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Remnants of an ancient Thracian civilisation dating to about 4000 BC have been found at Varna Necropolis, an area of about 100 tombs near Varna. In 585 BC, Greeks from Miletus settled in the area, founding the city of Odessos, which thrived as a major commercial centre until falling to Alexander the Great. The city didn’t really regain any regional importance until the Romans conquered the area and set up a base in Odessos during the 2nd century AD.

Ransacked by the invading Avars in AD 586, the city recovered under the Byzantines as a key port city, and gained its modern name of Varna (possibly derived from the word for ‘water’) during the period of the First Bulgarian Empire (681–1018). It alternated between Byzantine and Bulgarian rule during the Middle Ages, and was captured by the Turks in 1393 and turned into a northern bastion of their empire. It was used by British troops as a port during the Crimean War (1853–56), after which Turkey allowed its allies Britain and France to sell their products throughout the Ottoman Empire, making Varna a great trading centre once more.

In 1866, a railway between Ruse and Varna was built, providing a direct route from the Danube to the Black Sea coast, and Varna became a major shipbuilding centre and port. In 1921, Varna was established as Bulgaria’s first seaside holiday resort, and its status as the country’s summertime playground was enhanced by the founding of the International Festival in 1926, which has been going strong ever since.