European Capital of Culture 2019: Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Roman ruins, good wine and nice weather. The ancient city of Plovdiv in central Bulgaria is surprisingly pleasant with an even more surprising historical significance. With the 7 hills as a photogenic backdrop, the setting for a nice few relaxing days is set. 

Compared to the capital Sofia, Plovdiv is a fun, young and chilled summer town, where the dresses are shorter.

I have to admit: I hadn’t heard about Plovdiv before – and I even studied ancient studies… But every year EU names one or two cities to be European Cultural Capitals. In 2019, they are Matera in Italy and Plovdiv in Bulgaria. I named the two as Top Destinations in 2019 for the Cultural Traveller! So of course, I had to go myself to at least one. 

Was it worth it?

WHAT TO SEE IN PLOVDIV

Plovdiv has  a surprisingly long and interesting history. In fact, it’s one of the oldest still inhabited city in Europe! I bet you didn’t know that.

The 5000 year old city was originally named Philippopolis after Alexander the Great’s father Philip of Macedonia. He conquered the Thracian settlement here, and Philippopolis later became a province in the Roman Empire. The city was also part of the Ottoman empire, and so independent it didn’t become part of Bulgaria until 1885. 

The Roman Theatre

The world’s best preserved Roman theatre? In Bulgaria! Only discovered due to a landslide in 1970. You gotta love this.

The ancient theatre of Philippopolis is the absolute highlight. Built in the 90’s (not 1990’s), it’s extremely well preserved and even better restored. Just like other Roman theatres, it was used for gladiatorial games and hunting games amusing up to 6.000 spectators and had a special seat for the emperor – in case he dropped by. 

Unfortunately, the theatre was closed, when we arrived, but you can easily see it from outside, so we didn’t return the next day to sit in the seats. I normally love ding this, but fortunately this isn’t my firts or last Roman theatre. If you visit in season, you can see a play here, which I would love to. You would think something would be staged especially in this year. 

You’ll also find the theatre in Atlas Obscura.

Old Town

The old town is where you find the Bulgarian National Revival architecture. The houses are easy to recognize with part of the upper floor pushed out resembling something I’ve seen in Sarajevo in Bosnia & Herzegovina. It’s the mountain asymmetrical type, but you also find the symmetrical urban house. 

We found new houses being build – not in traditional techniques. So watch out for the real ones and the other ones.

But the old town is a must see in Plovdiv, and where you’ll met the few tourists groups as well as school classes.

Ethnographic Museum

The Regional Ethnographic Museum is located in the old town. The houses from 1847 itself is beautiful – one of the symmetrical ones – with 130 windows and is interesting enough for a visit in itself. 

The collection of tools for handicrafts like copper utensils, pottery, ancient weapons, shepherd’s wood-carving and musical instruments are not something that will rock your world. But I did find one spectacular carpet and learned more on the rose oil making that’s important for Bulgaria (especially the city of Kazanlak  – hence their Rose Festival) .

Be sure to go upstairs for some weird/fun staging with mannequinss at a garden party as it was a 100 years ago showing the influence from Western Europe in the 19th century. Look up, since the ceiling is great work. There’s an exhibition of colourful costumes from all of Bulgaria, which has some items I would wear. 

The entrance is 3€, but you pay extra for photos like in many churches.

Nebet Tepe

But something was actually here before the Romans. 

Up one of the hills from the old town, you find a settlement all the way back 8000 years ago. Not much is left, but this is where the city began. Initially the village was situated in a naturally sheltered and consolidated place on the front side of the northern hill.

But climb up here for the view! Even though it was raining, you can see the strategic location of the city – between the hills.

Roman Stadium

Also built by the Romans. This is one of the few stadiums I’ve seen that’s placed in the city center. It’s free, so grab a cold drink and sit in the same place as some guy in a toga did some 2000 years ago – and pretend you are watching young strong men entering the stadium through the gate for a competetion. I did.

It’s built later after the theatre under the rule of Hadrian (the one with the villa and the wall), but the stadium is way larger with up to 30.000 spectators. Only part of the stadium is visible, so you don’t get the grand feeling like in the one in Athens or Perge, but instead it’s an integrated part of the city. 

Ancient Forum & Odeon

Besides a creepy old man lurking at us – while peeing – we were alone here. Kind of ironic, since the forum is the commercial, religious and administrative center of a city. Not anymore….

You can clearly see streets, columns, walls and get a feeling of the place: Cats were strolling and red poppies growing on the withered stones. A treasury and a library was here which again proves the city’s significance.

The Odeon was closed the entire time, we visited. Strange, when you are 4 months into your time as a cultural capital. ..

If you can, then you should visit it, since it might have been town hall, although later used as a theatre. Like one huge one wasn’t enough.

But all the large Roman buildings and areas shows the importance of Plovdiv.

After seeing the sights, which are all in comfortable walking distance have time to just walk around in Plovdiv. The city is really nice with beautiful pastel houses, plenty of cafés and small green squares.  Why not more people come here – I don’t understand.

EAT & DRINK IN PLOVDIV

Food in Bulgaria is pretty similar to the rest of Balkan. Which I like. You can’t avoid the Shopska salad with tomatoes and local cheese as seen above. I also enjoyed the Farmers cheese pot. If it’s warm weather, the city is filled with ice cream parlours boosting the summer town feeling.

  • The white and rosé wine is fairly good. Also a must try is the local rakia (kind of like Raki). It's very strong and come in different flavours like grape, peach and abricot with honey. The latter is the best in my opinion (of course I tried several for your sake). You can find a video of me tasting it in my Bulgaria Highlights on Instagram.

Head for the area called Kapana, which is filled with coffee bars, restaurants and wine bars. But either come early or book a table, since the good places fill up fast. 

Try Tams House, popular Pavaj or Bistro Bar with decent food from a small menu.

HOW,WHEN & WHERE

How to get there

Take the train from Sofia (2,5h). It's easy to buy tickets at the station.

Where to stay

Don't stay at Hotel central Square Stay. It's boring and a little noisy.

Where to eat

Eat a lot. It's good and cheap. Also drink a lot. Book a table in advance.

Souvenirs

Buy wine, embroideries, or some contemporary designer bow ties.

CAPITAL OF CULTURE 2019

The European Capital of Culture is one or two cities appointed by EU. The aim is to improve people’s live through culture by putting focus on cultural heritage and give it a boost. I can’t complain about that idea. The first city was (not surprisingly) Athens, Greece. Not only because this city is called the origin of western culture, but also because the idea was first proposed by a Greek minister.

In 2019, the two cities are Matera in Italy and Plovdiv in Bulgaria. During this year a series of special events is planned, so I was very excited. 

IT WASN’T WORTH IT

The city is definitely worth visiting. End of story!

But as a cultural capital: it was pretty disappointing. We only saw a few signs and some outdoor information related to the year. Even worse, new constructions – probably started because of the year-  blocked some of the actual sights. You have to make sure to experience some of the exhibitions and theater plays, but most cities have this anyway. But maybe Plovdiv doesn’t normally have it, and then I guess we had some thing out of it.

But then again: I wouldn’t have travelled to Plovdiv this year if it wasn’t for the designation by EU. Bulgaria was on my radar, but way down the list, so the fame does attract cultural travellers like me. And even though the city wasn’t exactly mass-tourism ready, it was definitely a culture capital. This will not be the last time I follow the advice of EU – even though politics surely play a role in the selection.

You can read more about Plovdiv city on the official page.

The not-so-pretty new side of Plovdiv in the rain

Find more recent Bulgarian history in 24 Cultural Hours in Sofia. If you like Roman ruins, how about Live like an emperor in a Roman palace in Split, Croatia! 

Have you been to Bulgaria?