Tucked away in the top left corner of the map of Bulgaria, Vidin is the country’s northwestern-most town. Situated on a bend of the majestic Danube River opposite Romania and not far from Serbia, Vidin, “The Danube’s Eternal Guardian”, lies at the centre of a Balkan region that is often undeservedly underestimated by travellers.
With its long history as a stronghold of the Bulgarian Northwest, its impressive vistas of Central Europe’s longest river and its eclectic architectural and cultural heritage, Vidin is a wonderful destination off the beaten path. From entering Bulgaria’s best-preserved medieval castle to exploring the imposing ruins of the former synagogue, kashkaval tourist presents 7 things to do in the regal Vidin in the Bulgarian Northwest
1. Have a medieval experience in Bulgaria’s truest castle: Baba Vida.
Standing proudly by the southern bank of the Danube, the impressive Baba Vida castle is perhaps Vidin’s best claim to fame. Baba Vida was constructed in the 10th century, establishing Vidin as the key fortress of this often rebellious and separatist northwestern region of the Bulgarian Empire. Though it was briefly conquered by the Hungarians and the Austrians, it was the Ottomans that last used the castle as a fortification up until the late 18th century.
Remarkably, Baba Vida has been preserved in its entirety, including a moat, two curtain walls and numerous defensive towers for you to see and tour. Cross the draw bridge into the main courtyard, see the medieval prison and torture chambers and then climb up the tunnel to the higher level complete with Ottoman-era cannons… and mesmerizing river views!
2. Pay your respects to the Northwest’s biggest church: the Cathedral of St Demetrius
The construction of Vidin’s cathedral church commenced in 1885, and with its elaborate architecture it remains one of the biggest and most beautiful Bulgarian Orthodox cathedrals. Designed by Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian architects and Italian engineers, the Cathedral of St Demetrius mixes Orthodox and Western influences. And its turret clock, built by the Munich clockmaker Johann Mannhardt, has been working without a fault since 1900!
Inside the church, you can see some impressive (and rather unusual) Art Nouveau frescoes from the 1920s. On one of the walls, the artist painted 19th-century Bulgarian National Revival heroes like Vasil Levski, Hristo Botev and Georgi Rakovski… in medieval attire! And what’s more, they’re all depicted as being blessed by Bulgaria’s national saint, John of Rila, who lived in the 10th century. For the interior of a religious site, the painting is truly bizarre and quite unorthodox indeed!
3. See the heritage of the mighty rebel Osman Pazvantoğlu
At the turn of the 19th century, Vidin was the capital of a powerful separatist leader, Osman Pazvantoğlu. Pazvantoğlu established himself as a practically independent ruler from Belgrade to the Black Sea, undermining Ottoman power in vast domains of the empire.
In Vidin, you can still visit the mosque and library of Osman Pazvantoğlu and imagine what it was like to live in this turbulent time. Though the town’s Muslim community is nowadays very small, the two buildings from 1802 and 1803 are meticulously maintained and open for visitors, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In 1801, the separatist leader also built the curious Cross-shaped Barracks, a monumental white building that now hosts the local history museum.
4. Enjoy a stroll along the Danube Park and dine on the river
Vidin may be quite far away from the Bulgarian Black Sea’s excellent beaches, but in the warm summer evenings, the winding Danube is a great place for a leisurely walk! A shaded alley with benches and a promenade follow the river from the city centre towards the Baba Vida castle, with views of several Danube islands and the New Europe Bridge towards Romania.
And if it’s time for lunch or dinner, several boat restaurants offer delicious Bulgarian cuisine on the river itself. Hop on board and have a hearty Balkan meal with fruity rakia or some northwestern Gamza wine!
5. Explore the grandiose ruins of the once-thriving Vidin Synagogue
Vidin’s ancient Jewish community has left a mark on the history of Europe, with famous sons like Parisian artist Jules Pascin and founding father of Greek communism Avraam Benaroya. The town’s substantial Jewish population funded the construction of an imposing synagogue in 1894. In terms of size and aesthetics, the Vidin Synagogue was second only to the Sofia Synagogue – though in the last few decades, it has descended into ruin.
As most Bulgarian Jews settled in Israel in the 1940s, Vidin’s Jewish community was deserted. The synagogue was used as a warehouse by the communist authorities and then it was completely abandoned to the elements. Today, it sticks out like a sore thumb in the Danube Park, though one might argue it makes for an awe-inspiring urban exploration site for adrenaline-seeking travellers.
6. Walk through the Ottoman gates in the formerly walled town centre, Kaleto
As typical for mid-sized Bulgarian towns, Vidin’s central streets are an eclectic mix of fine Viennese-inspired town houses and mildly brutalist public buildings from the communist era. What sets Vidin apart is that it was formerly surrounded by the Ottoman fortress of Kaleto, of which many of the ornate gates have been preserved. The elaborate defensive system dates to the 17th-18th century and the town gates still bear colourful names like the Market, Artillery, Janissary, Palace, Istanbul or Florentine Gate… and even the Exile or Telegraph Gate!
Of all these, the Istanbul Gate (Стамбол капия, Stambol kapia) is perhaps the best-known because of its impressive architecture and the beautiful fountain in front. Conveniently, it also lies on the edge of the main town square, so you have no excuse to miss it!
7. Marvel at the gigantic New Europe Bridge connecting Bulgaria and Romania
With its length of nearly two kilometres spanning the Lower Danube, the New Europe Bridge between Vidin and Calafat is a true engineering wonder! It was opened in 2013 to connect northwestern Bulgaria and southwestern Romania by road and rail. Thanks to this modern cable-stayed bridge, it’s significantly easier to explore Oltenia and the Iron Gates region from Bulgaria.
What’s more, as of 2016 crossing the New Europe Bridge costs just 6 euro per car and it’s even free for pedestrians or cyclists (though the bridge is some way out of town, be advised). So you can easily make a quick trip to the Romanian town of Calafat on the other bank of the Danube or even visit Craiova, the capital of Oltenia, just a couple of hours away from Vidin.