The phrase ‘undiscovered secret’ is much overused in travel writing, but I have to admit that in the English language travel community at least, Plovdiv is suprisingly little known. Brimming with history and art, surrounded by regions producing fantastic wines and produce, and with a compact centre that is easy to explore, this city is a joy to visit.
Plovdiv claims to be the longest continually inhabited city in Europe, and has the impressive architectural sites to accompany the claim. Most famous is probably the Roman Amphitheatre (which is actually not a true amphitheatre). Dating back to the reign of Trajan in the 2nd Century AD it is beautifully preserved, being used for concerts up to the current day. When we went to visit it was rather busy as there had been an opera performance the night before and crews were in readying the stage for a Nazareth concert that night – so there are a variety of genres represented!
Even more ancient is the Nebet Tepe – hill top ruins that are the site of the original Thracian town that continued to be expanded, destroyed, rebuilt and re-used throughout the ages. The views from the walls are spectacular, and it is worth the walk up the cobblestones streets to get there (and the beer garden near the entrance is a good place to stop for a drink in hot weather!)
To get to Nebet Tepe you walk through the ‘Old Town’ which is a warren of streets that are home to renovated historical buildings that are used as museums, craft workshops, restaurants and private homes. It is a great area for a wander but be aware that you will be walking on uneven cobblestones, that in some places are worse for wear – make sure you are wearing your sturdy shoes!
Down the hill in the city centre the mix of history and art continues. Underneath the main shopping street is an ancient Roman stadium, part of which is still visible after excavations.
There are also impressive mosaics on view – some are housed in a museum but others are out in the open as part of the ongoing excavations of Plovdiv’s Great Basilica, which is thought to be the remains of the largest early Christian church uncovered in the Balkans.
Plovdiv isn’t all about history. A favourite place for locals are the ‘singing fountains’ in the Tsar Simeon Gardens. We left just before they starting ‘singing’ (recorded music) but the water and light show was super impressive – think fireworks but made with water. Local little kids were having great fun rocking out in front on them; teenagers preferred running through them.
Bulgaria is justifiably famous for its wines, and you can get the good stuff cheap in Plovdiv. Walk in to ay bar and just ask for a recommendation for good stuff and the bartender will most likely be super enthusiastic and willing to tell you all about what they like and why.
The food is rich and the wines are plentiful, so it is probably a good thing that Plovdiv is so great to wander around. Day or night, you can spend time just walking admiring the buildings and quirky details that abound. Ottoman, Noe-classical and Soviet era architecture mingle harmoniously.
Foodies don’t miss:
On the main pedestrianised shopping street you will encounter kiosks selling mekitsas – fried Bulgarian pastries. There is a kiosk on one corner that sells these, jam donuts and a hot, very greasy, very good cheese stuffed pastry. Make sure to buy some and sit on a park bench in front of the shop to eat them. Bulgarian breakfast of champions.
Watering hole not to miss:
Art News Cafe is a little bar that manages to be super hip yet unpretentious at the same time. Serving a range of beers, wines, cocktails and juices the bartender is more than happy to suggest local drinks to fit your needs – try the local rose.