The strategic geography of Târnovo’s hills led them to be settled from the earliest times. Neolithic people in 5500 BC, and Thracian tribes three millennia later, inhabited Tsarevets Hill (on which the fortress stands today) and Trapezitsa Hill opposite. The Romans built the fortress’s first walls and, in the 6th century AD, Byzantine Emperor Justinian created a citadel. Slavic tribes captured the town in the 7th century.
Under the leadership of brothers Asen and Petâr, Târnovgrad became a centre of rebellion against the Byzantine rulers. With the foundation of the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1185, Târnovgrad would become second only to Constantinople in importance, and trade and culture flourished for the next 200 years.
On 17 July 1393, the Ottomans captured Târnovgrad, destroying the fortress on the hill. No longer very strategic in the middle of a vast empire, the town was allowed to stagnate through Ottoman times until Bulgarian nationalism asserted itself during the mid-19th century. In 1877, during the Russo-Turkish War, the Russian General Gurko liberated Târnovgrad from the Turks. Because of its importance during the Second Bulgarian Empire, Veliko Târnovo (as it was renamed) was the location for writing Bulgaria’s Constitution in 1879, and was where the independence of the Bulgarian state was officially proclaimed in 1908.