(CNN) — Bulgaria's Plovdiv remains relatively unknown to most travelers, but it's beginning to appear on more and more Balkan itineraries -- and for good reason.
Situated between two vast mountain ranges along what in centuries past was a crucial inland route from Western Europe to Constantinople (Istanbul) and Asia Minor, Bulgaria's second city has been held over the centuries by Thracians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans.
Remnants of these kingdoms and empires still survive in compelling proximity to one another, and the city's various rulers have left their mark not only on its architecture, but also on its vibrant artistic and cultural life.
Plovdiv is set to be the European Capital of Culture for 2019, and traveling there now offers the best chance of exploring before it becomes as famous as it deserves to be.
1. It's one of the oldest cities in Europe
Plovdiv has a strong claim to being the oldest continually inhabited city in Europe.
While it's hard to summarize 6,000 years of visible history, an obvious highlight is the enormous, partially unearthed Roman stadium below the main street.
Just 10 paces away, the 600-year-old Dzhumaya Mosque still serves the Turkish families that stayed behind after the collapse of Ottoman rule.
Plovdiv's old town, with its winding cobbled streets and elegant revival-era townhouses, is perfect for a leisurely evening stroll.
Commanding the heights above the old town is the ruined fortress of Nebet Tepe.
Thracian tribesmen were the first to establish a settlement on this site, and the fortress they built was further developed by Macedonians and then Romans.
When the Ottomans pushed their imperial frontiers beyond Plovdiv, they partly demolished the fortress so it couldn't be used by Bulgarian rebels -- yet the ruins that remain are magical, especially at night.
Extra tip: Kuyumdjiev House, which is home to an interesting ethnographic museum, is a fine example of Plovdiv's Revival architecture.
Regional Ethnographic Museum, Dr. Stoyan Chomakov 2, 4000 Staria grad, Plovdiv, Bulgaria; +359 32 626 327
2. The food and wine scene is incredible
Bulgarian's are proud of their winemaking heritage.
DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images
Bulgarians are justifiably proud of their ancient winemaking tradition, and Bulgarian cuisine, with its Turkish, Greek and Slavic influences, provides the perfect accompaniment to a bottle of local mavrud.
On seemingly every corner, hole-in-the-wall bakeries sell deliciously greasy cheese-filled pastries called banitsa, ideally washed down with boza, a wheat-based malt drink.
Tarator, a cold soup of yoghurt, garlic and dill, is perfect on a sweltering summer's day -- as is the traditional shopska salata, a refreshing salad of tomato, cucumber, onion, parsley, and shredded sirene cheese. And this is just scratching the surface of what Plovdiv has to offer.
Extra tip: The restaurant Pavaj is a hugely popular local favorite, offering a range of less common regional specialties as well as an amazing selection of rakia, a fruit brandy considered to be Bulgaria's national drink.
Pavaj, Zlatarska 7, 4000 Kapana, Plovdiv, Bulgaria; +359 87 811 1876
3. Aylyak is a serious business there
Aylyak is an untranslatable Bulgarian word, widely used to describe a certain desirable state of mind.
To be aylyak means, roughly, to be supremely relaxed, unfazed by external pressures, and receptive to the pleasures of existence.
For Plovdivians, aylyak isn't merely a passing mood -- it's a way of life.
For example, it's not uncommon for a Tuesday morning coffee break to turn into a wine-fueled lunch that takes over the rest of the afternoon.
If reminded that it's a workday, the true Plovdivian will simply reply with a shrug and a sly grin: "I'm feeling aylyak today."
Work is considered a means to an end rather than a virtue in itself, and locals tend to treat life as something to be enjoyed as much as possible.
This feeds into the atmosphere of the city, and it's perhaps why so many visitors feel more relaxed than usual as they wander through its streets.
Extra tip: One of the best (and most aylyak) coffee shops in town is Da za Teb, which also sells excellent Bulgarian wines.
Da za Teb, Rayko Daskalov 57A, 4000 Tsentar, Plovdiv, Bulgaria; +359 88 733 9987
Bulgarians are famed for their hospitality
In Bulgaria, meals are supposed to be enjoyed in company, and most Bulgarians relish the opportunity to introduce foreign friends to the pleasures of homemade banitsa, or rakia from their grandparents' village.
Lucky visitors may well find themselves invited to a five-course home-cooked dinner, a camping trip in the Rhodopes, or a wedding feast that inevitably disintegrates into boisterous alcohol-fueled dancing.
Extra tip: When invited to someone's house for dinner, it's polite to bring some flowers, chocolate, or a bottle of wine.
It boasts world-class performances at its Roman theater
Even selfies are better in Plovdiv.
Plovdiv Tourism Board
Plovdiv's ancient theater was built around 90 AD, when the city was an important Roman frontier town called Philippopolis.
As recently as the 1970s, nobody knew that an entire Roman theater was lying dormant beneath one of Plovdiv's hills -- but after a landslide uncovered it, it was expertly restored to its former magnificence.
The theater is regularly used as a venue for operas, plays, and even rock concerts. Ticket prices are generally very reasonable, and it's amazing to think that the marble seats were first used nearly 2,000 years ago.
Extra tip: In June and July every year, the theater hosts the Opera Open festival, featuring performances of famous operas and ballets by stars from around the world.
The stunning Rhodope Mountains are right next door
The Rhodope mountains offer hiking, cycling and village-hopping ops.
Courtesy Emmanuel Eragne/Flickr,Creative Commons
Although the Stara Planina, or Balkan Mountains, loom enticingly above the northern horizon, the lush Rhodopes to the south are closer and arguably even more beautiful. It's possible to reach the base of these mountains in just 15 minutes by car, and they offer endless opportunities for hiking, cycling, and village-hopping.
Just 15 miles from Plovdiv, perched dramatically on a clifftop in the Rhodope foothills, is Asen's Fortress, an impressive medieval structure successively occupied and expanded over the years by Byzantines, Crusaders, and finally in its present form by the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II in 1231.
Extra tip: For a fantastic yet easily accessible view of the mountains, it's worth visiting Orlovo Oko (Eagle's Eye), a viewing platform near the famous Yagodinska cave.
Orlovo Oko, 4835 Yagodina
It has a Bohemian quarter called "The Trap"
Old Town streets come alive for festivals in fall and summer.
Plovdiv Tourism Board
Also known as Kapana, the Trap was once a commercial hub for local artisans, and its streets still bear names such as Zhelezarska (Iron Street) and Kozhuharska (Leather Street).
In recent years the government has encouraged owners to renovate the decaying buildings, and today the area is a labyrinthine sprawl of hipster cafes, flower shops, and jazz bars.
For a world-class cappuccino, craft beer or beard, it's not necessary to look any further.
Kapana is where many of the city's musicians and artists hang out in the evenings, hobnobbing with students and young professionals. Rickety chairs spill out onto the cobblestone lanes, and smoky wine bars teem with literati.
Extra tip: For a couple of weekends in both summer and fall, the streets come alive for Kapana Fest, a lively homage to all things Kapana.
The sunset venues are endless
Public drinking is perfectly acceptable in Plovdiv, and many locals like to end their day with a beer atop one of Plovdiv's several hills.
The most popular venue is perhaps Nebet Tepe with its ruined fortress, but an even worthier location for watching the sunset is at the feet of Alyosha, a colossal statue of a Soviet soldier erected in the 1950s on a forested hill with panoramic views of the city.
Extra tip: A less crowded vantage point can be found near the old Ottoman clock tower on Sahet Tepe.
It has the longest pedestrian street in Europe
Walking the walk: Plovidv has Europe's longest vehicle-free pedestrian zone.
Plovdiv Tourism Board
Traffic noise is the very antithesis of aylyak -- which is perhaps why Plovdiv boasts the longest vehicle-free pedestrian zone in Europe.
It stretches for 5,740 feet (1,750 meters), from the banks of the Maritsa River to a large piazza opposite the communist-era post office. (This piazza is a frequent setting for hora, a traditional Bulgarian circle dance that can involve as many as 50 people.)
The pedestrian promenade is the heart of the city, and on warm days it's awash with shoppers, gelato-toting strollers, and grizzled buskers playing ditties on accordions or tamburas.
Extra tip: The best gelato in Plovdiv can be found at Afreddo Gelateria, on the main street.
Afreddo Gelateria, Gladston 2, 4000 Tsentar, Plovdiv, Bulgaria; +359 88 887 0792
There's nightlife to suit all tastes, seven days a week
Plovdiv has an excellent variety of bars and nightclubs, such as Kotka i Mishka (Cat and Mouse), a boutique bar that sells more than 100 types of craft beer.
Nightlife is by no means confined to the weekend. Local joints such as the kitschy Dayana 1 operate 24/7, catering to nocturnal partygoers and early risers alike with cheap drinks and hearty fare. (Restaurant Dayana 1, Dondoukov 2, 4000 Plovdiv; +359 32 623 027)
Extra tip: Marmalad is a bar with a pleasant ambiance in the early evening, and holds regular karaoke nights (with a very Bulgarian twist) in its basement.
Kotka i Mishka, Khristo Dyukmedzhiyev 14, 4000 Kapana, Plovdiv, Bulgaria; +359 87 831 3995
Klub Marmalad, Bratya Pulevi 3, 4000 Kapana, Plovdiv, Bulgaria; +359 89 865 3753