by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Explore all towns that were once royal powerhouses

sofia at night

Over the centuries after Bulgarians settled in the Balkans, they moved capital more than once – sometimes for political reasons, sometimes for strategy, sometimes out of despair. Some of these places became the beating heart of a state commanding vast territories. Others were the seats of ambitious lords trying to carve their own place out of a contested political map. Here is a list of the most important and interesting official and alternative Bulgarian capitals, in chronological order. They cover, in broad strokes, some 13 centuries of Bulgarian history. As the nation's fortunes and politics fluctuated, some of these are no longer in Bulgaria proper. Ironically, the city that was the official capital of Bulgaria for about 700 years, has never been a part of Bulgaria. How is this possible? Read on. 


When: 681-893

Where: Northeastern Bulgaria

When the horse-riding Proto-Bulgarians, led by Khan Asparuh, came to the Balkans in the late 7th century, they settled at a place called The Onglos. Byzantine historians and archaeological research do not agree on the exact location of The Onglos, but today it is widely believed that it was somewhere in the vast Danube delta. There, in 680, the Bulgarians defeated the Byzantines. The peace treaty signed in 681 is the official beginning of the Bulgarian state. 


Pliska's Grand Basilica was built in the 9th century as part of a huge monastic compound and was among the largest in the Balkans. It was rebuilt in the 1980s and "restored," to much controversy, in the 2010s

Asparuh's men then crossed the Danube, settled in what is now northeastern Bulgaria and allied themselves with the local Slavs, who had arrived a century earlier. Asparuh chose the open plain as the best place for his new capital, Pliska. The city spread over an area of 6,000 acres and saw 20 rulers in its 212 years as a capital. It was defended by several fortification walls, providing shelter for the ordinary inhabitants, the noblemen and the ruler's inner circle, who lived in a spacious palace with central heating and baths. The capital suffered great damage in 811, when the army of the Byzantine Emperor Nicephoros I pillaged it and massacred the inhabitants, but the city was soon restored.

Over the centuries much of the ruins of Pliska were lost as local people salvaged materials to build homes, and British engineers used them for the construction of the Ruse-Varna railway in the 1860s. Pliska was rediscovered in the late 19th century. Its remains, however, were deemed too uninteresting for modern tourists and in the 1970s–1980s parts of the fortifications and the Grand Basilica were rebuilt with dubious accuracy and results.


When: 893-971

Where: Northeastern Bulgaria

Preslav, at the foot of the Stara Planina mountain range, was chosen as the capital in dramatic circumstances. After proclaiming Bulgaria a Christian state (864), Prince Boris I withdrew from society, leaving the power to his eldest son, Vladimir, in 889. Vladimir decided to bring back paganism. Enraged, Boris left his monastery, dethroned the apostate and had his eyes poked out. Then he installed in his place another son, Byzantine-educated Simeon. In a symbolic breach with the pagan past, the capital was moved to Preslav. The ambitious Simeon turned it into a gem of a city, one that claimed to rival the wealth and beauty of Constantinople itself (it did not, but the endeavour nevertheless produced impressive results). Soon, however, the Byzantines started to prevail in the centuries-long cat-and-mouse game with the Bulgarians. Preslav was sacked by the Russians and the Byzantines in 970-971. The northeast was lost. The centre of struggling Bulgaria moved westwards.


The Golden Church at Preslav

By the 19th century, Preslav's ruins were as forgotten and unimpressive as those of Pliska. The area became an archeological site in 1906 and has since produced some artefacts, including an impressive ceramic icon of St Theodore Stratilatos and a gold treasure trove of about 170 objects. As with Pliska, a lack of spectacular ruins led to dubious reconstructions and in recent years a mutra-esque polished black marble plaque of King Simeon appeared beside the concrete walls of the once marvellous Golden Church.


When: 971-991

Where: North Macedonia

In the early 970s, the eastern parts of Bulgaria were already under Byzantine rule. Western Bulgaria, however, was still alive and kicking – and nurturing resistance, which was led by n nobleman, Samuil. He chose Skopje to be the capital of the weak King Roman. The city was protected by its fortress and the mountains, but times were hard. In 991, the Byzantines captured King Roman and, as he had no heir, Samuil proclaimed himself king and again moved the capital.


In 1944, Skopje became a capital again, this time of the Yugoslav Socialist Republic of Macedonia. It has been the capital of the independent state since 1991. In recent years the humble remains of the medieval fortress (Macedonians think of King Samuil as a Macedonian king) were heavily reconstructed, although they are surpassed by the over-the-top monuments and neo-Baroque buildings in the centre of the city, dubbed Skopjeland.

Note: Historical sources are not clear on the exact years the next three cities were capitals of Bulgaria, so the dates cited are arbitrary.


When: 991-992

Where: Greece, North Macedonia, Albania 

Prespa is not a city but a mountainous area, including the Prespa lakes and the forbidding slopes of several high peaks, now at the borders of Greece, North Macedonia and Albania. It was the safe haven which King Samuil wanted as a capital while trying to save Bulgaria. He himself died there, in 1014, and was buried in the basilica on St Achilles island, in the Small Prespa Lake. By this time, however, he had already moved his capital even farther from the Byzantines.


The Prespa Lakes are now a transborder UNESCO-listed nature protected area with abundant wildlife that includes the world's largest colony of Dalmatian pelicans. The most spectacular traces of King Samuil's presence are in the Greek part of the area: the picturesque ruins of St Achilles, where the king's grave was supposedly discovered by archaeologists in 1965, and the densely painted medieval church at Agios Germanos village where Samuil buried his parents and a brother. 


When: 992-1015

Where: North Macedonia

Ohrid was a place of importance for Bulgarians long before it became (yet another) short-lived capital before the Byzantine invasion. In the late 9th and early 10th centuries, the town on the shores of Lake Ohrid became one of the centres (the other being in Pliska and Preslav) of newly-created Slavic literacy using the Glagolitic and the Cyrillic alphabets. 


Perched on a rock over Ohrid Lake, the medieval Church of St John at Kaneo is the ultimate local sight

Ohrid was never to be a capital again, but during the following centuries it experienced a fair share of history with all its consequences. This has left a mixed, charming and UNESCO-recognised mark on the modern town: medieval churches built by Byzantines and Bulgarians alike, the over-restored Samuil Fortress, 19th century mansions and a lively traditional Albanian quarter. The lake is itself a marvel for its beauty and its delicious trout, and is also the source of the unique Ohrid natural pearls.


When: 1015-1018

Where: North Macedonia

When Ohrid fell to the Byzantines in 1015, the new Bulgarian king, Ivan Vladislav, who was Samuil's nephew and who took the throne after killing the rightful heir, Samuil's son Gavril Radomir (describing the family as dysfunctional would be an understatement), moved to Bitola. He did not last long, and soon after his death Bulgaria was finally subjugated by the Byzantines, a situation that lasted for nearly two centuries.

Besides the famous inscription by Ivan Vladislav, in which he describes himself as the "ruler of all Bulgarians," Bitola has some remains of a medieval fortress, though the town is generally unremarkable. Its most notable sights are an old mosque, a clock tower and an Ottoman era market, from the time when Bitola was a major town in the region.


When: 1185-1393

Where: Northern Bulgaria

The Byzantine rule over the Bulgarians ended in 1185 with the rebellion of the Asenevtsi Brothers, noblemen living in a mighty fortress above the meandering Yantra River. They turned this fortress, Tarnovo, into the capital of their kingdom and, in a fashion already seen in Pliska and Preslav, tried to make it a rival to Constantinople. To a point, they succeeded. Beautiful churches rose in Tarnovo. Palace intrigues and the mystic literature of the local school were in the best Byzantine tradition. Tarnovo remained a capital almost as long as Bulgaria remained independent. Besieged by the Ottomans, it fell in 1393.


In 1879, Tarnovo was where the first Bulgarian parliament after liberation from the Ottomans met to adopt the Bulgarian Constitution. Its members chose Sofia to be the capital of newly-independent Bulgaria.

Today, the medieval ruins of Tarnovo are in a state of constant reconstruction. The trend started in the 1930s, flourished in the 1970s-1980s and was given a fresh boost in the late 2000s, continuing to this day.


When: 1212-1230

Where: Southwestern Bulgaria


Today Melnik is known for its heady wine and the 19th century mansions scattered among yellowish sandstone hills. Few people know that this tourist magnet was the seat of a separatist lord who created a lot of trouble for the Bulgarian kings in Tarnovo. 

Alexius Slav was a nephew of the Asenevtsi Brothers. When the last of them, Kaloyan, died without an heir in 1207, Slav refused to accept the usurper Boril as the true king. He broke ranks and created an independent princedom whose capital, eventually, settled at Melnik. Slav successfully manoeuvred between Bulgaria, the remains of Byzantium and the knights of the Fourth Crusade who had taken Constantinople. He negotiated not one but two dynastic marriages (not at the same time, of course). Unfortunately for him, he did not leave an heir. It remains unclear how he died, but in 1230 his cousin, Bulgarian king Ivan Asen II, took over his lands.

The remains of Alexius Slav's fortress are preserved in Melnik, but most visitors find the local wineries more interesting to explore. 


When: 1393-1396

Where: On the River Danube


Nikopol became a capital only because it was the best place that King Ivan Shishman, the last Bulgarian ruler, had left after Tarnovo was lost. In 1396, however, the Ottomans prevailed against the united European armies at the messy Battle of Nikopol. The Bulgarian state ceased to exist for the next five centuries.

Nikopol remained an administrative centre until the 17th century. After that, a period of decline began and the trend was scarcely reversed over the following centuries. A church and a much-rebuilt fortress are all that remains of its medieval past.


When: 1371-1396

Where: On the River Danube


There was a time when there were two Bulgarias with two capitals, because King Ivan Aleksandar did not want to quarrel with his second wife, Sarah, over which of his sons would inherit. So he divided his kingdom. He gave the throne of Tarnovo to Ivan Shishman, his son with Sarah, and presented his eldest son, Ivan Sratsimir, with the mighty fortress of Vidin and the western parts of the kingdom. Understandably, the two princes did not like each other and after their father's death, in 1371, they fell out. This only made it easier for the invading Ottomans. After Shishman's death at Nikopol, Sratsimir accepted Ottoman sovereignty but was captured and disappeared into oblivion.

Situated at the northwestern corner of modern Bulgaria, and plagued by unemployment, Vidin today is one of the most depressed cities in Bulgaria. Its fortress still stands on the banks of the Danube, although what you see is not the seat of Sratsimir, but a later Ottoman construction.


When: the 14th-early 15th centuries

Where: At the northern Black Sea coast


Bulgaria was never a naval power, except for a short period when the Despotate of Dobrudzha ruled over the northern Bulgarian Black Sea coast. For most of the despotate's existence, its capital was Kaliakra, a fortress on a narrow, precipitous promontory above treacherous waters.

The despotate arose in the 1340s, when the central power in Tarnovo was too weak to exercise control over all its lands. It experienced its heyday during the rule of one Dobrotitsa, when it traded and fought with Genoa, Venice and Byzantium. Consequently, it was the last Bulgarian statelet to fall under the Ottomans, which happened as late as 1411. 

Today Kaliakra is a picturesque albeit over-restored ruin, a must-see for anyone who visits the northern Black Sea coast. The legends of its conquest by the Ottomans still haunt the place: 40 maidens braided their hair together and jumped to their death in the sea to avoid capture, while St Nicholas himself was pursued by the invaders. Reputedly, a new metre of a rocky promontory appeared with each step he made in the water, but then he fell and was killed. 

The Dobrudzha region where Kaliakra is located is a larger-than-life memorial to the man who made the despotate a player to reckon with. Its name derives from Dobrotitsa. 


When: 1018-1185 and 1393-1878

Where: Turkey

There is one city that Bulgarians still call Tsarigrad, or King's City, and it was never ruled by a Bulgarian. This is Constantinople, modern Istanbul. For a total of seven centuries, while Bulgarians were dominated by the Byzantines and the Ottomans, it was the centre of power that controlled their lives. 


Istanbul's Bulgarian community constructed its church, St Stefan, entirely of cast iron. The building was manufactured in Vienna and was then shipped to Constantinople to be assembled on the southern bank of the Golden Horn. Today it is known as the Iron Church

Many Bulgarian kings dreamt of sitting on the throne of Constantinople. Khan Krum tried to achieve this by force, and so did King Simeon I, adding an arranged marriage into the mixture. In 1912-1913, Bulgarian King Ferdinand also tried to take over Constantinople, ruining Bulgaria in the process. 

The only Bulgarian ruler who actually had a real chance of becoming a Byzantine emperor was the first to face Constantinople's walls. In 705, Khan Tervel helped a deposed Byzantine emperor to retake his throne, and his troops actually entered the city. Tervel could have played foul, but was intelligent and honourable enough not to usurp the throne. He knew he would hardly last long on it. Later, he even helped the Byzantines against the Arabs who besieged Constantinople. 

The seven centuries in which Constantinople was King's City for the Bulgarians have left a permanent mark on the national psyche and history. In the 19th century Bulgarians flocked there for its economic opportunities and Constantinople became the city with the largest migrant Bulgarian population in the world. It was a hotbed of Bulgarian nationalism, modern education, business and the struggle for freedom. In 1860, the Bulgarian Church proclaimed its independence from the Constantinople Patriarchate and established the seat of their independent church there. Even the San Stefano Treaty, which ended the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War, was signed in a suburb of Constantinople.

The Bulgarian heritage in King's City is now mostly lost. Balkapan Han inn, the centre of Constantinople's Bulgarian colony, is now in disrepair, but the beautiful cast iron St Stefan's Church, built in the 1890s for the Bulgarian community, was recently restored.


When: 1878-1885

Where: Thracian Plain

Plovdiv claims 7,000 years of uninterrupted history in which it experienced both glory and decline, and changed hands and names many times. However, it was a capital of the Bulgarians for less than a decade.


With its amalgamation of ethnicities, religions, cultures and history Plovdiv embodies the spirit of the Balkans

After the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War put the restoration of Bulgaria on the political table, the 1878 Berlin Treaty fixed the issue in a rather sensible way, at least as much as the Great Powers were concerned. Independent Bulgaria would be restored as the Principality of Bulgaria, but in a much smaller territory than the Bulgarians had hoped to see, thus preserving the fragile power balance in the region. The rich Thracian Plain and the Rhodope would form an autonomous Ottoman province, Eastern Rumelia, while the rest of the Bulgarian-populated lands would remain under direct Ottoman control.

Plovdiv was the obvious choice for Eastern Rumelia's capital. Located on a vital trade and military route it was large, lively and cosmopolitan: the home of Bulgarians, Greeks, Armenians, Turks, Jews and many others. 

When the Principality of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia united, in 1885, Plovdiv made the ultimate sacrifice: it agreed to become subservient to the much drabber and smaller Sofia. 

Today the differences and rivalry between the two cities remain. Sofia is now much bigger, but also greyer. Plovdiv, for its part, enjoys a more colourful and relaxed life.


When: 1879-present

Where: Sofia Plain

Even today there are people who object to Sofia being the current Bulgarian capital. No, they are not separatists, but are really unhappy with its location far from the rest of the country, its air pollution, centralisation and/or the influx of internal migrants who supposedly make it more provincial than it should be. 

Sofia street

When the Tarnovo assembly chose Sofia, a quiet backwater not to be compared to prosperous, bustling Ruse on the Danube, for example, as Bulgaria's new capital, they thought they were being clever about the future. Most Bulgarian-inhabited lands were still under Ottoman control, so when they would be freed, the thinking went, Sofia would find itself at the centre of a new, enlarged Bulgaria.


This did not happen, but Sofia remains Bulgaria's capital, with all the positives and negatives this brings.


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