Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, is the oldest continually inhabited city in Europe. It's also one of the continent’s brightest upcoming stars. As well as offering archaeological treasures by the barrow-load, it is one of the most culturally vibrant places in southeastern Europe, with enough cultural festivals, arty neighbourhoods and cool bars to keep today’s urban explorers more than happy.

Plovdiv city profile:

Country - Bulgaria

Size - 101.98 km2

Population - 340 638 people (city); 675,000 (greater metropolitan area)

Currency - Bulgarian Lev BGN

Time zone -  UTC+2 (EET); Summer UTC+3 (EEST)

10 great reasons why you should visit Plovdiv

To explore the charming Old Town

Plovdiv’s hilltop Old Town offers arguably the best preserved collection of traditional architecture anywhere in southeastern Europe. If you want to know what Balkan towns looked like before the twentieth-century, then this is the place to find out. It was here that Plovdiv’s rich Bulgarian, Greek and Armenian merchants built large walled and gated houses, their overhanging upper storeys jutting out above narrow cobbled streets. Furnished in an opulent mixture of eastern and western styles, many are now open to the public as museum houses. If you only have time for one of them, visit the ornate Kuyumdzhiev House, now home to the Ethnographic Museum.

To seek out alternative Plovdiv

A great way to delve into other sides of the city is to follow the suggestions provided by the Alternative Map of Plovdiv, a fascinating exercise in cultural tourism that tells you where to find Bauhaus-influenced architecture, industrial heritage, and communist-era street mosaics – along with all manner of overlooked architectural gems.

Roman amphitheatre, Old Town of Plovdiv, Bulgaria, Europe

To visit Roman remains

Not every city has a Roman stadium bang in the middle of its main shopping street, and while only one end of Plovdiv’s stadium is actually visible (the rest is still underground), it’s still a pretty dramatic sight, with its curve of terraced seating sitting in a hollow beneath a busy pedestrian precinct. Recently re-landscaped to form an attractive archeological park, it's the perfect place to start your stroll of discovery through Roman Plovdiv. A little way uphill, on the fringes of the Old Town, is a beautifully-preserved Roman theatre that is still in use as a spectacular open-air performance venue. Roman streets and mosaics can still be seen in situ thanks to ongoing excavations around the forum, next to today’s Central Post Office.

To see the old and new in Kapana

Right next to the centre but very much a self-contained world of its own, the Kapana district is where the old and new Plovdiv come so fruitfully together. Formerly the bazaar quarter, this tight web of cobbled streets still contains the kind of artisan studios and craft shops that characterize the Balkans of yore – alongside a thoroughly contemporary breed of café-bars, discos and clubs. With raucous nightlife venues standing next door to snug bohemian drinking haunts, there’s something here for everyone – live music pub Petnoto and legendary boho bar Nylon are just two long-standing Rough Guides favourites.

To marvel at mosques and baths

Five centuries of Ottoman rule left a legacy of fine architecture, with the minarets of Plovdiv’s mosques attesting to the city’s diverse nature. One of the most striking buildings is the sixteenth-century Chifte Banya, a multi-domed former bath-house that nowadays serves as atmospheric location for contemporary art exhibitions.

Otets Paisiy Street

To enjoy a Capital of Culture

Plovdiv’s stint as Europe’s Capital of Culture (scheduled for 2019) might seem like a long way off, but don’t be afraid of travelling too early – the city already has a discernable cultural buzz. The city’s new-found status as the nation’s arts capital seemed to be confirmed in 2014 when the much vaunted, internationally recognised Sofia Design Week (now renamed One Design Week) relocated to Plovdiv instead – along with sister events One Dance Week (October) and One Architecture Week (September/October).

For creativity at the Art News Café

Many of the cultural energies shaping today’s Plovdiv emanate from a single address on Otets Paisiy Street, site of both the Art News Café and its sister organization, the Sariev Contemporary art gallery. As well as being everything a good café-bar should be (selling everything from great coffee to craft beers and homemade cookies), Art News Café also serves as the artistic community’s social centre, hosting talks, film shows and art-parties. The next-door gallery may be small in size but it has had a inversely proportional impact on the Bulgarian art scene – all the leading contemporary artists have exhibited here, and for many of them Sariev has proved to be a launching pad for their most significant work.

To enjoy September celebrations in the city

High summer in Plovdiv can be stiflingly hot and relatively quiet, with many of its inhabitants leaving town for the seaside. September is when the fun kicks off again, with a string of theatre, arts and music festivals injecting extra energy into the autumnal social round. The one September event to make a date for is the Night of Museums and Galleries, which transforms the city centre into a huge art-party zone. All of the city’s cultural institutions organise something special – moving from one venue to another quite literally takes all night.

Bachkovo monastery, Bulgaria

For a day trip Bachkovo Monastery

Most popular day trip from Plovdiv is to Bachkovo Monastery, a medieval foundation tucked into a wooded valley 30km south of the city. A walled complex with two arcaded courtyards and a pair of extravagantly decorated churches, it’s the ideal place to get to grips with the vibrant spirituality of Bulgarian Orthodoxy. The setting is magnificent too, with wooded slopes on all sides and plenty of nearby nature walks.

To experience icons and incense at church

Central Plovdiv contains a generous sprinkling of atmospheric old churches, most of which date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although their origins are usually much older. Filled with icons, carved wooden fittings and candle smoke they convey a raw, intimate mysticism. Many are painted with frescoes both inside and out and constitute complete works of art: the Church of Saints Constantine and Helena in the Old Town is one of the best examples. The next-door icon gallery contains a thorough overview of the whole genre.

Thinking of planning at trip to Plovdiv? We can help! Our new tailor-made travel service will pair you with a local expert who can organise a fully personalised itinerary to Bulgaria for you.

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