Plovdiv: 147km (91 miles) from Sofia; 190km (118 miles) from Veliko Tarnovo

Five thousand years ago the central plains of Bulgaria, stretching from the foothills of the Balkan mountains to the heartlands of the Rhodopes, once were home to the Thracian tribes, said to be Europe's first civilization, whose gold- and silversmith techniques were the most sophisticated of ancient times. The area is referred to as the "Valley of the Kings" and it is rich in archaeological finds. The UNESCO-listed Kanaznluk Tomb is the most famous, but the most popular destination in the region is a city described during Thracian times as "the biggest and most beautiful town in all of Thrace." Gorgeous Plovdiv still is the jewel in Bulgaria's crown, with a long and varied history that is vastly more palpable than Sofia's.

Plovdiv was known to the ancient Greek writers as Eumolpiade. The original settlement was invaded by Philip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) in 342 B.C., and he renamed it Philippopolis in honor of himself. Initially, Plovdiv was a frontier town and the city's strategic position on the Belgrade-Constantinople trade route ensured that it flourished under Roman rule. There is still ample proof of those times, most notably the Roman theater, said to be the largest outside of Italy. Location also ensured that Plovdiv would be invaded (and renamed) no fewer than six times.

Plovdiv experienced its second heyday during the late 17th to 19th centuries, when the town's most affluent merchants flashed their wealth by building beautiful town houses in the best urban examples of the style known as National Revival (also referred to as Bulgarian Baroque). Declared an architectural-historical reserve in 1956, the cobbled streets of Old Plovdiv meander past Roman ruins, imposing mosques, cool church courtyards, and the beautifully painted facades and terraced architecture of these National Revival homes. They offer a crash course in local history, while the sheer beauty of the color combinations and geometric lines provide even the most amateur photographer with striking images to show off back home.

It may be Bulgaria's second-largest city, but Plovdiv likes to lay claim to the title of "Cultural Capital." Certainly its art galleries far outclass Sofia's, and in the spring and early summer the Old Town's streets also exude a vibrant, sophisticated atmosphere: Behind the walls of Kuyumdzhioglu House you may hear the tinkling of a piano -- a recital in the gardens -- while a few blocks farther an orchestra sets up for an evening concert in the ruins of the Roman amphitheater. Old Plovdiv is a pleasure to explore for a few hours or over 2 to 3 days. It is also an ideal base for a trip to nearby Bachkovo Monastery, Bulgaria's second-biggest monastery; or farther south into the Rhodopes to view quaint villages like Shiroka Luka and Gela; or northeast to the Valley of the Kings and the Kazanluk Tomb, which can be viewed as a day trip from Plovdiv; or as a staging post in your journey from Plovdiv to Veliko Tarnovo or the Black Sea Coast.