A dynamic and youthful university city, the capital of Transylvania is Romania’s second most populous urban centre. True to Transylvania’s Saxon background, Cluj-Napoca is endowed with Gothic wonders like the Stunning St Michael’s Church and the Reformed Church.
Cluj-Napoca also has an exciting historical legacy as the home of Hungarian dukes and the birthplace of the 15th-century Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus, who is remembered with an imposing statue in front of St Michael’s.
For culture you can get acquainted with rural customs and history at the Ethnographic museum, which has a terrific outdoor exhibition with hundreds of reconstructed houses. There’s also a nationally-renowned Botanical garden, elegant parks and an epic gorge waiting for you just outside the city.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Cluj-Napoca:
1. St Michael’s Church
Cluj-Napoca’s heavyweight sight is this stunning 15th-century Gothic church on Unirii Square.
With three equal naves, and measuring 70 metres long and 80 metres high, few churches in Romania can match St Michael’s for power as well as sheer depth of history.
The 15th-century King of Hungary and Croatia Mathias Corvius, was crowned in this building not long after its completion in 1464. Almost 500 years later there was another important moment when the Bishop Áron Márton spoke out openly against the Holocaust at this church, even while Jews were still being kept in the Kolozsvár Ghetto.
After renovations in the 20th century, frescoes going back to the 1400s were revealed in different parts of the church.
The most complete of these can be seen in the southwestern Schleunig Chapel.
In the 18th century the Cluj-born sculptor Johannes Nachtigall carved the highly elaborate pulpit and altar to the Three Kings.
2. Cluj-Napoca Art Museum
On the other side of Strada Iuliu Maniu, the Bánffy Palace is a stately partner to St Michael’s Church.
This 18th-century Baroque residence was designed by the German architect Eberhard Blaumann and was built in the mid-1770s for the Hungarian Duke György Bánffy.
Among a lofty roll-call of guests is the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II who visited with his wife Caroline Augusta in 1817. The museum inside has works by some of Romania’s most celebrated painters like the Impressionist Ion Andreescu and the Post-Impressionist Nicolae Tonitza.
But even more exciting is the Late Gothic Altar of Jimbor, a 16th-century polyptych with sculpted figures of the Madonna and Child at the centre.
3. Botanical Garden
A few minutes on foot from the Old Town is a 14-hectare botanical garden plotted in the 1920s.
There are 11,000 different species here, planted in greenhouses and a host of individual gardens arranged according to geography or applications like medicine and historic trades.
There’s also an area dedicated to ornamentation and design, where you’ll come across the rosarium, Mediterranean garden and an authentic Japanese garden.
As with all botanical attractions the garden is best visited in spring and summer, but at any time of year you can call in at the Botanical Museum and Herbarium, which has 660,000 sheets of dried plants in cabinets.
4. National Museum of Transylvanian History
To wrap your head around the complex and tumultuous history of Transylvania come to this red pastel-painted building on Piaţa Muzeului.
The exhibits start with Prehistory, taking you through the Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods, into the Bronze and Iron Age, displaying tools, bones, jewellery and ceramics.
There are also Roman Dacian coins and glassware, Medieval documents, weapons and Western European furniture from an array of periods.
A standout exhibit is an Egyptian sarcophagus from the 3rd century BC, as well as some 700 stove tiles dating from the 1300s to the 1800s.
At the time of writing the museum was temporarily closed for renovations.
5. Pharmacy History Collection
Casa Hintz hosts the oldest pharmacy in Cluj-Napoca, dating to 1573. In 1954 a museum opened inside, and over time the collection has grown to 1,800 pieces, giving a comprehensive account of pharmacies and medicine in Transylvania from the 1500s to the 1900s.
These historic pots, bottles, copper stills, glass retorts, scales and books go hand-in-hand with the pharmacy’s original fittings, like a beautiful Baroque mural in the main shop from 1766 and a cabinet with a painting depicting the human lifecycle.
You can also browse some of the bizarre substances that passed for medicine centuries ago, like lobster eyes, Venetian theriac (poison antidote), or mummia (powdered human mummies).
6. Parcul Central
Now more than 190 years old, Cluj’s main park was one of the first public spaces for recreation in Eastern Europe.
Parcul Central is an official historic monument and is bounded by the sleek Cluj Arena to the east and the Someșul Mic river to the north.
Even on freezing days in winter you could head here to walk the graceful alleys, embellished with a magnificent marble fountain, pond, bandstand and the striking old casino building, which is traced by a colonnade.
But of course, summer is when the park comes into its own, when you can dine on the terrace at the island pavilion and rent a pedal boat or rowboat from the jetty.
7. Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral
Built in ten years up to 1933, Cluj-Napoca’s Orthodox Cathedral is a revival of the Brâncovenesc style, which first appeared at the end of the 17th century and mixed Byzantine and Renaissance architecture.
The main dome has shades of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and is watched by four towers, each with semicircular arches.
Inside, that central dome is held up by 18 hefty columns.
The spectacular interior mosaics date to 2001 and were produced with Murano glass by the artist Virgil Morariu.
These complement the original murals painted at the turn of the 1930s by two professors at Cluj-Napoca’s art academy.
8. Piarists’ Church
Dating from the beginning of the 1720s, this monument is a spot with real historical significance.
It was the first Baroque church in Transylvania, as well as the first Roman Catholic place of worship after the Reformation in the 16th century.
The church was founded by the Jesuits, and then handed to the Piarists when the Jesuit order was suppressed in 1773. The facade is brightly painted in orange and yellow, and has pilasters, scrolls, a bas-relief of the Holy Trinity above the portal and niches with sculptures.
The interior is even richer, with an altar that rises from the floor to the ceiling and has silver statues of the Jesuit saints Francis Xavier and Ignatius of Loyola.
These are Austrian in origin, while another Austrian, Anton Schuchbauer, carved the exuberant 18th-century pulpit and canopy.
9. Romulus Vuia Ethnographic Park
On the western outskirts is an outdoor museum for a deep insight into Transylvanian rural life.
Established on a hillside in 1929, the park has 200 historic buildings that have been brought here in pieces and rebuilt.
The most beautiful of these are two 18th-century Saxon churches with murals inside, while more than 30 are open and shed light on traditional livelihoods like metalworking, pottery, animal husbandry, stonemasonry, peasant mining and many more.
The houses and workshops have been sourced from across Transylvania and Central Romania, from the Apuseni Mountains in the Western Carpathians to the Székely Land in the Eastern Carpathians.
Follow up with a visit to the Transylvanian Ethnographic Museum in the centre of the Old Town.
10. Reformed Church
On Strada Lupului, this Gothic church has been the main place of worship for Cluj-Napoca’s Calvinist community for almost half a millennium.
It is also the seat of the Transylvanian Reformed Church District, which had 500,000 members at the last count.
The building started out as a Minorite monastery church in the 15th century, and has the style of a German hall church, with a single nave and no transept.
Take a peek inside at the rib vaults, the richly ornamented Transylvanian Renaissance pulpit from 1646 and the organ in the gallery on the west side.
Try to find out when the next concert is scheduled, as the church’s acoustics are first-rate.
11. Casa Matia (Matthias Corvinus House)
At no. 6 on Strada Matei Corvin you’ll be at the birthplace of Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary and Croatia from 1458 to 1490. Among the most celebrated monarchs of the period, he was born here in 1443 and was the son of the Voivode (like a general or prince) of Transylvania, John Hunyadi.
The house isn’t open to the public as it is used by the Design and Fine Arts University of Cluj-Napoca.
But there are two plaques to mark the importance of the building, which has contained a jail, hospital and museum in its time.
The Gothic ogival portal and mullioned windows give a hint of the age of the house.
12. Matthias Corvinus Monument
Fronting St Michael’s Church on Union Square(Piața Unirii) is a solemn, larger than life-sized statue of the 15th-century king.
The work of the leading Hungarian sculptor, János Fadrusz, the monument was unveiled in 1902 and shows Matthias Corvinus on horseback.
Standing 12 metres tall, it depicts Corvinus’ horse with all four hooves on the ground, and this is believed to show that the king died of natural causes and not in combat.
At the base of the pedestal are four more statues depicting eminent figures from his reign like the Viceroy of Hungary and the Prince of Transylvania, who are both positioned to his right.
13. Lake Tarnița
An outdoor excursion of choice in summer for Cluj-Napoca residents, Lake Tarnița is a water reservoir created by the Tarnița Dam in 1974. An easy 20 minutes west of the city, the reservoir is 215 hectares in size and twists between tall hills that have a mantle of forest.
You can enquire locally about activities on the lake, which include boating, jet-skiing and fishing, or you could just pack a picnic and spend a carefree few hours on the shore on a warm day, taking a occasional dip in the cool water.
The shoreline is also a treat for walkers who don’t mind going off track for the best vantage points of the lake.
14. Turda Gorge
If you have a few hours to spare, drive down to this limestone canyon about 30 kilometres south of Cluj-Napoca.
One of Romania’s favourite climbing destinations, the Turda Gorge is almost three kilometres long, with walls that reach 300 metres.
The surfaces are riddled with around 60 caves, most of which are no more than a few metres deep, while the largest burrows into the rock for 120 metres.
These cavities were inhabited during the Neolithic period.
Walkers can choose to stay low by the river or battle up the gradient to view the gorge from above, which is difficult but merits the effort.
Whenever there’s a public event in Transylvania you’ll catch the inviting scent of this “spit cake” on the air.
Kürtőskalács originated with the Hungarian population in the Székely Land to the east and is a simple cake made in a rather complicated way.
A dough made with flour, milk, sugar and yeast is poured onto a cylindrical mould and then turned over a glowing charcoal and basted with butter until golden brown.
When the mould is removed you get a hollow cake that is then normally coated with sugar and chopped walnuts and goes perfectly with coffee.