Situated on a rocky peninsula on the Black Sea, the more than 3,000-year-old site of Nessebar was originally a Thracian settlement (Menebria). At the beginning of the 6th century BC, the city became a Greek colony. The city’s remains, which date mostly from the Hellenistic period, include the acropolis, a temple of Apollo, an agora and a wall from the Thracian fortifications. Among other monuments, the Stara Mitropolia Basilica and the fortress date from the Middle Ages, when this was one of the most important Byzantine towns on the west coast of the Black Sea. Wooden houses built in the 19th century are typical of the Black Sea architecture of the period.
Systematic archaeological studies, reinforcement, restoration and conservation have preserved the material traces of history in Nessebar more than anywhere else. The small peninsula is a meeting place of bygone times. Nessebar has demonstrated on several occasions the significant historic position of a frontier city on the outposts of a threatened empire. The millennia of uninterrupted human occupation (the earliest traces of human settlement date back to over 3,000 years ago) have produced an impressive cultural occupation layer that is as thick as 6 m in some places.
Confined to a rocky promontory of the Bulgarian coast, Nessebar is a rich city-museum with more than three millennia of history. The Thracians were the first to establish themselves on this natural defensive site, as attested by numerous discoveries of Bronze Age objects. Strabo records, moreover, the legendary foundation by the Thracian, Mena, from whom the city took its original name, Menebria. Dorian colonists from Megara made it one of the oldest Greek colonies of Pontus Euxinus (the Black Sea) under the name of Messembria: according to Herodotus it was already in existence in 513 BC.
Nessebar lies nestling along a romantic isthmus. Its cobbled streets, well kept medieval churches, and timbered houses from the 19th century illustrate its chequered past. Nessebar's churches can be best described as a cross between Slav and Greek Orthodox architecture, and are some of the finest in the area. One of the oldest towns in Europe, it still exudes the spirit of different ages and peoples - Thracians, Hellenes, Romans, Slavs, Byzantines and Bulgarians.
The Greek city, whose acropolis rose on the eastern end of the peninsula, was defended on the landward side by a 6th-century wall which still partially exists to the north. Vestiges of the agora, the theatre, and the Temple of Apollo were brought to light near buildings constructed during the period when Messembria fell under Roman influence. The city was taken in 71 BC, but continued to enjoy numerous privileges, such as that of minting its own coinage. When the death of Theodosius (395) provoked the schism with the Roman Empire, Messembria fell into the Byzantine domain and it was not long before it became one of the most important strongholds of the Eastern Empire, and the object of struggles between Greeks and Bulgarians. It was successively held by first one and then the other, depending on the fortunes of each army, until 812 when the Bulgarian Khan Krum seized it after a siege of two weeks.
Until its capture by the Turks in 1453, Nessebar comprised monuments of exceptional quality: for example, the Stara Mitropolia, a large basilica without transept rebuilt in the 9th century; the Church of the Virgin; the Nova Mitropolia, founded in the 11th century and continually embellished until the 18th century; the Church of St John the Baptist, which houses the archaeological museum; and finally a remarkable series of 13th- and 14th-century churches: St Theodore, St Paraskebba, St Michael and St Gabriel, and St John Alituhgethos. Other notable churches are the Old Bishop's Residence in an early Byzantine style (4th-5th centuries), and the New Bishops Residence (St Stefan), containing valuable 12th-century murals.
The Turkish domination coincided with the decline of Nessebar, but it did not diminish the monumental heritage, which was enriched from the 19th century by numerous houses in the 'Plovdiv style'. This vernacular architecture ensures the cohesion of an urban fabric of high quality. Nessebar's National Revival houses with stone foundations and broad wooden eaves, which overhang narrow cobbled lanes leading right to the sea, are also remarkably beautiful.