I hereby offer my brief description of (almost) every town/city in Romania I’ve been to as well as a few landmarks/tourist places. In alphabetical order.
Aiud – Pleasant tiny town where I once spent three hours on a hot summer’s day down at the railroad cargo dock. Don’t ask. Real sleepy place but has one tiny, very nice cafe/bar with a large balcony out back right on the tiny but lovely creek.
Alba Iulia – Literally meaning “White July” it is a fairly podunk town not too far from Cluj. The good news for this town is that it is where the Romanian declaration of independence (sort of) was signed and so therefore every year on National Day the president and all kinds of dignitaries come. The bad news is that they signed the document on December 1 so it’s always cold as a…
Apahida – A tiny village on the extreme eastern end of Cluj that is marred by way too much vehicular traffic passing through. How I spent most of a day here is beyond my memory to recall but seemed okay. Aside from the fact that the town is split in two by a very congested highway, not bad. Absolutely nothing to do here though.
Arad – Gritty little town that thinks bigger than it is. Fairly decent little downtown pedestrian zone but otherwise things are a little rocky despite its decent size. I had a pizza at “Ok Pizza” there one time and just as advertised, it was okay :P
Arieseni – One of the world’s smallest ski areas, I spent an entire week here once. We got there easily enough (after hours of bumping over dirt and gravel roads) but a later snowfall cut us off completely for days. The nature part was great but at night we were shut in a wood cabin that had satellite TV – great except for that it was all Polish channels. Quite interesting, as were the cold showers and wood burning furnaces in each room.
Baia Mare – Super town, just absolutely fabulous. Has a gorgeous little downtown with a nice mix of historic buildings and open plazas. Plus it has a quite large and lush public park, complete with a weird tram ride called “Ciuperci” (Mushrooms). Only thing jarring is there’s an absolutely gigantic smokestack outside of town that is so tall you can see it from almost any point in town. Quite menacing.
Baisoara – Whew, probably the rinkiest ski slope I’ve ever seen but it does get the job done and there’s a kind of a ski lift in operation during the winter to pull you back up. The rest of this tiny “tourist station” isn’t much but the air is absolutely pure and invigorating and a true balm when escaping the heat of the city in summertime.
Bistrita – Probably the loveliest small town in all of Transylvania. Just gorgeous. Has some vague ideas that it’s bigger than it is but the two, long downtown streets are just marvelous. Not much in the tourism department besides the bizarro Golden Crown Hotel, an exact copy of the one in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Slept in that hotel myself and found it quite surreal.
Botosani – Quite small little town with a heart of gold. Couldn’t ask for nicer treatment there overall. There’s not really a whole lot to do or see but if you’re looking for a very nice and affordable “pocket city”, this is the place for you. Oh and just FYI, the accent can be a little heavy in the Moldovan department ;)
Bran – This is a town that’s close to Brasov but still very isolated and quite hilly and mountainous. On top of the super steep (I mean incredibly steep) hill is a massive, very well-preserved castle. This is sometimes billed as (one of) Dracula’s castles. History disputes it but it is in excellent condition and open to the public and definitely worth a visit. At the foot of the castle hill is the world’s most frenzied open-air market dealing in vampire-related souvenirs, knickknacks and items. People can say what they want to but I stayed in a nearby inn and seeing that castle looming up there in the dark gave me the shivers.
Brasov – My all-time favorite Romanian city except for Cluj. Absolutely the best downtown, the nicest views, the freshest breezes and all the amenities you could ever want. Superb downtown park complete with fountains and chess board tables. Gorgeous. Only problem is that it gets Siberia cold during the wintertime. That’s great if you’re into winter sports, otherwise it sucks. Sorry but that’s why I don’t live there. Definitely an awesome city in every respect.
BUCHAREST – Got to write it in all caps because it is a gigantic city. The only equivalent is London, wherein both the government and the majority of the business is transacted in the same city. Literally half of all Romanian urban dwellers live in Bucharest, a quarter of the population. So massive and full of things to do, see and experience there’s no way I can do it justice in a few paragraphs.
That being said, I would go so far as to say Bucharest and the rest of Romania are two separate countries that speak (mostly) the same language. Things are vastly different in Bucharest than everywhere else.
Cheile Turzii – The Romanian name for this is so screwed up because if you parse it out it sounds like it means “The keys of Turda” but suffice it to say, it’s the loveliest campgrounds near Cluj. Tons of wonderful hiking alongside the gorge and lots of cool, lovely spots for setting up camp near the small river. Lots of good times here.
Cluj – I live here so of course it’s awesome :)
Constanta – Huge port city that’s less beaches and more shipping. Can be a little hot and full of concrete and grimy at times. But the good news is there’s an extensive network of city and private buses running to the nearby resorts. Some good archeology stuff to see here but be aware it also gets cold as the devil in the wintertime.
Costinesti – A little seaside resort area almost immediately south of the heavyweight giant Mamaia. This one however is a little more run down, a little gaudier and a little more manele at the clubs and Chinese flip-flops for sale near the beach. Still a real economical place to stay and get right on the water. Sand is fine and so is the view minus a few old rotting hulks of ships off in the distance.
Craiova – Sorry to you, Craiova, but you’re like the Detroit of Romania. Lots of heavy industry, automotive and the rest. You do a great job but your city looks dirty and rough and it’s hot as the surface of the sun in the summertime. My hats off to you but nothing makes me want to come and visit again.
Deva – Nice little town in the southwest. Has a really steep little crag of a mountain nearby with the words “Deva” like the Hollywood sign. Not exactly home to the most worldly people in Romania but it’s a fairly nice bustling little city. I know the Romanian gymnastic team used to (still does?) train up there on that hill.
Felix, Baile – Actually named “Baile Felix”, everyone just calls it Felix, which is nice. The word “Baile” just means “Baths” in Romanian but the Felix is from the Latin for “Happy”, referring to the fact that the Romans used the warm mineral water spring in the area. There are a ring of hotels and small inns around what is essentially a large water park (complete with slides) wherein most of the water is heated and full of healthy mineral compounds and is slightly radioactive to boot. Definitely had a lot of happy times here myself!
Hunedoara – Not much to this town although there’s some nice handicrafts usually for the getting and a few nice bars and “terraces” to sit out on in good weather. The one funky thing about this town that one neighborhood on the western edge is full of Gypsy houses – large multi-storey residences with extremely complex and ornamented silver rooftops but no windows. Trips me out to see a woman in a windowless house washing clothes in a plastic tub underneath a $100,000 dollar roof.
Iasi – The second largest city in Romania and nearly a third country unto itself. Right on the very upper right-hand edge of Romania it has its head in a very different place. Every corner store has a large wine dispenser and you come in with your empty Fanta or Coca-Cola bottles and fill them up at a set rate per liter. Superb. Sadly, a lot of the historic center is gone. Tons of night life though and has not one but two malls. Gigantic church worth seeing too (the 3 Patriarchs). Enormous statue of the (possibly) most famous Romanian of all time, Stefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great).
Iara – Gosh, how do I get to these out of the way places? Couldn’t possibly be smaller and still be a town. I’m talking about the kind of place where one ATM (cash point) is a big deal because it’s the only one for miles around. Saw the Saddest Soccer Game of All Time here, which I’ll leave for another post.
Lugoj – I spent a very pleasant day here in this quite small town that gave the family name to the world’s most famous actor that ever portrayed Dracula, Bela Lugosi. There’s not a whole lot to do here but the tiny little downtown pedestrian zone is good for an afternoon stroll.
Mamaia – Basically the largest, most modern and expensive seaside resort area of Romania. The water park has to be seen to be believed and is so large that there’s an overhead network of “ski” gondolas used to get from one side to the other. Basically this is Romania’s “boardwalk”. Can be expensive to stay there but easy to get to from other nearby, cheaper resorts.
Oradea – Funky bright little city that’s extremely cosmopolitan. Literally 5 minutes away from Felix by car or super cheap bus (3 lei). Had the first mall in Romania (outside of Bucharest) and it was great until it got to be summertime and then no air conditioning :P Now upgraded and is a completely modern mall with big name brands. For some unknown reason, there’s a strong American Baptist slash Evangelical presence here with multiple churches and a lot of English-language services.
Orastie – A tiny little town that was quite a big deal back in the old, old days (pre-Roman especially). Now it’s not really much and I can barely remember why I spent most of a day here, but so I did. There’s definitely a strange energy in this region. Nearby is an old ex-government Army base now turned into a strange sort of theme park, where guests sleep in old bunkers and get to spend the day driving around military vehicles and launching off rockets (English-language promo on Youtube can be seen here).
Pelis – This is the castle that formerly belonged to the King of Romania (and maybe still does, I keep forgetting the legal status). It’s now open to the public as a kind of museum though. Amazing to see the gaudiness and the opulence of how a handful of pampered people lived about 100 years ago,, including a private movie theater. The disconcerting thing is to see all the remaining books and original signage is in German because that’s the only language the king spoke.
Pitesti – Everyone always gets this confused with Ploiesti, unless you’re from the region. I’ve been to both. The bad news is my friend with whom I was traveling got into a car accident here. The good news is that it was a minor thing and we got to spend more time here than we had originally planned. Simply delightful and very funky, curving snake-like long fountain in the downtown pedestrian zone.
Ploiesti – This is an oil town with a lot of good, hard-working folks. The downtown was okay but seemed a little garish with a lot of large video screens used to pump out advertising. My friend swears that the skin of the people is darker in Ploiesti due to droplets of oil in the air but I think he tends to exaggeration ;)
Poiana Brasov – As the name might clue you in, it’s very close to Brasov. This is the primo skiing and wintersports capital of Romania and has everything from modern ski lifts to snowmobiling and ATV riding. Accommodations here come at a really premium price but it’s easy to get to for day trips and snacks and food are at a reasonable price. Lots of scenic hiking here and horseback riding in good weather.
Predeal – In the wintertime, skiing and snowboarding is the name of the game here. But from the top of the slopes you can do a lot of hiking and see some amazing things, winter or summer. Sometimes in the summer you have to wake up the workers but for a few lei they’ll give you a ride to the top. Saw some horses up there once. Quite amazing.
Ramnicu Valcea – How in the world I ever got here, do not ask me but I spent a nice day here in this town. It seems pretty far isolated from everywhere else but this is the capital and center of what is around. Don’t remember a whole lot except I met a lot of nice people.
Savadisla – Sorry to say it but this is the only tiny town where I ever got a hostile reaction for speaking Romanian. I don’t know why the Hungarian residents tend to be so surly but there is an absolutely top-notch restaurant there. On a later visit I blasted the old Communist Romanian national anthem out the car window just for a bit of surreal reality theater :D
Satu Mare – Always had a good time here, little funky town that it is. People tend to be real friendly and laid back but most residents aren’t on the current wave of things. There’s a couple of decent fountains in the central park. Last time I went, there was an actual “Al Bundy” shoe store, the sign for which is one of my prized photographs.
Sibiu – Nobody ever goes to this city without raving about it. Easily the most German town in the country and even has a German mayor, German political party and German-language newspaper. Very clean, European, historic and delightful to visit. Always tons of interesting cultural things going on here.
Sighisoara – Not much can be said other in addition to my rave review here other than definitely a place to visit. They just remodeled the train station as well and so there’s a nice little cafe with sandwiches to relax in while you wait.
Sinaia – Besides the skiing and winter sports, not a whole lot here except for the nearby Pelis. If mountain hiking is your thing though, a lot of good trails start from here.
Timisoara – I used to live here so I know this city quite well. On the good side it has the country’s best downtown plaza and the riverbanks are quite lovely with lots of parks, benches and flowers. On the down side it can be quite a militant place and always seems a little grittier and tougher than it needs to be. The train station is amazingly chaotic, sordid and a little intimidating.
Tirgu Mures – Sometimes spelled with an a (Targu), this is a small but extremely beautiful city, especially in the downtown area. There’s not necessarily a whole lot to do in town itself but the people all seemed very friendly and accommodating. This town lies right along the faultline between Hungarian and Romanian people and so the town is about equally mixed with both. The airport is often used for low-cost flights.
Turda – Name sounds a little funny in English but this is a smaller town with a whole lot of history behind it. The absolutely coolest thing is an ancient salt mine, dating back to the Roman times where you can go as deep into the bowels of the Earth as you need to suit your pleasure, if that’s your kind of thing. Absolutely ethereal and worth a visit but stay away if you’re deathly afraid of heights.
Zalau – Last but not definitely not least, I saw my first female doll in a wedding dress strapped to the hood of a car here. There’s one very ultra-reflective office building in the downtown that seems at odd with most of the rest of the city. Downtown park is okay and it’s small enough that anything you need to get to can be gotten to. A lot of heart in this little town.
Well that’s it, at least for now, although I’m sure I’m forgetting a few places.
As for the rest, well I’ve lived in a village before, visited a ton of others and will leave those stories for another time. I also had a lot of strange adventures on stops from one place to another, including once finding an old abandoned stone tower on the side of the road. When my friend and I stopped to investigate, we came across a young woman and her father and got to chatting.
For some strange reason, it was almost as if the father was pushing his daughter onto me, inviting me to come visit them in Bucharest and spend time together in the future. Which was all (relatively) fine until I found out she was just 16 years old. I don’t think I’ll ever quite understand what all that was about. There’s definitely some strange energies in Romania.