I’ve known two of my close friends, Gloria and Kath, since Sixth Form. Although we all used to live in Shrewsbury (where I’m still based), Gloria has since moved up to Preston and Kath moved to Newcastle but now resides in Suffolk. Consequently it has become incredibly difficult for the three of us to get together very often anymore, especially since Kath is so far from the civilisation of major roads and decent public transport connections that she may as well live in a different country.
As a result we all decided a few years ago that we would fly overseas for a long weekend city break together each year. It would help to satisfy our wanderlust, give us a break from our respective partners – and, in the case of Gloria, her kids – and allow us to spend some quality time with each other, putting the world to rights and laughing so hard our sides hurt.
Our only stipulations were that the flights had to be cheap, the accommodation had to be affordable, and the cost of living had to be low enough for us not to have to watch our pennies for the duration of the trip.
Our first trip saw us landing in Riga in the middle of the coldest month of the year. Riga is a compact, walkable city that totally looks like it’s been plucked straight from the pages of a fairytale – especially when its rooftops are covered in a soft dusting of falling snow. We loved Riga’s quirkiness, as well as its amazing food and diverse nightlife, and we found the accommodation so cheap that we could afford to ‘splash out’ on an apartment with its very own hammam.
Later on that same year we found ourselves exploring the Polish city of Poznan. Considering that few people we spoke to had even heard of Poznan, the city really surprised us – in a good way. The food was amazing, and so much better than I’d experienced in Krakow a few years beforehand, and the city’s main square was one of the prettiest we’d ever encountered. Poznan also had its quirks, including a hilarious croissant-making workshop and a bizarre dining experience.
This year our Skyscanner flight search took us to Cluj-Napoca in Romania.
We knew very little about “Cluj” (as it’s affectionately known to locals) other than the fact that it’s Romania’s second most populous city (after its capital Bucharest), and is home to the country’s largest university, Babeș-Bolyai. With such a huge student population, we felt sure that there would be plenty of cultural activities and events to keep us occupied, as well as a vast array of budget-friendly dining options, and a lively, alternative nightlife scene.
Accommodation was not *quite* as cheap as it had been in Riga and Poznan, but we still managed to find ourselves a lovely central apartment with a wonderful host who was always on hand to promptly and efficiently answer any questions we had during our stay.
Here’s how we spent our weekend break in Cluj-Napoca.
Day 1 – Arrival in the city
Our Blue Air flight was almost an hour late arriving into Cluj, but any worries that our host would be waiting for us at the apartment when we had no way of contacting him were alleviated when we touched down and logged on to the airport wifi: he’d only gone and tracked our flight and sent us a WhatsApp message informing us as much. A quick phone call to our host and a short taxi ride later, and we were checking into our home for the next three nights.
We were staying in a one-bedroom apartment overlooking the canal (which our host amusing referred to as “Little Venice”) in the northeastern part of Cluj’s old town. Although we were unaware of this at the time we were actually perfectly located just across the river from our favourite Cluj restaurant – Samsara.
Due to the fact that we’d all had rather hectic life and work schedules in the run up to our trip, none of us had done a great deal of research beforehand. But we did ensure that we earmarked a few restaurants and bars during our 3-hour flight over to Cluj, one of which we headed to on our first evening in the city.
Considering that it was a Friday night, and that our taxi driver had informed us earlier that – due to the influx of students for the coming term – this was one of the busiest weekends of the year, we were surprised to find Bistro 1568 practically empty.
After a lovely meal and some craft ales , we were also surprised to find the streets of Cluj’s old town eerily quiet. We walked up and down several nearby streets in search of somewhere to have a drink, but we couldn’t see a single bar. We did, however, see a local man taking his rabbit for a walk. So there was that.
In fact the only reason we didn’t end up grabbing a bottle of wine from the local 24-hour supermarket and heading back to the apartment, is because I happened to spot a small group of people hanging around in the middle of a small alleyway leading off of one of Cluj’s main streets, and suggested that perhaps they were loitering there for a reason. Lo and behold, they were actually smoking cigarettes and just as we approached one of them disappeared up some stairs inside the building they were standing in front of, bottle of beer in hand.
Curiosity lead me up those stairs after him, and what I found at the top was a quirky, photo-themed student bar named Zorki, with what seemed like the entire population of Cluj packed within its four walls.
Over the three days that we spent in Cluj, we soon learned that all the coolest bars in the city are hidden away in buildings that – from the outside – don’t look like bars at all. We started the evening here with beers (from the local Ursus brewery) and ended it with red wine (Romania actually make some fairly decent red wine; give it a try!), and threw in a few shots of local liqueurs, Vişinatã and Ţuicã, for good measure. After all, travel is all about sampling the local food and drink, is it not? 😉
Day 2 – Meandering our way around Cluj’s old town and a climb up to Cetățuia Hill
We were singing our hosts praises this morning for leaving us tea bags in the cupboard and milk in the fridge, because there’s nothing better when you’re hungover than a good old English cup of tea. We also decided to take his recommendation for somewhere to eat breakfast, and headed to Olivo Caffe & Bistro, just off Piața Unirii.
With fresco-covered vaulted ceilings and wooden-panelled walls, I absolutely loved the sophisticated, old-fashioned ambience and charm of Olivio. I can’t actually find any information about the history of this place online, but I can totally imagine that it’s likely one of the oldest cafes in Cluj.
And if I’d looked up from my breakfast of halloumi salad and strong coffee (who says you can’t have halloumi salad for breakfast?) to see a smartly dressed 1930’s gentleman sitting in the corner, puffing on a long cigarette, a broadsheet paper laying open on his crossed leg, and the fingers of his other hand loosely holding the corner of its current page, I doubt I’d have even batted an eyelid.
On our way to Olivio we’d noticed a small cluster of market stalls surrounding St. Michael’s Church in Piața Unirii, so upon leaving the cafe, we decided to head over and take a better look.
I’m not sure whether this market happens every weekend or whether it was as a result of Herbstfest (The Autumn Festival of the German Economy), but it gave us a great opportunity to discover locally-made produce and handicrafts.
There was cheese that looked like loaves of bread, jars of honey and pickles, bottles of linseed, pumpkin, and soybean oil, filled sweet pastries, chillies and all manner of varieties of pumpkin (including some decorated for Halloween).
You could also purchase traditional clothing, woven rugs, pieces of beautifully-blown glass, leather bags and purses, paintings, lavender-scented toiletries, and cactus.
And whilst we were just outside St. Michael’s Church, we thought we may as well have a look inside it. I loved the high vaulted ceilings, and the way the sunlight shone through the stained glass windows, picking out their colours beautifully.
Keen to enjoy the sunshine while it lasted and to explore a bit more of the city away from the main square, we decided to take a walk up to Cetatuia Park, through the streets of the northwestern part of the old town and along the Someșul Mic River. This was my absolute favourite part of Cluj, with grand, colourful architecture, cobbled streets, ancient churches, and hidden squares shaded by tall trees.
Here we crossed the Podul Regina Elisabeta (Queen Elizabeth Bridge), and began the climb up to the top of Cetățuia Hill. As well as offering fantastic panoramic views over Cluj, this is a great place to have a picnic or take a walk, and enjoy being away from the hustle and bustle of the city down below. You’ll spot plenty of locals (especially students) up here doing just that.
There are three spots from which to get the best views. The first is from the Panoramic Cetatuie (hotel and restaurant), on the western edge of the park. We snuck in without buying a single drink, snapped our shots and left. None of the staff expressed an aversion to us doing this; maybe we were just lucky!
The second is from the large cross-shaped monument (erected in memory of those imprisoned at the fortress; I can’t seem to find it on Google Maps to geo-tag it, but it’s not far from the Hotel Belvedere) that you can see from Cluj’s old town.
And the third is from Gazette Cafe, which you’ll pass if you follow the steps down from the cross-shaped monument.
We also intended to visit the Muzeul Farmaciei (Pharmaceutical Museum) today, however – considering it’s a tourist attraction – it bizarrely does not open from 4pm on a Friday (we arrived at around 5:30pm) until 10am on a Monday (we had to leave at 8am). It sounded like one of Cluj’s more unusual attractions (you can read more about it here), and therefore right up our street, so we’re kind of gutted we missed it. But now you know the opening times, make sure you don’t!
When we arrived back into Cluj’s old town just before dusk, we decided to attempt to find another of Cluj’s hidden cafe-bars. We’d noted down the address of Yolka from an article online, and were intrigued by the description of its location:
“….in an apartment on the second floor that you reach only through a backyard.”
Yolka is actually located right on Piața Unirii, overlooking St. Michael’s Church, but you wouldn’t know it because there’s no sign outside indicating the presence of a cafe inside.
Yolka was actually my favourite bar in Cluj. It’s quirky and fun (there are upside-down trees hanging from the ceiling and cactus growing out of drain pipes attached to the walls) and the drinks on the menu are really creative and unique. Even the menu covers are made to look like grass.
In the evening we decided to check out Samsara. As far as I know Samsara is the only exclusively Vegan and Vegetarian restaurant in the city. It’s also the number 1 rated restaurant on Trip Advisor, and the food here is nothing short of amazing!
If you’re unsure which dishes to try (and believe me, there are so many on the menu you’d probably have to dine here every day for over a month in order to try them all!), I can thoroughly recommend the following:
- Trio Paté Plate (Raw Vegan)
- Almond Cheese (Raw Vegan)
- Maki with Arugula and Cashews (Sushi)
- Spinach-arugola Salad with Pomegranate (Vegetarian)
- Lentil and Spinach Curry (Vegan)
We loved it so much we came back for seconds the following evening.
Day 3 – A trip out to the Turda Salt Mine
Our host came up trumps once again by sending us a little map via WhatsApp of the exact location from which we had to catch the bus, and also informing us how often they ran. If you’re interested to make the trip yourself, here’s the map he provided:
The buses run every 30 minutes (the company name is “Fany” which will amuse you immensely if you’re British and as childish as we are!) and the one-way fare is 7 lei (£1.37). The journey takes approximately 40 minutes.
Since opening its doors to tourists in 1992, Salina Turda has been visited by over two million tourists, and was voted one of the top ten “coolest underground places in the world” by Business Insider.
The largest of the mines is 40 metres deep; if you can’t manage the steps a lift will transport you from ground level down to the bottom of the mine, and back up again.
It’s a fascinating place, if a little (ok, very!) bizarre. Inside the main hall you’ll find a lake where you can hire rowing boats, a theatre, a ferris wheel, and places where you can play pool, mini golf, and try your hand at tenpin bowling. Yes, Kath and I can now say that we’ve played a game of Pool, 40 metres underground, in a salt mine.
We had intended to have a look around the Alexandru Borza Botanical Garden when we returned to Cluj, but we ended up unintentionally spending over three hours inside the Salt Mine instead. If you fancy it though, it’s meant to be one of the city’s highlights, with rare plants, and vulnerable or endangered species on display.
We did, however, have time to check out the Assumption Cathedral in Piața Avram Iancu. It’s an Orthodox Church and we were lucky enough to wander in just before an important religious ceremony was about to begin. If you’re in Cluj on a Sunday at 6pm, I thoroughly recommend you take a peek, it was utterly fascinating to watch.
We completed our final day in Cluj-Napoca with a return to Samsara for another amazing meal, followed by cocktails at another of the city’s hidden bars.
With atmospheric lighting, a chilled ambience, and the sweet smell of shisha filling the air, Hemingway Bar was a perfect little find on our last evening in the city. It’s nice enough downstairs, but head upstairs and you’ll feel as though you’ve walked into a Turkish bar in Istanbul or a Moorish tea house in the maze-like cobbled streets of Granada’s Albayzín.
Even if you’re not a fan of gin (as I didn’t think I was), I can wholeheartedly recommend sampling one of Hemingway’s “English Garden” cocktails. Because, when mixed with cucumber, mint, and ginger, gin is actually the best thing EVER.
Other sights we wished we had time for
- The Paintbrush Factory. A contemporary art space housed in an old industrial communist building.
- Steampunk Bar and Bistro, Joben. There is actually another Steampunk bar in the centre of the old town, called Enigma-Kinetic, but Joben looks soooo much better!
- Hungarian Cemetery. Cemeteries can be beautiful, peaceful places. This one was founded in the 16th century and contains elegant tombs and mausoleums of Transylvanian poets and composers.
Where we stayed
I’ve already told you about our fantastic apartment and host earlier on in this post, but if you’d like to read a little more about the property, look at some photos (I failed to take any!), or make a booking yourself, you can do so by following this link.
We paid £148 / €165 for the apartment for three nights. It sleeps up to four people (there’s a large double bed and a sofa bed).
Alternatively, you can search for alternative accommodation in the city below.
We used both a Rough Guide and a Lonely Planet to research and plan our trip (and for reference while we were there). You can purchase a copy of the latest Lonely Planet guide to Romania here, or the most recent Rough Guide here.
If you’re interested to read more about other parts of Romania, check out the following blog posts below.
- A guide to Romania’s capital Bucharest
- A six-night Romania itinerary and costs, including Bucharest, Brasov, and Sibiu, as well as the castles of Peles and Bran
- A guide to the beautiful city of Brasov
Have you visited Cluj-Napoca before? Or do you have any other recommendations for places to visit in Romania? Let me know in the comments below!
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