Trying to decide whether to visit Sofia or Plovdiv? While we adore both Bulgarian cities, they are very different! Here are thirteen points to help you decide whether to visit Plovdiv or Sofia on your trip to Bulgaria.
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Choose Sofia if…
Here are four reasons you should choose Sofia over Plovdiv.
…you want to be in a big city
No offense to Plovdiv and its seven hundred thousand inhabitants, but Sofia is a big capital city of over a million people. This means Sofia has a vibrant nightlife scene, a first-class arts scene, and tons of events.
It also means that when you do touristy things here, you won’t feel like they exist just for the tourists. Everywhere you go here, locals will be hanging out and enjoying their city, and you’re lucky enough to get to visit along beside them.
…you want to visit a UNESCO World Heritage Site or two
While the most famous UNESCO site in Bulgaria, Rila Monastery, is easily reached from either Plovdiv or Sofia, Sofia boasts two more right inside (or just outside) the city. You can visit Boyana Church and see its marvelous frescoes, or you can go to Bulgaria’s portion of the “Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and Other Regions of Europe” right outside the city.
Yep, that means on a quick visit to Sofia you can easily check off three UNESCO World Heritage Sites!
…you love Orthodox architecture
Sofia has some truly stunning churches. Everyone who comes simply must visit the Byzantine Revivals Style masterpiece that is Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and there’s also the fabulous Russian Church, Saint Nicholas the Wondermaker, that looks like its right out of a Saint Petersburgian dreamscape.
There are other notable Neobyzantine buildings to adore, like the Sofia Central Mineral Baths and the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
Plovdiv is known for its architecture (more on that below) but if you love old churches, then Sofia is your city!
…you want to explore Bulgaria’s Communist past
As the capital of communist Bulgaria, the city has far more socialist architecture and artwork to explore. You can go on a Communist Walking Tour to learn about what life in Communist Bulgaria was like.
You can also check out the Museum of Socialist Art, the Bells Monument, and take a visit to the Red Flat Sofia. If you’re interested in doing Red Tourism while in Bulgaria, then you need to come to Sofia.
Choose Plovdiv if…
Here are four reasons you should pick Plovdiv instead of Sofia.
…you want to feel like you’re in a charming little town
If you’re looking for an old-world-Europe feel, with charming architecture, then pick Plovdiv. The colorful buildings lining the main pedestrian streets are a bit of a mirage since the city is much bigger than this. However, you can easily contain your visit to the oldest and most charming districts.
…you love ancient Roman history
The second-largest and best-preserved ancient Roman theater is located right in Plovdiv! You can visit during the day, or, if you’ll be exploring Plovdiv nightlife, you can come to a performance in the evening.
While it’s not a UNESCO site, it is designated as a Tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with other important ancient Roman sites in the city.
…you love a cultural capital
Yes, there’s PLENTY of cultures to explore in Sofia, but only Plovdiv has actually served as an official European Capital of Culture, earning this designation in 2019.
What does this mean for visitors? So many of the most beautiful spots in the city have been given a fresh (and historically accurate) coat of paint, monuments have been restored, and the city is generally in tip-top shape!
…you love a good view
Plovdiv is famously built around seven hills: Nebet Tepe, Taxim Tepe, Dzhambaz Tepe, Danov’s Hill, Bunardzhik Hill, and Youth Hill. This means that there are tons of places to climb up to take in beautiful views of the city.
Some of these are fabulous spots to watch the sunset, take a Plovdiv Instagram pic, and learn a bit about Plovdiv history. I personally love the walk up Bunardzhik Hill to Alyosha, the Russian monument.
Choose either Sofia or Plovdiv for…
Here are five things that you’ll get to experience regardless of whether you pick Plovdiv or Sofia.
…delicious Bulgarian cuisine
Both cities have fabulous restaurants, many of which feature traditional Bulgarian cuisine. Make sure to sample a shopska salad while you’re here. I’m also partial to banitsa, mish-mash, and Bulgarian yogurt (don’t call it Greek!).
…the best free walking tours in Europe
Both the Sofia Free Walking Tour and the Plovdiv Free Walking Tour are excellent, and that’s because they are both run by the 365 Association. Unlike other European cities where the “free tour” is run by for-profit companies, the 365 Association in a non-profit whose main goal is to educate tourists about Bulgarian history and culture.
The best part? Tours operate every day of the year (even holidays), and often multiple times per day. And they are truly free, with no hard sell at the end about why you should really give them fifteen Euros.
We still suggest you tip 5-10 leva (see our guide to tipping in Bulgaria for more info on tipping here in general). But this is much less than in other countries. You can check their current schedules here.
I don’t recommend spending all your time in museums while in Bulgaria, but you should check out one or two while in either Sofia or Plovdiv. We’ve listed our favorite local museums on our guide to the best things to do in Sofia and what to do in Plovdiv.
My personal favorites, though, are the National Gallery 500 in Sofia and the Regional Ethnographic Museum in Plovdiv.
…great (and economical) shopping
Both cities have opportunities for shopping local and finding great Bulgarian souvenirs and gifts to take home with you. Some of our favorites include rose products, traditional Bulgarian ceramics, and Cyrillic memorabilia.
Both cities have great nightlife! Here are our favorite things to do in Sofia at night, and here’s our Plovdiv nightlife guide. If your goal is to go out and have a good time, you can find performances, wine bars, and dance clubs suitable for every kind of traveler in either city.
5 Things to Pack for Bulgaria
If you’re planning a trip to Bulgaria, you’ll want to pack all the normal essentials, but here are a few things we strongly recommend bringing that may not have crossed your mind. For more, check out our complete Bulgaria packing list.
– A physical guidebook, in paper or on Kindle. We love Lonely Planet Bulgaria & Romania for this region and strongly recommend it to supplement blogs. Blogs are great, but a combination of a blog and a guidebook is key to having the best access to information easily at your fingertips.
– A water bottle with a filter. While generally, the tap water in big cities in Bulgaria is drinkable, such as in Sofia and Plovdiv, we generally recommend using a water bottle with a purifying filter to reduce your plastic consumption and ensure you won’t drink any funny-tasting water on your stomach that could make your trip unpleasant! We recommend the GRAYL water bottle – it filters water perfectly in an instant so that you can even drink from lakes, bad taps, etc.
– Motion sickness pills. Bulgarian train and bus rides can be hot and cause motion sickness! If you have a weak stomach as we do, save yourself and bring some non-drowsy motion sickness pills.
– Wet wipes, hand sanitizer, TP & other Balkan transit needs. Bathrooms in the Balkans on trains and buses tend to be… how can we say it?… not so well-stocked. Save yourself the disappointment (and germs!) and bring a mini-rescue pack of wet wipes & hand sanitizer.
– Travel safety items. We think Bulgaria is very safe to travel, but at the same time, it never hurts to be prepared! Some people like to carry money belts, but neither Allison or I use these. Instead, we both carry the same PacSafe anti-theft backpack. It has locking zippers, slash-proof construction with metal mesh hidden in the fabric, and tons of other smart security features — all while being cute and stylish enough to be our everyday bag. We recommend it highly for both male and female travelers, as it’s neutral enough to be unisex. We also strongly recommend travel insurance! Our recommendation is at the bottom of the post.
Where to Stay in Sofia
If you choose Sofia, here’s where we suggest you stay.
Budget: For a hostel, we always recommend Hostel Mostel. I have never stayed at the Sofia location but several of my friends have and have always spoken highly of it. I stayed at the one in Veliko Tarnovo and it was excellent. Perks include a free vegetarian dinner in addition to breakfast included in your stay! Check rates and availability here. If you are traveling in peak season, be sure to book online, as Hostel Mostel is popular and tends to get booked up.
Mid-range: For a trendy new boutique hotel that is shockingly affordable, we recommend R34 Boutique Hotel. The location is fantastic, near the Ivan Vazov National Theater in central Sofia. It has gorgeous, loft-inspired details like exposed brick, giant windows, and streamlined but modern décor. It’s a great bargain, too – check rates, reviews, photos, and availability here.
Luxury: As far as we see it, there’s only one option for the best hotel in town: Sense Hotel. We go to their upscale, beautiful rooftop bar all the time when we have guests in town – it has one of the best views in the entire city and they make fantastic cocktails. With beautiful views over Alexander Nevsky, Sofia’s most iconic landmark, the hotel couldn’t be in a better location. Sense Hotel also boasts a state-of-the-art fitness center, an art gallery in the lobby, an excellent spa with luxe treatments, and an indoor pool. It’s truly the best choice in town. Check rates, reviews, photos, and availability here.
Still looking? Check out our complete guide to where to stay in Sofia.
Where to Stay in Plovdiv
If you’re headed to Plovdiv and don’t know where to stay, don’t worry – we’ve done the legwork for you! Here are our top picks for each budget category in Plovdiv.
Budget: When I stay at a hostel, there are a few things that I look for: privacy curtains, personal reading lights, and outlet space for each bed. Bonus points if the hotel lobby is modern and inviting – and if the kitchen is well-stocked and beautiful to cook in to boot, you might as well move in. Pijama Hostel has all of this and then some. Perks include board games, coffee and tea makers, and a central Kapana district location! Check reviews, prices, and availability here.
Mid-range: This is the hotel I chose for my most recent trip to Plovdiv, and I am obsessed with it! The Stay Hotel Plovdiv feels like a luxury hotel but at budget prices, and it’s located at what might be the single best spot in the city. The staff is friendly, the views are great, and the beds are comfortable. I’m seriously in love. My favorite part was that our room had a sleek couch that was a great place to relax after a long day of sightseeing and a long night out. Check reviews, prices, and availability here.
Luxury: The first five-star hotel in Plovdiv, if you’re seeking a spot of luxury in Europe’s 2019 Capital of Culture, you should check out the Residence City Garden. The rooms are refined and stylish – we’re talking spacious rooms and high ceilings (some rooms with chandeliers!), antique-style furnishings, and impeccable attention to detail. The bathrooms are beautiful and extremely modern, with lovely bathtubs that you can soak in to rest your feet after a long day of exploring Plovdiv. Check reviews, prices, and availability here.
Still looking? Check out my full (and not sponsored) review of the Stay Hotel Plovdiv.
More Bulgaria Travel Resources
If this will be your first time in Bulgaria, we have some resources to help make your first trip here a breeze. Check out our guide on how to plan your trip to Bulgaria, which goes over everything from visas to ground transportation to budgeting your trip.
Don’t forget to check out our Bulgaria packing list which has details of everything you’ll want for your trip.
If you choose to see Sofia, you can use our things to do in Sofia and Sofia itinerary posts to help guide your way through the city we call home. Make sure to check out our guide to avoiding taxi scams in Sofia as well.
Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance
Finally, make sure you always travel to Bulgaria with a valid travel insurance policy. The country is a very safe place to travel, but accidents or theft can easily ruin your trip if you don’t have the travel insurance coverage to recover the losses. Recently my aunt fell on a train in France and needed surgery, but luckily her travel insurance covered the costs in full. Thank goodness!
For travel insurance, I use World Nomads. I’ve been a happy customer of theirs for almost three years, and I’ve never had an issue when making a claim. I’m happy to refer them to anyone I meet.
Pin this Guide to Sofia v. Plovdiv for Your Trip!
Stephanie has been living in and traveling around the Balkans for the past three years. She’s written for National Geographic Online, appeared on CNN Arabic and in the New York Times, and ridden more Balkan buses than is good for a person.