I’m back! If you follow my adventures on Instagram, you’ll know that we’ve been away in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, and Sofia, the capital. After 15 months of pandemic life, I was in desperate need of some city action – and with both of us being fully vaccinated, and our anniversary on the cards, it seemed like as good a time as any.
And boy did we need it. Much as I love living in the Bulgarian countryside, sometimes I just need a little taste of bustle. And by ‘bustle’ I mean a soy latte with a bunny drawn in the foam, handed to me by a friendly tattooed hipster. Or a photogenic cocktail with rosebuds in, preferably handed to me by a friendly tattooed hipster. Or a vegan pizza, handed to be by … you get the point. The main objective of our trip was to eat and drink our way around Plovdiv and Sofia, and relive our urbane young city folk days. (As opposed to our midlife Crocs and back pain days.)
Why Plovdiv and Sofia? Because Sofia is my favourite city in Bulgaria and Plovdiv is Rob’s. We regularly argue about which one is better, even (especially) while we were away. So I thought I’d devote a post to each of our arguments. Which city should you visit on your first post-pando city break? Read on to find out.
But first, a quick disclaimer. This isn’t going to be an ins-and-outs guide to the main sights in each city, nor a guide on where to eat and drink. (If that’s what you’re after, you can check out my previous post on lovely things to do in Sofia. I must write one for Plovdiv, too…) Rather, this is about – and I feel like a wanker writing this but here goes – the vibe each city offers. Because vibe matters, right, when you’re deciding on a city break? Or have I just drunk too many soy lattes lately?
Anyway, let’s start with Plovdiv.
Plovdiv – the holiday town feels
Here, I’ll hand over to Rob, since Plovdiv is his favourite. In his words, this is why you should visit Plovdiv rather than Sofia. [My interjections – because this is my blog and I can interject whenever I damn well like – are in square brackets.]
- Plovdiv is one of the oldest settlements in Europe, so it has a great sense of history. More recently, it’s had a lot of investment and work done in preparation for the city being European Capital of Culture in 2019. So, while it’s always had the Old Town, ancient amphitheatre – which is absolutely the first thing everyone should see – and Roman stadium to draw visitors, Plovdiv’s ‘new town’ is also an attractive place with fountains, parks, street art and a large pedestrianised area. Which all adds to it feeling like a lively, sociable place. Basically, Plovdiv feels smarter than Sofia. And Plovdiv has done a better job of restoring old sights more sympathetically. In Sofia, the bits that have been ‘done up’ are, in my opinion, worse for it. The big Roman ruins in the centre of Sofia, for example, have been rebuilt and made to look old, whereas in Plovdiv, restorations have been done with more care. So if you want ‘old world’ charm, mixed with a smart new town, Plovdiv is the better place to go. [Claire here, I have to agree that Plovdiv has had a lot of work done since we were last there and does feel like it’s been ‘done up’ in a good way. And what they’ve done to the Serdica ruins in Sofia is a fucking outrage.]
- Plovdiv’s impressive Old Town, with its painted cantilevered houses, museums and antique shops is a brilliant example of Bulgarian National Revival architecture and a must-see in Bulgaria. It’s probably the best example of a real Old Town in Bulgaria. As opposed to somewhere like Etar, which is beautiful and worth a visit, but feels like a theme park.
- Plovdiv also has the artsy restaurant and bar district Kapana (‘The Trap’), where you can find lots of cool bars and restaurants concentrated in a small, mostly pedestrianised area. It’s the place to go on a night out. There’s no equivalent in Sofia. Yes, Sofia has Vitosha Boulevard, but that doesn’t have an artsy feel. The cool bars in Sofia are spread out. Everything in Sofia feels more spread out because it’s, obviously, bigger.
- Plus, Plovdiv has got hills. It has a range of walkable hills – such as the fortress ruins at the top of the Old Town – that give you impressive views over the city for not much effort. [I had to laugh at this because Sofia has an actual fucking mountain. Although, to be fair to Rob, Mount Vitosha is a bit of a journey out of the centre of Sofia and, once you get up there, you might only see a brown ring of pollution.]
- And, because it’s further south, Plovdiv has a better climate than Sofia. You’ll see lots of palm trees in the city, which gives it a laidback, summery, holiday vibe. It feels like being by the sea, even though you’re hours from the coast. [This is 100% true. Plovdiv does have a better climate and more summery feel.]
- Not sure how to say this without offending Bulgarians, but Plovdiv also has kind of a Turkish vibe in places, which adds to the general holiday feel. Sit outside the Turkish coffee shop next to Dzhumaya Mosque, sipping a Turkish tea, and you can pretend you’re in Istanbul. Which, considering you’re just minutes from the very Bulgarian Old Town is pretty cool.
- Finally, Plovdiv has a river and Sofia doesn’t. Which I feel is important for navigation. [For context, Rob always gets lost in Sofia, something he blames on it lacking a river.]
Plovdiv in pictures (click to enlarge):
Sofia – authentic Eastern European charm
Now it’s my turn to make the case for Sofia. Gracious host that I am, I’ll occasionally allow Rob to interject [in square brackets].
- Plovdiv may have a holiday atmosphere, with the palm trees and weather to match, but Sofia has a cool-arse city vibe. Which is why I like it so much. I love visiting Plovdiv, but when I want bustle and civilisation, Sofia is the one for me. Sofia reminds me of Berlin in the 2000s – it’s got that slightly shabby, artistic feel that has been sanitised out of so many European capital cities. It’s not run-down or rough or scary. It’s just got a slightly crumbly element that is completely charming. Sofia has a distinctly Eastern European vibe that makes it so different from other European cities – even other Eastern European cities. Budapest, for example, is now so slick and shiny and geared to tourism that you could be anywhere in Europe. But Sofia has held onto its authentic Eastern European charm. Plovdiv, in contrast, has a different feel of its own, with its traces of Turkish-ish-ness – again, I’m not trying to offend Bulgarians. [Rob here, Sofia does indeed have a ramshackle, artistic, Eastern European feel. If you’ve been to Budapest and liked it, you should like Sofia even more. Budapest is way more sanitised than Sofia.]
- Yes, Sofia is more spread out than Plovdiv, certainly in terms of nightlife, but the centre is still pretty small and approachable for a ‘big’ city. Most of the main sights and places to eat and drink are all within walking distance. And when you do need to use public transport, the vintagey Eastern European trams and metro stations are beautiful in their own right. Plovdiv doesn’t have trams! Plovdiv doesn’t have a metro!
- Frankly, Sofia just has more to do. True, there’s no Old Town or amphitheatre, but it’s full of churches, markets, galleries… The second-hand clothes shopping – a must for me – is better in Sofia than Plovdiv. And Sofia has loads more bars and restaurants to choose from, even if they aren’t all conveniently located next to each other. Basically, Sofia has a much more diverse bar and restaurant scene – there are more dining options for vegans and vegetarians, for example. That’s not to diss the Kapana area in Plovdiv, which is great, it’s just that Sofia can keep you entertained for longer. [Yes, if you don’t mind trekking a bit between cocktails.]
- And if you do need to escape the city bustle, Sofia has Mount Vitosha – an actual mountain, not piddly little hills – which is visible from much of the city, and still had snow on top when we were there at the beginning of June. I love how you can walk down a narrow city street in Sofia and see a mountain at the end. I think that makes it unique. [I’d agree Vitosha is definitely worth a visit, even in winter, because you can ski there. It’s pretty unusual to have skiing right on the doorstep of a capital city. Or you can just enjoy a hike in the summer. But it will take you a while to get there via public transport.]
Sofia in pictures (click to enlarge):
Both cities share a friendly, approachable feel (albeit Plovdiv feels more ‘holiday-ey’, while Sofia has more of the culture and bustle you’d expect from a capital city). Both have an amazing outdoor café culture, where you can sit for hours eating and drinking and watching the world go by. Both are fairly small, compared to other major European cities and easily covered on foot. And both are super-cheap compared to the UK and elsewhere in Europe. So if you’re looking for a budget city break, you really should head Bulgaria’s way.
The difference for me is mainly that Plovdiv feels like a little holiday in the sun, while Sofia feels like an energising city break. But, ultimately, they’re both awesome cities and well worth a visit. And as Plovdiv is only around 90 minutes from Sofia down the motorway, you can easily do both in one trip. (How’s that for a cop-out conclusion?)
Are you planning to visit either Plovdiv or Sofia in future? Have you already been and, if so, which is your favourite? And where should we go for our next Bulgarian city break?