Varna’s origins go back almost five millenia, but it wasn’t until seafaring Greeks founded a colony here in 585 BC that the town became a port. The modern city is both a shipyard and port for commercial freighters and the navy, and a riviera town visited by tourists of every nationality. It’s a cosmopolitan place and a nice one to stroll through: Baroque, turn-of-the-century and contemporary architecture pleasantly blended with shady promenades and a handsome seaside garden.
Social life revolves around the ploshtad Nezavisimost, where the opera house and theatre provide a backfor an ensemble of restaurants and cafes. The square is the starting point of Varna’s evening promenade, which flows eastward from here along bul Knyaz Boris I towards bul Slivnitsa and the seaside gardens. Beyond the opera house, Varna’s main lateral boulevard cuts through pl Mitropolit Simeon to the domed Cathedral of the Assumption. Constructed in 1886 along the lines of St Petersburg’s cathedral, it contains a splendid iconostasis and carved bishop’s throne, and murals painted after the last war.
Exhibits in the Archeology Museum on the corner of Mariya Luiza and Slivnitsa (Tues–Sat 10 am–5 pm; $1) fill forty halls, three of them devoted to skeletons and artefacts from a necropolis where a hoard of 4500 year-old gold objects was discovered in 1972. Other halls display Greek and Roman antiquities, medieval weaponry and ecclesiastical art, while upstairs there’s an excellent icon gallery.
South of the centre, on ul Han Krum, you’ll stumble upon the impressive second-century Roman baths complex (Tues–Sat 10 am–5 pm; $2). Ten minutes’ west of here on ul Panagyurishte, the Ethnographic Museum (Tues–Sat 10 am–5 pm; $1.50), which occupies an old house, contains a fine display of costumes and jewellery, and a variety of “ritual loaves” – among them the foot-shaped Proshtupalnik, which was baked to celebrate a child’s first steps.
The boat responsible for the Navy’s only victory – the Drazhki (Intrepid) – is honourably embedded on the waterfront outside the Navy Museum (daily 9 am – noon & 1.30–5 pm; $2); it sank the Turkish cruiser Hamidie off Cape Kaliakra in 1912. The museum traces sea power and commerce on the Black Sea and the lower Danube back to its earliest days.
Most of Varna’s eating and drinking venues are to be found along bul Knyaz Boris I and bul Slivnitsa – the latter a seemingly unbroken strip of touristy cafes, bars and restaurants, although venues change from one season to the next. For the best food and service, stick to the backstreets: Staviko, round the corner from the Roman baths at ul osmi Noemvri 11, has good quality Bulgarian standards; Paraklisa, near the Navy Museum on bul Primorski, offers the most imaginative spin on traditional Balkan dishes; and Titanic, in the grid of streets north of Knyaz Boris I at Ivan Vazov 39, is an elegant cafe-bar with intimate restaurant upstairs. The municipal beach, reached by pathways descending from the seaside gardens, is lined with open-air bars and discos although few of these have regular names. For Internet access, try Doom Internet Cafe, at ul 27 July 13.
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