Though we did like Sofia, we think Bulgaria has much more to offer. Of course, we are talking about Plovdiv, one of Europe’s oldest cities. Founded in 6th Century BC, the city’s history is long and rich. In Fact, Plovdiv has world-class attractions such as a Roman Theater and Stadium, a couple of Ottoman mosques and baths, and Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Churches. As if that wasn’t enough, Plovdiv Old Town is full of Bulgarian revival houses.
What is Plovdiv Like
Plovdiv has it all: architecture, a wild river, seven green hills, delicious food, and hip street art. Take note that almost all of Plovdiv attractions are located to the south of the Maritsa River. Rayko Daskalov is Plovdiv’s main drag, a pedestrian street that starts at the Maritsa River Bridge and ends at the Roman Stadium Square. From there, continue on pedestrian Knyaz Alexander I to go to Central Square and then to the Garden of Tsar Simeon. The whole area is like an open-air museum! What’s more, there are no cars! All we did was to walk about the Kapana District and Plovdiv Old Town admiring the sights.
What to See in Plovdiv: Main Attractions
Filip II the Macedon conquered the region in the 4th Century BC. Plovdiv, a small Thracian town at the time, soon became Philippopolis. During the Hellenic period the Agora, the stadium, the theater, and several temples were built. In the 1st Century, the Romans conquered Philippopolis. They kept the name and fortunately either preserved or built over Hellenic structures. Under the Romans, Plovdiv became the capital of Thrace and grew to an astonishing 100 000 citizens. Consequently, the city saw the erection of its monumental structures: the theater, the stadium, the forum, the Odeon, library, aqueduct, city walls, and gates.
Roman Theater of Plovdiv
The Roman theater of Plovdiv is one of the world’s best preserved ancient theaters. Built in the 1st Century AD to host between 5000 and 7000 spectators, it was the seat of the General Assembly of Thrace and a venue for gladiatorial and hunting games. The theater is semicircular with 28 concentric rows enclosing a rectangular stage. Located in the Plovdiv Old Town between the Taksim and Dzhambaz Tepe hills, it overlooks the mighty Rhodope Mountains. Hard to believe that in the 4th Century this beauty was destroyed and remained lost until its rediscovery in the 1970s.
Ancient Stadium of Philippopolis
Built in the 2nd Century AD, the Roman Stadium of Plovdiv is one of the largest in the Balkan Peninsula. The structure is 240 meters long and 50 meters wide! Can you imagine 30000 spectators on 14 rows? Most of the stadium is under the Knyaz Alexander I Street. In 1923, the northern curved part was discovered and reconstructed piece by piece. It includes a vaulted passage under the seats that was linking the stadium with an outside road.
Roman Forum of Philippopolis
The Roman forum of Philippopolis used to be the administrative, commercial, public and religious center of the ancient city. The city needed a place for public debates, meetings, and official events. The Odeon, the treasury, the library of Philippopolis, and other administrative buildings surround a rectangular plaza. The forum was built in the 1st Century AD. It remained active until the 5th Century. Fortunately for us, they rediscovered the structure in 1972. They were building the new post office and found it! Don’t miss the Eirene residence, an ancient peristyle house north of the Forum.
Early Christian Plovdiv
Apparently, Plovdiv remained important through Christianity. In the 1980s, archaeologists discovered two important structures from an early Christian period: the Great and the Small Basilica of Philippopolis. Both were built in the 5th Century by the Knyaginya Maria Luiza Boulevard. Sadly, Slavic tribes invaded the city in the 6th Century and destroyed both buildings. Be sure to check out the interiors. The mosaic decorations inside will surprise you. Actually, many archeologists think that the Great Basilica is the Ancient Episcopal Basilica.
After the establishment in 681 of the Bulgarian State, Plovdiv bordered the Byzantine Empire. Hence, the city had to strengthen its ancient city walls. Especially interesting is the Hisar Kapia city gate, built in the 11th Century. The current one dates to the 13th and 14th Centuries and is a typical example of military architecture of the Second Bulgarian Empire. However, the attached houses are from the later Ottoman period.
The Ottomans conquered Plovdiv in the late 14th Century and renamed it Filibe. Thus, the city became the center of the vilayet (province) and the Sultan’s personal possession. In the 15th Century the city was in ruins, its inhabitants killed or enslaved. Therefore, the Ottomans built several mosques, baths, markets, and inns. In fact, they built some mosques on top of old churches and monasteries. From then on, Plovdiv rose to prominence.
Dzhumaya or Friday Mosque is Plovdiv’s main mosque. The Mosque was built in the late 14th Century over the ruins of the Sveta Petka Tarnovska Cathedral Church. The mosque that stands today replaced the original one in the 15th Century. Dzhumaya Mosque is one of the largest and oldest Ottoman buildings in the Balkans. Byzantine and Old Bulgarian building techniques, such as two layers of bricks and one layer of stone, can be seen in its façade. Unlike most mosques in the Balkans, Dzhumaya has nine domes.
Shahabuddin Pasha, son of the Rumelian governor, built Shahabuddin Imarethane Mosque in the 15th Century. The mosque has an open porch with pointed arches. There are a central nave and smaller side naves. Its highlight is the minaret with red bricks in a meandering pattern. The Pasha is buried in a tomb (tube) next to the mosque. Next to the mosque there was a madrassa, a hammam, an inn and an imaret (a public kitchen). The mosque was shut for a very long time until it reopened in 1992.
Church of the Holy Mother of God
The Cathedral Church of the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God is a Bulgarian National Revival church. It was built in 1844 on the site of an older church destroyed during the Ottoman rule. Bulgarians wanted a church of their own, separate from the Greek Church. Thus, the Cathedral became their center of operations. In 1870, they got their wish and the Bulgarian Church was born. In 1881, a three-story domed belfry was added near the western entrance.
Church of St Constantine and Helena
Built on the ruins of an ancient temple in the 4th Century, the Church of St. Constantine and Helena is Plovdiv’s oldest. Obviously, the original structure was damaged and rebuilt through the centuries. The current building is from 1832. While its architecture is typical of the early 19th Century, the interior is quite unique. The lavish baroque iconostasis is from Vienna. The icons painted by Bulgaria’s top painters are especially interesting. Finally, in the late 19th Century they added a five-story bell tower.
Sveta Marina Church
Saint Marina Church is our favorite Plovdiv attraction. Thought it sits inside Plovdiv Old Town, tourists seem to ignore it. St. Marina is the main church of Plovdiv diocese and its church government – Plovdiv Bishopric. The original was built in the late 18th Century on top of an older church. However, the current one dates back to the 19th Century. This typical renaissance basilica has three naves and two rows of columns and semicircular arches. Be sure to check the wooden bell tower at the North Entrance and the valuable icon collection.
Cathedral of St Louis
The Cathedral of Saint Louis is one of the largest Catholic churches in Bulgaria and its national co-cathedral. It was named after the King of France, proclaimed a saint because of his exceptional life. Italian architects built the church in the 19th Century in a neoclassical style. A fire in 1932 destroyed the altar and the carved ceilings, so they built new ones. The tall 5 belled belfry is from the end of the 19th Century. Princess Maria-Luiza, the wife of Bulgarian Prince Ferdinand, is buried here.
Bulgarian Revival Architecture
Few cities managed to flourish during the long period of Ottoman rule. In fact, most settlements were basically poor neglected towns. However, that was not the case of Plovdiv in Bulgaria, Berat in Albania and Ohrid in Macedonia. In the 19th Century, the city was at the center of the Bulgarian National Revival. Gorgeous colorful houses were built all around Plovdiv Old Town. These are 2 or 3 story buildings with an expanded upper floor resting on wooden buttresses. Particularly interesting are the decorative elements, such as the wooden frames on every corner and the floral motives.
The most famous houses are:
Plovdiv Regional Ethnographic Museum
If you are unlucky and only have time for just one house, you have to visit Kuyumdzhioglu House, the prettiest of them all. Built in 1847 for a Greek merchant on a slope overlooking a garden, the house has four floors. Notice the floral decorations on the façade. Through its history, the building was a boarding house, a factory, and a warehouse. At one point one its owners wanted to demolish it! Fortunately for us, the Municipality of Plovdiv bought it in 1938 to home the Plovdiv Regional Ethnographic Museum.
Other Plovdiv Attractions
As you can tell from the above, there are plenty of things to see and do in Plovdiv. Just exploring the abovementioned Plovdiv attractions takes three days! Nebet Tepe hill will fascinate archaeology lovers. The remains of the 5th century BC city wall are as impressive as the views from the hill. At the foot of the hill, you will find the Chifte, an oriental bathhouse from the 16th Century. Another interesting hill is Sahat Tepe. Though the Ottoman Clock Tower is from the 16th Century, the clock was brought from Vienna in the late 19th Century. Finally, Plovdiv Synagogue may be small and secluded but is one of the best examples of Ottoman style synagogues in the Balkans.
Five centuries ago, Kapana District (The Trap in Bulgarian) was craftsmen’s central. Even today the streets bare names such as Leather Street, Gold Street or Iron Street. Apparently, the whole area was kind of neglected until very recently. Nevertheless, a multi-sector project changed the area a couple of years ago. Streets were paved and buildings refurbished. Hence this pedestrian area is the place to be of artists. Galleries, art shops, restaurants, cafés and graffiti dot the area. In fact, the district is part of the artistic agenda of European Capital of Culture, Plovdiv 2019. Be sure to check this year’s schedule for festivals, exhibitions, discussions, theater shows, workshops, and concerts.
Where to Stay in Plovdiv
Plovdiv is not an especially large city, so wherever you stay you won’t be too far from the Old Town and all of the attractions. That said, there is no point in staying far from the center. We stayed at the unique Maritza Hotel, across the river, and loved everything about it. Slick and modern from the outside, kitschy and colorful from the inside, it offered great comfort and the best views of Plovdiv. In the Old Town, there are two heritage houses: Hotel Evmolpia and Hotel Residence Hebros. Located in front of the beautiful Garden of Tsar Simeon Residence City Garden is Plovdiv’s only five-star hotel. Finally, if you are into something different, yet equally comfortable, the socialist gem Grand Hotel Plovdiv is a fantastic choice.