After a week in Timisoara, we made our way to the next destination on our Romania itinerary, Cluj-Napoca,Romania. It is the fastest growing city in Romania, and we can see why people are moving there from Bucharest and all over the world! This unofficial capital of Transylvania truly exceeded our expectations, and here are the reasons you should visit Cluj-Napoca before it gets taken over by digital nomads and remote workers.
1. Soak in the Modern Vibe of This Old City
Cluj is a university town, and about half its population consists of students. That’s why the city is sleepy until noon when the energy starts to pick up. Cluj ticks all boxes – it has good universities, decent jobs and salaries, cultural events, and a lively restaurant scene. No wonder residents decide to stay permanently, and those who relocated tend to return. The IT industry is the most popular profession in Cluj, hence the nickname – the Silicon Valley of Romania. It exploded ten years ago and has been growing ever since, attracting more people with its seductive opportunities and transforming the city with new developments. That is what sets Cluj Napoca, Romania apart from any other city in Romania. The combination of 809-year-old history, innovative projects, and buzzing atmosphere.
2. Experience the Diverse Foodie Scene in Cluj
The consistent development that attracts a younger crowd results in a restaurant scene dominated by quirky venues of various cuisines. Here are some recommendations that will hopefully satisfy your foodie dreams. Although Cluj has so many options, you’ll be spoiled for choice.
Head to Bujole café on Union Square for a wholesome breakfast or brunch accompanied by specialty coffee. We enjoyed having familiar dishes with a twist, featuring local ingredients and service from knowledgeable staff.
Roata restaurant serves traditional Romanian cuisine in a home-style setting. But save some space for papanasi – a doughnut-shaped Romanian dessert made of fried pastry filled with cheese, smothered in cream, and topped with sour jam.
Zama restaurant brings Transylvanian flavors to life, encompassing everything Cluj represents by combining the old and the new in its menu offerings and style.
Sarmalerarie, named after traditional Romanian cabbage rolls sarmale, is a small restaurant with a street food vibe. The obvious must-tries are their sarmales, but the menu also offers hearty soups and other traditional Romanian dishes. It is the perfect place to make a quick stop between activities.
You are guaranteed to have a memorable experience at the award-winning restaurant Baracca. They serve international cuisine, using handpicked ingredients and incorporating cooking methods that make their dishes healthy and flavorsome. It’s a clear favorite, so make a reservation, especially if you plan to visit on the weekend.
Finally, Samsara Foodhouse serves plant-based dishes with fresh local ingredients in beautiful bright indoor and outdoor seating areas. We cannot recommend this place enough to escape for lunch on a hot summer afternoon! Make sure to treat yourself to guilt-free desserts.
3. Stay in Shape as You Sightsee
We noticed a reoccurring theme throughout our stay. Cluj is a very health conscious and green city which reflects in their restaurant options and menu offerings as well as things to do around the city.
Just like other Romanian cities, the Old Town is mostly a pedestrian area. That is where the main sightseeing and entertainment concentrates, including Unirii Square (Union Square) and Piata Muzeului – one of the most charming places with old buildings, restaurants and outdoor seating.
Prepare to do a lot of walking as you explore the old town and make your way to the Central Park. Outfitted with jungle gyms that people actually use and paddle boats on the lake, it is also a place locals gather for picnics after getting in their daily steps.
Across the canal from Central Park is the Cetatuia hilltop. It’s a bit of a climb to the top, but the panoramic view is absolutely worth it. It’s the best place to watch the sunset and observe the spreading development. Any local will tell you that not long ago, the contemporary style office buildings on the horizon used to be rolling hills.
If you plan on staying in Cluj Napoca, Romania over Friday, then you are in luck! An initiative to promote a healthy lifestyle and reduce pollution, the government implemented the ‘Green Friday’ campaign where public transport is free in exchange for 20 squats. Yes, you read that correctly – squat 20 times in 2 minutes in front of the camera and get a free bus ride. Genius!
4. Explore Impressive Castles and Fortifications
Romania is the epitome of impressive castles that dwarf you upon entry. But undoubtedly, the most spellbinding of all is the Corvin castle, located two and a half hours away from Cluj. You are dumbstruck the moment you approach this fortress across the drawbridge.
The legends told on the guided tour and the sight of the Bear Pit send chills down your spine. Allegedly, Ivan the Impaler, inspiration behind Count Dracula, was imprisoned in Corvin castle’s dungeons, which resulted in him losing his mind. Corvin castle is a must see and a perfect preface for the Bran Castle in Brasov (link) that you hopefully plan to visit.
On the way to Corvin castle, make a stopover in Alba Iulia, one of the oldest cities in Romania, to visit the impressive Vauban citadel. It’s a massive fortification shaped like a seven-point star which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site like the Corvin Castle.
We also made a stop at Peri-Sapanta Monastery while in the area.
5. Enjoy Romania’s Thrills and Get Your Nature Fix
Cluj is surrounded by nature, botanical reservoirs and forests. Just twenty minutes out of the city you can go hiking in Hoia forest. Spooky like the film set of “The Blair Witch Project”, locals warn visitors with legends of paranormal activity and UFO sightings. So, if you dare to go, you may encounter different wild animals and perhaps an alien too.
Another breathtaking place to escape the summer heat is Lake Tarnita, located forty minutes away from Cluj. After hiking through virgin forest to Lucaci Stone which offers sweeping views over the lake, take a dip in its spring waters. But in true Romanian fashion, there is a legend about this place too, so swim at your own risk because the Loch Ness monster has a Romanian relative called the Tarnitsky Monster.
6. Visit the World’s Happiest Cemetery
In the northwestern part of Romania, about two and a half hours away from Cluj Napoca, lies the region of Maramures, whose inhabitants still live the way they did 100 years ago. They managed to preserve their Dacian traditions, crafts, and culture, and their wooden churches have been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage.
This region is also home to the Merry Cemetery – the world’s happiest cemetery. The local people consider death the beginning rather than the end. This perspective reflects in the hand-painted gravestone motifs that depict an entertaining parody of the person’s death in bright colors.
7. Spend a Day at This Awe-Inspiring Village
Bucovina is an off-the-beaten-path gem located three and a half hours northwest toward the border of Moldova. It is a bit harder to get to, but you won’t regret it once you admire the local craftsmanship treasures.
Start with colorful monasteries decorated with exterior painted frescoes featuring saints and biblical scenes. Voronet Monastery is perhaps the most impressive, but we’ll let you be the judge.
Nearby Voronet Monastery is an Egg Museum of an internationally acclaimed local artist. Marvel at the 11,000 hollow eggs intricately decorated with local patterns, a 100-year-old craft passed down through generations. You could also practice your precision in a workshop and take your own Bukovina egg home as a souvenir.
There are so many fascinating places to visit around Romania, and we only scraped the surface. One week was simply not enough to explore hip and energetic Cluj Napoca, Romania, but we hope to have convinced you to visit too. Thank you for reading, and feel free to ask any questions in the comments below!