Based on the northern end of Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, Varna is Bulgaria’s third biggest city (and apparently fighting Plovdiv to take second place) and a contender for the 2019 European City of Culture.
It’s accessible via the nearby Varna airport (which will temporarily close this autumn for improvement work) or as a short bus journey from the Golden Sands resort.
We stayed at Hotel Hi, a centrally located boutique hotel notable for its exceptionally friendly staff and quirky decorative embellishments.
Local alternatives include the Cherno More, a towering presence that looks like it’s been lifted from a south London estate yet offers exceptional views and all manner of entertainment (albeit with an almost comically barren reception), or the Odessos which is perched just seconds from the Sea Garden and the beach.
On the whole, Varna’s attractions are interesting if essentially brief distractions. The Archaelogical Museum is held in high repute yet is currently hamstrung by renovation work, as is the Military Museum which is compensating for the closure of its main building by opening its grounds for free. Also located in the sprawling Sea Gardens is a well presented aquarium and a planetarium. The ominous appearance of the Varna Museum of History is a misnomer given the warm welcome afforded by the engaging multilingual host (I know now that the first winner of Miss Varna was Polish; previously I didn’t even know that there was a Miss Varna).
Perhaps the city’s most impressive site is The Dormition of the Theotokos Cathedral, a distinctive domed cathedral that dates back to 1886. In contrast, visitors to the Roman Thermae should possess a greater than average knowledge of archaeology and/or a very rich imagination.
Most commonly accessed via the Sea Garden’s gate, Varna’s beach is long, sandy and densely populated. Despite the seemingly endless procession of primarily multi-purpose bars, clubs, restaurants and cafes, it’s low-key in comparison to the nearby Golden Sands.
For most visitors to Varna, the pedestrianised stretch of Knyaz Boris I to Slivnitsa (running from the city centre to the Sea Garden) and aleya Georgi Georgiev (parallel to the beach) are the most likely destinations to grab a bite to eat. The food on offer is primarily based around hefty salads, a variety of seafood and lightly spiced grilled meat, although there’s the usual range of international dishes too. It’s manageable for vegetarians but vegans would surely struggle for options.
Highly recommended is Pre Monahinite (At The Nuns), a restaurant set in a quiet churchyard. Some of the options are curious (a kebab encased in a thick pie of omelette, chicken hearts with butter, goat cheese drizzled in honey) but uniformly excellent.
The omnipresent Happy Bar & Grill is a more conservative option and pretty decent as far as chains go, its short-skirted, tight-topped waitresses dressed for maximum commercial gain. The terminally unadventurous can try the McDonalds opposite the Cherno More Hotel.
In most venues, main courses are unlikely to exceed 9 leva (£4) and can generally be had for far less. The most expensive course I ordered was a well executed 16 lev (£7.20) schnitzel at Bistro Europe.
Again tourists will generally be centred on the same areas as they’d eat in; roads away from the main drag offered very little in terms of other venues, especially in terms of places in which drink was the main or sole attraction. For the loudest clubs, head to the beach and follow your ears. Those seeking something a little quieter will struggle to find much that’s either open or atmospheric past approximately 11pm.
A personal favourite was Bar Saloon, one of the few examples of drinking-orientated bars on a quiet road just away from the main stretch. For more obvious seaside drinking, Pench’s is great fun, but be warned: anyone seeking to try each of the Guinness World Record cocktail list (currently consisting of 1227 drinks) may well suffer from an extreme and final hangover.
The Cherno More hotel site holds many further alternatives including an excellent first floor cocktail bar, a top floor bar which veers between chaotically busy and intimidatingly empty, and a disappointing wine club that seemed to shut up shop early due to a lack of custom.
I can’t claim any expertise on Bulgarian wine, so a brief guide to the beer. Stolichno stands out against the competition of cold Mythos style summer lagers such as Zagorka, Kamenitza, Ariana and Shumensko. You can get international brands at premium, in order of quality: Staropramen >>>>> Guinness >>>> Stella >>>> Carlsberg >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Tuborg.
A 500ml bottle or draft Bulgarian beer is generally priced between 1.90-3 lev (85p-£1.35).
Quirks and oddities
Animal lovers who can’t finish their kebapcheta won’t struggle to find a happy recipient for their leftovers with stray dogs and cats all over the place. The dogs are mellow, dopey types and the cats – sometimes missing an eye or a tail, almost always skinny and grubby if cute in their own way – scrounge for leftovers 24/7.
Saturday night karaoke at the Cherno More’s top floor is a surreal experience. Not only are the inhabitants apparently far wealthier than anyone else that you’d see throughout the day, but lesser able vocalists are complemented with a male and female vocalist, a piano player, and what sounds suspiciously like auto-tune. Surely no-one with an eastern European accent can possess the near exact timbre of James Hetfield’s growly croon?
Other nearby sites
Golden Sands is the most obvious destination for a brief upgrade from urban beaching, even if the resort itself is of the identikit type. Just a few miles away is the strange site of the Aladzha Monastery. It’s an impressive site, although one that might reprise questions about the sanity of monks.
Nesebar possesses a picturesque historic old town populated with churches and ruins that can be reached by bus or hovercraft (more on that later), while excursions or buses can take you anywhere from Sofia to Istanbul.
Varna is undoubtedly an enticing place which holds a range of possibilities for the tourist. At the same time, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly who it should be pitched to – beach bums would be better placed with a resort and it’s too small to really grab cultural enthusiasts. It’s a strong option for the niche that wants sunshine with big town / small city substance but even then somewhere like Rhodes city is a superior option.
It does have, however, have a lot of character from the slightly rough edges to the masses of locals who seem to take a stroll each night. Perhaps with fresh marketing, more prominent excursions and a greater emphasis on utilising its port history, Varna could take its appeal to the next level. Not that such a move would necessarily be welcomed locally.