10 of the best things to do in Cluj-Napoca, Romania: a local's guide

Claudiu Şulea and Flavia Mocan, interviewed by Jane Dunford
Photograph: Sorin Colac/Alamy

Lively old town

The historic centre around Unirii Square, the largest square in Cluj, is beautiful. Look out for the Hotel Melody Central. It opened in 1890 as a hotel but has also been a jazz club and a chapel. St Michael’s church is a huge gothic building and sights around the square include Old Banffy Palace, which now houses the National Art Museum, and the old town hall. The three main squares in the city centre – Mihai Viteazul and Avram Iancu, as well as Unirii – are full of historic buildings and cosy bars.

Cutting-edge festivals

Electric Castle Festival. Photograph: Roger Garfield/Alamy

Festivals attract a lot of visitors to Cluj and have really changed the city and accelerated its growth. It’s best known for electronic music events, particularly Electric Castle (15-17 July 2020), which won the best medium-sized festival at the 2019 European Festival Awards. Untold is another major electronica festival (30 July-2 August) and this year sees the launch of Form Days, a music and arts extravaganza in Gilău, outside the city (2-5 July). Cluj has a big history with jazz too, and Jazz in the Park (1-3 May) was named best small festival 2019.

Art, film and hair

Cluj is a very creative place with a mix of established institutions like the National Art Museum and more underground galleries like Fabrica de Pensule, in its large warehouse-like building. One of the best modern art galleries is Galeria Quadro, while the Creic Center is a new creative hub for local artists. There’s a big interest in film in Cluj too: the Transilvania International Film Festival (29 May-7 June) is the most important in Romania – it was started by a group of friends about 17 years ago and now runs for almost two weeks, attracting people from all over the world. CASA TIFF has events and exhibitions all year and has a cafe and restaurant too with vegan fare. An unusual place to check out is Hairgonomy Hair Salon, which regularly hosts DJs and live artists performing in the salon. It also holds art exhibitions. Visitors who want to see art should contact a friend of ours, Helga Thies, who recently started ArtCrawl Cluj, taking people to discover the city’s diverse contemporary art.

Creative bar scene

Cluj is a lively student city with a great craft beer and cocktail scene. Joben Bistro is a steampunk bar with a focus on cocktails and Enigma also has a steampunk theme: the decor is amazing, with its kinetic sculptures, and it even has beer cocktails – try bloody beers with chilli sauce! Insomnia attracts artists and actors – it started as a photo gallery and became a bar – and Booha Bar is a must, especially at the weekend.

Cafes to linger in

Brunch has become really popular here and one great new place is District of Toast – though it does breakfast, lunch, dinner and good cocktails too! There are lots of inventive toast-based dishes, but make sure you try the clujentine eggs, served on a traditional cheese-filled pie with mushrooms and cream, and basil pesto. There’s a cool outside space and inside the vibe is industrial chic. It makes its own ginger beer and uses homemade ingredients for its cocktails. It’s the first place in Cluj to adopt a serious waste-free policy – which is why it serves cocktails in cute little bottles.

Cluj also has a big coffee culture – a remnant from Austro-Hungarian times. Meron is a roastery and coffee concept with seven locations in town. Eggcetera was the first dedicated brunch place to open in 2018, serving all-day breakfast at communal tables – it was all very new and there was a lot of hype. Ham and Jam, which opened last summer, serves more US-style and sweet breakfasts. Sisters is another great cafe, where you can experience the hipsterish side of town – it feels like being in Berlin.

Peaceful green space

Cluj’s botanical gardens. Photograph: Alamy

Cluj is a busy city but there’s lots of nature around. We’re on the river Somesul Mic and there are plenty of green spaces like Central Park, which is right on the riverbank. The Botanical Garden, opened to the public in 1925, is very beautiful and a lovely place to relax. It contains a rose garden with 250 different varieties, and examples of gardens from different parts of the world, like the Roman Garden and the Japanese Garden, as well as the Botanical Museum. Another interesting place is the Ethnographic Park and Museum – an open-air museum where you’ll see rural Romanian scenes. Last year it started running events with local chef Horia Simion hosting slow food lunches using local ingredients and showcasing Transylvanian gastronomy.

Taste of Transylvania

Among our favourite places to eat is Samsara Foodhouse, a brilliant vegetarian, vegan and raw food restaurant. It’s a bright location, with an olive tree growing in the centre. Mushroom and spinach lasagne and wild mushroom stew with truffles are popular dishes. There’s also Samsara Teahouse, great for organic teas, and each room has different decor – like the Asian room, and the psychedelic room. For really traditional Romanian fare, though, go to Roata – it has Transylvanian cold plate starters, traditional soups and dishes like cheese and polenta from the countryside, and local homemade wine (as well as traditional pálinka plum brandy). It has just opened a more modern bistro too.

Vintage ventures

There’s a brilliant secondhand/vintage scene in Cluj, as well as some interesting independent designers. Helofita is a great outlet store – there are several of them around town – where you’ll find all sorts of secondhand clothes in good condition. Tabita is another chain of outlet stores where you often find cool stuff. For amazing handmade leather goods go to The Mill Handmade for Life, and check out Adina Grapa, a local designer who has her own shop that’s great for leather bags. Dopium Urban is another great label which rebuilds and upcycles all kinds of clothes; what were once ski-pants become a unique, incredible jacket. It’s owned by young, talented Cristina Teleptean who gives used clothes a second chance. Cluj is home to the University of Arts and Design and every summer the fashion students organise a great fashion show, the UAD Gala.

Funky new hostels

The hostel concept is quite a new idea in Cluj but it’s growing here now. There’s Iron hostel (bed from £11, doubles from £24) close to the station and Zen hostel (bed from £11, doubles from £23), which have lots of eco-friendly credentials and a mix of dorms and private rooms, as well as a bar and kitchen. Local people use Zen as a community centre so there are often events and DJs playing. There’s a bar and kitchen, terrace area and – yes – a hammock room for relaxing. Iron hostel is in the lively student district and just five minutes’ walk from the old town. Cluj has lots of excellent Airbnb apartments too.

Clubbing heaven

Club Midi, opened in 2007, was a huge thing (it’s been recognised twice as being in the top 100 clubs in the world by DJ Mag). It recently reopened with the emphasis on electronic music, from techno to house. La Gazette Club is in an 800-year-old warehouse, the former weapons storage room of the Citadel, on top of a hill. It’s very artsy and minimalist, with a techno/underground vibe. FORM Space is another great venue – it has club nights, and live events. There is also a FORM cafe, a restaurant and bar which sometimes has parties.

When to go
Spring and autumn are great times to visit, with the city in bloom or boasting vivid fall colours. Temperatures are less stifling than in midsummer, but warm enough for alfresco drinks. Summer sees an influx of visitors for the festivals, but there are great events all year round.

Costs
Half a litre of beer is typically £1, a cappuccino is £1.20, and a three-course meal for two around £18.
£1 = 5.6 RON (Romanian Leu)

Claudiu Șulea is founder and Flavia Mocan the PR manager of La Résistance creative agency and social enterprise

Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips