Plovdiv – Bulgaria
Plovdiv has emerged from nits cocoon: all charming cobblestoned streets, delicately painted houses, craft markets, quirky museums and temptingly affordable shopping.
Unit of currency: lev (Iv)
Cost index: double hotel room 70 lv (US$49), shot of rakia 3 lv (US$2), plate of grilled pork and potatoes 10 lv (US$7), gallery or heritage building visit 3 lv (US$2).
Why go ASAP?
One of Europe’s most beautiful Old Towns, with a backdrop of Bulgaria’s dramatic Rhodope Mountains. Historical treasures by the thousand. Smouldering nightlife and a wicked sense of humour. There’s a wealth of reasons to explore Bulgaria’s second city, yet Plovdiv has always flown under the radar.
Recent decades have polished Plovdiv into a spirited modern city, without ever dulling the glint in its eye. Its remarkable ruins (including an amphitheatre right in the centre of Plovdiv’s main shopping precinct) were slowly excavated throughout the 1970s and ’80s. In 1990 the long-awaited sports complex (Bulgaria’s largest) was finally completed. And throughout the 2000s, heritage buildings left to gather dust under Communism have been lovingly restored into museums, restaurants and hotels. At long last Plovdiv has emerged from its cocoon: all charming cobblestoned streets, delicately painted houses, craft markets, quirky museums and temptingly affordable shopping. And it’s been well worth the wait.
Festivals & Events:
From late May to mid-July Plovdiv bursts into life with music, performing arts and historical commemorations for the Cultural Month Festival.
Opera lovers will delight in June’s Verdi Festival when twilight performances take place in the Roman amphitheatre.
Embrace music and nature at the Meadows in the Mountains Festival, also in June, set in the Rhodope Mountains.
Visit in late July to early August to shake your embroidered skirts at Plovdiv’s International Folklore Festival.
There’s free entry to every gallery in Plovdiv during the Night of the Galleries in September.
Local artists; student activism; repurposed buildings; bohemian cocktail bars
Crumbling Soviet blocks.
Life-changing experiences :
Like the ‘Eternal City’ of Rome, Plovdiv is made up of seven hills. But Rome is a fresh-faced youngster compared to Plovdiv, one of Europe’s oldest cities. Plovdiv is thought to date as far back as 6000 BC. The city’s turbulent transformation from Neolithic settlement to Thracian fortress, and its transition from Roman to Byzantine to Ottoman rule, can be traced through Plovdiv’s 200 archaeological sites and beautifully preserved buildings (don’t miss the splendid Djumaya mosque).
But the city’s most delightful neighbourhood was born out of the Bulgarian Revival of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Old Town, a jewellery box of timbered houses and church spires, glows in shades from duck egg blue to warm turmeric.
Colourful landmarks like St Nedelya’s bell tower form an eye-boggling contrast against Brutalist creations like the central post office and the twisted metal helix of the Main Square fountain.
Once your cultural appetite is sated, let the Rhodope Mountains lure you beyond the city. Explore Asen’s Fortress, a Thracian outpost perched above jagged valleys, or seek serenity at Bachkovo Monastery.
Plovdiv has some of Europe’s most distinctive public art. Check out the striking Balkan murals inside the Ethnographic Museum’s garden walls, or the Cubist mural blazing out where ulitsa Saborna meets ulitsa Krivolak I. Look out for cheeky street art like caricatured electricity boxes too.
French poet Alphonse de Lamartine paused in Plovdiv after an epic ‘voyage in the Orient’ in 1833. Locals were utterly beguiled by their literary guest and to this day commemorative plaques beam out from the house he slept in. Former French president Mitterrand even came to pay it a visit in the 1980s.
Classic restaurant experience:
Carnivores will be spoilt for choice in Plovdiv, but Puldin Restaurant – a stone-walled cellar bedecked with Roman artefacts – is an enchanting backdrop to savouring grilled meats. Kick-start your meal with a shot of ice-cold rakia, best served with a shopska salad of cucumber, tomato and slivers of sheep’s cheese.
For an enticing array of unguents and fragrances featuring Bulgaria’s famous rose oil, head to Refan on ulitsa Knyaz Alexander I. Another unmissable souvenir is Troyan pottery, bowls and tableware painted with distinctive swirls and droplets – find some of the most dazzling examples along ulitsa Saborna. For locally made jewellery, clothing and quirky souvenirs, browse the open-air fair outside the Ethnographic Museum.
Most bizarre sight:
`Miljo the Crazy’ was a fixture of Plovdiv’s eccentric cast of characters, spreading joy (and exasperation) with his eavesdropping and pranks. Locals couldn’t bear to think of a world without Miljo’s antics so they kept him around in the form of a gurning statue in the main shopping precinct.