With its art galleries, winding cobbled streets and bohemian cafes, Plovdiv (Plov-div) equals Sofia in things cultural and is a determined rival in nightlife as well – it has a lively, exuberant spirit befitting its status as a major university town. Being a smaller and less stressful city than Sofia, Plovdiv is also great for walking.
Plovdiv’s appeal derives from its lovely old town, largely restored to its mid-19th-century appearance. It’s packed with atmospheric house museums and art galleries and – unlike many other cities with ‘old towns’ – has eminent artists still living and working within its tranquil confines. The neighbourhood boasts Thracian, Roman, Byzantine and Bulgarian antiquities, the most impressive being the Roman amphitheatre – the best-preserved in the Balkans, it's still used for performances.
Plovdiv’s modern centre, on the south side of the Maritsa River, features a shop-lined pedestrian mall, ul Knyaz Aleksandâr, which passes over the Roman Stadium and up to a splendid square with gushing fountain. The nearby Tsar Simeon Garden is a shady, popular spot for relaxing. Plovdiv’s cafes and bars are widespread, though one concentration of popular places is in the Kapana district, northwest of the old town.
Like Rome, Plovdiv boasts seven hills, though one was flattened by communists and only four impress: Nebet Tepe, with Thracian fort ruins above the old town; Sahat Tepe (Clock Hill), crowned with a clock tower; Bunardjika (the ‘Hill of the Liberators’) to the west; and Djendem (‘Hill of the Youth’) in the southwest.
Plovdiv’s always been one of Bulgaria’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan cities, and it’s also Bulgaria’s second-largest road and railway hub and economic centre. Although travellers often merely regard it as a stopover point between Bulgaria and Greece or Turkey, Plovdiv repays a longer visit and will certainly draw you in if you let it.