Romania Travel Guide – Cluj-Napoca
“The coolest European city you’ve never heard of” is how travelers describe Cluj-Napoca. And they’re right. Romania’s second largest city after Bucharest surprises even those who think they’ve seen it all. Not only that, but Cluj is a great launching pad for visiting the picturesque of Transylvania.
“Cluj-Napoca may not exactly be the perfect setting for a Dracula movie, as people like to imagine, but it is definitely the jewel of Transylvania”, says the celebrated Romanian stage actor Mihail Onaca. The city is Romania’s answer to America’s Hollywood or Poland’s Łodź. It is the heart of Romanian culture and has a complex Romanian-Hungarian history. Romania’s first film studio was set up in Cluj in 1905, and exactly one hundred years later, local sound stages reviving the “dream factory” tradition became shooting locations for classic “Romanian New Wave” productions, such as: The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, 12:08 East of Bucharest and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.
Colorful and Multiethnic
What inspires the city’s artists? “The city is a great mix of medieval, Renaissance, baroque, and modern architecture, which makes it fascinating for anyone who gets around on foot”, Onaca succinctly explains. “It is impossible to walk around this city without noticing the vast diversity of its beautiful doors and windows”, he stresses. You can find a plethora of architectural details ranging from picture-perfect facades of houses and palaces in the old town to manicured or ramshackle nooks and crannies scattered around the city. Cluj has a population of more than 300,000. If you are planning to visit, then it’s best to have your trip coincide with a few of the cultural events staged in and around the city. The main highlight is the Transylvanian International Film Festival, one of the most prestigious events of its kind in the world, according to industry surveys. Nearly 50 per cent of the municipal budget goes into organizing it. Since 2002, international movie stars have been travelling to Romania to attend this festival, which is complemented with concerts and fringe exhibitions. For a few weeks, Cluj is as vibrant and multiethnic as London or New York.
On The Trail of Dracula
The Găina Massif lies between the ranges of the Apuseni Mountains. To get there, you have to head west and cross the Transylvanian Plateau. But this is not the only route to discovering beautiful landscapes dotted with historical treasures. As an alternative, you might want to try an excursion to the Southern Carpathians south of Cluj. You can watch brown bears in their natural habitat at the Piatra Craiului National Park. The guides usher any visitors who want to see the bears to vantage points where the probability of spotting one is around 70 per cent. There are similar attractions for lovers of wolves.
You will definitely save yourself a lot of time, money and trouble if you embark on a sightseeing tour to the castles of the Southern Carpathians. You could do worse than begin with the castle in Bran. Its soaring contours dominate the skyline, and create a powerful impact. This historical building makes an even greater impression on anyone aware that Bram Stoker chose these walls for the quintessential gothic novel, Dracula. Dracula or no Dracula, Bran Castle is an unforgettable sight. Since the Middle Ages, this towering fortress has been a witness to, and a participant in, all the battles waged against those nations that have conquered or tried to conquer Transylvania. It has gone up in smoke several times, but has always been rebuilt. It acquired additional splendor in the early 20th century, when Queen Maria of Romania chose it as her summer residence. By the way, if you want to follow the trail of Dracula, you should head to Poenari Castle (the “morose citadel”), which was the abode of the real Dracula, Vlad the Impaler. It is now no more than a picturesque ruin perched on top of a hill overlooking the Argeș River. You can get there via the Transfăgărășan Highway, an infrastructural “masterpiece” from the Nicolae Ceaușescu era. It cost billions of dollars and the lives of dozens of soldiers to build this hairpin road, which rises to over 2,000 meters.
While you are in the area, there are two breathtaking castles that you absolutely must see. The first is Peleș Castle, a small but beautiful residence used for many years as the summer retreat by the Romanian royal family. It lost this status during the reign of Queen Maria. But even her predilection for Bran Castle did not take a particularly heavy toll on Peleș Castle, which is a fine example of the skills of Western European architects and interior designer.
Corvin Castle in Hunedoara, in the western corner of the Southern Carpathians, is the only comparable tourist sight in the area, with its collections, legends and Disneyesque architecture.
If you want to spend a few days exploring the southern part of Transylvania, you should plan your overnight stays in advance. The perfect springboard is Sighișoara, a city with a vibrant history that goes back to the 12th century. The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Or you can visit Sibiu, which, like Cluj, was long famous for its multicultural population. Sibiu marks the beginning of the Transfăgărășan Highway.
Let us return to Cluj. The city has a history dating back thousands of years, and is a genuine cultural melting pot. It was built where an ancient Dacian settlement – Napoka – once stood. You will soon see that “Second Vienna” is not just an empty slogan, when you visit local museums. The Cluj Museum of Art has a rich collection of paintings, mainly works by celebrated Romanian artists, whose skills and style stand comparison with those of the French greats who inspired them. There is also a Pharmacy Museum, where the first pharmacy in the city operated from 1573 until 1949. It has a reconstructed medieval pharmaceutical laboratory, a collection of prescriptions from past centuries, and all the essentials that an old-time alchemist could want. As soon as you walk through the door of the National Museum of Transylvanian History, you bump into quirky collections of mammoth skulls and tusks unearthed by archaeologists in the area.
And finally, we have to mention the old town – the part of the city that surrounds the monumental Church of Saint Michael (Piaţa Unirii). The street layout is the same as it was in Roman times. Today, its narrow traffic-free streets are packed with trendy hipster cafe bars, restaurants and small shops. And because Cluj is the second biggest scientific and academic center in Romania after Bucharest, there are crowds of students in the low season. Come high season and you will be elbowing your way through swarms of tourists saying “This is Transylvania’s most beautiful city.”
Cluj Travel Guide
What To See
- St. Michael Church: One of the most important sacred buildings in Romania. A beautiful carved ambo inside.
- Transylvanian Ethnographic Museum: A small museum offering regional craft, tools and traditional wear of local inhabitants.
- Hungarian Castle: Built in the Baroque style, it currently houses an Art Museum. A great site.
Where To Sleep: Cluj-Napoca Hotels
- Golden Tulip Ana Dome: Definitely a good place to stay during a business trip. High standard and a peaceful neighborhood. Prices from EUR 65/per person. 129 Observatorului Street
- Pensiunea Siago Hotel: Elegant hotel situated in a historic building offers a high standard of service. If you book well in advance you might get a room for EUR 67. Republicii Nr 33
- Opera Plaza Hotel: Located in the city center, the hotel offers excellent service and an interesting menu. Prices from EUR 70/per person. St G-ral Traian Mosoiu 10 – 12
- Grand Hotel Napoca: Good price to quality ratio. Great location and nice staff. Prices from EUR 54/per person. Octavian Goga no 1
Where to eat
- Baracca: Pleasant interior, great local food and excellent desserts. Str. Napoca 8A
- Zama: The best regional cuisine. Fair prices and an interesting interior. Napoca, 16 St.