Things to Do in Kyustendil, Bulgaria’s Hidden Gem

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Most people planning to visit Bulgaria won’t probably include Kyustendil in their itinerary. We don’t blame them. Though located on the main road connecting Sofia and Skopje, this unique city is pretty much under the radar. Fortunately! The city is gorgeous and quite authentic. Kyustendil has been one of Bulgaria’s premier spa towns for centuries. In fact, Thracians founded it between the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Historically, Kyustendil was initially Roman, then Byzantine, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Ottoman. Thus, you can see remnants of all these times in every corner.

Kyustendil Bulgaria

The city boasts an impressive Roman bath, an early medieval fortress, two ottoman mosques, one medieval church, and several Bulgarian Revival Churches. Likewise, the city is home to numerous Ottoman houses and European neoclassical mansions. Finally, incredible spas with natural thermal waters dot Kyustendil. As you can see, there are plenty of things to see and do in Kyustendil. Let’s not forget the delicious food and Bulgarian hospitality, amongst the best in the continent.

Boulevard Bulgaria Kyustendil

Things to Do in Kyustendil

Stay at a Spa Hotel

Don’t come to Kyustendil only for sightseeing, stay at a spa resort, and chill to the bone. The city’s thermal sulfur springs are not only relaxing but have healing effects. Contrary to its long tradition as a spa center, today, Kyustendil only hosts two spa hotels. Nevertheless, both are great choices. Hence, no matter which one you choose, you can’t go wrong.

Kyustendil Park Hotel

Hotel Strimon Garden

The Strimon Garden Spa Hotel is not only the most luxurious hotel in Kyustendil, but also the only 5-star hotel in the whole province. It’s an elegant hotel that combines ancient medical traditions with modern amenities and a first-class spa center. The hotel is a building from the 1960s completely renovated in recent years to include modern-day amenities. It’s right in the city center, behind the Art Gallery.

Hotel Strimon Garden

Kyustendil Park Hotel

The other spa is in the fabulous Kyustendil Park Hotel. Its location under the Hisarlaka Hill is perfect for disconnecting after long walks. The hotel has a nice indoor spa and a splendid outdoor pool with warm mineral water. Their rooms are spacious, super comfortable, and offer views of the city and the hill. Unfortunately, at the moment, you can’t book it through Booking or any other online hotel site. Maybe you can try contacting them directly.

Room with a view

Wander About the Pedestrian Street

Kyustendil’s city center is a large pedestrian area. The city’s main drag, Boulevard Bulgaria, starts south of the train station and goes all the way to the main square, Velbazhd. Beautiful mansions and great coffee houses dot the leafy pedestrian street. Indeed, most of the city life happens here. We recommend stopping at Cafe Flora. Relax, have coffee, a delicious cake, and people watch.

Boulevard Bulgaria pedestrian street

Kyustendil City Hall

The monumental red City Hall dominates Velbazhd Square. Viennese architect Friedrich Grünanger built it at the end of the 19th century. Initially, it was a pedagogical school, then a boy’s high school, and later a girl’s high school. In 1931, the first courthouse in Bulgaria was here. From 1959 to 1973, it was the center of the local communist party.

Kyustendil City Hall

Prokopieva House

Diagonally from the city hall, across the square, we find the city’s oldest Bulgarian revival building, Prokopieva House. Davidko Yachkov, a janissary from Sofia, commissioned the building in the 18th century. The building had two stories, but a third one was added in the 19th century. For some time, it was an old Hellenic school before being converted into today’s residential building.

Prokopieva House

Drama Theater

The central part of Bulgaria Boulevard opens up into a square where the chic Municipal Drama Theater stands. Though the original theater troupe dates back to 1873, it wasn’t until 1978 that it moved into its current building. Large arabesque style windows dominate this rectangular marble building. Since 2011, the city’s only cinema operates here too.

Drama Theater

Iron Bridge

Do not miss the beautiful statues that line the historic Iron Bridge, right next to the theater. Dating back to 1909, it is the oldest bridge that crosses the tiny Banshtitsa River. The bridge is right where the entrance to the Ottoman city used to be, the long-gone Nis Tower. Curiously enough, locals call it the Bridge with Naked Women due to its four female sculptures.

Iron Bridge Statues

Explore Historic Baths

Mineral waters have been running through Kyustendil for centuries. In fact, the ruins of a Roman Thermae from the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD are the second-largest archaeological remains in Bulgaria. During Ottoman times, the town had several baths. One of these baths still exists, but is unfortunately closed to the public. Two other Ottoman baths were rebuilt entirely and are currently open. Go ahead and feel the atmosphere of this unique spa town.

Roman Thermae

The Roman baths date back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries. It is estimated that the original thermae covered around 3000 m2. Of that space, about 1000 m2 were uncovered and can be seen next to the Ahmed Bey Mosque. The baths were built using the so-called Opus Mixum technique. That is, a layer of brick follows a layer of mortar with crushed brick.

Roman Thermae Pautalia

Dervish Bath

The Ottoman Dervish Bath is from 1566. It is on the roundabout southwest of the Art Gallery. The bath is made of broken stone blocks and red bricks. A gable and two lovely domes cover it. The main bath is an octagonal room under the bigger dome. It kept functioning as a bathhouse until 1992. Though restored in 2005, it is not open for visits.

Dervish Bath

Chifte Bath

Suleiman Pasha built the original Chifte Bath in 1489 above the ruins of the Roman Thermae (part of the thermae still lies under it). At the beginning of the 20th century, the local government wanted to make Kyustendil a European spa town. Thus, they partially destroyed the original Ottoman bath and erected a new monumental bath designed by Hristo Kovachevski. The bath has two sections, male and female, both with three different pools. It’s open to the public.

Chifte Bath Kyustendil

Alay Bath

Alay Bath is another bath built during Ottoman times. The bath was in ruins after the Bulgarian Liberation Movement struggle. It came back to life in 1912-1914. However, its current appearance comes from a full restoration carried out in 1928. There is a sauna, an open-air pool, and a massage room. It is much smaller than Chifte Bath.

Alay Bath

Visit the City’s Orthodox Churches

Kyustendil is a predominantly Christian Orthodox city, thus the plethora of wonderful churches. Up until 1884, Kyustendil was the center of its Diocese. Three 19th century churches built in the so-called Bulgarian Revival style are a testament to those times. However, the city’s oldest and most important church, Saint George, dates back to the late 10th century.

Kyustendil Cathedral interior

Medieval Church of Saint George

The original Church of Saint George is from the late 10th and early 11th centuries. The temple follows the typical byzantine cross in a square floor plan with a large central dome. Some of its outstanding 11th and 12th century frescoes have survived the pass of time. Until the early 19th century, it served as Kyustendil’s Cathedral. It is in the former village of Kolusha, southwest of the city center.

Saint George church Kyustendil

Assumption Church

The metropolitan Assumption Church was built in 1816 as the new city’s cathedral. It stands on the site of the former St. Nicholas Church, whose 16th century altar doors it still preserves. Renowned Bulgarian artist Toma Vishanov painted the outstanding early 19th century frescoes. The church’s present appearance is the result of reconstructions carried out in 1894 and 1914.

Assumption Church Kyustendil

Saint Demetrius Church

The three-nave pseudo basilica Saint Demetrius Church is another great example of the Bulgarian Revival. The church dates back to 1865, while the outstanding iconostasis from the following year. The famous Samokov artist Ivan Dospevski, who was also Bulgaria’s first photographer, painted most of the icons. Between the two world wars, the church was a school and a kindergarten.

Saint Demetrius Church

Church of Saint Menas

Saint Menas Church, the youngest of the three revival churches, is from 1859. It was a small wooden monastery church, but in 1890 it was redone in bricks. Again, some of its icons are by Ivan Dospeski. In 1934, a huge neo-byzantine church inspired by the famous St. Alexander Nevsky Church in Sofia was built next to it.

Church of Saint Menas

Visit Kystendil’s Mosques

Kyustendil was under the Ottoman rule for almost 500 years. At that time, the city was the capital of the so-called Sanjak of Kyustendil. At the height of the Ottoman Empire, in the 17th century, there were 17 mosques in the city. Unfortunately, only two have survived until this day, both of them closed to the public. That said, you can admire them from the outside.

Boulevard Tsar Osvoboditel

Ahmed Bey Mosque

Built in the middle of the 15th century, the Ahmed Bay Mosque is the oldest remaining mosque in town. It stands right next to the ancient Roman Thermae. The mosque is a typical squared mosque, with a large dome and an entrance vestibule on the north. Its façade is made of stone blocks and bricks taken from older buildings. In 1904, an earthquake destroyed its minaret.

Ahmed Bey Mosque

Fatih Mehmed Mosque

Fatih Mehmed Mosque is slightly younger. It honors the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, known as Conqueror (Fatih means conqueror in Turkish). The famous local builder and tax collector Haraji Kara Mehmed bin Ali commissioned the mosque in 1531. One more time, it is made of stone and bricks and hexagonal ornaments distinguish its minaret. Unfortunately, the temple is currently in bad shape.

Fatih Mehmed Mosque

Discover Ottoman Houses

As mentioned above, Kyustendil was an Ottoman city for a very long time. The Ottoman rule ended in 1878. Thus, it’s no surprise that many houses from that period still exist. The houses are made of wood, with walls filled with unbaked brick, and painted in white. We are talking about one or two-story buildings, sometimes with a porch or a bay window. Some of them are museums and are open to visitors.

Cloistral Renaissance School

House Museum Ilyo Voyvoda

The most representative Ottoman house in Kyustendil is the so-called House Museum Ilyo Voyvoda. It’s a two-story building with a wooden porch and bay window above it. The house was built in 1870 on Boulevard Tsar Osvoboditel, one of Kyustendil’s main avenues. From 1878 to 1898, a famous Bulgarian revolutionary, Ilyo Voyvoda, lived here. Today, it hosts a historical collection from the Regional Historical Museum. Don’t forget to check the two Ottoman houses next to it: Tonche Kadinmotski’s and Kostandiy Berovski’s. The Georgi Goranov House is on Daskal Damaskin Street, two minutes away.

House Museum Ilyo Voyvoda

Dona Kovacheva’s House and Dimitar Peshev’s House

These two houses are in a small Han Krum Street, behind the Art Gallery. Dona Kovacheva was a prominent member of the Bulgarian liberation movement. For decades, revolutionaries would meet at her house. Since 2013, it hosts a small museum dedicated to local climber Lyudmil Yankov. The slightly bigger Dimitar Peshev House Museum is next to Kovacheva’s house. Go inside to check displays from the Regional Historical Museum.

Dimitar Peshev House Museum

Other Houses

The remaining Ottoman houses are scattered all around the city. The Emfiedjieva House Museum on Gorotsvetna Street houses the ethnographical collection of the Regional Historical Museum. The Cloistral Renaissance School is on the backside of the Assumption Church. Built in 1820, it hosted the first Bulgarian school in town. Today, it’s a cultural center. Ivan Lekarski’s house is right across the street. The Major’s house is few steps away, on Boulevard Tsar Osvoboditel.

Mayor’s house

Learn About Bulgarian Art in a Museum

If you still didn’t have enough of history, culture, and art, go ahead and visit two wonderful art institutions. The Regional Historical Museum is one of Bulgaria’s oldest and largest museums. On the other hand, the City Art Gallery hosts an exhibition of one of Bulgaria’s most talented 20th century painters, Vladimir Dimitrov.

Street art in Kyustendil

Regional Historical Museum

The Regional Historical Museum Yordan Ivanov hosts a comprehensive collection of artifacts from different historical periods. Here you’ll learn about Kyustendil’s past from ancient Pautali, through medieval Velbazhd, to modern times. There are five permanent collections: Archeology, Numismatics, Ethnology, History of the Bulgarian lands between the XV and XIX centuries, and Recent and Modern History.

Historical Museum Yordan Ivanov

Vladimir Dimitrov Art Gallery

The City Art Gallery bears the name of the renowned painter Vladimir Dimitrov. The Master, as he is known, is considered one of the country’s best painters from the first half of the XX Century. His art is recognizable due to his expressive portraits and colorful compositions. The museum hosts 3180 works by relevant Bulgarian artists, including more than 1300 paintings by the Master.

Vladimir Dimitrov Art Gallery

Hike all the Way to the Fortress

Once done with culture and art, it’s time to catch some fresh air. There is no better place to do that than on Hissarlaka Hill. You can start your walk at the Roman Thermae and the Ahmed Bey Mosque. From there, take the small Professor Kiril Stonev Street by the Pirg Tower and turn left in P. K. Yavorov Street. Cross the 1-vi May Square, and climb the Salamander Stairs. From there on, it’s pretty straightforward towards the fortress.

View from Hissarlaka Hill

Pirg Tower

The Pirg Tower is a medieval defense tower next to the Roman Baths. (Pirg or Pyrgos in Greek means tower). Materials from the baths were used for the Tower. The Tower has four floors: the ground floor was a warehouse, the first and second floors were equipped for living, and the third floor was a defense chamber.

Pirg Tower

Salamander Stairs

The main staircase that connects the city center with the hill was recently painted and is now a giant yellow and black salamander. Pupils of the New Masters Art School painted this masterpiece over some 300 steps. It took them more than 300kg of paint to finish the Dazhdovnik, as locals call it (Dazhdovnik means Salamander in Bulgarian). Brilliant street art!

Salamander Staircase

Medieval Hissarlaka Fortress – The Acropolis of Pautalia

The center point of lush green Hissarlaka Hill is the fortress with the same name. Hissarlaka Fortress dates back to the late 4th and early 5th centuries. The Ottomans damaged it severely when they conquered the area in the 15th century. The irregular shaped fortress had 14 round, rectangular, and triangular towers. Only a small section of the fortress survived until today. Nevertheless, the place is beautiful, and the views from there simply unforgettable.

Hissarlaka Fortress

How to Get to Kyustendil

Kyustendil is on the road connecting Sofia to Skopje. Hence, you can take any of the few daily buses between the two capitals. Additionally, more than a dozen buses travel from Sofia to Kyustendil. The journey from Sofia lasts between 2 hours and 2 hours 40 minutes, depending on the bus company. You can also take a direct train from Sofia or any of the 6 connecting in Pernik or Radomir.

Kyustendil Train Station

If you are coming from Thessaloniki, you could either take a train or a bus to Blagoevgrad or Dupnitsa and then a local bus to Kyustendil. You can also take a train from Thessaloniki to Radomir. Once there, hop on the local train to Kyustendil. If you are coming from Belgrade or Nis, you should first get to Sofia or Skopje and then continue to Kyustendil.

Having coffee at Kafe Flora

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