An ancient port

Founded by the Greeks, Nesebar – 35 km northeast of Burgas was later used by the Byzantines as a base from which to assail the Bulgarian First Kingdom, provoking Khan Krum to seize it in 812. Thereafter ownership alternated between Bulgaria and Byzantium until the Ottomans captured it in 1453. The town’s decline to a humble fishing port under Turkish rule left Nesebar’s Byzantine churches reasonably intact, and nowadays the town depends on them for its tourist appeal, which is testified to by the constant stream of visitors crossing the slender isthmus that connects the old town with the mainland.

Buses arrive at the harbour at the western end of town, above which lies an Archeological Museum (Summer: Mon–Fri 9 am–7 pm, Sat & Sun 9 am–1.30 pm & 2–7 pm; $1.50) containing ancient Greek tombstones and a feast of medieval icons. Immediately beyond this is the first of Nesebar’s churches, the Church of Christ the Pantokrator. Completed during the fourteenth-century reign of Tsar Aleksandar, its blind niches, turquoise ceramic inlays and red-brick motifs are characteristic of latter-day Byzantine architecture, although the frieze of swastikas – a symbol of the sun and continual change – is unusual. Slightly downhill on ul Mitropolitska, St John the Baptist (now an art gallery) also has a cruciform plan, but its undressed stone exterior dates it as a tenth- or eleventh-century building.

Overhung by half-timbered houses carved with sun-signs, fish and other symbols, str. Aheloi branches off from str. Mitropolitska towards the Church of Sveti Spas (Summer only: Mon–Fri 9 am–1.30 pm & 2–5.30 pm, Sat & Sun 9.30 am–1.30 pm; $1), outwardly unremarkable but filled with seventeenth-century frescoes. Diagonally opposite is the now ruined Church of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, patterned not unlike the Pantokrator. A few steps to the east lies the ruined Old Metropolitan Church, dominating a plaza filled with pavement cafes, street traders and hawkers. The church itself dates back to the fifth or sixth century, and it was here that bishops officiated during the city’s heyday. South of the town’s main street, down ul Ribarska, lies the New Metropolitan Church (also known as Sveti Stefan; daily 9 am–1 pm & 2–6 pm; $1), whose interior fresco of the Forty Martyrs, on the west wall, gives pride of place to the patron who financed the church’s enlargement during the fifteenth century. Just downhill from here there’s the ruined Church of St John Aliturgetos, standing in splendid isolation beside the shore and representing the zenith of Byzantine architecture in Bulgaria. Its exterior decoration is strikingly varied, employing limestone, red bricks, crosses, mussel shells and ceramic plaques, with a representation of a human figure composed of limestone blocks incorporated into the north wall.

Around the harbour are kiosks serving fresh mackerel and chips in high season. The old town is crammed with restaurants; the sea-facing Neptun, towards the far end of town, is reasonably reliable, while the Plakamo, just downhill from the New Metropolitan Church at Ivan Aleksandar 8, is family-run and relatively sheltered. Bar Burgas, Mena 10, is one of the better places to enjoy an evening drink.

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