The Puzzle of Plovdiv, Bulgaria: 6 Reasons to Discover This Ancient City

The Puzzle of Plovdiv, Bulgaria: 6 Reasons to Discover This Ancient City

Plovdiv, Bulgaria is one of the oldest cities in Europe – in existence since the 12th century BC, but populated since the early Neolithic age. People settled here on a site protected by three hills, and the many layers of its history begin far below the level of today’s city.

Like most of Bulgaria, it’s been influenced and/or controlled variously by Thrace, the Persian and Roman empires, the 1st and 2nd Bulgarian Empires, the Ottomans, the 18th-19th century Bulgarian Revivalists, and the Soviets.

Putting together the puzzle pieces of Plovdiv’s splintered history creates a portrait of an enduring and diverse civilization built on layer upon layer of local cultures and connections. Let’s dig down and discover some of the parts that make up Plovdiv.

1) Antiquities

At the National Archaeological Museum in Plovdiv, a large variety of finds from Southern Bulgaria show the life and culture of the tribes that populated the Thracian lands from the Stone Age to the early Ottoman period. Other ancient monuments are found in situ, such as the dramatic Roman Amphitheater.

View from the highest tier of the Roman Amphitheater, facing the Rhodope Mountains. Photo credit: David W. Allen

View from the highest tier of the Roman Amphitheater, facing the Rhodope Mountains
Photo credit: David W. Allen

Built by Emperor Trajan during the late 1st and early 2nd century, Plovdiv’s amphitheater originally seated 6,000 spectators. 20 rows of its original marble seats have been preserved. The theater is now used for staging summer festivals and performances, with a capacity of 3,500. Carved friezes, statues and inscriptions are found on the stage and the seats.

The stage of Plovdiv’s Roman Theater

The stage of Plovdiv’s Roman Theater

A close-up of Stage Right shows the expert stone and brickwork from 2,000 years ago. Photo credit: John Baker

A close-up of Stage Right shows the expert stone and brickwork from 2,000 years ago
Photo credit: John Baker

Plovdiv also boasts a Roman Stadium used for Olympic-type games, and a section of the ancient Roman aqueduct that brought Plovdiv its water from the Rhodope Mountains.

Old Town Plovdiv. Photo credit: David W. Allen

Old Town Plovdiv
Photo credit: David W. Allen

2) Old Town and Bulgarian Revival Architecture

Just as the Renaissance began flowering in Italy, the Ottoman Turks captured the territory of Bulgaria, cutting it off from Europe for the next 500 years. In the monasteries and in the remote valleys of the mountain ranges, monks and lay people conserved Bulgarian history and traditions until the mid 18th century, when Bulgarian culture began to experience a flowering of its own. This is called the “National Revival,” and it expressed itself in architecture, literature, and the struggle for freedom of religion and against the Ottomans.


Plovdiv’s Old Town, with its winding cobbled streets, overhanging buildings and antique feel is a delight to explore on foot. Photo credit: Michel Behar

Plovdiv’s Old Town, with its winding cobbled streets, overhanging buildings and antique feel is a delight to explore on foot
Photo credit: Michel Behar

3) Diversity

Plovdiv’s diverse and inclusive background is reflected in its wealth of historic sacred buildings.

Remains of a small Christian basilica from the 5th century were discovered during construction work in 1988. Its beautiful mosaics have been preserved under a modern shelter. A small synagogue with similar mosaics was found nearby.

Magnificent Byzantine Orthodox church, rebuilt in the early 19th century with frescoes and icons by Revival artists. Photo credit: David W. Allen

Magnificent Byzantine Orthodox church, rebuilt in the early 19th century with frescoes and icons by Revival artists
Photo credit: David W. Allen

The Ottomans constructed the Jumaya Mosque in the center of town in the 15th century. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

The Ottomans constructed the Jumaya Mosque in the center of town in the 15th century
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

4) Pottery

The people of Plovdiv have been potters since Thracian times, when artisans began to use that new invention, the potter’s wheel. Bulgarian pottery is colorful and sturdy, and in Plovdiv there are quite a few opportunities to observe masters at their craft, and to purchase gifts.


Ready for the kiln. Photo credit: David W. Allen

Ready for the kiln
Photo credit: David W. Allen

5) Wine

When you’re in Plovdiv, don’t miss a tour and tasting at Todoroff Winery in nearby Brestovitza. A prime grape-growing region, the area has produced wine since Roman times. Originally founded in 1945 and renovated in 2001, the Todoroff National Revival-style winery complex includes cellars for wine-tasting.


Reds are just right at Bulgaria's Todoroff Wine Cellar, specializing in Mavrud, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Reds are just right at Bulgaria’s Todoroff Wine Cellar, specializing in Mavrud, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

6) 2019 Capital of Culture

The European Capital of Culture program was launched in 1985 to help introduce and bring together the different cultures of Europe. Each year one or more of Europe’s most wonderful cities is given the title, (as was Riga in 2014) and invites the world to join a year-long cultural celebration that can include music, dance, art, drama, exhibitions and festivals – anything that shows off the history and traditions of the place.

Plovdiv will have this honor in 2019. If your travel plans stretch far into the future, consider 2019 for a visit to Plovdiv, when the arts will take center stage.

Plovdiv's Roman amphitheater, built by Marcus Aurelius in the 2nd century

Plovdiv’s Roman amphitheater, built by Emperor Trajan in the 1st and 2nd centuries, set against a backdrop of the Plovdiv landscape.

Want to know more about Bulgaria?

Check out:

Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Photo credit: Michel Behar

Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Travel to Bulgaria with MIR

MIR has more than two decades of Bulgaria travel experience, offering on-the-ground support and quality you can trust, and guides and tour managers that clients rave about. MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.

Visit Plovdiv on these small group journeys and rail journeys by private train:

Or, discover Plovdiv’s highlights for yourself on a custom, private tour through Bulgaria. MIR specializes in personalized, private journeys, and we’d love to take your ideas and weave them into a trip tailored especially for you. Travel wherever, however and with whomever you like, relying on our expert assistance. Contact us to find out more about our custom and private travel expertise – each trip handcrafted to your interests, dates and pace.

Top photo: Wandering the winding streets of Old Town Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Photo credit: Michel Behar

PUBLISHED: January 4, 2017

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