Digital Nomad Guide to Plovdiv, Bulgaria: The “Chiang Mai of Europe”
The reasons to come to Plovdiv this year if you’re a travelling entrepreneur!
Note: this article and photos are copyrighted by Euvie Ivanova. Please don’t reproduce without giving credit and a link to this original article.
If you aren’t from Europe, you have likely never heard of Plovdiv. Although it has recently appeared on some “up-and-coming” lists of locations for travel and living, it’s still one of the best-kept secrets in Europe.
For digital nomads, it ticks a lot of boxes. From the low cost of living and high quality of life, to the hiring & business opportunities (lowest taxes in EU), the very fast WIFI, the healthy lifestyle options, warm weather, great food, nature, culture, and many other factors, it makes it an easy choice for a home base in Europe. Plovdiv may not be a large city, and it’s a bit rough around the edges, but for that it makes up with lots of other benefits.
I had been to other parts of Bulgaria before many times as a kid (I’m part Bulgarian ethnically), but in the summer of 2015 was my first time coming here as a digital nomad. When my partner and I came to Plovdiv in 2015, we loved it so much that we decided to make it our home base. I even signed my first (ever!) long term lease. I am now proudly a permanent resident of Bulgaria.
Plovdiv is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe (and the 6th oldest in the world), dating back some 8 thousand years. Parts of the old town look like something straight out of Game Of Thrones. The 2,000 year old Ancient Roman Theatre in Plovdiv is still used for shows today!
The city is the second-largest in Bulgaria with about 500,000 inhabitants. It’s a major cultural, production, education, and sports centre in Eastern Europe. Since Bulgaria became a part of the EU in 2007, citizens of most Western countries can travel there visa-free for 3 months.
Plovdiv is set to be the European Capital of Culture in 2019.
Plovdiv nomad score: https://nomadlist.com/plovdiv-bulgaria/scores
Chiang Mai, for comparison: https://nomadlist.com/chiang-mai-thailand/scores
This is my digital nomad guide to Plovdiv. I will keep adding to this resource as time goes on.
My top favourite things about Plovdiv as a digital nomad:
1. Great lifestyle output
Plovdiv has a lot of comforts and a very low cost of living (less than SE Asia in many cases).
As a nomad (staying in airBnBs, eating out for every meal), you can have a great lifestyle in Plovdiv for around $1,500/month. As an expat (staying 3 months or longer), you can have an upper-middle-class lifestyle for less than $1,000/month. Most locals live on less than $500/month.
The lifestyle output is higher than what you get for the same price in Ho Chi Minh City, and is comparable to Chiang Mai. Plovdiv is one of the best places to live in the European Union in terms of value for your money.
2. Some of the fastest internet in the world
Bulgaria has some of the fastest Internet in Europe — and in the world. Actual speeds vary, but it’s not uncommon to have 30mb/s down at a cafe. Free WIFI is available at most cafes and restaurants. If you get your own fiberoptic cable hooked up or go to a co-working space that has it, you can enjoy up to 100mb/s internet. Several companies have also recently started offering Gigabit internet (up to 1,000mb/s).
3. Great cafes and work environments
There are tons of unique cafes with great coffee (costing around 1.5 leva, or 75 euro cents for espresso and 2.5 leva (1.25 euro) for cappuccino). You can sit there for hours with your laptop, and no one minds. Most places serve some sort of food too, so you can just keep ordering and don’t have to interrupt your work.
Check out my list of Plovdiv cafes here.
BizLabs (Bul. 6-ti Septemvri 152). A co-working space for entrepreneurs, freelancers, and teams. Rates from 12 leva (6 euro) per day, 99 leva (50 euro) per month.
Limacon (Bul. Mariza 154A). A spacious co-working and event space for entrepreneurs, freelancers, and companies. Rates from 15 leva (8 euro) per day, 120 leva (60 euro) per month.
Incubator (ul. Bratya Pulevi 4). A small co-working space for artists, musicians, and other creative types. Rates from 15 leva (8 euro) per day, 100 leva (50 euro) per month.
Hackafe (ul. Opalchenska 13). More of an event hub than a co-working place, focused around tech, design, and programming. They hold regular tech-related events, and paid members also get access to the space.
4. Delicious and healthy food
Bulgarian food is healthy and delicious, borrowing from Greek, Turkish, and other Eastern European culinary traditions. Lots of fresh grilled meats, fish, and vegetables. Plus fresh local fruits. Oh, and the dairy. Bulgarian yoghurt and cheese are amazing and world-famous.
It’s easy and cheap to eat healthy here.
A meal at a sit-down restaurant in the center of the city will set you back around 10 leva (5 euro) per person. A meal at a sandwich shop or food stall is 2–4 leva (1–2 euro).
Check out my list of Plovdiv restaurants Foursquare.
Fresh squeezed juice is widely available at cafes and restaurants, with the usual choices being orange, grapefruit, carrot, apple, and beet. A glass usually costs around 4 leva (2 euro).
There are also many supermarkets and several farmer’s markets where you can get groceries if you choose to cook at home. The prices are much lower than in most other European countries, and the quality of produce is excellent.
Bulgaria in general is a major food manufacturer, and there are still many traditional practices in use. The cattle are often raised outdoors rather than in pens, and many vegetables are grown without the use of chemicals.
The Trakia valley around Plovdiv in particular has been famous for its fertile soil for thousands of years. Many wars have been fought over this area, and at one point it was feeding most of the Ottoman army.
And now you can come and enjoy the delicious Bulgarian food for yourself!
5. Many modern, furnished apartments available for around 300 euro / month
When I first came here, I was blown away by what kind of accommodation I could get here for the price. In Chiang Mai or Ho Chi Minh City, a decent 1-bedroom (bedroom + living room) apartment with a kitchen that is close to the center will cost you at least 500 euro/month, likely closer to 1,000.
In Plovdiv, I found lots of much nicer and better equipped apartments for significantly less. The prices below are per month, when you sign a 1-year lease. If renting month-to-month through AirBnB or similar, expect to pay at least double.
You can get a modern 1-bedroom apartment in the center for around 400-600 leva (200-300 euro). Studios can go for as little as 300 leva (150 euro), but may not be very nice at that price. Most apartments for rent have a kitchen and come already furnished.
If you go up to 700 leva (350 euro) per month, you are in the “lux” category, and can get a brand new place with hardwood floors, full kitchen (with washing machine and oven), air con in every room, balcony, nice view, etc.
If you want a bit more space, you can find a modern 2-bedroom (3 room) apartment for 600–800 leva (300–400 euro) per month.
With most long-term rentals, you will have to sign a lease for 12 months, and give a deposit (1 month rent). That said, you can ditch that lease later if you don’t mind losing the deposit.
Utilities (electricity, water, internet) are around 100–150 (50–75 euro) per month on top of rent.
For a foreigner, it’s much easier to use a real estate agent to help you find an apartment than to look for one yourself — just be clear with them what you are looking for. Be aware that you will have to pay an additional 50–100% of the first month’s rent to them as commission.
If you choose to go through AirBnB or something similar, expect to pay double or more of the above listed monthly prices when you rent for 1–3 months. However, if you message the landlord directly you may be able to negotiate a better rate.
6. Nice climate, hot summers and mild winters
Plovdiv is located in southern Bulgaria, and has a subtropical climate with strong continental influences. Summers are hot and humid (May to September), with daytime temperatures between 20 and 35 degrees, sometimes as high as 40. It’s not uncommon to have 30+ degrees for most of June-August.
The winters are cool but mostly mild. In December to February, daytime highs are 5 to 13 degrees, and nighttime lows are -3 to 3 degrees.
It usually does get really cold for a few weeks in December or January (down to -20), but overall Plovdiv has milder winters than Sofia, or Central Europe in general. Even when cold, the winters are often sunny, which makes it more tolerable.
March-April and October-November are shoulder seasons, when you get a combination of summer and winter weather.
The 2015/2016 winter was the hottest one on record, and in was 20 degrees during the day on most days — even in February. It still got below zero several times in December-January. The 2016/2017 winter was the opposite — cold with record snow falls in the whole region. So it does vary.
The rain is more or less equally distributed throughout the year, so you get some rain and some sun during all seasons. Plovdiv has more sunshine than most of Central Europe, and is comparable to Italy or Spain.
The best times to visit, in my opinion, are May-June and September-October. It’s not too hot and not too cold, plus there are a lot of events happening in these months. July and August are often very hot, so Plovdiv can get a bit deserted as the locals head to the beach or their mountain summer homes, and students go back to their home countries.
December-January is the coldest time of the year, and the air quality tends to declines as people use coal to heat their homes.
7. Many sports facilities and parks
Plovdiv is a major sports centre, and has one of the largest sports complexes in Eastern Europe, with a stadium, soccer fields, tennis courts, indoor and outdoor gyms, a rowing channel, and many other things. There are also many private gyms in the city with monthly membership ranging from 30 to 100 leva (15–50 euro) per month. Grand Hotel Plovdiv (ex-Novotel) has a fancy gym with pool and sauna that costs around 100 euro per month.
There are many parks in Plovdiv including several tree-covered hills, a riverside, and many car-free streets and paths where you can go jogging. Almost every park has outdoor exercise equipment.
Plovdiv also has a 6-story tall indoor rock climbing wall, an indoor ice skating rink, a rowing channel, and many yoga, dance and martial arts studios around the city.
8. Hiring opportunities of local talent
Bulgaria has a budding IT sector, with several international companies setting up offices here. There are many smart, young, educated, english-speaking people looking for work, which means great hiring opportunities for foreign business owners. An average office worker gets around 700 leva (350 euro) per month. If you pay more than these wages, you can get some really talented and keen team members for your business. Some areas Bulgarians are often strong in are programming, design, and other creative and technical fields. Customer service and tech support seem to be other popular fields for hiring, and many international companies outsource these jobs to Bulgaria.
9. Ancient history, modern arts & culture scene
Plovdiv is one of the oldest living cities in Europe and the world — at 8 thousand years, it is older than Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem. At different points in history, it was ruled by Thracians, Macedonians, Byzantines, Romans, Ottoman Turks, and Bulgarians, leaving architecture, traditions, and other cultural heritage from each of those civilizations. The city centre has architecture from many periods, and it’s a wonderful trip through time just strolling down the main walking street and the Old Town area.
More on the history of Plovdiv: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Plovdiv
Plovdiv also has a rich art & design, theatre, and music scene — both traditional and modern. There are many big and small festivals happening throughout the year.
Notable events & organizations:
Free Plovdiv Walking Tour happens daily and all year round, rain or shine. Get to know the history of the City Of The 7 Hills.
Kapana Fest is a music & arts street festival that happens in Plovdiv every June and September. There are many live performances, craft and food vendors, and workshops.
One Foundation hosts three week-long cultural festivals every year: One Design Week, One Architecture Week, and One Dance Week
WakeUp! is a 4-day long open-air music & culture festival that happens every summer in the foothills of Rhodope mountains, close to Plovdiv.
Plovdiv Opera holds a number of live open-air performances every summer at the 2,000 year old Ancient Theatre, and include opera singers from all of Europe.
The Plovdiv International Fair hosts a number of fairs every year, you can check the event calendar here.
Plovdiv Jass Fest happens every November.
10. Proximity to mountains and nature
Plovdiv is located in the Thracian valley, almost at the foot of the Rhodope mountain range. Within only half an hour by car or bus, you are in beautiful mountain wilderness (which isn’t that common in Europe anymore!). There are many hiking trails and occasional cute cobblestone villages to explore. There are also some lakes and rivers to go swimming and fishing. Hunting and foraging for wild berries/mushrooms/herbs is also common here. People come to Bulgaria from all over Europe to do that.
Asenovgrad, for example, is just 30 min away and costs 1.5 leva (0.75 euro) to get to by bus or train from Plovdiv, and has many hiking trails and some notable ruins too. Bachkovo monastery & village is another spot that is just 30 min away.
There are several ski & snowboard resorts in Bulgaria (most are around 2 hours away from Plovdiv by car). Bulgaria is one of the cheapest place in Europe for winter sports.
If you’re a nature lover, you will really enjoy Bulgaria all year round.
11. Expats & Locals
There is a small but nice expat scene in Plovdiv. The thing about Plovdiv in general is that people live here not because they have to, but because they want to. The people don’t come here for the job opportunities or other obligations, they come here because it’s a lovely city.
Most foreigners living in Plovdiv can be put into these groups: entrepreneurs doing business in Bulgaria or online, university students (there are 5 universities in the city), and people who have a Bulgarian partner. Most of the expats I have met here were in their 20s to 40s. Bulgaria also has a fairly large retiree expat crowd, but most of them live in the countryside.
The expat crowd also mixes with the locals quite a bit, particularly with the Bulgarians who lived abroad and then came back.
On the surface, sometimes Bulgarians can seem unfriendly, particularly the middle-aged folks (similarly with other Eastern Europeans). It reminded me of being in Vietnam in a way — if you don’t speak the language, sometimes they can just shoo you out of a store as soon as you open your month. In reality, they’re probably just embarrassed that they don’t speak English well and don’t know how to help you.
Either way, it all can change when you smile, make an effort to speak a few words of their language, or show some curiosity. Your warmth will be reciprocated.
That said, the young and educated Bulgarians who were raised in the internet era are often a lot more friendly and worldly than the older generation, and they speak English.
Once you get to know the people here, you fill find out they are incredibly warm, hospitable, and helpful. They take you in like family. If you come to Bulgaria, make sure to meet the locals — your experience of the country will be completely different when you do.
Plovdiv’s entrepreneur scene is largely focused around the main industries in the area: IT and web, agriculture & wine, real estate, textiles, and other manufacturing.
The digital nomad scene is not well developed yet, but I think this will change in the near future as more people find out about this city.
Other useful info
Short Stays & Visas
Bulgaria is a member of the EU since 2007, but is not in the Schengen zone yet. EU citizens and citizens of most developed countries can spend 90 days in Bulgaria without needing a visa. Holders of a Schengen visa can also enter Bulgaria for up to 90 days. Otherwise, you can apply for a 90 day tourist visa at your local Bulgarian consulate. You can check the visa requirements here.
Because Bulgarian is not in the Schengen yet, you can use it as a way to stay in Europe all year round visa-free (if you’re American, Canadian, Australian, etc). You can stay 90 days in a Schengen country, then 90 days in Bulgaria, then back to Schengen zone for another 90 days, etc.
Long Stay Visas
If you want to stay in Bulgaria longer than 3 months, you will need to get a D-type visa, which allows you to stay for 6–12 months on the basis of: doing business, work permit, freelancer, student, Bulgarian ethnic origin, married to Bulgarian citizen, member of the family of EU citizen, etc.
Navigating the bureaucracy is difficult if you don’t speak Bulgarian, so I highly recommend that you get a good immigration lawyer to help you. Also, keep in mind that you have to apply for the D-visa from a Bulgarian embassy or consulate in the country where you are legally a resident (so your home country, or somewhere else where you have a residence permit).
Getting Residency in Bulgaria
It is possible to get residency in Bulgaria, including for tax purposes (see tax section below). For EU citizens, this is quite simple (a German friend of mine set it up in about a week). For other citizens, you will need to get a D-visa first plus and a bunch of other documents, which can take many months.
As for my own story, I was able to get a D-visa on the basis of Bulgarian ethnic origin. I had to fly back to Canada to apply for it (I’m a Canadian citizen). I then applied for residency status here in Bulgaria, and as of this update just received it. I was able to do the process by myself without using a lawyer because I speak some Bulgarian, but it was not easy and took me about a year.
Many young urban Bulgarians speak one or several foreign languages, with the most common being English, Russian, and German. If you speak several European languages yourself, you are sure to find a common language here. Many young people speak English, especially those working in sectors that deal with tourism like hotels, restaurants, shops, etc. Overall, the level of spoken English is better than in Thailand or Vietnam. However, old people or those from the countryside often don’t speak English — but you can always get by being friendly and making an effort to understand them, or by trying another language like Russian or German.
Do try to learn some Bulgarian though, locals will really appreciate it and will be much more helpful. I happen to speak some Bulgarian, so I try to use it as much as possible. But in times when I don’t know how to say something, I just say it in Russian or English, and I am always understood in the end.
Getting In & Out
There is a small international airport in Plovdiv with a few companies flying to London, Moscow, and some other European hubs.
For more options, Sofia airport is 2 hours away by bus and has a much larger variety of flights available, including several discount carriers flying in from many European cities.
The cheapest way to get in is to fly to Sofia, and then take the bus to Plovdiv — 2 h, 14 leva (8 euro) or train — 3h, 8–12 leva (4–6 euro).
Taxis in Plovdiv are plentiful and cheap. An average ride within the city costs 3–6 leva (1.5–3 euro). The ride from the Plovdiv South bus station to the center is in the same range, rarely more.
Reputable taxi companies always have a four-digit number on the side of the car and a phone number you can call. I usually use one of these taxi companies in Plovdiv: 6155, 6665, 6160.
There are a few rip-off companies, or just solo opportunists posing as taxis. You will end up paying more if you use those. They are usually parked around the bus and train station, waiting for unsuspecting tourists.
In Sofia, OK Supertrans is an ok company, but make sure they always use the meter — particularly when coming from the airport. The fare from Sofia airport to Sofia central train or bus station should be 13–15 leva. The rip-off companies can try to charge you as much as 150 leva, so beware. Some rip-ff companies cabs can look suspiciously similar to the legitimate ones.
Taxi drivers are often from the countryside and don’t speak much English, so it is best to have a piece of paper with the address written down in Bulgarian, or to show them the place on the map.
Plovdiv center is easy and pleasant to get around on foot. There is a 1-km long walking street with many car-free side streets. There is also a brand new network of city bike paths for those who prefer two wheels.
Plovdiv has local bus system, which cost 1 leva to take (50 cents). There are also many buses and trains that can take you to other cities in Bulgaria, and other nearby countries.
You can easily do inexpensive weekend trips to several European countries (and also Turkey), by air or land.
Nightlife and Bars
There are many funky bars in Plovdiv, mostly in Kapana district and around the Walking Street. Many bars serve a variety of cocktails, beers, and wines, and are open late. Some serve shisha or have live music. Outdoor patios are very common. You can find a party at any time of day or night, if you know where to go. Although it’s not as crowded or varied as large cities, the atmosphere makes up for it.
A cocktail at a bar will set you back 4 leva (2 euro). A bottle of wine at a restaurant or bar is around 15 leva (7 euro). A beer is 3 leva (1.5. euro). If you get your liquor at the supermarket, it’s 6 leva (3 euro) for a bottle of wine, and 1 leva (50 cents) for a beer.
The cultural difference between Bulgaria and other European cultures are not so major, and foreigners dating locals is very common. There are many young people from all over Europe living in Plovdiv, as it’s a major university town.
Bulgaria in general is not a very LGBT-friendly place. Homosexuality is not illegal, but it’s socially frowned upon, particularly by the older generation. That said, things are changing and among themselves, young people are quite open. Plovdiv has an LGBT cafe (PLOVEdiv, ul. Kurtevich 3), and a gay bar (Caligula, ul Knyaz Aleksandar 30). Sofia also has a small pride parade happening every summer.
Attitude Towards Foreigners
In general, Bulgarians are friendly towards other Europeans, as well as people of Turkish and Jewish decent, since there are many of them here. But they can be somewhat reserved towards racial minorities (although not unfriendly), mainly because there aren’t many people of color in the country. However, in Plovdiv there are many foreign students and a fair number of tourists (including those coming from North America and Asia), so even that is changing.
There is a bit of a generational gap in the attitudes towards foreigners — many young people, particularly those who are educated or have been outside of Bulgaria — are very open minded and welcoming. Whereas the older people or those from small villages are a bit more reserved in that sense. The only ethnic group I have heard people being outright negativity towards is the gypsies.
In any case, Plovdiv is a safe place for foreigners and people of color — the worst you might get is someone who don’t know how to deal with you because they don’t speak your language.
Plovdiv is a very safe city — much safer than Sofia or the Bulgarian seaside, for example. As a female, I feel safe walking home alone after dark in the central parts of the city. I have left my laptop on the table while going to the bathroom at a cafe many times. That said, you should always keep your wits about you to matter where you are.
One thing you want to watch out for are the illegitimate taxis. Not because of safety, but because of potential rip-offs. This is particularly a problem in Sofia or the touristy parts of the seaside and mountain resorts, but I have also experienced minor cases in Plovdiv.
Places you may want to avoid going to alone, in Plovdiv and elsewhere in Bulgaria, are the gypsy neighbourhoods (“mahala”), which are mostly on the outskirts of the city. Theft is common in these parts. Not to say you shouldn’t go there at all, but probably best to go with someone who knows the area and speaks the local language.
Bulgaria has great shopping. They are a major manufacturing centre in EU. Big brands like H&M, Zara, and others have factories here. There are also many small independent brands of clothes and shoes that are high quality for the price (those are my favourite — so many unique styles). You can get high quality mens leather shoes for 70 leva (35 euro), and womens leather sandals for 20 leva (10 euro). There are several malls in Plovdiv and many more in Sofia, as well as many shops along the walking street.
The handmade / craft culture is also alive and well, so you can buy many beautiful things made with love — pottery, carved wood, textiles, jewelry, rose oil cosmetics, etc. Many of these are located around the Old Town and Kapana areas.
There are several farmers markets in the city where you can buy fresh local produce, wild herbs, honey, pottery, and other goods.
Plovdiv also has a budding health product scene, with new health shops popping up monthly. You can easily find vitamins, supplements, and organic products.
And of course, there are many supermarkets of all sorts.
Money and Banking
The currency of Bulgaria is leva, which is pegged to the euro at a rate of 1.95, so 1 leva is approx. 0.50 euro cents. There are many banks and ATMs, as well as money exchange booths.
Getting a bank account is super easy for foreigners. I set one up in 15 minutes with only my rental contract and phone number in hand. I got two accounts actually, one in leva and one in euro, and each of my bank cards with have Visa and Mastercard built-in respectively.
There are many modern medical clinics in Plovdiv with dental work, surgery, and other medical services available at lower rates than Western Europe or North America. Medical tourism has been developing here in the last few years.
If you decide to stay in Bulgaria long term, you will need to get health insurance. Unika offers 1 year of health insurance for 160 leva. This covers any accidents or unexpected illness.
Plovdiv is a very family-friendly city. There are many young families everywhere. Many walkable streets, parks with playgrounds, and lots of activities. It seems like many Bulgarians move to Plovdiv to have a family. There are several private or international schools.
For most of the year, the air quality in Plovdiv is ok. There is not a lot of heavy industry in the area, the car traffic is light. Comparing to Sofia, for example, the air feels much better.
The only issue is that many households in Plovdiv (and Bulgaria in general) still use coal for heating in the winter. So the air quality declines in the coldest winter months, namely December and January. These two months are responsible for Plovdiv’s reputation for non-stellar air quality. The rest of the year the air is fine, and is comparable to other cities in Central and Southern Europe.
All that said, even the worst winter day in Plovdiv is about the same as an average day in Bangkok or Saigon in terms of air quality (in ppm).
Bulgaria has a 10% flat tax rate for both personal and corporate taxes, which makes it an attractive place to have residency or register a business. Several European companies are based here for that reason (and also for the labour). It is quite easy for an EU citizen to become a tax resident of Bulgaria. It’s possible to set it up in a couple of weeks. For non-EU citizens, the process is a bit more complex and takes longer, but still possible.
Did I miss anything? Let me know and I will be happy to update this guide.