Capital of Culture: History and Creativity in the Bulgarian City of Plovdiv

The rich history of Bulgaria’s second city is well worth exploring
The rich history of Bulgaria’s second city is well worth exploring | © stoyanh / Alamy Stock Photo
Plamena Hristova Manolova

A 2019 European Capital of Culture, Plovdiv is known as the ‘city of artists’, and the vibrant creative scene and rich history of Bulgaria’s second city are well worth exploring.

One of the oldest cities in the world, Plovdiv’s architecture and culture are marked by Roman, Persian and Ottoman influences. Dating back to Roman times, when the city’s iconic amphitheatre would draw thousands to take in a play or a gladiatorial fight, Plovdiv has long been known for its creativity and love for performance. Its reputation as a city of artists has taken on new significance with the rise of Kapana, Plovdiv’s creative quarter, and the city’s tenure as a 2019 European Capital of Culture.

Plovdiv’s colourful Old Town reflects the city’s creativity

Exploring a storied history and multicultural heritage

Any journey into Plovdiv’s heritage will inevitably start in the city’s Old Town. Situated in the heart of its pedestrianised historic centre and still in full use today, the Dzhumaya Mosque is emblematic both of Plovdiv’s history of conquest and its contemporary diversity. Built in the 14th century on the site of a church following the Ottoman occupation of the city, the mosque was rebuilt during the 15th-century reign of Sultan Murad and features intricate 18th- and 19th-century wall paintings.

The Dzhumaya Mosque was first built in the 14th century

Opposite the mosque stands the ancient Roman Stadium of Philippopolis, as Plovdiv was known in the West for much of its history. Following its construction in the 2nd century AD, the stadium regularly welcomed over 30,000 spectators to a grand tournament similar to the Pythian Games, featuring chariot races, athletics and poetry contests. While no longer holding such spectacular sporting events, the historic stadium’s marble seats remain largely intact, while the underground areas of the structure now host an interactive exhibition where visitors can watch 3D videos about the history of the stadium.

Opposite the mosque stands the ancient Roman Stadium of Philippopolis

The cobbled streets of the Old Town are also home to 18 of Plovdiv’s museums and cultural centres, set within traditional symmetrical houses adorned with wood-carved windows and ornate facades. Among the most beautiful Bulgarian National Revival-era mansions, and one of the most popular among visitors, is Balabanov House. Reconstructed in the 1970s in early 19th-century style, this former merchant’s house combines antiques and intricate carved ceilings with contemporary art by local artists on its lower floor.

A short stroll away is the Regional Ethnographic Museum, which occupies the 1847 house of the merchant Argir Kuyumdzhioglu and is a prime example of mid-19th-century Baroque architecture. In addition to its wood-carved ceilings and the golden floral motives on the building’s exterior, the museum hosts an expansive permanent exhibition of traditional items preserved from Bulgaria’s revival period (18th–19th century): pottery, textiles, musical instruments, furniture and agricultural tools.

Balabanov House in the Old Town is a former merchant’s house

Set a short walk away on the slopes of the hillside Old Town, the Ancient Theatre of Philippopolis is among the best-preserved Roman theatres in the world. The open-air theatre dates back to the 2nd century, when it was used predominantly for theatre performances and gladiatorial fights. Today, the venue’s 28 concentric rows of marble seats have been restored and the venue stages operas, concerts and plays.

Arts and creativity in contemporary Plovdiv

Just north of the Dzhumaya Mosque, coloured flags welcome visitors to Plovdiv’s Kapana Creative District. Its name literally means ‘the trap’ – in reference to the labyrinthine cobbled streets – and the district houses art studios, galleries and shops where local artisans produce and sell pottery, paintings and jewellery. Kapana’s rebirth as a creative hub came in advance of Plovdiv’s stint as a 2019 European Capital of Culture, before which it had been a somewhat neglected part of town.

Top picks for venues to visit in this artistic neighbourhood include Coffee & Gallery Cu29, a gallery showcasing contemporary artworks inspired by the 1930s and traditional Bulgarian crafts, where you can follow your artistic exploration with a coffee or craft beer. Kapana is also home to the Soul Searchin’ record shop, which proudly calls itself ‘vinyl’s homeplace’. Not only can you find international and Bulgarian vinyl records here, but the shop also organises workshops and intimate gigs. Since 2014, the district has played host to the creative Kapana Fest in early June. The three-day festival includes live music; pop-up markets featuring handmade crafts, art and food stalls; sports events; and literary gatherings.

The Kapana Creative District is a labyrinthine cultural enclave

Beyond Kapana, Plovdiv hosts over 600 cultural events and festivals each year. Since 2015, the city has drawn urban art enthusiasts to the Staro Zhelezare Street Art Village Festival, during which artists turn an otherwise sleepy local village – Staro Zhelezare – into a dynamic artistic canvas. Led by artists Katarzina and Ventsislav Piryankovi, who bring their students from the Polish town of Poznań, the festival takes place annually during July and August. In addition, the Ancient Theatre of Philippopolis has become a hub for cultural events, including the International Folklore Festival and rock festival Sounds of the Ages. Every summer the theatre is home to the Opera Open music festival, which brings world-famous opera singers and prima ballerinas from the Bolshoi Theatre to perform on the historic stage.

Plovdiv’s tenure as a 2019 European Capital of Culture undoubtedly brought about a change of pace with regard to cultural events in the city. In 2019, among the most notable of these was Plovdiv Karavana, a 10-day theatre festival that brought 200 performers from as far afield as Belgium, France, Italy and Switzerland. Organised by the French International Centre for Travelling Theatres – CITI – in collaboration with the Plovdiv 2019 Foundation, the festival saw the visiting performers work with local arts enthusiasts to create three art camps on the outskirts of Plovdiv and host daily performances.

The Ancient Roman theatre of Philippopolis has become a hub for cultural events

“The event was a very different experience to what the city is used to. It felt like a festival of free spirit, there was a certain ‘nomad’ element to it. All the artists made their way to Plovdiv in a different way but the most outstanding one was a couple that travelled on a horse all the way across Europe. It took them over seven months to get from France to Bulgaria,” said Galin Popov, one of the festival’s local organisers.

Plovdiv also welcomed one of France’s most famous graffiti duos – Ella & Pitr – to create their trademark sleeping giants on the playground of the local St Cyril and Methodius school in 2019. The artists worked with over 120 participants to create the graffiti, which occupies an area of 5,000 square metres (53,820 square feet).

“We didn’t know anything about Plovdiv when we got invited… we didn’t know how amazing the cultural heritage of the city was,” says Ella & Pitr when asked about their time in Plovdiv. “It was an amazing experience. We had students from different Eastern European countries joining us and helping us with the project.”

Graffiti artists Ella & Pitr created a gigantic piece of street art at a school in Plovdiv

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