Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, is the oldest continually inhabited city in Europe. It's also one of the continent’s brightest upcoming stars, and will be a European Capital of Culture in 2019. 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 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.
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 Plovdiv's Roman theatre, a beautifully preserved amphitheatre 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.
A great way to delve into other sides of the city is to follow the suggestions provided by the Alternative Map of Plovdiv. A guide to the less obvious things to do in Plovdiv, it's 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.
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 characterise 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.
Plovdiv’s stint as Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2019 will surely see even more cultural diversity coming to the city. Plovdiv's new-found status as Bulgaria's arts capital seemed to be confirmed in 2014 when the much vaunted, internationally recognised Sofia Design Week relocated to Plovdiv instead and rebranded as One Design Week (held in June). The city also hosts sister events One Dance Week (held in October) and One Architecture Week (held in September/October).
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. The 15th-century Dzhumaya mosque, with its delicately painted domed ceilings, is another interesting stop.
Many of the cultural energies shaping today’s Plovdiv emanate from a single address on Otets Paisiy Street. That is, 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 great coffee, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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