Have you heard of the Little Rome? The city of Plovdiv in central Bulgaria is often compared to the Italian capital.
Currently a 2019 European Capital of Culture, Plovdiv is waiting for you to come and explore its newly renovated city center or the narrow cobbled backstreets of the “Old Town” historic district.
The city is unique in that it can be either vibrantly modern and fast paced or completely relaxed and laid back. Whichever path you follow, you will immediately feel at home. In the end, there is only one way to experience Plovdiv. You must allow yourself to be completely taken in by this beautiful ancient place.
A City on the Hills
Plovdiv is not a city built on a hill. It was originally built on seven hills.
Stop for a second and consider which other cities occupy multiple hilltops. Rome, Athens, San Francisco and Rio de Janeiro may come to mind. You probably did not consider Plovdiv, which also happens to be one of Europe’s oldest cities. It predates both Athens and Rome. Plovdiv has been home to many civilizations and this year it celebrates more than 8000 years of continued habitation by numerous civilizations.
Modern Plovdiv has contracted just a bit and today is spread across just five hills. Each hill is unique, used for different purposes and each rises above the beautiful city. The hills also contain reminders of the Roman, Thracian and Ottoman occupiers beneath their steep slopes.
In the valley below, the Maritsa River slowly and gracefully flows through the middle of the city. Bulgaria’s longest river adds a bit of riverine charm to this ancient city.
A City within a City
If you Google Plovdiv, you will first find photographs of the “Old Town.” Plovdiv is really two cities in one, which is a great deal for travelers. Separate from the commercial heart of modern Plovdiv, Old Town is the most popular tourist destination.
Of course, Old Town was once THE city of Plovdiv. Its cobblestone streets are famous for breaking high heels, but it is also perfect for cool stroll even during the heat of summer. Old Town is full of antique stores, souvenir shops, museums, coffee houses, art exhibits, restaurants with some of the best traditional Bulgarian food and hotels located in the quarter’s old Renaissance buildings. Nebet Tepe Hill and the Ancient Roman Theater are a couple of the most popular destinations.
Time to Eat
There is always that time of the day when we say “OK, time to eat!” When that moment arrives, Plovdiv will not disappoint. Fast food, fine dining or something in between is very easy to find.
Here are three dining options you should consider:
The Dandelion—"Aleksander Ekzarh" 15, 4000 Tsentar, Plovdiv
Not located on the main street of Plovdiv or the “Center,” as it’s referred to locally, the Dandelion offers unique fresh meals. You can be assured that your soup or salad is made out from the finest ingredients. It is the perfect place to try Tarator--a traditional Bulgarian summer soup. The menus are only in Bulgarian, so if you don’t have a guide or a local friend, consider using Google translate.
Dayana—"Knyaz Al. Dondukov-Korsakov" 2, 4000 Plovdiv
Not to sound bias, but this is definitely one of my favorite places to eat in Plovdiv. The menu is about 40 pages long and offers only Bulgarian cuisine. Anything you choose, ranging from meat dishes cooked over hot coals to the traditional Bulgarian Rakia (brandy), is just off the charts. The staff all wear traditional Bulgarian clothing; which combined with touches like red table cloths, oak barrels and carts in the yard and grapes hanging above the tables add to the local aesthetic. It is a must-visit dining experience and they do have English menus.
Pavaj—"Zlatarska" 7, 4000 Kapana, Plovdiv
Pavaj is a newer restaurant located in the renovated Kapana District (which translates as “Trap”). It is a small modern restaurant offering both foreign and Bulgarian specialties, but it is famous for its huge salad portions, wine selection and meat entrees. Located between the New and Old Towns, it is a great place to sit outside while touring the city.
But What about Bulgarian Wine?
The Thracian tribes were the first winemakers in Eastern Europe and their winemaking traditions have survived through the centuries. Plovdivians strongly believe that wine is the drink of the gods and the region surrounding Plovdiv contains most of Bulgaria’s wine cellars. Wines from indigenous grape varieties like Mavrud, Rubin and Pelin are common.
Located in the Thracian Valley and south (aka in the base of the Rhodope Mountains), the terroir is known for its temperate climate, fruitful soils, light winds and just enough rainfall for perfect harvests of Mavrud--Bulgaria’s most popular grape. The deep red color and rich texture of the Marvud wines are characteristics everyone remembers. They are a bit high in alcohol, but this Marvud a perfect addition to meals of lamb, beef or pork.
Where to Drink Wine in Plovdiv
In the modern era, Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s wine capital. Every year the city welcomes guests from around the world to its “Young Wine Defile” held during the last weekend of November; the Food & Gourmet weekend during the first week of May; and Vinaria held in the International Fair of Plovdiv during the last week of February. The first two events are free to the public. If you’d like to taste the wines or food, you will have the opportunity to purchase tokens – 1 token per tasting at the cost of 0.50 BGN (about $0.30). The Vinaria costs about 5 to 7 BGN ($5 max) and it includes all wine tastings, but if you want to taste the hundreds of cheeses and breads accompanying the wineries you will have to pay inside for each tasting.
Of course, you can also find wine in almost every restaurant, but here are five you should absolutely experience:
Vino Culture —ul. "Otets Paisiy" 5, 4000 Staria grad, Plovdiv
This is a wine bar serving only wine, but their selection is broad and they do carry most Bulgarian varieties. The staff consists of experienced sommeliers, who can definitely recommend something that will fit any palate.
deGustostation—ul. "Zlatarska" № 11, 4000 Kapana, Plovdiv
Centrally located in the artsy Kapana District this wine bar carries wonderfully made Mavrud and Rubin. Guests sit on oak barrels and drink wines that once aged inside those same seats.
Regional Wine at Hebros Hotel—“Konstantin Stoilov”55
The Enoteca Regional Wine is owned by Hebros Hotel--a five star hotel located in Old Town. Their wine list reflects a collection of special Bulgarian and International wines. It is an ideal spot to discover most Bulgarian wine varieties like Mavrud, Rubin, Melnik 55 (early Melnik vine and Churchill’s favorite wine), Dimyat and Tamianka. Tastings must be arranged in advance.
AK Wine & Tea—"Bratya Pulevi" 6, 4000 Kapana, Plovdiv
A fairly new establishment that offers a unique combination of wine and tea. The owners, Alexander and Adrian, bring together their twin passions under one roof. Alexander is a winemaker and Adrian owns the city’s famous Tea House. They have created a spot that is simultaneously romantic, elegant and relaxed.
Glass of Wine—Abadzhiyska 8
This is a French-style wine shop located in the Kapana district, where you can sit outside on a hot summer day or inside during cooler weather and sip locally crafted wine.
So Much More
This is just a brief synopsis of the most popular places to eat or drink wine and does little justice to local history. A city that is thousands of years old also has thousands of stories and as many things to offer. Hospitable Plovdivians will graciously share their town with anyone willing to visit.
Planning Your Trip
You can get a modestly-priced customized Plovdiv itinerary at Custom Trip: Personalized Trip Planning Services.
All photos credited to Silviya Topchiyska