Plovdiv: Europe’s 2019 Capital of Culture

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April 3, 2018
Bethany Carter

An image of Plovdiv in Bulgaria

When you think of Bulgaria, Plovdiv may not be the first place that springs to mind. You might think of uninspiring ex-Soviet buildings or perhaps the bright and sandy beaches of the Black Sea, or, maybe you think of skiing on the snow-capped Rila Mountains. The point is that Bulgaria’s second oldest city is often overlooked by travelers, despite being voted Europe’s official Cultural Capital for 2019. The truth is that Plovdiv is a modern city with a lively student population, the cultural center of the country and a historic gem, just waiting to be explored.

 

How to Get There

Plovdiv is located more or less in the middle of the country and has pretty regular and reliable public transport connections to other Bulgarian City’s. If you’re flying into to Sofia then it’s only 2 hours away by bus. Similarly, there are onward buses to Burgas on the Black Sea, to Veliko Tarnovo, and direct buses to Istanbul. Plovdiv is just off the main highway from Sofia to Burgas so it’s also a comfortable drive from the capital and a good starting place for road trips, and if you do have your own transport then you can continue south from Plovdiv into the Rodopi mountains or into Greece.

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The city center also has a creaky old train station and equally creaky railway line which connects to Sofia, Veliko Tarnovo, Burgas, and Istanbul. Traveling by train will save you some pennies but it will be a lot slower than traveling by road. However, if you have time, then it’s definitely the more scenic route.

 

Things you can do:

 

Free Walking Tour

The first thing you’ll want to do in Plovdiv is, join the city’s free walking tour. It’s fun and informative, plus you’ll get a handy booklet of recommendations and city tips, but that’s not the main reason why I love free walking tours.

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It’s actually because the guides are all local residents, they have grown up in Plovdiv or study at the university and have a genuine passion for the city. The tour runs every day, rain, sun, wind, or snow, it starts in the town center and finishes in the Old Town with plenty of stops along the way.

An image of the bazaar in the old town in Plovdiv bulgaria

If you’re not familiar with the concept of a ‘free walking tour’ then don’t worry because it’s pretty simple. The guides are all volunteers, they’ll spend about 2 to 3 hours of their time teaching you about their city and, if you enjoy the tour you can leave a tip, about €5-10 is recommended, if you didn’t enjoy the tour then take your tip to a local bar instead.

 

Get Lost in ‘TheTrap’

Full of mini art galleries, craft stores, traditional restaurants and quirky cafes and all built onto original Bulgarian homes. This part of town is a hit with both the locals and international travelers and you can easily while away a few hours strolling along the cobblestones or sipping coffee.

The Trap was once a hub of activity and where were all social an commercial interactions took place, the Balkan wars sadly changed all that, but now, in 2018, The Trap is almost fully restored and once again beloved by locals. You’ll learn more about the area on a Free Walking Tour.

 

Street Art and Thrift Shops

Yes, this is a pretty retro city and on just about every side street you can find second-hand clothing stores with decent gear inside. And it’s worth stepping off the main street anyway because that’s where you find the best street art. In the subway, on street corners, and taking up entire walls particularly around The Trap. Some of Plovdiv’s residents clearly have some artistic talent!

 

See an Open-air Performance

On the slopes of the Old Town and overlooking the city is an original Roman Amphitheatre and, unlike most, this one has had almost zero restoration works and is still in use. Throughout the summertime, the theatre opens its gates and people flock to see something performed on this ancient stage. And the itinerary is fairly varied too, one evening the 2,000-year-old theatre might host an opera, another a comedian, pop group, or short stage play.

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Find the Absinth House

Yes, believe it or not, the Old Town of Plovdiv is home to Bulgaria’s only absinthe bar, or so I was told by the girl who proudly showed me inside. This tiny bar may take a little bit of searching for, it’s located on the lower streets of Plovdiv’s Olds town so keep your eyes peeled for a mysterious green strip light. From the outside, it looks like someone living room, but don’t be fooled, inside is a trendy, grungy space run by a young woman who certainly knows her absinth.

 

Walk in the Hills

Plovdiv’s residents will proudly tell you that the city is situated between 7 hills, or at least it was until the 7th hill was destroyed for rocks. None the less, there are some fantastic viewpoints around the city, some will only take 5 minutes to walk to from the downtown, and some will take a little more time.

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On a warm spring day, a hike to the Alyosha Monument will be worth your while, the walk took me past another set of ancient ruins and once on top you can see the entire city. Take a picnic, a good book or some good company, and you can spend a few hours chilling in the hilltop gardens.

 

For Digital Nomads

Plovdiv isn’t just for city breaks and backpackers, it’s also pretty popular with the digital nomad community. It’s even become known as the ‘Chang Mai of Europe’, and no wonder. The cost of living here is a lot lower than it is in almost any other European city, even during the summer prices stay low because the city’s medical students all head to the Black Sea leaving their apartments up for grabs. Not to mention that Bulgaria has some of the fastest internet access in all of Europe, great cuisine and gorgeous scenery.

 

Out of Town

 

Asen’s Fortress: on the way to Bachkovo, this ruined fortress is worth a visit just for the views. It’s a bit of a climb up from the main road but once there you can see the entire valley and all the way to Plovdiv.

 

Bachkovo Monastery: this literally translates as the ‘Virgin Mary Monastery’, it’s the third largest in Bulgaria and only a half hour drive or bus ride from Plovdiv. Even if religious buildings don’t interest you, the surrounding area should. The Monastery is located on the edge of the Rodopi mountains so there are some nice hiking trails nearby. Plus you can pay a visit to Bachkovo village or, if it’s a rainy day, pop into one of the wineries to taste some homemade wines and rakia.

 

Buzludzha Monument – also known as the ‘UFO’ building, the abandoned site was once the Russian Headquarters during the wars between the Ottomans and the Soviets.

It’s a few hours away from Plovdiv with no public transport so it’s best to hire a car or join a day tour unless you’re prepared to hike. These days the building is a ruin and officially closed to the public, but, with the help of a flashlight and a rope, you can still find your way inside (at your own risk).

 

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