Visit Cluj Napoca: A gem in the heart of Transylvania
Travelers who seek the full Transylvanian experience are advised to leave home not only any garlic, but also all their worries. And funnily enough most of their money and their need for speed too! Despite being a land of legend filled with vampires and virgins, the region of Transylvania is still a cheap destination, compared to Western Europe. Its top city, Cluj-Napoca, is definitely worth exploring for its vibrant night scene, cobble stoned streets, warm people and laid-back atmosphere. Compared to other areas of Romania, Transylvanian people are known for their relaxed outlook on life, and slow-paced way of living.
Transylvania is the most developed area in Romania with many foreign influences. It was under the rule or suzerainty of many peoples, including the Romans, Slavs, Ottomans, Habsburgs and Hungarians, who all shaped the unique identity of Cluj.
You can get to Cluj by plane, bus, train and car. An international airport links Cluj to major European cities such as London, Berlin, Madrid or Rome. Low-cost carriers such as Wizzair serve Cluj. For budget travellers with no direct connections, a cheap alternative is flying to Budapest Ferihegy Airport which is 409 km away and then taking a shuttle to Cluj-Napoca or flying via Bucharest.
If travelling domestically, bus and train options, as well as ride shares, can be checked out online. Cluj is at the junction of four European roads (E60, E576, E58, and E81) and Transylvania motorway and can easily be utilized.
The city center is relatively small, but if you care to venture out on a shopping spree to some of the farther areas such as Iulius Mall or Polus Center, trolleybuses, buses and trams are the cheapest option to explore the rest of the city. A return fare ticket costs €0.89. A daily pass for all lines is €2.66, a weekly pass for one line only is around €4, and a monthly one is around €15.
Taxis cost around €0.50/km. It’s about 14 km (8 miles) from one end of the city to the other.
Car rentals start at €7/day, and can be booked at the airport or through smaller tourism agencies scattered around the city.
One day self-guided tour
The great thing about Cluj is that the main sights are all within walking distance. Start in Avram Iancu Square, and visit the majestic Orthodox Cathedral of Romanian Brâncovenesc architectural style combining Renaissance and Byzantine elements. The steps of the National Theatre offer a good view of the square, its musical fountain and of the statue of Avram Iancu. Avram Iancu played a key role in one of the revolutions that shook the Austrian Empire around 1848.
Walk to Turnu Croitorilor (Tailors’ Tower), one of the few remaining fortified towers of the old city of Cluj which also serves as an exhibition hall. A replica of the statue of St George killing a dragon is in front of the Reformed Church near the tower. The original statue is in Prague.
Cross Eroilor Boulevard, a strip of shops, bars and restaurant, and pass the statue of the Capitoline wolf feeding Romulus and Remus, reminding passers-by of the city’s Roman roots. Walk to Piata Unirii (Union Square) where you can witness the colourful range of architectural styles: Gothic, Renaissance, Neoclassical, and Baroque. St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church was built seven centuries ago and has become a landmark of Cluj. The Matthias Corvinus mounted statue, king of Hungary, stands witness of the city’s Hungarian rule.
Continue onto Piata Muzeului, (Museum Square) and stop by the market stalls along the way to buy some hand-made earrings or an ie, the Romanian blouse with sown patterns. Piata Muzeului gets very busy during summer nights as many terraces fill its cobblestoned streets. For soothing views of the city walk up Dealul Cetatuii (Fortress Hill) where lie the ruins of the fortress built by the Habsburgs in the 18th century. Next relax by the lake in Central Park. Visitors can escape the crowds, and stroll through the more tranquil Japanese garden, and greenhouses at the Botanical Gardens, one of the largest in south-eastern Europe.
Cluj was selected European youth capital city in 2015, due to its young spirit. The city is a university city that gets quite lively thanks to over 100,000 students, who join the city’s over 300,000 inhabitants from October until late June. Being a university city also translates to cheap prices. For example, draft beer costs as little as €1.25. Fine dining can easily be under €25 for two. Cocktails in clubs are around €4. Here are some places that should be on your to do list when in Cluj.
- Travel in time with steampunk design which combines modern technology elements with Victorian Age aesthetics at Enigma Café and Bistro, the world’s first kinetic steampunk bar where man is seen as a robot in a constant race against time, or at Joben Bistro, where you step in one of Jules Verne’s novels.
- Samsara Teahouse: offers a unique experience where one can enjoy many flavors of tea, and smoke shisha in a creative oriental-inspired setting, comfortably lying on cushions in a starlit room, with phosphorescent jellyfish-like chandeliers hanging off the ceiling.
- Che Guevara Social Pub: the pub has an intimate candle-lit feel and is great for relaxed evening talks as the night draws in.
- Fabrica de bere Ursus pub: after Romania joined the EU, all plants had to be relocated outside the city. A spacious pub and club took the place of the old Ursus brewery. This is the only place to have their specialty, lager and unfiltered beer made with a unique recipe.
- Samsara Food House: vegetarians will be delighted with the exquisite taste of vegetarian, vegan and raw vegan dishes in a country of pork lovers.
- Livada and Euphoria Beer Garden: awesome hangout places with large gardens for those warm summer nights.
- Klausen Burger: is a rooftop bar with great views of the city.
- The party scene is at Diesel Club and My Way for a more mature crowd, or After Eight, Nest of Angels and Euphoria Music Hall for the student scene. With photos of Elvis and Sinatra on the walls, My Way will take party people straight back in time.
- Café Mozart: provides a refined setting to satisfy your sweet tooth.
- Q Caffe: is an artsy café with an elegant theatrical design, with masks on the walls.
- National Opera: while theatre plays will be in Romanian, you could enjoy a nice opera or classical concert at maybe a tenth of what you would pay in Western European countries.
Food for thought
While Romanians are big pork lovers, Cluj caters to all tastes, from Indian, American, and Chinese to Italian cuisine. Transylvanian food is a mix of Romanian and Hungarian. Romanians love their soups, which are usually the first dish and are either sweet (supa) or (ciorba) as it is called. Local flavors include varza a la Cluj (a dish that essentially has pork chops with sour cabbage), mamaliga cu smantana (Essentially sour cream topping off corn polenta), Kurtos Kalacs (sweet stovepipe-shaped pastry) and goulasch (mix of veggies and meat).
Since it’s rude to refuse Romanian hospitality, most Romanians might try to test your resilience, and get you drunk with palinca, a minimum 40% distilled alcoholic drink. Compared to the Russian vodka, palinca is made out of plums usually rather than cereal.
Where to stay
Hostels can be a great option for single travelers and cost around €15/dorm bed. Guesthouses (pensiuni) are a common budget accommodation in Romania, and prices per room can sometimes start as low as a dorm bed. The city is a big business hub in Transylvania with many multinational companies, so 5-star accommodation often caters to business travelers visiting Cluj.
When to visit
Anytime is a good time to visit Cluj. Winters can be quite cold. Those trying to avoid the crowds, might find summers more relaxing as the students are away. Festival revelers might want to make it a special occasion and come for one of the festivals.
Transylvania International Film Festival (TIFF) takes place at the end of May/beginning of June. It is a great stop for those tired of Hollywood movies and who desire to experience a more cultural feel.
Music festivals like UNTOLD (beginning of August) and Electric Castle (mid-June or July) are incredibly cheap alternatives to Western festivals, with early-bird prices starting at €45 for a four-day pass. Can’t beat that! UNTOLD, is an electronic music festival that brings top world renowned DJs such as Armin van Buuren. Martin Garrix and Hardwell. Electric Castle takes place on the domain of the Bánffy Castle just outside Cluj, where revelers can also camp. Its line-up brings together electronic music, reggae, mainstream and subculture genres. For the lovers of mellow music, Jazz in the Park (mid-July) is a free one-week festival taking place in Central Park.
Freebie lovers can come for Zilele Clujului (Days of Cluj, May) filled with free concerts, parades of medieval costumes, battle scenes, theatrical performances and contests.
With Halloween around the corner, where else would Transylvanians spend it if not in the cemetery? But it’s far from a Michael Jackson freak show or trick or treat, but rather a time to commemorate the dead. Why postpone your visit? This is your chance to spend Halloween in a candle-lit mystical cemetery in central Cluj.