Ten years. That was the amount of time that had passed, since my last visit to Cluj, till some weeks ago. Third visit, but first two had lasted less than a few hours. This time, I was going to spend three days, enough time to discover what the fuss is all about.
Considered the unofficial capital of Transylvania, Cluj has a rich history. After the Romans conquered Dacia, almost two millenniums ago, they established a settlement called Napoca, not far from where the city stands today. After they retired, Napoca was overrun and destroyed by the nomad tribes, and the history doesn’t mention anything about another settlement till the 13th century, when the German settlers founded Klausenburg. Although modern Cluj was established by Germans, it doesn’t resemble a typical German town – its old architecture is mainly Renaissance and Baroque.
Today, Cluj is one of the most important cultural, academic and industrial centers in Romania, being in a continuous and dynamic development. Many IT companies came to the city and opened big offices, which led to a boom on the housing market, an increase of the population and a new nickname for the city: The Silicon Valley of Transylvania. The number of flights from and to Cluj increased, many cool placed appeared overnight, especially in the old town, and the city became an interesting destination for travelers. It’s also worth mentioning that back in 2015, it was named the European Youth Capital.
Cluj also gained a lot of popularity in the past years thanks to the two music festivals organized in the summer: Electric Castle and Untold. Hundreds of thousands of people participate, the city becomes overcrowded and the accommodation prices reach insane levels. Well, I guess that nowadays this applies to most music festivals…
How to reach the city from the airport?
Cluj International Airport is quite small and is situated just outside the city, to the east. In order to reach the center, I recommend taking the bus. Tickets are very cheap (2 RON per trip, that’s below €0.5) and the bus has its own lane, so the trip won’t take longer than 20-30 minutes.
Old town is definitely the part of the city where you want to stay. Lots of interesting places to visit, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, museums, you name it. I stayed at Zen Hostel by Pura Vida (Bulevardul Eroilor 47), which has the perfect location and great reviews online, but it’s definitely overrated. It was disappointing in many aspects and would not recommend it. And it’s not a budget option at all. They charge way too much for a double with private bathroom, taking into account what they offer. Try something else, there are a lot of options around.
Guide to Cluj-Napoca
- Piața Unirii (Union Square) is for sure the heart of Cluj, dominated by the Gothic-style Biserica Sfântul Mihail (St. Michael’s Church), the second largest church in Transylvania. Next to it, you’ll spot the equestrian statue of Matthias Corvinus and the Bánffy Palace, a perfect example of the baroque style in Transylvania.
- Casa Matia, one of the oldest houses in Cluj, is the place were Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary back in the 15th century, was born. Nowadays, the building is part of the Fine Arts University.
- Piața Muzeului (Museum Square) is the oldest square and a popular meeting place for locals. Important buildings in this area: the National Museum of Transylvanian History, the Franciscan Church and the Mikes Palace.
- Casa Hintz is another historic building, which housed the first pharmacy in the city, opened in 1573. Today, there is a small Pharmaceutical Museum, which it’s definitely worth a visit, taking into account that the entrance fee is only 4 RON (less than €1).
- Piața Avram Iancu hosts many significant buildings, like the Dormition of the Theotokos Cathedral (the biggest orthodox church), the Romanian National Opera and National Theater (both share the same location, an impressive Neo-baroque style building, finished at the beginning of the 20th century), the Palace of Justice and the Palace of Finance. It’s the cultural center of the city.
- If you want to relax, take a walk in the Central Park and admire the nice residences around and the Old Casino, which was restored a few years ago and looks great.
- A quite unique landmark, but in the same time a true outdoor museum, is the Hajongard Cemetery. It impresses with the large number of personalities that are buried here and with the diversity of represented religions.
- The tour of Cluj cannot be completed without a visit to Cetățuia Hill. You’ll have to climb a bit, but the view at the top is great and it’s worth the effort. There are two restaurants in the area, where you can enjoy a drink and catch your breath.
Food and drink
The old town is a great area to walk around, having both narrow streets and large boulevards. It’s also full of bars, restaurants and cafes, both international and traditional. Now, I’ve decided to share with you a few cool places, where you can eat or have a drink. So, here is my list:
- Zama Bistro (Napoca 16), a traditional restaurant, with a really nice interior design. Loved it! My tip: you have to try their cheese pancakes (papanași).
- A la Tarte (Ion I. C. Brătianu 35), a small, modern, French bistro, selling quiches and tarts.
- Casa TIFF (Universității 6), a cultural center, that aims to promote film education, and one of the main gathering points during the Transylvania International Film Festival. Great place for a chat with friends and a coffee.
- Litchi (Napoca 13), specialized in Belgian waffles.
- La Piadina, a fast food chain, with several location throughout the city. They have a big variety of tasty Italian sandwiches.
- Enigma (Iuliu Maniu 12), which claims to be the first kinetic steampunk bar in the world. It’s a unique and impressive pub, for sure.
- Fabrica de bere Ursus (Mănăștur 2-6), located on the same site where the old Ursus brewery used to be. They have been producing craft beer since 2011.
This was my three days experience in Cluj. I liked the city as a whole, its baroque palaces, its Old Town narrow streets and its calmness. It definitely has a soul. But I have to say that I was more impressed by the high number of bars and restaurants. There are so many in such a small area, choosing one is really a tough call.
Would I go again? For sure. I had a great time overall, the only disappointing thing was the accommodation. But for now, I have a few more destinations in Romania, that I would like to check mark on my travel list. So I don’t see myself going back in the near future. Cluj-Napoca has been ticked.
Instead of farewell, let’s end in style, like any inhabitant of Transylvania: Ceau!
Author: Marian Bulacu
Live. Love. Travel. Make a difference.