The fact that Eastern European countries are among some of the continent’s most up-and-coming tourist destinations is barely a secret anymore. This is one of Europe’s most culturally interesting regions and there are still plenty of hidden gems to discover. Eastern Europe is also great if you aren’t into architecture or museums: the food is great, people are genuinely curious about foreigners, and there are plenty of entertainment opportunities around.
Of all Eastern European countries, Romania is my favourite, maybe because I lived here for a year during a university exchange programme. This time I wanted to visit Cluj-Napoca, located in northwestern Romania. This pretty medieval town is bang in the middle of the uber-famous region of Transylvania, which is mostly known for being home to Bram Stoker’s fictional character Dracula. Actually, some say that the character was not precisely fictional, but this is a different story. For now, let’s talk about the logistics of getting there and about everything that Cluj has to offer to tourists.
How to get to Cluj from the UK
There are no shortage of options when it comes to getting to Cluj, and when you are on a budget and/or short of time, which is definitely a good thing. You could either book a trip with your local travel agent, or organise your own flight and accommodation. One option is to fly into Cluj’s international airport, which is just 5 miles away from the centre. You can fly from Luton with WizzAir, and you can find one-way fares for under £40. If you can’t find a suitable flight to Cluj, check low-cost airlines flying to Budapest, in Hungary, and then take a shuttle from the airport to Cluj. The trip takes up to 7 hours and can be booked online.
You can also choose to go on a grand railway tour of the most beautiful capitals in central/eastern Europe. Here’s what I did: I flew with EasyJet from London Gatwick to Vienna, driving my own car to the airport and using the car parking facilities, took the Dacia Express to Budapest, and continued on to Bucharest, where I hopped into a regional train to Cluj. There are frequent trains covering the Prague-Bratislava-Budapest-Bucharest-Cluj route too.
Exploring Cluj’s main attractions
From a purely visual point of view, Cluj is simply stunning. There’s a very interesting mix of medieval, Gothic, Baroque, and (ok, not so charming) modern architecture. Palaces, churches, monasteries, and fortresses are everywhere in Cluj. There’s the common assumption that Eastern European cities are just packed with drab architecture and ugly buildings, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Here’s a list of some of my favourite places in Cluj:
– Union Square: you could say that all roads in Cluj lead to Union Square. This pretty town square is flanked by impressive hotels, museums, and churches and is one of the city’s focal points. There are a few coffee houses here too, where I enjoyed a double espresso while taking all the sights in. The area surrounding Union Square is fantastic if you are looking for great-value accommodation. Three and four-star hotels have rooms for under £50, and there are lots of “pensions” or guesthouses where you can get a room with character for just £25 (at least during the shoulder season / September).
– Fortress Park and Fortress Hill, a former prison that is now a green space located high up a hill and that offers some of the best panoramic views of Cluj. Despite its turbulent past, nowadays this is a really peaceful spot.
Another thing that I was pleased to discover is that Cluj is one of Romania’s most important student towns, so eating, drinking, and shopping options are plentiful and affordable. Cluj’s eateries suit all tastes and budgets, as you’ll be able to find everything from gourmet restaurants to budget cafeterias serving Romanian fare and international food. I particularly like Casa Ardeleana. This place is much more than a Transylvanian restaurant: is a total cultural experience that won’t leave anyone indifferent. Make sure to try their “bulz”, a scrumptious baked polenta and cheese dish similar to a cheese bake.
I developed this habit in the early evenings: head to L’Atelier Cafe and strike conversation with some of the local students. This great little place is made with recycled materials and has a very unique vibe. Bar staff serve cocktails, hot drinks, milkshakes, beer, wine, and snacks at very reasonable prices. The music selection was great too, and the atmosphere was superb.
As for clubbing, it seems that Boiler Club is currently the place to be between midnight and 6am. I also visited Ursus (not much of a clubbing venue but well worth it) and Vertigo.
Cluj is surrounded by forested areas, such as the lush Făgetul Clujului, a 24-acre forest that serves as the city’s green lung. Lovers of all spooky things must visit Hoia Forest, which is known as one of the world’s most haunted places.
It’s almost impossible not to enjoy yourself in Cluj, so take my advice and visit this fantastic town. I bet you’ll love it!