If I were to tell you about a European city clad in cobblestone streets and steeped in history, one that’s part cozy and part chic, where art galleries compete with tiny wine bars for sidewalk space, you’d think I’m talking about Paris or maybe Prague. But the dream destination in question is Plovdiv!
This medium-sized city with around 350,000 inhabitants in southern Bulgaria is my secret sweet spot in Europe. Incredibly affordable and easy to explore, with the most charming old town I’ve ever seen and a bustling, vibrant city center, Plovdiv is an absolute delight. In 2019 it was a European Capital of Culture and visitors will only benefit from the revitalization of artistic programs and improved infrastructure that result from such an appointment.
Getting there is easy. On my first visit, I took the bus from Istanbul (which was clean, comfortable, and came with free snacks, a combination that never fails to win my heart). On my second visit (which was part of a press trip) I flew to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, and then took local transport to Plovdiv. Sofia is well connected to Western and Eastern Europe by train and from there you can easily reach Plovdiv by local train or bus.
Here are some of the attractions and experiences that I would recommend to anyone lucky enough to visit Plovdiv.
The Roman Amphitheater of Philippopolis
Sometimes I wonder if Plovdiv is trying to compete with Rome. After all, just like the Italian capital, Plovdiv has seven hills. And while there may not be that many ancient amphitheaters, it certainly has the best. The Roman Amphitheater of Philippopolis is an incredible 1st century structure (probably between 86 and 91 AD). It’s one of the best-preserved Roman theaters in the world (hidden until 1972, when a landslide revealed it didn’t hurt). But the real bragging rights here? It’s still in use! Concerts and plays are often held here, and the venue is also used for award ceremonies and even as an album recording location.
The Roman Stadium
While Plovdiv’s Roman Amphitheater is full of atmosphere and offers beautiful views from its hilltop location in the Old Town, the city’s Roman Stadium has a very different vibe. It’s fresh and hip, and from its city center location it’s right in the heart of the action. Sunk in the middle of a large pedestrian street, parts of this once mighty structure, which could seat around 30,000 spectators, still remain hidden. I find it remarkable that you can busily go about your shopping and sightseeing while having this amazing piece of architecture from Hadrian’s reign in the 2nd century just hanging around in the middle. I think that’s why Plovdiv is such a relaxed, approachable city. His past is integrated into everyday life and nothing is untouchable.
Europe’s longest pedestrian zone
Rayko Daskalov Street and Knyaz Aleksandar I Street form the “Glavnata”, which stretches for 1.8 km. Together they form the longest pedestrian zone in Europe. In the middle is the Roman Stadium (above). Walking up and down Glavnata was a highlight of my recent visit to Plovdiv. There were so many amazing people watching! There are also pretty parks and places to sit, great cafes and gelato shops, and lots of shopping. (Foodie friends will want to know that my favorite Shawarma/Donair joint was just off Glavnata, tucked away next to a flashy burger bar called Hesburger at Knyaz Alexander I #37).
Cultural Center Trakart
Perhaps no place shows how Plovdiv mixes old and new better than the Trakart cultural center. Located along a modern pedestrian underpass and Roman road (complete with wagon tracks), this cultural center is tucked away next to ordinary shops. It houses beautiful Roman floor mosaics, among other artifacts. You can even “walk” over the mosaics thanks to a glass floor that hovers just above the remarkable art.
The Romans were not the city’s only centers of power. Hindlian House was once owned by the merchant Stepan Hindlian and its opulent interior shows its influence on overseas trade. It’s worth a visit just to admire the lavishly decorated ceilings! There is opulent furniture, artwork and textiles from the mid-19th century, as well as a pretty courtyard.
Considering that Plovdiv has garnered so much attention for being named European Capital of Culture, a visit to the Ethnographic Museum to learn more about this culture is a great choice. Here you will find folk costumes, musical instruments and tools for traditional crafts, from winemaking to rose distillation. It’s worth spending an hour or two here (or even more on a rainy day).
On my last visit to Plovdiv I saw no fewer than five active archaeological digs and I suspect I would have discovered many more if time had allowed. The Archaeological Museum of Plovdiv is a good starting point to learn more about what goes on in all these excavations and to see some 60,000 artifacts including pottery, jewelry and religious iconography.
Art Center Philippopolis
Plovdiv is a city of art – in galleries and shops, churches and museums. Your visit will be greatly enriched if you make a stop at the Philippopolis Art Center at the beginning of your trip to gain a little knowledge of Bulgarian art (assuming you are like me – I didn’t know anything before my visit and I’m glad I went am!). This is the first private art gallery in Bulgaria and specializes in masterpieces of classical Bulgarian Revival art. A work of art in itself, the building is housed in a restored 1865 mansion.
Pro Tip: You will see the name “Philippopolis” often, as this has been the city’s name for most of its history. “Plovdiv” was not widely used in English until World War I.
Church of St. Constantine and Helena
The first structure on this site in honor of St. Constantine and his mother, which is believed to be the oldest church in the city, dates from 337 AD. The building you see today dates from 1832 and is famous for its frescoes and icons. If you are used to the ornate churches of Western Europe, you will be mesmerized by the unique style of this church. It is very simple (especially from the outside rather rustic) and opulent at the same time. Inside you will find baroque art and gold gilding.
Tsar Simon’s Garden
This pretty public garden full of gardens, pavilions, fountains and monuments in the heart of Plovdiv is steps from bureaucratic stops like the main post office but feels like a world of its own. Keep an eye out for two of my favorite sculptures: a fat bear and a pair of young deer. The highlight for most people, however, is the “singing fountain,” a large pool where jets of water splash in sync with music and lights.
This is the part of Plovdiv I am most interested in on my next visit. This part of the city is changing as the beautiful, haunted old tobacco warehouses are finding new life as public spaces. During my visit in 2018, as Plovdiv prepared to celebrate European Capital of Culture, some of the old warehouses were being used as temporary artistic venues. There was a time when several of these stately old buildings were under threat but the locals have banded together to save them and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for their future.
capana translates to “The Trap,” but if you ask me, it also means a good time. Kapana is the name of a neighborhood known for its narrow streets and fun bars. You’ll also find cute cafes, cool little shops and great corners to enjoy local wine. Ask your hotel for recommendations. The hangouts here are always changing and on and off, so it’s best to seek a recommendation while you’re in the area.
Pro tip: Consider staying in these two notable properties
I have not one but two strong accommodation recommendations for Plovdiv. First is Villa Antica, a small, comfortable boutique hotel that’s steps away from all the action in Glavnata but remains quiet at night. The spacious rooms are full of personality and breakfast is served in a cafe next door. But best of all is the neighbor of Villa Antica! The hotel faces the Roman Odeon, an ancient ruin currently being restored.
The other is Hostel Old Plovdiv. This charming property in the center of Plovdiv’s cobblestone Old Town is more like a guesthouse than a hostel. I stayed in a huge private room and shared a small bathroom with another room across the hall. My room was furnished with antique furniture and had a bouquet of dried lavender on my pillow. passed out!