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Here it is! The long-awaited ultimate guide to Cluj-Napoca, Romania, the city that has become my most recent home. I’ve been living here for the past five months, never expecting six months ago that this would be the case. Cluj-Napoca is an amazingly friendly city, and one of the best destinations for digital nomads. It’s affordable, got widespread and reliable internet, and making friends here is easy.
2020 has been a hell of a year – I quit my comfy job to travel Europe with my dog, COVID and global lockdowns, fell in love, moved to my man’s city and adopted a(nother) puppy. Whew! What a wild ride it’s been. So, without further ado, please enjoy my unique perspective of Cluj as both a foreigner and a resident.
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a bit about cluj
Cluj-Napoca is located (almost) equidistant from the capital cities of Bucharest (Romania), Belgrade (Serbia), and Budapest (Hungary). Situated in north-western Romania, it is the fourth largest city in the country and the unofficial capital of Transilvania.
Cluj, as it is affectionately called by its residents, is also a major international student center in Europe. Because of this (and the city’s reputation as the ‘Silicon Valley of Transilvania’), Cluj-Napoca is one of the most important academic, cultural, industrial, and business centers in the country.
The city’s residents are among the friendliest I’ve met throughout my travels, and exceptionally welcoming to foreigners. Most people under 40 will speak English and everyone is willing to help you if you’re in a bind. It’s a super-safe city, ranking 13th safest city worldwide in 2020, with a crime index less than 20.
ultimate guide to cluj-napoca
- a bit about cluj
- getting to cluj-napoca
- cluj-napoca bucket list
- union square
- museum square
- mihai viteazu square
- avram iancu square
- parcul central simion bărnuțiu
- parcul cetățuia
- love locks on elisabeth bridge
- grădina botanică
- matthias corvinus house
- matthias corvinus statue
- banffy castle
- cluj arena
- strada potaissa
- cluj-napoca romanian national opera
- hungarian opera house
- pharmacy museum
- transilvanian museum of ethnography
- ethnographic park romulus vuia
- jewish history museum
- hoia forest
- tailor’s bastion
- st. michael’s roman catholic church
- cluj synagogue
- reformed church
- dormition of the theotokos cathedral
- try varza a la cluj
- take a walking tour of the city
- electric castle
- union square
- where to eat & drink in cluj-napoca
- where to stay in cluj-napoca
- getting around cluj-napoca
- day trips from cluj-napoca
- pin it!
getting to cluj-napoca
Cluj International Airport (CLJ) directly serves many European cities. Located just 9 km outside the city, it’s perfect for those who don’t like long rides after their flights. Wizz and Tarom are popular airlines with many direct routes within Europe. There are two bus lines that go directly to the city center from the airport (5 & 8).
Train travel is another option, and there are several direct trains to Cluj from neighboring cities. Given its close proximity to the Hungarian border, flying to Budapest and then taking a train to Cluj is an excellent option.
Within Romania, there are direct trains from Bucharest, Brașov, and Oradea among others.
Night trains are popular in this area of the world as the train system isn’t as highly developed as in Western Europe – and in my experience, very safe.
Although driving in Romania isn’t something I’d recommend for the faint-hearted, renting a car is an affordable option. Be aware that an international driving license is required to rent a car, and most rental agencies require a credit card for insurance and liability purposes.
cluj-napoca bucket list
Piaţă Unirii is the main square in Cluj’s Old Town. On the perimeter of the square you’ll find restaurants and terraces, St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church, and a few storefronts. The square features a large statue of Matthias Corvinus.
Piaţă Muzeului is where you can find the iconic strung lights hanging above a beautiful cobblestone street that is featured in many photographs of Cluj-Napoca. There are a number of good restaurants (my favorite is Casa Veche – I go here for dinner probably once a week!) as well as Matthias Corvinus House, which is where the famed Hungarian king was born.
mihai viteazu square
Another popular square in the city centre is Piaţă Mihai Viteazu, which is a central stop for many city buses. There’s a large statue with beautiful fountain, cheerfully colored buildings and beautiful architecture to admire.
avram iancu square
Piaţă Avram Iancu is situated right in front of Cluj’s most spectacular building, the Dormition of the Theotokos Cathedral. In the summer months, you can find an open-air market from which you can purchase authentic Romanian foods, honey, spices, and handcrafted goods.
parcul central simion bărnuțiu
Central Park is a large urban park spanning part of the southern shore of the Someşul Mic River. Nearer to the city centre you’ll find running paths and trees. Toward the outskirts of the city, there’s a large pond and an upscale restaurant with gorgeous views.
Cetățuia is a personal favorite of mine considering the amount of time I spend there. It’s a large hill on the opposite side of the river from Old Town. The stairs are a bitch, but doable and worth it.
Here is where you’ll find the best views Cluj has to offer as well as the Cetățuia Food Truck Park. If you have mobility limitations, take an Uber or a Bolt, because public transport will still make you hike up the stairs.
Cluj’s city river, Someşul (the Someş) is nice enough to enjoy a stroll along the river banks. There aren’t many attractions nearby, but if you’re heading from Parcul Central to Parcul Cetățuia, see if you can find Elisabeth Bridge!
love locks on elisabeth bridge
I stumbled across this gem en route from one park to the other my first day exploring Cluj, the city that would eventually become home. I spent a while admiring the care with which lovers meticulously placed their locks, a symbol of their eternal devotion to one another. (Szilard and I don’t have a lock on the bridge – yet!).
The Botanical Garden in Cluj is one of the city’s prized treasures, and something people talk about even in other counties throughout the country. The entire area spans over 14 hectares, featuring both indoor and outdoor gardens, and boasts over 10,000 species of plants from all over the world! The best time to visit is in the spring, when most varieties are in bloom.
Entrance for one adult is 11 lei (about $2.75 USD) with children, students, and seniors paying only 5 lei.
matthias corvinus house
One of the oldest buildings in Cluj-Napoca, Matthias Corvinus House is located in Piaţă Muzeului. Matthias Corvinus, one of the most renowned Kings of Hungary, was born here in the 15th century. The building has served as a jail, hospital, museum, and today is a visual arts institute.
matthias corvinus statue
The Matthias Corvinus Monument is the focal point of Piaţă Unirii, the main square in Cluj-Napoca. It’s a popular photo stop for tourists and (obviously) depicts the famed Hungarian King, Matthias Corvinus.
Banffy Castle is outside the city limits of Cluj, located in the village of Bonţida. In the 1940’s the building suffered destruction by German troops but has since been restored.
In it’s history, the building has served as a hospital, a driving school, a co-op farm, and again a hospital for children. Since 2013 it’s served as the site of Cluj’s famed Electric Castle Festival.
To the west of Parcul Central is the Cluj Arena, a multi-purpose arena that is now the home to one of the city’s many festivals – Untold. In addition to catching a football game from Universitatea Cluj, you can check out the Untold Festival or catch another concert – artists such as Andrea Bocelli have even played here!
If you’re visiting Cluj during the warmer months, head to Potaissa Street for all of your floral indulgences. One of the most picturesque streets in the entire city, Strada Potaissa is the home to the Altfel Flower Market, which takes place Friday through Sundays from 10-23.
You can catch workshops and performances in addition to bouquets of flowers and potted plants for the home or herbs for the garden. The market has grown so significantly in recent years that car traffic has been restricted.
cluj-napoca romanian national opera
The Romanian National Opera in Cluj-Napoca is one of the city’s most iconic institutions. It’s situated across from Piaţă Avram Iancu and is a common stop for visitors in the city. Here you’ll find opera and ballet performances.
Considering that I am writing this in the midst of the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, note that they also offer online viewings since the theatre is currently closed!
hungarian opera house
The Hungarian Opera House is lesser-known than the Romanian National Opera, but offers some spectacular performances. It’s situated adjacent to the eastern end of Parcul Central, making it a convenient stop after a dinner at the park or one of the nearby restaurants. Like the Romanian National Opera, it also offers presentations online during the global lockdown.
The Pharmacy History Museum is located in the oldest pharmacy building in Cluj, nicknamed ‘La Sfântul Gheorghe’ or also known as the Hintz Pharmacy.
Dating back to the 16th century, the museum has very interesting sources of healing still located within its walls. These include Syrian asphalt, which was used to treat rheumatic disorders, as well as coral powder and lobster eyes, used for their naturally high calcium content.
transilvanian museum of ethnography
Technically, the Transilvanian Museum of Ethnography in Cluj is two separate installations. The first, pictured above, is located at Reduta Palace downtown. Here you’ll find exhibits featuring items and clothing used in traditional rural Romanian life as well as an impressive historical photo collection.
ethnographic park romulus vuia
The second installation of the TME is located at Romulus Vuia Park, toward the outskirts of the city. Here you can visit an open-air museum that features traditional farms with buildings collected from different regions of Transilvania, authentic mills, and wooden churches. You can also view a number of workshops that demonstrate different aspects of rural life.
jewish history museum
Muzeon is a Jewish storytelling museum that is focused more on personal tales rather than historic exhibits. The stories are the result of research and careful examination of hundreds of letters, memoirs, documents, and personal testimonials.
Hoia Forest has developed quite a reputation over the years. A known site for paranormal encounters and UFO sightings (among others), it’s consistently referred to as one of the most haunted forests in the world.
The first UFO sighting occurred in the late 1960’s, putting Hoia-Baciu Forest on the map for lovers of the supernatural. Ever since, strange lights, energies, and other inexplicable phenomena have been reported in the area.
You can take a night (or day) tour of the forest, complete with EMF meters and Geiger counters!
Word to the wise – don’t wander off in any forest by yourself (haunted or not!). Hoia Forest is located near to the outdoor installation of the ethnography museum, so visiting both in one day is highly advisable. Viator offers a 3-hour tour including both!
The Cluj-Napoca Tailors’ Bastion is situated toward the southeastern tip of the old Cluj citadel. Until 2007 the building was abandoned, but the city has since restored the tower and transformed it into a tourist site. There are exhibits on each of its three floors and it now serves as a Centre for Urban Culture.
st. michael’s roman catholic church
St. Michael’s Church is the main church located in Piaţă Unirii. It boasts the title of second largest church in Transilvania, though it is perpetually under renovation. The scaffolding certainly takes away from its Gothic architectural beauty, but hopefully it will be complete soon!
In the 1600’s it was a popular site for elections of the Princes of Transilvania.
In May of 1944, Áron Márton, bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Transilvania, gave a famous speech strongly condemning the deportation of Jews.
The Neolog Synagogue is the only working synagogue in the city. With its stunning Moorish-style architecture, it makes for an excellent photography subject.
The building itself has a sordid history – it was built in the 1880’s, suffered attacks in 1927 by the Iron Guard, rebuilt by the Romanian government, damaged by bombs of the railway station in 1944, and in 1951 once again restored. Today it serves as a memorial to Jewish deportees during The Holocaust.
The Reformed Diocese of Transylvania is a moderately conservative Reformed, Calvinist church in Romania. Cluj is one of the headquarters (together with Oradea) of the religious institution and is composed of two bishoprics: the Reformed Diocese of Királyhágómellék and the Reformed Diocese of Transylvania. Approximately 95% of its followers are of Hungarian ethnicity.
dormition of the theotokos cathedral
The Dormition of the Theotokos Cathedral is my absolute favorite building in Cluj. The union of Renaissance and Byzantine architecture is nothing short of breathtaking. The fountain adjacent to the main entrance provides a lovely spot to sit and people watch. Stop here during the summer months to enjoy the market stalls set up in Piaţă Avram Iancu.
try varza a la cluj
Cabbage is by far one of the most popular ingredients in traditional Romanian food. And Cluj-Napoca has its very own preparation! This dish is prepared with minced meat, onion, cabbage, and rice and finished with a sour cream mixture. The specific recipe varies greatly among families and restaurants alike.
During my first visit to Cluj I knew that this was the one dish I had to try. I’m not generally a fan of sour cream, but this was truly delicious.
take a walking tour of the city
Cluj is a city with a diverse population, gorgeous architecture, and an abundance of history. Taking a city tour, free or paid, is a great way to understand both Cluj and its people on a deeper level. There are many popular tours in Cluj, or you can opt for a self-guided walking tour!
Electric Castle is an annual music festival held at Bánffy Castle. EC features many genres of music including rock, indie, hip hop, electronic, techno, and drum and bass as well as art installations, similar to many US-based festivals.
You can catch internationally-acclaimed musicians such as Florence + the Machine, Skrillex, Deadmau5, alt-J, Franz Ferdinand, Fatboy Slim, Sigur Ros, Thievery Corporation, Die Antwoord among many, many others. There are ten stages, so there will always be something good to watch.
Electric Castle takes place each summer, usually in mid-late July. Headliners were just released for 2021 and include Deftones, Gorillaz, and Twenty-One Pilots!
Untold is another major festival taking place at the Cluj Arena. It’s more genre-specific than Electric Castle, focusing on electronic music. If you purchase a ticket to Untold, the bracelet will allow you discounts at other major attractions throughout Romania.
Featured artists have included Armin van Buuren, Avicii (RIP), Chainsmokers, Tiesto, David Guetta, Bonobo, Afrojack, Steve Aoki and others.
Untold usually takes place the first week of August each year.
TIFF is an acronym for Transilvania International Film Festival, and is yet another of Cluj’s famed festivals. Since its onset in 2002, Tiff has become the most celebrated film-focused event in all of Romania.
TIFF takes place annually and is spread out around multiple locations in the city, including outdoor and obscure venues. TIFF was the only festival held in Cluj in 2020 given the fact that social distancing was more feasible than would have been with EC or Untold.
The festival is usually held in late-July/early-August each year.
where to eat & drink in cluj-napoca
I’ve only included places I’ve personally been to and enjoyed – this list is by no means exhaustive as Cluj has many great dining options to choose from!
restaurants / bars / cafes
Casa Boema, pictured above, is a good option for an upscale date night. It’s pretty pricey compared to the other restaurants on this list, but it’s popular with locals. I loved the outdoor smoker (pictured)!
Sisters (above) serves coffee and alcoholic drinks. They don’t serve food, but you can order pizza from a neighboring restaurant if you get the munchies. This photo was taken on day 4 of the 2020 US Elections – hence the abundance of alcohol!
Colin’s Gastropub is located near the east-end of Central Park. It has a great terrace, perfect for social distancing, and they have bomb steak tartare. They also have a really extensive craft beer list, if that’s your thing.
Casa Veche is one of my two favorite restaurants in Cluj. Their soups, meat platters, and even breakfasts are all amazing. They offer a wide array of traditional Romanian dishes and an extensive drink menu. Despite the central location in Piaţă Muzeului, the prices are quite reasonable. I go here probably once a week!
It’s a great spot to people-watch and there are often musicians busking nearby.
Restaurant Rod is the second of my favorite restaurants in Cluj. It’s a little outside of the city center, closer to the Botanical Gardens in the Zorilor neighborhood.
Rod is on the pricier side – dinner and drinks for two here usually cost us around 200 lei (about $40). That being said, we usually have cocktails or whiskey here in lieu of beer and wine.
Insider tip – if you’re American and looking for your Fireball fix, this is where to go! The food is always very good, and the décor is the nicest I’ve seen here in Cluj.
Head to Cetățuia Food Park for a fun night out! There are usually about 7-8 different food trucks, and two full bars. In the colder months, you can find fire pits to get warm, and the bars serve hot wine. The most popular option by far is Vagabundos Food Truck – if you need a break from traditional Romanian food, you can find quesadillas, tacos, and Mexican-inspired weekly specials.
Ask any local where to eat and someone will undoubtedly mention Samsara Foodhouse, regardless of whether or not they are vegetarian. Samsara is a local institution serving up delicious vegan and vegetarian fare in a gorgeous setting.
There are also many salad and juice bars around Cluj offering veg options if you’re looking for something more casual.
where to stay in cluj-napoca
Cluj is a fairly large city with a number of different neighborhoods. Without a doubt, the Old Town is ideal if you’re planning to visit tourist attractions as most things can be reached on foot. Both the airport and the train station are easily connected to the Old Town via public transport.
Another popular neighborhood to stay is Zorilor. There is a large student population as well as a few shopping centers and the Botanical Gardens. I live in Zorilor and it has a much quieter and more residential feel than the center, if that’s what you’re looking for.
Neighborhoods I would stay/live in Cluj: Centru (Old Town), Zorilor, Grigorescu, Andrei Mureșanu.
Neighborhoods I personally wouldn’t want to stay in if I were visiting Cluj: Mărăști, Mănăștur, Iris. These neighborhoods may have their nice areas, but overall they are too urban and grey for my personal taste. The accommodation you’ll find in these areas will likely be cheaper, however.
Airbnb is a great option in Cluj. An entire, unshared apartment in the Old Town will run about $40 USD per night. Many Airbnb hosts will give a generous discount for stays longer than one month – for these, apartments go from $500 USD and up. You may be able to find some things cheaper, but I had some non-negotiable amenities that I needed (kitchen, washer, pet-friendly).
Click the link below for $40 off your first Airbnb rental! And feel free to message me for links to the Airbnbs in Cluj I’ve personally stayed in (photo above taken in my Old Town Airbnb).
Hostels are abundant in Cluj and if you’re traveling on a budget, they’re your best option. You can spend as little as 60 lei ($15 USD) per night for a bed in a shared dorm, or about 100 lei ($25 USD) per night for a private room.
Hotels are a good option if you are looking for full-service amenities and services such as airport transfers. There are hotels available in the city for any budget, it simply depends on the level of luxury you’re looking for.
getting around cluj-napoca
Buses and trams are frequent and reliable in Cluj. Outside of the bus stops there are (usually) ticket machines with options for English. One bus ticket is good for two rides and costs 5 lei, or about $.60 per ride.
Be sure to validate your ticket once on board the bus – there ARE people who come to check, and you WILL be fined. Once validated, your ticket is good for one hour.
Tickets are not available for purchase on board the bus unless you have a contact-less card.
In total, Cluj has 3 tram lines, 6 trolleybus lines, and 21 urban bus routes.
rideshare & taxi
Uber and Bolt are two popular rideshare services available in the city.
Bolt is generally faster and more abundant, not to mention slightly cheaper. With Bolt, you have the option to pay in cash as well as card.
Ubers take a little longer to arrive and are slightly more expensive – you are also limited to payment with card only.
Worth mentioning if you are coming from the US – my bank does NOT like Bolt and always puts a fraud alert on my debit card when I try to pay. I rarely have cash on me, so I usually have to resort to Uber. You probably won’t have this problem if you use a big bank such as Bank of America.
I highly suggest taking a rideshare service if you do not speak Romanian – there have been many times when I have taken a taxi, even with my Romanian fiancé, and they gave us a runaround of the city because we were speaking English. With ride shares, the route is predetermined from the app and you won’t get screwed over.
day trips from cluj-napoca
turda salt mines
Turda Salt Mine isn’t just famous within Romania – Smithsonian Magazine actually included it in a 2018 compilation of ‘subterranean wonderlands’! I don’t visit many underground tourist sites (ya know, anxiety and shit), but Salina Turda legit looks like a hidden NASA station.
Salina Turda first opened in the 1600’s, was used as a bomb shelter during WWII, a theme park in the early 20th century, and now is somehow a strange compilation of all of its history. It has a ferris wheel, paddle boats, a miniature golf course, spa services, and tours.
Turda is a 40 minute bus ride from Cluj, a little less if traveling by car. You can visit Salina Turda for RON 40 per day for adults; seniors, children, and students RON 20 per day. Viator offers day trips to Salina Turda combined with stops in Transilvanian villages and Cheile Turzii for $80 USD.
Lake Tarnița is situated just west of Cluj-Napoca and is a popular day trip from the city.
Local legends proclaim that there are hidden tunnels under the mountains, exceeding lengths of 10 kilometers. People say that the entire plant looks like a military intelligence center encased in rock and are capable of withstanding a nuclear attack!
Cluj has some of the best drinking water in the country, thanks to the water coming in from springs in the Apuseni Mountains. On that note – tap water is safe to drink in all of Romania, and perfectly fine in Cluj. We refill large bottles and store them in the fridge in lieu of purchasing bottled water.
The area is popular for fans of water sports and fishing. Be forewarned, that most of the lakeshores are on private property, so access to the lake is limited.
Cheile Turzii is a natural reserve just west of Turda and about 40 km from Cluj-Napoca (about a 45 minute drive).
It’s a popular spot for rock climbing and hiking with local residents.
Sibiu will always be my first love in Romania, and luckily, if you’re visiting Cluj, it makes for a great day trip. If you’re renting a car, the drive takes about two and a half hours.
I’d recommend renting a car or an organized tour as the train route is indirect and can take upwards of four hours. A bus ride will take just under four hours. Viator offers a 10-hour day trip to Sibiu and some surrounding villages for $105 USD.
There are a ton of things to do in Sibiu, including open air museums, sprawling green parks, shopping, and more.
Hungry? You won’t have any difficulties finding where to eat in Sibiu – the food here is phenomenal.
Sibiu is slightly less expensive than Cluj in terms of both accommodation and dining.
En route to Sibiu, be sure to stop at Alba Iulia. Located approximately mid-way between the two cities, Alba Iulia is an up-and-coming destination in Romania. In fact, both Alba and Sibiu are on the tentative UNESCO World Heritage list.
The Citadel is without-a-doubt the most popular attraction in town, but there are a number of other things to do as well. Hike the caves and mountains, tour (and taste) at Jidvei Winery, visit the fortified church at Calnic (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), or simply explore the labyrinth that is the city centre.
lavanda lola fest
The annual lavender festival takes place in Bonțida, just 30 km outside of Cluj-Napoca. It’s held each year in June and boasts over 50 species of lavender!
Visitors can purchase fresh lavender and learn how to extract natural lavender flavor from plants. Picnics on the orchard are allowed and there are plenty of lavender products to test and purchase!
Entrance is RON 10/person (about $2.50 USD).
The Ardeal (Transilvanian) Delta is the third most famous delta in Romania, after the Danube Delta and the Văcărești Delta.
Nestled in the heart of Transilvania, the Ardeal Delta is a remarkable nature reserve that showcases one of the most biodiverse areas of the country. The reserve has everything from wetlands, lakes, ponds, forests, marshes, meadows, and more.
Fishing, hiking, camping, and bird-watching are all allowed in designated areas. For birders, there are observation towers as well!
Mărișel village is a village in Cluj County, located in the Gilau Mountains, which comprise part of the Apuseni range. The village is located about 50 km from Cluj, making for a doable day trip. Mărișel boasts an altitude of 1250 m, being the largest inhabited mountain plateau in Apuseni.
Aside from capturing stunning photographs during any season, you can also check out museums, the Astronomical Observatory, and the Hydropower Plant.