Capital of the Banat region in western Romania, Timișoara will forever by known for the Romanian Revolution in 1989. This was where street protests among the Hungarian minority descended into social unrest and fighting, and on 20 December 1989 Timișoara was the first city in the country to rid itself of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime.
For 160 years up to 1718, the city was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. And on the back of its conquest by the Habsburg Empire it was redesigned in the following decades within a citadel that has long since been dismantled. The Historic Centre inside those former rings of walls is a delight for its monumental squares like Piaţa Unirii and profusion of Baroque and Austrian Secessionist architecture.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Timișoara:
1. Piaţa Unirii (Union Square)
Those who know will tell you that Piaţa Unirii in Romania is the finest square in Romania.
And with real justification, as this sweeping rectangular plaza plotted in the 18th century is fronted by sumptuous Baroque and Viennese Secessionist facades in a spectrum of pastel shades.
Facing off on the east and west borders are the Catholic and Serbian Orthodox Cathedrals, both from the 18th century and the latter capped with a patterned roof.
Take time to enjoy the architecture at monuments like the Baroque Palace, the Roman Catholic Canonic Houses and the Orthodox Episcopal Palace.
In the centre is a lawn fringed by a balustrade and centred on a delightful fountain and the Holy Trinity plague column, erected to mark the end of a plague epidemic that hit Timișoara in the 1730s.
2. Piaţa Victoriei (Victory Square)
Another sublime public space Piaţa Victoriei is a long, pedestrianised square where many of Timișoara’s cultural amenities are set.
The square is injected with a sense of spectacle by two epic monuments, the 90-metre Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral on the southern end and the Romanian Opera House in the north.
Between them is a narrow line of flowerbeds, a fountain from 1957, low hedges and tree-shaded restaurant terraces in a ravine of tall Secessionist and Neoclassical facades.
One of the more compelling monuments is a replica of the Capitoline Wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, raised atop a five-metre pillar and donated by the city of Rome in 1926. Along with the Opera House, some of the cultural venues here include the German State Theatre, the Banat Museum a range of art galleries and Cinema Timiș.
3. Historic Centre
As Timișoara was crammed within a citadel, the old centre of the city is very walkable and has a circular plan, traced by lush parks and the Bega River to the south.
You’ll get to know why the city was sometimes called “Little Vienna” when you see the quantity of Secessionist buildings, and while they’re in different states of repair even those with a patina of age are still photogenic.
When the weather’s good it’s only a few steps to the next café or restaurant fronted by outdoor tables and parasols.
And the Bega’s right bank is hemmed for a few kilometres by a line of parks.
You could also cross over to the left bank, which was settled by bourgeois entrepreneurs at the end of the 19th century.
Their Historicist and Secessionist villas and tenement houses are in the southwest of the city on the roads turning off the riverside Splaiul Tudor Vladimirescu.
4. Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral
A serious technical achievement , the neo-Byzantine Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral is in its own park on the south side of Piaţa Victoriei.
Able to fit 5,000 worshippers at once under its nine towers, the monument was begun in 1936 and completed in 1941 and is the tallest Orthodox building in the world outside of Russia and Georgia.
The design was borrowed from the Medieval Byzantine churches of Moldavia in the east of Romania, but by using reinforced concrete the designers were able to create a cavernous, open interior undisturbed by columns.
The cathedral also sits on a reinforced concrete base, with 1,000 reinforced piles that descend 20 metres into the marshy ground.
In the crypt is a big collection of historic religious art from around Banat, as well as books, manuscripts, metalwork and the relics of St Joseph the New of Partos, a 16th-century bishop and now the patron saint.
5. St George’s Cathedral
The main place of worship for Timișoara’s Catholic community is a stirring Austrian Baroque monument that went up in two phases between 1736 and 1774. The first plans were made by the Viennese architect Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach, son of Johann Bernhard who was one of the stars of the Baroque period.
Behind the high pale yellow façade with Ionic and Corinthian columns is a plush interior with no fewer than nine altars.
A team of distinguished artists were employed on the decor, like the director of the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, Michelangelo Unterberger who painted the image of St George on the high altar.
The Austrian organ-maker Carl Leopold Wegenstein installed the organ in 1903, and it makes a fabulous sound when played at concerts.
6. Roses Park
If you’re wondering why Timișoara has the nickname, “The City of Flowers”, it has a lot to do with parks like this one in the line of gardens beside the Bega River.
Roses Park was designed for the Universal Exposition in 1891, when Emperor Franz Joseph I was a visitor.
And after being dug up and used by cavalry in the First World War it was replanted and reopened as the largest rosarium in this part of Europe in 1934. Roses Park is naturally an attraction that shines in spring and summer when hundreds of varieties of roses are in bloom, wrapping around pergolas and kept as individual bushes bordered by trimmed hedges.
The park also has a stage for summer movie screenings, concerts and the Festival of Opera and Operetta in August.
7. Muzeul de Artă (Art Museum)
That glorious Baroque palace at no. 1 Piaţa Unirii hosts Timișoara superb art museum, noted for its collection of 90 works by the 20th-century portraitist and illustrator Corneliu Baba.
You can view his self-portraits, landscapes from Spain and Venice and portraits of prominent cultural figures like the composer George Enescu.
His works make up one of four departments, the other three containing decorative arts, European art and contemporary and historic painting from the Banat region, which has a supreme assortment of icons.
The decorative arts section is also a treat for its Meissen and Viennese Rococo porcelain, clocks from France’s Napoleonic era, German Biedermeier glassware and Austrian Art Nouveau and Art Deco metalwork.
8. Casa Brück
An enchanting sight on Piața Unirii is this newly restored Secessionist and Art Nouveau house designed by the Hungarian architect László Székely and built in 1910. Even though it has modern signage the pharmacy on the ground floor has been here since the building was completed.
While on the ground floor façade and the window bays are ceramic tiles in patterns evoking Hungarian folklore.
At the top of this quirkily irregular building is a rounded gable above two cute semi-circular windows.
9. Muzeul Revoluției
In the north of the Old Town is a memorial exhibition to the 1989 Revolution.
On 20 December 1989 Timișoara was the first city in Romania to be declared free from the communist regime, but it came only after three days of bloodshed.
The exhibition has been designed by a local association and if it feels a little improvised it’s still a compelling account of a pivotal moment in Romania’s history.
The displays are mostly in Romanian but accompanied by plenty of images and a graphic but informative 30-minute video.
10. Museum of the Communist Consumer
Open every day of the week, this free private museum resembles a home but is filled to the brim with consumer items from communist times up to 1989. The attraction has been laid out by a team of artists from Timișoara and you’re invited to pick your way through three large rooms full of household electronics, school paraphernalia, toys, postcards, tools, cleaning products, bicycles, sports equipment, crockery, cooking utensils, musical instruments, newspapers, posters and lots more.
After a visit you can stop for a coffee at the stylish café/bar on the top floor.
11. Museum of Banat
Vital if you need to get a sense of place, this museum is headquartered at the Gothic Revival Castelul Huniade.
This was the oldest building in the city until it was destroyed in the Siege of Timișoara in 1849 and was rebuilt seven years later.
Since 1947 it has contained the History, Archaeology and Natural Science departments for the Museum of Banat.
Spanning the entire human history of the Banat Region from the Palaeolithic epoch to modern times, special attention is paid to the Geto-Dacians of the Iron Age as well as Roman Dacia.
The best things to see in the Natural Science galleries are the mineral specimens and fossils.
12. Theresia Bastion
At its most fortified in the 18th century Timișoara was bound up in three rings of star-shaped walls, with nine bastions and ditches that could be filled with water in times of siege.
The largest piece of these fortifications to make it to the 21st century is this bastion that was converted from a ravelin (one of the points of the stars) in the 1730s.
That change was made after the city was conquered from the Ottomans by the Habsburg Empire.
These days the Theresia Bastion is a commercial area and nightlife, with shops, bars, restaurants and clubs in its arches, alongside two branches of the Museum of Banat.
13. Romanian Opera House
Timișoara’s princely opera house is one of more than 200 designed by the prolific Viennese partnership Fellner & Helmer in the Austro-Hungarian Empire across Central and Eastern Europe in the 19th century.
It was inaugurated in 1875 but was completely gutted by two fires one in 1880 and another in 1920, and following the latter only the side wings were restored according to the first design.
On victory square, the Opera House was the scene of protests in the 1989 Revolution, when 40,000 people gathered in front and speeches were given from the balcony.
For a very inexpensive but high quality evening of opera, operetta, musical theatre or ballet check the box office or website.
Seats to the opera can cost as little as 40 Lei ($10), and during the interval be sure to take in the view of Victory Square from the balcony.
14. Serbian Orthodox Bishop’s Palace
On the shoulder of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, the episcopal palace was built at the same time in the middle of the 1740s.
Conceived in a Byzantine style the palace was understated until a Secessionist facelift at the start of the 20th century to match the facades of the other buildings on Piața Unirii.
There are bas-reliefs on the window pediments, on the gable and above the portal, while inside is a museum with liturgical objects, portraits of Timișoara’s bishops and icons.
15. Botanic Park
Northwest of the Old Town, on the site of the old citadel walls, is a 10-hectare botanical garden that took shape in the mid-1980s.
Although there’s a modest tally of 218 different plant species, the park is worthwhile for its variety of gardens for herbs, tropical flora, Romanian species and Mediterranean, Asian and North American plants.
There’s also a gorgeous ornamental garden, while all these different areas are divided by paths and differences in elevation.
Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll also see some traces of the old citadel walls.