When you think of old European cities, Rome or Paris often come into your mind. While they are old and have lots of history, they are still very new compared to Plovdiv in central Bulgaria. With over 8,000 years of continuous history and development, the city has an interesting mix of new and old. It is this reason that the city was named as one of Europe's Capitals of Culture in 2019. The city had more history by the time the pyramids were built than Rome or Paris do now! The millennia of history has evolved the city forcing it to develop with a number of interesting aspects.
What to do
With Plovdiv being one of the oldest cities in the world, it should come as no surprise that it has an impressive archaeological museum. First established in 1882, making it one of the oldest cultural institutions in Bulgaria, it holds an impressive collection of artifacts found through the region and spanning the 8,000 years of Plovdiv's history. Their main collection is a set of 24K gold chalices from the 4th century BCE in the shape of animals and human faces made for an unknown Thracian ruler. While these were very impressive, we found that the massive floor mosaic of a menorah from the only known synagogue in ancient Bulgaria to be incredibly intricate and unique.
A city doesn’t stay occupied for so many millennia for no reason so it is not a surprise that for a time, Plovdiv was a major Roman city. This has left it with a number of fascinating ruins that can easily be explored. When the city continued to be developed after the Roman Empire fell, the main Stadium (Forum) was buried and built over leaving the centre of the city on its ruins. Excavated in 1923 and then partially restored in the '70s, several sections of the Stadium are now fully open to the public at no cost. At over 200 metres long, the entire amount
is not excavated but enough of the marble is exposed to imagine how it would have once looked. There is also a section exposed in the basement of a mall which is super cool as not many people know about it which will allow you to be fully alone in the stadium that is almost 1,800 years old!
Up on a hill to its east sits the Roman Theatre dating from 1st century AD. While a large section was destroyed in the 4th century, a major restoration took place in the '60s resurrecting one of the best-preserved theatres from the ancient world. While you are able to explore the theatre most days, it also holds live concerts and plays which are incredible to witness!
The major Tsar Boris III Obedinitel Boulevard divides the pedestrian streets of Plovdiv from the historic old town streets. While these old streets are gorgeous to wander through in and of themselves, make sure you check out the number of grand wooden houses dating back hundreds of years. A series of these houses also allow tours that display the building as it would have looked when it was built. There is also a really cool artisan street which should not be missed. A number of shops are on display which use the traditional methods to craft their products. These include a bakery, doll maker, textile shop, blacksmith and our favorite a really fun woodworker who trained in Italian Renaissance methods! Their products are incredible and they are all very happy to share any information they have with you.
The main area in Plovdiv for arts is the complicated web of streets in the Kapana District. Just a block or two from the main pedestrian area, this relatively new space was once a tangle of abandoned and falling down buildings. Now it is home to eclectic bars, restaurants, shops, and the occasional stray dog. The space has also become the heart of the art scene in Plovdiv leading to numerous massive murals throughout the area.
Covid Conscious Activities
With Covid-19 being such a huge factor in daily life, it is important to take steps towards a safer holiday like trying to limit your daily contact with others. Keep up to date with the latest local advisories and information.
Plovdiv is one of our favourite towns in Bulgaria, but it may not be the best to visit during these tough Covid times. While there is so much to do in the city, much of it leads you into direct contact with people. If you happen to be passing near, we wouldn't say to completely abandon the city, but just return again one day to fully experience the city! There are many gorgeous walking streets including Knyaz Alexander street which runs over top of an ancient Roman stadium. A section of the stadium can be seen in the town's main square. Try taking a self-guided walking tour or audio tour to learn more about the city while staying socially distant from others.
Where to Stay
Plovdiv is divided into a number of different areas, split up by major roads and a river. As the majority of the city center is a dedicated pedestrian area, the area is full of hotels, hostels, Airbnbs, and any number of other guesthouses. It is also stuffed with restaurants at all budgets, shops, and historic buildings so anywhere in the core is a great area to stay. As the city has a great and cheap bus system, staying far from the train station should be no worries as a single bus will take you to most areas. That being said, accommodations should be at a reasonable rate already so we wouldn’t stray too far from the centre just to save a couple of dollars. One of the best Airbnbs we have ever stayed in was less than a 10-minute walk away from the core. If you can, we would suggest to avoid staying on the opposite side of the bridge as all the attractions will be quite a walk away.
How to get there and around
As Plovdiv is the second largest city in Bulgaria and located directly on the major train lines throughout the country, it is very easy to get to Plovdiv. There are several direct trains from Sofia, Burgas, and Varna a day as well as many connecting options. There is also a recently started train departing Plovdiv towards Istanbul for those wanting to head to Turkey.
We found that the train system works pretty well throughout Bulgaria with the exception of a delay or two and not being able to book online ahead of time. If you are on one without AC it will be hot and stuffy but we are confident that they are still more comfortable than the buses. For those who chose to take buses, Plovdiv is also a great hub city so it will allow you to get around easily.
As for inside the city, if you are well situated, you shouldn’t need to take any public transportation or taxi as everything will be within walking distance. There is a major bus station just outside the train station for inner-city buses which can take you throughout the area. It can be a little tough to read the maps, but pretty much anyone under the age of 40 (and quite a few above) will be able to speak enough English to help you find the right bus. Just ask politely and most people were very friendly. At only 1 Lev per journey, the bus can get you anywhere you need to go very cost-effectively.
About an hour and a half north of Plovdiv lies the Kazanluk Valley home to millions of roses and a wonderful yearly festival. The region is perfect for growing roses producing many that are over the size of your head! These roses are mainly used to produce rose products, including almost 50% of the world's rose oil. The potent oil is used in perfumes and moisturizers for companies around the world. The festival is held every year in May and is focused around the yearly harvest, done by hand at the crack of dawn. While Kazanluk has a train station, it may be a better option to rent a car as just a little further lies the former Communist meeting place of Buzludzha. This massive circular building cannot be toured anymore but gives a spectacular view of the mountains. There are also a number of monuments in the area allowing for some unique pictures of the flying saucer look-a-like.