Because Bulgaria lies on a vital European crossroad, its history has inevitably been a string of battles and wars. Romans conquered Thracians, Bulgarians fought Byzantines, Ottomans fended off western crusaders, you name it. As a result, throughout the ages majestic castles and fortifications popped up throughout the Bulgarian lands.
And while few of these have been fully preserved, even those that have been ruined are impressive with their sheer grandeur. From the formidable medieval capital of the Bulgarian Empire to the Balkan version of a Disney castle, kashkaval tourist presents 8 imposing castles in Bulgaria!
1. Stronghold of emperors: Tsarevets
Towering above the historic town of Veliko Tarnovo, Tsarevets (Царевец) must be Bulgaria’s most famous medieval fortress. For some 200 years, this spacious and well-guarded castle was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. It housed the palaces of the emperor and the patriarch as well as Bulgaria’s most holy patriarchal cathedral and its dungeons were the resting place of Latin emperors and petty criminals alike.
These days, Tsarevets is famous for the Sound and Light audiovisual show, which relies on powerful lasers and searchlights to bring the historic castle to life to the tourists’ delight. Head to Veliko Tarnovo on official holidays (like 22 March, the town’s own holiday) to witness this captivating spectacle!
2. The beautiful headland: Kaliakra
Kaliakra (Калиакра) loosely means “beautiful headland”, which happens to be the perfect description for this castle’s setting. Set on the steep cliffs rising 70 metres above the depths of the Black Sea, the scenic fortress of Kaliakra may have been briefly been the capital of the independent Principality of Dobruja in the 14th century.
If you go through the castle gate and reach the very end of the headland, you’ll discover a picturesque Orthodox rock chapel. And if the sea vistas of Kaliakra have had you dreaming of a pleasant swim, then finish the day with a visit to the sheltered nearby beach of the Bolata Cove!
3. Among the bizarre rocks: Belogradchik Fortress
The Belogradchik Fortress (Белоградчишка крепост, Belogradchishka krepost) has to be one of Bulgaria’s best examples of nature and man working together to create a place of pure magic. Cleverly using the mesmerizing Belogradchik Rocks as a defensive feature and further fortifying the rocky terrain, the region’s ancient inhabitants created an almost impenetrable fortress… that is nowadays an unforgettable tourist destination.
Situated above the cozy town of Belogradchik in the Bulgarian northwest, the castle has been around since Roman times, though it was reconstructed extensively under medieval Bulgarian and Ottoman rule. Don’t miss the chance to wander about the bizarre rock formations and historic walls and then finish the day with a strong rakia in a comfy pub back down in town!
4. A legend comes to life: Tsari Mali Grad
Although it was built in the 4th century, Tsari Mali Grad (Цари Мали град) is one of the country’s newest tourist attractions. This Roman fortress in the southwestern village of Belchin was only reconstructed and opened for visitors in 2013.
Nested on the Hill of the Holy Saviour, Tsari Mali Grad is accessible through a small but scenic funicular railway. And on top of the hill you will find a rich exhibition detailing the site’s history, meticulously restored Roman fortifications and a medieval church.
5. Guardian of the Danube: Baba Vida
Baba Vida (Баба Вида), reportedly named after the legendary grandma who personified the fortress, is the best preserved medieval castle in Bulgaria. With its walls from the First and Second Bulgarian Empires and additions by the Ottomans and Austrians, this majestic fort is an absolute delight to tour.
At Baba Vida, you can discover a replica battering ram by one of the defensive towers, enter medieval dungeons to see visualizations of medieval tortures or walk up to the upper castle level for picturesque views of the European Union’s biggest river, the glorious Danube.
6. Tower above the meanders: Cherven
One of the Second Bulgarian Empire’s most eminent castles, Cherven (Червен) near Ruse was for a time the chief fortress of the Bulgarian Northeast. To this day, its epic ruins stand above the meanders and cliffs of the Cherni Lom river valley. And while most of ancient Cherven has descended into ruins, a 12-metre-high tower has miraculously survived at the site for seven centuries.
To immerse yourself in the historic setting, make sure you visit the authentic medieval festival that takes place in and around the historic Cherven castle. The festival goes on for a week in May every year.
7. Gate to the Rhodopes: Asen’s Fortress
Set among the foothills of the Rhodope Mountains near Asenovgrad, Asen’s Fortress (Асенова крепост, Asenova krepost) is best known for its gorgeous fortress church that is around 700 years old. Surrounded by thick stone walls and steep cliffs, this incredible Byzantine-style church looks like a true religious bastion.
The castle bears the name of the Asen dynasty, the Second Bulgarian Empire’s founding family, and specifically that of Tsar Ivan Asen II who reconstructed the fortress in the 13th century as the conquered it from the Byzantines.
8. Balkan Disney Castle: Ravadinovo Castle
Just a few kilometres from the Black Sea, the village of Ravadinovo (Равадиново) hosts an unlikely sight: a castle that looks like it came straight out of Disneyland! In construction over the last two decades by a local man of wealth, the Ravadinovo Castle is as kitschy as it is eye-catching.
With its sharp-pointed towers, swan lake and extensive landscaped park, the castle is surely worth a visit if you feel like jumping from Sozopol’s sandy beaches straight into a modern Balkan fairy tale park. But if you have a strong opinion about the aesthetics of architecture, by all means stay away…