My day in Cluj came about almost by accident. I never had Cluj on my itinerary, and I had no idea what I would do if I spent a day there. Now that I have, I can give you an idea of what’s available…which isn’t a lot.
Ending Up in Cluj
Cluj is the second-largest city in Romania, after Bucharest (the capital). It’s located in the northwestern quarter of the country not far from Hungary. As this region used to be part of Hungary, many of the people there are Hungarians, the cuisine is partially Hungarian, etc. The landscape is thick forests and mountains with some amazing hidden waterfalls and not-so-hidden castles.
After six weeks in Romania, I decided to take a trip to Cyprus. The only problem was that the flights from Bucharest (where I was living) were nearly $200 round trip. Following the tips I give for finding cheap flights, I searched for flights to Cyprus from any city in Romania. The cheapest last-minute tickets were from Cluj – a paltry $50
Getting to Cluj wasn’t too hard either, even though it’s nearly 300 miles from Bucharest. In Europe, one of my favorite ways to get around is with the Blablacar rideshare website. I was able to find a ride for only $15, which would get me to Cluj a couple hours before my flight. Sure, I spent the whole day traveling from Bucharest to Cluj to the airport to Cyprus, but I saved over $100. When it comes to long-term travel, that’s the way to do it!
I didn’t have any time to explore before my flight. Instead, I spent a day in Cluj when I returned from Cyrpus, and before I took a bus to Moldova. I even had a local help to show me around, which is the best way to explore.
Cluj City Center
Cluj is fairly similar to other Romania cities as far as architecture goes. Despite being the second-largest city in Romania, it doesn’t have nearly as much traffic or chaos as Bucharest. I started my exploration in the old town at St. Michael’s Church. It wasn’t nearly as busy as I was expecting it to be, especially for the summer. Maybe that’s just because it was still morning, and the city was way too hot for walking around.
Reminiscent of Timisoara and Brasov, the city center was lined with cafes and terraces. There were no market stalls set up. Instead, they were constructing a large concert stage for the jazz festival that was launching the day after I left. Speaking of which, there were three large concerts coming up, including the Electric Castle which I’ve been wanting to attend for years. I even had a friend working there who offered me a free ticket, but it coincided with my Portuguese press trip! (sad face) I’d say next year, but I might be in Zimbabwe then…
There are only a small handful of other attractions worth visiting in the city center. Next to St. Michael’s Church is the Matthias Corvinus Statue (the Hungarian king that was born in Cluj). A couple streets away is another beautiful gothic church – the Assumption Cathedral (now housing the University of Cluj Faculty of Art and Design). Lastly, just down the street from the cathedral is the Cluj Tailors’ Tower, part of the 15th-century fortifications.
Alexandru Borza Botanical Gardens
A little past noon, I met up with Madalina, a local I’d found on Couchsurfing who was able to take a break from studying for her medical finals in order to spend a couple hours exploring with me. I’d seen the botanical gardens on the map, and she agreed they were worth a visit.
The entrance to the gardens is 10 lei ($2.50), or free if you’re a student. The gardens are nearly 35 acres and include a watchtower with a great view, Japanese gardens, greenhouses, a stream running through the middle and most of the rest of the things you usually find in a botanical garden.
Perhaps the best part of the gardens was the ability to escape from the summer heat. In truth, I might have enjoyed learning about my host Madaline and her stories of Romania more than I did the gardens. Not only is she finishing medical school, she’s also a mountaineer, a black belt and an avid traveler. I recently posted my views on traveling solo, but you’re never really alone when you travel. Couchsurfing is a great way to meet up with locals and learn about the culture, cuisine and customs.
Other Attractions Near Cluj
That’s about all there really was to see in the city of Cluj, but there are other attractions out in the countryside.
Turda Salt Mine
A 20-mile drive southeast of Cluj, the Turda Salt Mine is on part with the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Krakow, Poland. The mines are nearly 1,000 years old and opened as a tourist attraction in 1992. They’re not nearly as famous as the Wieliczka Mine, but still definitely worth a visit.
There are dozens of castles throughout the hills around Cluj, many of which offer tours. The one I’d like to visit is Bánffy Castle where the aforementioned Electric Castle Festival takes place in July. I’ll let this video speak for itself.
If you have a couple days in Cluj, spend one of them out in nature. I’d recommend Vadu Crişului, where you’ll find some stunning waterfalls and a deep cave you can go spelunking in. You might need to rent a car to get out to this location or find some friends on Couchsurfing to join for a trip there.
Off to Moldova
The day certainly didn’t last long, and after a couple hours, she had to get back to her exams while I went for my bus to Moldova. That 14-hour bus ride wasn’t most comfortable I’ve been on, but Moldova was fantastic. I’ll get those posts written soon. And then there will be Ukraine to write about…
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