What to do in Plovdiv

Bulgaria’s second city — joint 2019 European Capital of Culture with Matera, Italy — has plenty for visitors to see and do.Tuesday, 15 October 2019

The roofs of Plovdiv, Europe’s oldest continually inhabited city.
The roofs of Plovdiv, Europe’s oldest continually inhabited city.
photo by Getty

Why go
History is everywhere you look in Europe’s oldest continually inhabited city, with sites including ancient Thracian ruins, a beautiful cobbled old town, a Roman stadium in the middle of the main shopping thoroughfare and one of the world’s best-preserved Roman amphitheatres. Plovdiv isn’t stuck in the past, though: cool bars, contemporary art and festivals are in abundance here, and there’s a general party atmosphere to the place. Small but absolutely perfectly formed, Plovdiv is a welcoming and tremendously enjoyable place to visit.

What to do
The old town is lovely — packed with beautiful churches with richly painted, cool, incense-scented interiors to provide a welcome respite from the summer heat. The undeniable draw here, though, is the Roman amphitheatre. The ruins are spellbindingly atmospheric and incredibly well-preserved — it was abandoned during post-Roman occupations and eventually buried, only to be rediscovered after a landslide in the 1970s and restored to its present glory. Today it’s used for theatrical performances and concerts.

Where to eat
Just a few minutes’ walk from the very centre of Plovdiv is a tangle of mostly pedestrianised streets called Kapana — directly translating as ‘the trap’. Packed with little galleries, shops and cafes, this neighbourhood is an appealing place for a wander. In the middle is Tams House, a tiny restaurant owned by Peruvian chef Melissa Manche and her Bulgarian chef husband, Todor Tanchev. Opened in 2018, it’s attracted plenty of attention with its imaginative contemporary fusion menu — touches of traditional Bulgarian cooking merge with light South American touches to create something really special. Beautifully presented dishes include apple-juice marinated pork loin with jasmine rice and their signature ‘egg’ dessert — a white chocolate eggshell filled with delicate fruit cream. 

Don’t miss
Walk all the way up through the winding streets of the old Town to Nebet Tepe — right up on the top of this hill are the remains of the earliest settlement in Plovdiv. Traces of civilised life apparently show Plovdiv is 8,000 years old — making it the oldest city in Europe. Around 1200 BC, the ancient Thracian city of Eumolpia (later known as Philippopolis) was founded on this hill, one of seven which surround the city. It’s a peaceful spot, with panoramic views all the way to the mountains beyond, and well worth the mildly strenuous walk.

After hours
Kapana is where it’s at when night falls. It’s best just to wander from tiny bar to tiny bar, but there are a few standout locations. For craft beers — it stocks more than 100 different varieties — and a friendly vibe, head to Cat and Mouse. In summer, drinkers spill out of the packed Scandi-cool interior to drink outside. For those who prefer wine, tiny deGUSTOstation offers the chance to try local whites, roses and reds while perched on stools around old oak barrels. Staff are knowledgeable and welcoming and happy to discuss the winemaking process. Nylon is a lively rock bar with an attractive bohemian atmosphere that’s very good fun. Be aware, most bars don’t take cards so be sure to carry enough cash for a night out.

Where to stay
There’s a smattering of large, business hotels in Plovdiv, but the most charming accommodation can be found in small guesthouses and B&Bs. Skyler Guest House is right in the centre of town, making it perfect for exploring the old town, Kapana and the Roman Forum, which is about a minute’s walk away. On arrival, the friendly hosts welcome guests into the traditional house with a beer or glass of wine, and throughout the day guests can enjoy a drink in the courtyard. The clean, spacious air-conditioned rooms include a fridge, and bathrooms are stocked with traditional Bulgarian rose products. 

Street and houses in Kapana, a neighbourhood packed with little galleries, shops and cafes.
Street and houses in Kapana, a neighbourhood packed with little galleries, shops and cafes.
photo by Getty

Top three… small museums

Ethnographic Museum
Housed in a gorgeous Plovdiv Renaissance-period house, it’s worth going here for the richly decorated exterior alone. The former merchant’s house was built in 1847 and the facade, with its lovely bow windows and deep blue paint, looks particularly beautiful from the pretty garden surrounding the entrance. Don’t miss going inside, though — not only is the interior also wonderful, with carved-wood ceilings and an impressive reception parlour, but it’s a fascinating museum. Each room represents different aspects of Bulgarian life, looking at clothes, entertainment, crafts and agriculture.

Pharmacy Museum
This little museum gives an insight into not just the way medicine was practised during the last couple of centuries in Bulgaria, but into family life in one of the traditional Bulgarian National Revival houses. Built in 1872 by Dr Sotir Antoniadi, who was one of the first people in Plovdiv to get a medical degree, there’s an old apothecary shop, ‘Hippocrates’, on the ground floor, where it’s possible to see how the various medications and pills were handmade from natural ingredients.

Regional Archaeological Museum
Plovdiv has so many layers of history and this is an excellent place to try and get a handle on what happened when. This well-laid out museum has displays on prehistoric periods, early Thracian culture, gold treasures from Thracian burial mounds and a beautiful, light-filled corridor housing Roman statues and frescoes. Prepare to be dazzled by the glittering Thracian gold work of the Panagyurishte collection, the biggest treasure haul ever found in Bulgaria.

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