Cluj-Napoca: Romania’s burgeoning art capital

Cluj-Napoca, Transylvania’s biggest city, often gets short shrift from travellers dashing around to better-known regional sights. While it’s true that Cluj lacks the dramatic natural setting of Braşov or Sighişoara or the architectural harmony of Sibiu, it more than makes up for this with a lively, student-oriented cafe and arts culture. It’s also home to the country’s hottest venue for contemporary art, housed – fittingly – in a former paintbrush factory.

Cluj dates back to at least AD 106, when it was a Roman settlement called Napoca – hence the double-barrelled modern name, though the ‘Napoca’ part is usually dropped in conversation. It vanished after the fall of Rome, and only started reappearing on maps a millennium later as Kolozsvár, an important city within the rapidly expanding Hungarian kingdom. Over centuries of conquests and competing claims, the city’s fortunes waxed and waned. In the 18th and early 19th centuries under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Cluj (or Kolozsvár, or even Klausenburg, its German name) had a long stint as the capital of the empire’s Transylvanian province, an unofficial title it retains to this day. A still-sizable Hungarian minority – around 20% of the population – lends the city a multiethnic feel.

Booksellers line the back streets of Cluj-Napoca. Image by Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

Booksellers line the back streets of Cluj-Napoca. Image by Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

A little mainstream culture

Start your exploration of the city at its heart, Piaţa Unirii, crowned in the middle by an imposing statue of Matthias Corvinus, the 15th-century Hungarian king (and local boy done good). The placement of a monument to a Hungarian ruler in the centre of a modern-day Romanian city hints at the interwoven histories of the two nations. As some consolation for the locals, Matthias’ father, the respected general János Hunyadi (Iancu de Hunedoara), is believed to have descended from Romanian nobility. Just behind the statue stands Catholic St Michael’s Church, a late-14th-century Gothic treasure that still boasts Transylvania’s tallest church tower.

Matthias Corvinus statue flanks St Michael's church in Cluj-Napoca. Image by Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

Matthias Corvinus statue flanks St Michael's Church in Cluj-Napoca. Image by Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

The city’s best museums are all within easy walking distance of Piaţa Unirii. The National Art Museum on the square’s eastern side is admittedly a sleepy affair. It houses mainly Romanian works from the 19th and 20th centuries, though there are several pieces by the Romanian impressionist and war painter Nicolae Grigorescu that are worth seeking out. The highlight is the setting, the grand baroque town palace of the noble Bánffy family, which hosted Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I on two occasions, in 1852 and 1887. The Pharmaceutical Museum on the square’s northeastern end is a delight. Tours are led by a ‘pharmacist’ in a white lab coat, who points towards (seemingly ho-hum) glass cases of ground mummy dust, medieval alchemist symbols and painted bottles of 18th-century aphrodisiacs. Another worthwhile culture stop is the Ethnographic Museum of Transylvania, a couple of blocks west of Piaţa Unirii. The folk history of Transylvanian life is told in objects, including tools, weapons, toys and household items.

Cluj-Napoca's National Art Museum is housed in Bánffy Palace. Image by Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

Cluj-Napoca's National Art Museum is housed in Bánffy Palace. Image by Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

The ‘avant-garde’ claim to fame

As improbable as it may seem, Cluj has arrived on the international contemporary art stage. The high-brow publisher Phaidon recently dubbed the town one of its Art Cities of the Future. The centre of this excitement is Fabrica de Pensule, a former paintbrush factory – now rehabbed as art collective – on the outskirts of the city, about 4km east of Piaţa Unirii.

Here, you’ll find six art galleries, including renowned painter Adrian Ghenie’s Plan B (plan-b.ro) and Sabot (galeria-sabot.ro), along with 37 studios spread out over four scruffy floors, scarcely changed from their factory days. There are also stages for concerts, theatre performances and various other happenings. Check the website to see if something is on during your visit. Guided tours, arranged in advance by phone (0724 274 040) or email (madalina@fabricadepensule.ro), are given free of charge from 4pm to 8pm on weekdays.

'Die Austellung', installation by Sasha Auerbakh at the Baril Gallery, Fabrica de Pensule. Image by Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

'Die Austellung', installation by Sasha Auerbakh at the Baril Gallery, Fabrica de Pensule. Image by Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

The cafe and club scene

Apart from art, Cluj excels at cafes and clubs, frequented by the city’s 30,000-strong student population. Many of the best hangouts are clustered around Piața Muzeului, a quiet, medieval square north of Piaţa Unirii. In summer, the square is dotted with tables and umbrellas for alfresco drinking well into the late hours.

Some of our favourite cafes in this area include Casa Jazz with its dark, hazy interior and always something good (though not always something jazz) playing on the sound system. It’s an uncanny slice of the ‘Big Easy’ in the centre of Transylvania. A short walk away is a relative newcomer, The Soviet (Str Georges Clemenceau 2). More Vladimir Lenin than Nicolae Ceaușescu, the cafe nevertheless plays up the communist kitsch theme to great effect. Find a seat on the terrace and order yourself an ‘Elena’ – a vodka-and-amaretto mix named after Ceaușescu’s much-detested wife. While you’re in this part of town, grab a bite at Camino, a romantic boho spot with delicious homemade pasta and arguably Cluj’s best cheesecake.

Casa Jazz is a slice of New Orleans in the heart of Cluj-Napoca. Image by Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

Casa Jazz is a slice of New Orleans in the heart of Cluj-Napoca. Image by Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

On the northern edge of Piaţa Unirii, climb the stairs a couple of flights and push through some doors to find the deeply hidden – and deeply hip – Yolka Bar (Piaţa Unirii 21). The name is an old Russian word for spruce tree, and indeed the walls are covered in green. The coffee’s reputed to be the best in town and the hot chocolate is pretty good as well. Across the square on the southern side, Joben Bistro is another themed cafe; this time the idea is ‘steampunk’. The brick walls are artfully decorated with the flotsam of heavy industry, including cogs, levers, pulleys and clocks. The ginger-infused lemonade is a summertime winner, as is the food. Start with a mashed-bean soup flavoured with smoke pork and goat cheese, and follow up with curried chicken drumsticks and black beans.

Enjoy great food and a ‘steampunk’ vibe at Joben Bistro in Cluj-Napoca. Image by Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

Enjoy great food and a ‘steampunk’ vibe at Joben Bistro in Cluj-Napoca. Image by Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

Make it happen

Budget carrier Wizz Air flies to Cluj-Napoca from several European destinations, and there are bus or train services from the main towns in Romania. As the largest city in Transylvania, Cluj is crawling with accommodation options. Backpackers have at least two excellent hostels to crash in. Retro Youth Hostel has a laid-back vibe, and Transylvania Hostel, huddled around a leafy courtyard, is cool on a hot day. Midrange travellers will appreciate the value for money at Hotel Central which offers sleek, air-conditioned doubles (with separate bedroom and sitting rooms) starting at around €60 a night.

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