Plovdiv is the second largest city in Bulgaria and is often considered its cultural capital for its thriving arts and music scene — in fact, it is the future European Capital of Culture for the year 2019. It’s one of the oldest cities in Europe, with over 6,000 years of continuous human settlement. Evidence of its long, richly layered past is present throughout the city, from Roman ruins to Ottoman influences to Bulgarian National Revival architecture. Here are our favorite things to do in Plovdiv, from restaurants and cafes to sites to museums to great photo spots!
Old Town of Plovdiv
Built on a series of three hills, Old Plovdiv is home to cobblestone roads and picture-perfect houses, many of which have now been turned into museums. The architecture of the Old Town of Plovdiv is stunning and unique due to the clear presence of the Bulgarian National Revival, an architectural movement which emerged after the five-century-long Ottoman occupation. With unique features like ornamented windows, jewel-toned paint jobs, curved wooden supports, and painted embellishments like birds and floral designs.
In addition to the houses, the Old Town is also home to the famous Roman Amphitheater (more on that below), some cafés and restaurants where you can rest your feet, and small crafts stores.
Plovdiv is most famous for its massive amphitheater in the center of its Old Town, built nearly 2,000 years ago by the Romans. Despite its age, it’s one of the best-preserved amphitheaters in the world.
Even though the ruins are in excellent condition and enjoy a central location, Plovdiv has what may be one of the least crowded Roman ruins you’ll ever see. When I went in August in the middle of the peak season, there was only a few other tourists there.
Entrance fees are modest — 5 leva, which is 2.50 euro, or 15 leva (7.50 euro) for a combined ticket that includes 5 other sites in the Old Town. Even today, the theater is still in use and is home to concerts and events throughout the year.
Not to be confused with the amphitheater, there are also the ruins of the Roman stadium in the heart of Plovdiv. The stadium is not as well-preserved as the amphitheater, but you can still see the remains of the “sfendona”, which is the curved part of the stadium with a gate and several rows of seats.
While mostly destroyed today, the stadium once was able to hold up to 30,000 spectators, and it’s one of the largest examples of Roman ruins that has been found in the Balkans. It’s one of many marks from Plovdiv’s past as the ancient city of Trimontium (aka, the “City of Three Hills” that composed what is now the Old Town of Plovdiv).
Main Street (Knyaz Alexander I)
Knyaz Alexander I Street is Plovdiv’s largest pedestrian thoroughfare, the equivalent of Sofia’s Vitosha Boulevard. It’s the main shopping street, with international chains like H&M and Zara if you’re interested in picking up some new clothes while in Plovdiv, or plenty of cafés if you’d like to sit with a beer or coffee and people-watch.
The Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria left a visible imprint in the architecture in some of its cities, and Plovdiv is no exception. The Dzhumaya Mosque is the only mosque left standing in Plovdiv and dates back to 1363. Entrance is free of charge, and modest dress is required (though covers are available in the front in case you’d like to go in and don’t have appropriate clothing).
Free Walking Tour
Sofia is home to countless free (albeit tip-based) tours, probably the most of any city in the world! The same organization which operates many of Sofia’s excellent free tours, 365 Association, also offers a daily walking tour in Plovdiv.
The tours operate twice daily in peak season (May to September) at 11 AM and 6 PM, and once daily off-season (October to April) at 2 PM. The free tour meets in front of the Municipality Building on Knyaz Alexander I (Main Street).
On the tour, you’ll see many of the attractions on this list, including the Old Town and its Bulgarian National Revival architecture, the Roman Amphitheater, the Roman Stadium, and more, while hearing about the 6,000-year history of this fascinating city from locals who love Plovdiv.
The neighborhood of Kapana (which translates to “The Trap” in Bulgarian) used to be the heart of town for merchants and craftspeople. The same artsy, DIY vibe now applies to the hipster restaurants, cafés, bars, galleries, and studios which make up Kapana.
This neighborhood has been renovated massively from its former neglected state, as part of the preparations for being the European Capital of Culture in 2019. Now, it’s home to cultural festivals, movie screenings, theatre shows, and other events (see the schedule here).
Eat at Pavaj
One of my favorite restaurants in Plovdiv is Pavaj, which serves Bulgarian food with a modern twist in the Kapana district. It’s well-loved, so it’s best to reserve a table if you want to be seated, or maybe you’ll get lucky and snag a table last-minute like I did when I visited.
If you manage to snag a seat, you’ve got to try the stuffed aubergine — it’s absolutely delicious — and don’t forget to wash it down with a glass of their excellent rosé. Their shopska salad is also delicious.
Drink at Monkey House
Monkey House serves up some of the best coffee in Kapana, let alone all of Plovdiv. The indoor decor is awesome, with a wheelbarrow seat that is definitely more fun to look at than it is to sit in!
While it’s known for its coffees, Monkey House is also great for a mid-afternoon drink (or several). They have a great selection of Bulgarian craft beers (I may or may not have spent too long sampling these beers and missing the last bus back to Sofia — oops) as well as cocktails.
Watch the Sunset on one of Plovdiv’s Hills
Plovdiv was built on seven hills (although there are only six hills today). This means that there are awesome views from many of the hills, and these views get even more awesome at sunset. Head up and wait for nightfall to get some amazing pics.
Ancient Forum (Ancient Philippopolis)
People have inhabited Plovdiv since at least the 6th millennium BC, but it’s the ancient city of Philippopolis in Thrace that really gets the party started when it comes to historic tourism in Plovdiv. Most tourist will make sure to see the stadium and the theater, but don’t skip Philippopolis forum! Like the forums in Rome and Athens, the ancient forum in Plovdiv was the center of commercial and public life in the city. Located near the post office and General Gurko street.
Walk through the Eastern Gate
Originally built during the reign of Emperor Hadrian to celebrate his visit to the city, the Eastern Gate was the gate that leads to Byzantium. However, the gate we see today was built in later centuries following invasions of the city by the Goths. Lost for centuries, it was rediscovered in the 1970’s. It’s a quick stop, but make time to see this ancient spot.
Museum-Houses of the Old Town (Balabanov, Hindiyan, Nedkovich)
With the restoration of many of the Bulgarian Revival Style houses in Plovdiv has come a plethora of houses being open for tourists. Some are full museums like the Ethnographic museum, while others are more informal open houses where you pay a small fee to tour the restored houses and period furniture. Make time for a few of these, like the House-Museum Hindlian, during your trip.
Have a chat with the Statute of Milyo
Milyo was a beloved citizen of Plovdiv. He was a prankster and the town gossip, and he was always trying to get info on the townsfolk. Today, the statue is a memorial to his memory, and tourists and locals alike come to give him the latest rumors going around the city.
A great idea for an excursion out of town, Asen’s Fortress is an ancient fortress with a storied past. Archeological findings go all the way back to the Thracians, but its most exciting chapter might be when it was captured by the armies of the third crusade. Make sure to see the beautiful Church of the Holy Mother of God while you’re there. Bulgarian castles and fortreesses are beautiful, and Asen’s Fortress is no exception.
If you’re going to tour Bulgaria, you really must go to one of our beautiful monasteries. The one nearest to Plovdiv is Bachkovo, and it’s the second most important monastery in the country after Rila Monastery, with Troyan Monastery in the Central Balkans coming in third. Combine this with Asen’s Fortress for a great day trip, as both are near Asenovgrad. While there, make sure to see the famous Ossuary, which is the only part of the monastery to survive from the original structure.
Church of St. Konstantin and Elena
The oldest church in Plovdiv, it stands on the ruins of the ancient fortress walls of the city. Christians have used this spot as a house of worship since the fourth century, although the current structure owes it’s appearance to nineteenth-century renovations. The iconostasis here is unique and done in the “Vienna Style,” and one of it’s icons of Constantine and St. Helena (St. Konstantin and St. Elena) is believed to perform miracles by locals.
Like many of the important sites in Sofia, this statute speaks to the complicated and evolving relationship between Bulgaria and Russia. Alyosha is a giant statue of a Soviet soldier which stands on Bunarjik Hill and is visible across much of the city. At the time it was erected, Bulgaria was a communist country squarely inside the political block of the Soviet Union. However, today, Bulgarian’s do not like to be reminded of this period and how Russia’s domination kept them from the economic prosperity experienced in Western Europe. You can read about the political situation and how to access the statue here.
The Red Church
Another great day trip from Plovdiv, the Red Church is the current name for the ruins of a late Roman/early Byzantine basilica that is left in the open air. Closed for much of this century, it was reopened in 2013 after being restored. It’s a stunning place to photograph when the light and clouds are right.
Natural History Museum and the Planetarium
Great for kids and science lovers, the national history museum boasts an aquarium with hundreds of species of aquatic life, a planetarium to explore space education, and a terrarium with spiders, water dragons, turtles, and other forms of terrestrial life.
The Archaeological Museum
This museum houses the artifacts associated with ancient Philippopolis and the history of Plovdiv, including icons, coins, documents, and pottery. There are over 100,000 objects spanning the history of the city and region.
Street Art Tour
Street art in Plovdiv is vibrant and, more importantly, it seemingly is everywhere. You’ll see some on the free tour, but if you’re interested in the techniques, history, and talents behinds Plovdiv’s street art scene, book a dedicated tour.
Meet Up with Friends at Central Perk
Named after the coffee shop in the television show Friends, Central Perk is a great place to come and people watch over a cup of joe. It almost always has a buzzing crowd, even if Gunther isn’t the one serving the drinks.
Mosaics at the Cultural Center-Museum Trakart
Dating from 4th century AD, the Roman-era mosaics at the Trakart Cultural Center-Museum exist just as they were found, in situ and gorgeously preserved. Third and fourth-century mosaics make up the majority of the exhibition floor and are the main draw, but there are other reasons to visit this stunning museum.
The rest of the museum is filled with glass art, portraits, ceramics, complete figurines, and more. This one-of-a-kind museum is one of the best in Bulgaria for art history lovers and does excellent work to preserve these priceless mosaics. It’s a must-visit attraction for anyone visiting Plovdiv.
Keeping with the theme of Roman history, one of the seven hills of Plovdiv is known as “Nebet Hill.” This hill is the site of a massive Roman fortress complex that unfortunately isn’t in as good of shape as some of the other Roman ruins in Plovdiv.
Today, all that remains is the walls and some of the towers. Hidden beneath these is a secret tunnel and nestled nearby is an ancient water reservoir. The location of the former gate can be seen as well, but the real reason to visit Nebet Hill is for the stunning views of Plovdiv.
The Regional Ethnographic Museum
Built in the former home of a merchant, this museum covers much of the known history of Plovdiv and is one of the best museums to visit if you want an extensive overview of the history of Bulgaria explored through cultural artifacts.
With six different rooms covering different time periods and cultures, the 40,000 different exhibits paint a nearly complete picture of the region’s history. The most interesting pieces in the collection are various clothing and tapestry, dating back hundreds of years.
The Tsar Simeon Garden
At a little over 130 years old, the Tsar Simeon Garden is relatively new in a city as old as Plovdiv. It was designed in 1879 by a Swiss landscape architecture, who was invited to design a garden fit for the Knyaz (Prince) Aleksandar Bogoridi.
While it fell into disrepair during the Communist era and subsequent years, it has since been renovated using archival photos. The end result properly reflects Bulgaria’s golden age, with a restored fountain and a Viennese pavilion. While it’s lovely to visit the garden during the day, it is perhaps best viewed during one of the music and light shows, which occur every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night at 9:30 PM.
The only known Dervish monastery in Bulgaria, the Mevlevi Hane reflects the Ottoman influence on the city. However, it’s been in disuse since the 19th century, and all that remains of the monastery is the dancing hall which has been converted into a restaurant. The archeological finds from the area are displayed under the complex itself, allowing both the modern and ancient to exist together.
The Clock Tower On Sahat Tepe
Another of the seven hills, Sahat Tepe is crowned with a unique clock tower. At over 400 years old, the tower has managed to stand the test of time. Watching the sunset on the tower gives a chance to witness the stone turning almost golden, showcasing the beauty and simplicity of the design.
While not known well internationally, Bulgaria produces some delicious wine, and Plovdiv is no exception. Available throughout the area are wine tours that allow tourists and locals alike to taste and enjoy the fruits of the region. With over 32 internationally recognized wine cellars, wine tours in Plovdiv are a wino’s dream.
Bulgarian Food At The Dayana Restaurant
If you want to try authentic Bulgarian cuisine without any outside influence, be sure to make a stop at the famous Dayana restaurant. Simply spiced and grilled meats, Bulgarian draft beer, food that represents the history of Bulgaria, and a homey atmosphere all make for an incredibly enjoyable experience. If you aren’t sure what to try, ask your waitress and prepare for a delicious, albeit meat-heavy, meal.
See A Show In The Roman Amphitheater
Of all the events that a history buff could enjoy, this might take the cake. Enjoy a concert, play, or even a movie inside of the Roman Amphitheater that still sits within the city center. While modern facilities and upgrades have been added to the structure, the majority of it is original. Throughout the year, various experiences are offered within the theater, welcoming visitors to step back in time and enjoy the Amphitheater as it once was.
Attend One Of Plovdiv’s Festivals
Every month there is something going on in the city, but perhaps some of the most interesting things to do in Plovdiv are the events and the local festivals. Often centered around Orthodox holidays or important Roman events, the city hustles and bustles with merchants, performers, and more. Folk festivals, Easter celebrations, and even jazz and wine festivals are some of the highlights available throughout the year.
Check the official calendar to see when the next event is, and try plan your visit to Plovdiv so that you can make one of these special events. It’s the future Capital of Culture for a reason!