used for hot baths, cold baths, swimming, meetings, and game playing.
Eating and Drinking in Varna
Exploring food and drink in Bulgaria was one of our favorite pastimes. We tried Bulgarian cuisine in restaurants, cafes, food stands, and in our vacation rental kitchens.
Two things are everywhere in Varna — parks and cafes. The best are cafes on the edge of a tree-filled park with outdoor seating. It is common for friends and families to meet at an outdoor café for coffee in the morning and afternoon.
Bulgarians eat lots of bread, pastries, and cakes. Small neighborhood bakeries have walk-up windows where you get your daily bread and a treat or two. Pogacha, a traditional Balkan non-yeast bread, is often shaped into a small round loaf.
There are fruit and vegetable stands everywhere with fresh and delicious produce for sale.
In Varna, we found a large farmers’ market across the road from the Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral (a very popular place for visitors). Here, you can fill your larder or picnic basket with a fantastic array of produce.
Cheese and Wine Shops
Cheese and wine are abundant in Bulgaria. Most Varna neighborhoods have a shop that sells cheese, wine, condiments, and pickled vegetables. Cow, goat, and sheep cheeses were offered in fresh and aged varieties.
We had cheeses ranging from soft, mild, spreadable versions to robust aged varieties similar to cheddar. Sirene, or ‘Bulgarian Feta,’ is the most common. Cheese is a part of most meals and can be a real bargain.
Bulgarian wines complement the wide variety of cheeses. Be sure to try some of the local sparkling vino; it is light, crisp, and very inexpensive. A typical local white, sparkling, or red bottle will set you back 5 BGN ($2.50).
Favorite Varna Eateries and Watering Holes
While in Varna, we usually ate one meal daily in a café or restaurant. We cooked the others at our vacation rental. These are some of our choices in alphabetical order; we don’t want to play favorites.
Juicy Burger — is the best American-style burger in Varna. It has excellent fries and coleslaw. Beer and wine are in the cooler with soft drinks. The service was friendly, with lots of curiosity about Americans in Bulgaria.
Mr. Baba — Our first seafood meal in Varna was inside a replica of a 15th-century galleon ship. We had a mixed platter for two with fried and grilled locally caught fish and shellfish. A complimentary Lutenitsa appetizer was served with crunchy bread. The seafood was hook-to-mouth fresh. Cocktails, wine, and beer are local and imported. The service was outstanding.
Stefania — This Ukrainian restaurant was a true hidden jewel. Near the Sea Garden, the atmosphere is charming, with indoor and outdoor seating and Ukrainian-style décor. The menu combines Ukrainian and Bulgarian fish, meat, and vegetable dishes. This is a perfect place for a vegetarian or meat lover.
The Key Beer Bar — Eclectic décor based on keys and locks is fascinating. Twenty-three beers are on tap, plus they make their ale on-site. Great pub-grub, wine list, and live entertainment. It’s not easy to find, but it’s worth the hunt.
Orient Turkish Arabic Restaurant — Yes, it has a long name that could confuse Americans. They serve Turkish food, and it is unbelievable. If you are new to the cuisine, ask your server for suggestions. We loved the mixed grill and an assortment of yogurt dips with flatbread.
Where We Slept In Varna
We spent 14 nights in two different vacation rentals. However, we spent one night in Hotel Royal, an accommodation now in our top 10 worldwide. It’s small and in a quiet neighborhood that reminded us of Paris 40 years ago.
The hotel’s architecture is French Art Neuvo. It was founded in 1905 and has been the jewel of Varna since. Rooms and common areas are decorated with lavish antique furniture, art, and draperies. Spacious, beautifully appointed rooms are made for guest’s comfort and privacy.
It was confusing! Bulgarian was difficult for us because the Cyrillic alphabet made it hard to figure out words. Because English has been adopted as the business language and is taught in all schools, most people speak some English.
What About Money?
Bulgaria has not yet converted to the Euro. Their currency, called the lev, is indicated by the initials BGN. At the time of this writing, one lev was worth $0.50 or €0.51.
With prices for goods and services much lower than the US or most of Europe, we got a lot for our dollars and euros. Bulgaria is a bargain! Credit cards are widely accepted, and ATMs are everywhere.
Getting There and Around
You can fly into any of Bulgaria’s eight international airports, including Varna. We flew into Sofia, then took a train cross-country to Varna. The train took seven hours, but the scenery was outstanding. We brought a picnic of local bread, cheese, meats, and a bottle of wine. The direct train was very comfortable and cost us 34 BGN ($17) each for a First-Class ticket.
Once in Varna, the city buses are frequent, safe, clean, and comfortable. Taxies are very inexpensive. I suggest determining the fare before getting into the cab. We often walked to most places, working on our goal of 10,000 steps daily.
We chose Varna because of the Black Sea location, mild weather, culture, exceptionally well-preserved history, and low cost of living.
In our two weeks there, we also discovered welcoming locals, fresh, wholesome food, a walkable and safe city, and more parks, plazas, and walking paths than we could have experienced.