The UNESCO-listed Old Town is a photographer’s dream: painted, timber-framed houses leaning across steep, cobbled streets.

With its attractive Old Town, Plovdiv is often considered more appealing than Sofia: much of its charm lies in the incongruous juxtaposition of ancient, medieval and modern. The development of the Kapana Creative District has revitalised the new town and attracted young artists to the city. Known as Phillipopolis in ancient times, and Filibeto by the Turks, Plovdiv has Classical remains, Byzantine churches, mosques and some of the country’s finest National Revival domestic buildings. It is also an excellent base for exploring the Rhodope Mountains and villages.

Approaching from the north it is easy to understand why Plovdiv is an ancient settlement, as its hills rising from the Thracian Plain are the most significant natural landmark. It sits on both banks of the Maritsa River and has been a commercial and transport centre over the centuries. The climate is particularly favourable, with an early spring, a hot summer and a mild winter. Its strategic importance made it the target for invaders, and each new occupier has left their mark.

Plovdiv panorama skyline Bulgaria by Nataliya Nazarova Shutterstock
© Nataliya Nazarova, Shutterstock

The treaty of San Stefano in 1878 envisaged Plovdiv as the capital of the newly liberated Bulgaria, as it was centrally placed, and already a commercial centre. However, the revision of the treaty at the Congress of Berlin was dominated by the Western powers who feared the expansion of Russian interests in the Balkans.

They divided Bulgaria into two parts: the new principality of Bulgaria and the province of Eastern Rumelia which was to remain under the influence of Turkey, with Plovdiv as its capital. The two united in 1885 on 6 September, a date which is still celebrated as a national holiday. By then Sofia was established as the new capital, and Plovdiv remains a splendid second city.

What to see in Plovdiv

Plovdiv is divided into two main parts, the Old Town built on three hills and the modern central area, which includes the popular Kapana Creative District, a pedestrianised area full of shops, restaurants and galleries. Elsewhere in the new town are some other Roman and Ottoman sites of interest.

Ancient Theatre of Phillipopolis

The photogenically cobbled Old Town is a place to wander and savour. The labyrinthine street pattern means following your nose is a better strategy than following a map. All roads seem to lead to the Ancient Theatre of Phillipopolis. Plovdiv’s most famous and spectacular landmark seats 4,000 spectators in 11 semi-circular tiers set into the hillside.

The backdrop of the stage is a tastefully restored façade of Ionic columns and statues – and the navy outline of the Rhodope Mountains behind that. Visit is you can during an evening concert or performance for the full effect of the place.

National Revival-style houses

Plovdiv has some of the finest National Revival-style houses in Bulgaria. Entry to each house is 5lv. A route ticket (available from participating houses and Tourist Information Centres, 15lv; valid 48hrs) gives entry to five houses. There is also a Plovdiv City Card (22lv; valid 24hrs) which gives free entry to over ten venues (a few of the National Revival houses, but not all), as well as the Roman Theatre and some museums, and discounts at selected restaurants and shops.

Old Town street view Plovdiv Bulgaria by RossHelen Shutterstock
© RossHelen, Shutterstock

The architectural challenges of building on steep, narrow streets have been met and to overcome the lack of space at street level, the upper storeys were built outwards on wooden beams and trusses so they almost meet across the street above your head. Many of these Old Town houses have been restored and are open to the public – for most visitors, two or three will be sufficient.

Ethnographic Museum

The Ethnographic Museum is in a beautiful old house, dating from 1847. Probably Plovdiv’s most photographed building, it was built for a rich Greek merchant, Argir Kuyumdzhioglou. Sometimes on a summer evening there are chamber music performances in the garden; a small fountain adds its music, and the slightly sour smell of box trees and the sweeter perfume of roses complete the sensory experience.

Ethnographic Museum Bulgaria by Stoya Petkov Dreamstime
© Stoya Petkov, Dreamstime

The museum opened in 1962, and has a rich collection illustrating local skills such as the making of tobacco, wine and cheese, textiles and weaving, costumes, folklore traditions and music. The house itself is a joy to be inside, especially is you are lucky enough to catch it at a quiet time. The ceiling in the main upstairs hall features a stunning rosette and sunburst pattern. Outside, the roof sweeps in voluptuous curves, and ornate felt wreaths decorate its façade.

The New Town

Two mosques of note sit in Plovdiv’s New Town. The Dzhumaya or Friday Mosque probably dates from the 14th century. It is a very large, fine building with beautiful floral motifs inside. It was and is the major mosque in Plovdiv. Its minaret is particularly eye-catching, with its diagonal pattern of red bricks on white mortar. Visitors who find the mosque open are welcome to enter. Northeast of the mosque was traditionally a bazaar area and it is still busy with shops, cafés and stalls, which continue across the footbridge over the River Maritsa.

The Imaret Mosque was built in 1444 and named after the imaret or pilgrims’ accommodation that was nearby. It stands in a small garden and has been restored in recent years. The twisted patterns on its minaret are striking.

Getting to Plovdiv

Travellers by train will find that Plovdiv’s central railway station is very well organised, with signs and timetables in English. There are trains from Sofia, Burgas, Asenovgrad, Pazardzhik, Septemvri, Karlovo and Svilengrad.

The quickest way to reach Plovdiv by road from Sofia is to take the A1 motorway which passes through pleasant rolling countryside until it reaches the Thracian Plain. This does mean that several small but quite interesting places are missed, so if time is not a priority it is more pleasant to follow the old route to Plovdiv, road number 8.