“The big city with a small-town feel.” That is how my family describes Cluj-Napoca. The city has a population of over 300,000, the 2nd most populous city in Romania, but the small shops, friendly people, and the focus on culture make it feel smaller. It is commonly referred to as simply “Cluj” with its conjoined name “Napoca” dating back to a Roman settlement on the site (1st century).
TripAdvisor says, “Cluj-Napoca is the unofficial capital of Transylvania, and though you (probably) won’t find vampires here, you can explore castles, fortresses, botanical gardens, museums and parks.”
Lonely Planet (travel guide-book) says, “Cluj-Napoca is burgeoning art and bohemian cafes.” I, on the other hand, have nothing to add to the art and cafes description. 10-year-olds do not normally saunter about art galleries or drink coffee at the local cafes. You may ask, “What in the world does that mean?” Well, I have not yet mentioned that I grew up in Cluj. My parents visited the city for the first time in 1992 when I was 1 year old. Then, 3 years later, my parents moved there. My dad and mom established a United Pentecostal Church in the city; my sister and I were with them through it all. I suppose you can say that I was an “expat” (if 10-year-olds can be “expats,” I do not even know).
In 2004, we moved from Cluj to the capital of Romania, Bucharest. I have visited Cluj a handful of times since then, in fact, I was there this week. It truly is a remarkable place. To go back to the Lonely Planet description of Cluj, I would have to say that you must check the art for yourself (not my thing) but I will go along with you to a cafe. I really like coffee now… as a 25-year-old.
Interesting fact: Cluj is roughly the same distance from 3 European capitals: Bucharest (201 miles), Budapest (218 miles), Belgrade (200 miles). However, the actual road conditions and travel times vary greatly.
Cluj is surrounded by hills, and as you descend into the valley the city seems to open itself up to you. My favorite place is Unity Square (Piața Unirii) with its open space and old cobblestones. In the middle of the square, you can see the iconic statue of Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus with his guards around him. The statues are a fun place to climb for a 10-year-old boy with a big imagination. Also, the church that dominates Cluj’s landscape stands there, Catholic St Michael’s Church, a late-14th-century Gothic treasure that still boasts Transylvania’s tallest church tower. You can visit the Universtiy bookstore on the corner, buy souvenirs at one of the gift shops, and eat a traditional Romanian meal all at Unity Square.
For a beautiful view of the city, visit the Citadel (Cetățuia Hill). It offers great views of the city, especially at sunrise and sunset. One review on TripAdvisor says, “This place is amazing, the view is wonderful and the air is so refreshing. I definitely recommend it, it is a great place to relax.”
I hope, one day soon, you have the chance to visit Cluj. I now live in Bucharest but would love to hop on a train to show you around my hometown.
Călătorie plăcută! Have a good trip!
We all know the famous cities: London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Dubai, Istanbul, Rome, and the list can go on and on. Then you have the cities that are smaller but still pack a punch when it comes to popularity, such as Venice, Italy. In this “Hidden Gems” series I will not include any of these. Instead, I will focus on the places you most likely have never heard of. Also, each gem will be a place that I have traveled to.
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Featured Image captured by Christine Patterson