In a city older than Rome, where colourful period houses jostle next to craft markets, galleries and edgy nightlife, there's never a bad time to visit. Springtime sends flocks of hikers exploring the Rhodope Mountains, right on the city’s outskirts. Summers are spent revelling in a calendar of musical and cultural events, and slurping cooling tarator soup in the shade.
Autumn is perfect timing to explore the local wine scene, while the cold season dusts the city’s seven hills with snow – and sees rakiya boiled up as a winter warmer. If you’re tempted to explore Plovdiv, why not time your first trip for a festival? From twilight operas to hedonistic mountain retreats, these six events are the perfect way into Plovdiv’s rich heritage and irresistible sense of fun.
As one of the world’s oldest continuously settled cities, Plovdiv overflows with ancient ruins, the most impressive being the Roman theatre. This 7000-seat theatre dates back to the 1st century AD, and it survived sacking by Attila the Hun. It was rediscovered by chance in the 1970s and today it’s a huge tourist draw. June’s Verdi Festival is an excellent reason to linger in this historic place. Instead of getting engrossed in the gladiatorial fights of old, you can take your place on the stone seats for a twilight opera performance in the fragrant summer air. (Consider bringing a cushion.)
When: June 2015
Learn more: opera-festival-plovdiv.com
Meadows in the Mountains
Braid some flowers in your hair and head to the Rhodope Mountains with Plovdiv’s vibrant community of artists and pleasure-seekers. A rich programme of unsigned bands, performing artists and spoken word awaits. Musical discovery is guaranteed, whether your eardrums rejoice at folk, techno, disco or world music. But if you were expecting to kick back and spectate, think again: in a festival rapidly building a reputation as a boutique Burning Man, audience participation is part of the fun. Locally sourced food, a keen literary eye and a revolutionary spirit make this one of the most intelligent and enriching festivals around… but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t splash around in the waterfalls. In fact, we positively encourage it.
When: June 2015
Learn more: meadowsinthemountains.com
One Design Week
Design nerds and typeface fiends will have a field day at this week-long festival. Designers from across the globe get exhibited in Plovdiv, from furniture to cutting-edge graphic design. But don’t be deterred if your grasp of minimalism begins and ends with IKEA. Last year saw exhibitions ranging from movie poster art to Asian graphic design in venues across the city, and 2015 looks to have just as varied a programme.
When: 19-28 June 2015
More info: edno.bg/en/one-design-week-2014 (website for 2015’s festival coming soon)
If you want to experience rakia-swilling, pavement-thumping jubilation across Bulgaria, 6 September is the date to shoot for. The entire country celebrates National Unification Day, when Bulgaria united with Ottoman province Eastern Roumelia in 1885. Remarkably, this milestone in the country's unshackling from Ottoman rule was achieved by peaceful means, and Plovdiv (formerly Eastern Roumelia's capital) is where the historic declaration was made. Expect a military roll-call in the main square, patriots laying bouquets before statues of revolutionary heroes, and fireworks bursting over the city. By nightfall, misty-eyed pride will gradually be overtaken by the younger generation piling into the bars on ul Sâborna and ul Knyaz Aleksandâr.
When: 6 September
More info: keep an eye on visitplovdiv.com for details of events
Night of the Galleries
Nocturnal culture junkies can enjoy their fill of Plovdiv’s museums for one night only in September. The Long Night of the Museums concept has spread to dozens of cities worldwide, allowing visitors to explore galleries and museums into the early hours of the morning. For a city like Plovdiv, where countless period houses have been reworked into tiny museums and the local arts scene overflows with imagination, this event is a real treat. Whether it’s your taste to explore nostalgic spaces such as the Ethnographic Museum and Historical Museum (both in lovingly restored 19th-century buildings), modernist offerings at the City Art Gallery, or pop-up contemporary spaces, caffeinate yourself and prepare for a night of wonder.
When: last Friday of September
More info: night.bg/en
One Dance Week
Want a festival that will keep you on your toes (literally)? Ballet, contemporary dance and world music unite for an autumn extravaganza in Plovdiv. This festival originally started as a way to stimulate the region’s dance scene and inspire young performers, but it swiftly became a local favourite. Performances are set to wow audiences in 2015 as some of the Balkans’ top dancers show up in Plovdiv to twirl their best. But it’s not only the lithe and limber who join in for the fun – open-air events and street parties set feet tapping across the city.
When: 23 October to 1 November 2015
More info: edno.bg/en/one-dance-week-2014 (website for 2015’s festival coming soon)
Anita Isalska is a Lonely Planet writer and editor with a weakness for Bulgarian shopska salad, ancient ruins and anywhere snowy. Follow her on Twitter at @lunarsynthesis.