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  • Writer's pictureAbby

Plovdiv, Bulgaria: 2 days in the ancient historic town, solo travel in the Balkans of Europe

Why visit Bulgaria?

The least expected place I ever thought I would end up...Bulgaria! And in its smaller ancient town of Plovdiv. This ended up being one of my very favorite hidden gems of the Balkans! I am so grateful for the friend I met while traveling in Thessaloniki who encouraged me to switch plans around and spend some time here in place of the amount of time I had previously planned to be in North Macedonia. The other main reason that I ended up here was simply due to lack of regularity and options while traveling during a pandemic. They had closed the boarder between Greece and North Macedonia and the private transportation options that one traveler took to get through sounded risky, so I hopped over to Bulgaria for a few days in order to enter North Macedonia in less stressful way.

Plovdiv is absolutely beautiful. Historic, artistic, ancient, quaint, romanic. A combination of european cultures with middle eastern influence. My favorite memory of all was watching the sunset from the ruins over the city! I also enjoyed all of the live music all over the city, the street art, cafes, cobblestone streets (except from rolling a suitcase on those) and so much of the architecture and history.


I risked showing up without previously booking accommodation, at the time a lot of my experience through out the Balkans was on a whim! Thankfully, the Old Plovdiv Guest House which is the top rated hotel in in Plovdiv had one space left and it was just 12 euros for the night including a fantastic breakfast. The receptionist welcomed me in, served complimentary freshly squeezed herb lemonade and sat down with me and a map to show me all the top places to visit. It was very safe, great location on the upper historic part of town. I highly recommend staying here and they have everything from beds in shared rooms to private rooms, all in a vintage mansion of an ancient town!

The must do experience in Plovdiv was by far the walking tour!

Our tour guide was originally from Plovdiv but he lived in the Chicago suburbs for 10 years as a child with his family during Bulgaria's worst instability before moving back. Did you know that the third largest population of Bulgarians is in Chicago? That means there are more Bulgarians living in Chicago than in the city of Plovdiv, Bulgaria!

His perspective and insights were incredible as a third culture kid straddling American and Bulgarian cultures. Most of what I learned about Plovdiv and Bulgaria was through that experience and we explored most of the town in just a few hours! I'll highlight some of the interesting information that I learned from this tour below. I hope you enjoy learning a little bit about the history and get a feel for what to do and where to go if you ever get the chance to visit!

Historic information from the tour with recommended sights to visit

Plovdiv is 8,000 years old, one of the oldest inhabited cities in Europe.

It is the second largest city in Bulgaria (after the capital city, Sofia) with a population today of 350,000. It was named the european capital of culture as the city of arts in 2019 

6,000 years ago, the Thracians settled here (and many Bulgarians can still trace their bloodlines and DNA to ancient Thracian communities).

It is the birthplace of Slovic literature. Slov gave the language and culture, Russians use the Bulgarian alphabet. In Roman times it was an important military city, the people were relatives and cousins to those living in Troy. About 65% of locals are Mediterranean. Romans paid Bulgarians tax.

Religiously, they were happy when someone died because they were free, sad when someone was born because they would have to endure this difficult life.

A country of gold miners — the oldest gold treasure in the world was found in Bulgaria. Recently they found even older gold also in Bulgaria, in a small village which previously was simply known for its cabbage. 

Plovdiv is known by its 7 hills (today 6 hills and a shopping mall) and a river.

The tallest hill in the city is called the hill of the youth. There was a temple to the gods on inferno hill or a genie/ghost hill. The Dalai Lama visited. Now there’s a small amusement park there. Hill of the wells (with the statue on top, it used to be of Hercules but then in 1945 Russian soldiers built a new one by themselves and for themselves but Bulgarians paid for it). Hill of time has the oldest functioning clock tower in the Balkans, over 500 years old!

Make sure to visit Milio, a statue man on the streets loved by everyone - whisper in big ears for wishes to come true, rub his knees for luck with love!

The city center Main Street is the length of the Roman stadium, which is still underneath the city and visible as you stroll through! Randomly while walking through Plovdiv you see open parts of the ancient theater below. Emperor Hadrian built this stadium along with the wall in the upper town and other ruins in Athens. Up to 4 events at the same time would happen that is how large it was! “Animals killing people, people killing animals, animals eating Christians….” as the tour guide put it. 60,000 population was quite large in ancient times and the stadium fit half the people.

They were enemies with Romans so the Romans paid the Ottoman Empire to help them to defeat Bulgarians. The ottomans ruled for 5 centuries and left a lot of their culture and religion. When the rest of Europe and world was progressing, the Ottoman Empire wasn’t so people would travel to trade and come back with more money and ideas. After 100 years of warfare, money (trade) killed the warrior.

"It was never true communism or socialism, it was totalitarian dictatorship." This is something that he and other tour guides in the region also made very clear.

Today it is about 9% is Muslim, 4% Catholic, 1% Protestant with the rest being Eastern Orthodox Christians, and before, there were many Jews.

Today, the tallest church in every city has to be shorter than the tallest mosque.

On the tour, we stopped by what is one of the oldest mosques in all of the Balkans. It is a nice place to have authentic Turkish coffee. 9 domes on top because it wasn’t always a mosque...once a church...Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Bulgarians and more! 

The old art and crafts neighbourhood had buildings made of wood but after a fire, as every city seems to experience, they rebuilt it out of stone.

The bell tower is plain black and white only while the church is very colorful. Why?  Bell towers were illegal. Along with hidden colors, a high fence and also 3 walls to hide the sound as well. 

Plovdiv was the number 1 producer in the world of Bulgarian rose oil (worth more than gold in liquid amounts) and what makes French perfume smell so amazing!

13 other European nations have African and Asian animal symbols, but for Bulgaria, the lion symbol on the Plovdiv flag is because there used to be small Bulgarian lions! The Bulgarian flag colors are as followes: white - air, spiritual. Green - pastures, fields, harvest, fertility. Red - blood spilled by heroes. 

Houses have larger top floors due to tax reasons, see photo below!

When going up to the historic ruins in upper town, it's worth a stop at a large museum around the corner!

The name of the owner translates into "silver jewellery goldsmith guy" and he disappeared mysteriously, most likely to go trade. In the garden, there are rose water foundations and hundreds of windows in the historic home. It was donated/taken by state and has turned over many different things such as a hat shop, girls schools, and now it is a museum.

Does this make you want to visit Bulgaria? Or maybe it was enough to just learn a little bit from my experience. If you enjoyed this, please comment and share!


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