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My Magical Weekend in Cluj Napoca, Despite the Odds

A Weekend in Cluj, Romania

How far would you travel for an amusement park in an abandoned salt mine?

Perhaps I had grown lazy, or over-confident, but at the time, catching a bus for a weekend in Cluj hadn’t seemed like such a big deal. I had done some vague research on departures from Bucharest, and in general people said you didn’t need to make reservations. With about four buses leaving that morning, I was sure I’d catch a ride.

And yet, there I was, pivoting in the middle of the paved lot Bucharest called a bus terminal, trying to find the “fifty-three” that an angry bus-ticket seller had gestured to. Never mind that I didn’t know fifty-three what. Bus? Gate? Station?

To be fair, the woman didn’t work for the bus company I was trying to find. She worked for another one, which also drove to Cluj, but apparently I didn’t pass face-control with her, as her buses – all three of them – were reserved up. For over an hour I scuttled all over that neighborhood, double-checking idling coaches in the parking lot, scanning the buses lined up along the sidewalk curb, even stumbling upon a city bus storage lot. No one could help me find the bus to Cluj.

I needed this weekend in Cluj. I had been stuck sweltering in Bucharest for nearly a month and a half. For the last three weeks I had been shacking up with seven other people in a hostel dorm while I waited for my visa paperwork for Ukraine, extending my booking every few days with the politely uninquisitive brothers who ran the place.

I needed out. But Bucharest wasn’t letting me go that easily.

Weekend in Cluj, Romania _ Parliament in Bucharest

It took totally giving up, schlepping back into the center, entreating tourist information to help (Bucharest tourist information is awesome, by the way), and accidentally free-loading off the city bus because I couldn’t figure out how to validate my ticket in the mad dash across town to another bus station to finally get on my way to Cluj.

Really? Was all the chaos and insanity worth it?

Yes. My weekend in Cluj was exactly what I needed to chill out from the August heat in Bucharest. If you’re traveling in Romania or looking for weekend breaks from Bucharest, think about Cluj Napoca.

There’s an amusement park. In a salt mine.

I mean, what would you do if you had an empty, defunct salt mine just taking up space? Stick an amusement park in it and open it to the public, of course!

Salina Turda has drawn millions of tourists, because where else can you play putt-putt hundreds of feet underground or rent a rowboat and pretend you’re on some Star Wars planet trying to woo a space girl?

Weekend in Cluj Napoca _ Salina Turda

What’s that you say? People usually go row-boating to enjoy sunshine and fresh air? Psssh.

This Romanian salt mine is part of what first brought Cluj to my attention, and visiting Salina Turda alone made the trek from Bucharest worth it. While the amusement park is fun, what’s really wild is descending into the crust of the earth – and realizing that we’re doing it for fun, when it used to be grueling work not that long ago.

Weekend in Cluj Napoca _ Salina Turda Lake

Kinda wondered when the troll would come out and ask me his questions three.

If you’re taking the bus from Cluj Napoca to Turda, make sure to ask the driver to drop you off at Salina Turda. I think you’ll have to take another, city bus from where you get dropped off. I wouldn’t know, because I never learn. I didn’t tell the bus driver where I needed to get off, so I overshot the mines and spent a couple hours walking back to the city center.

Cluj Napoca is a donut mecca!

Please imagine my joyful freak-out when I discovered there was a place called Donuterie Memo. My sugar-sprinkled heart nearly exploded in joy. Little did I know, that between Cluj and Turda there would be such a prevalence of donuts that I would actually be passing them up by the end of my trip.

Weekend in Cluj Napoca _ Donuterie Memo Donut

Weekend in Cluj Napoca _ Donuts in Turda

Weekend in Cluj Napoca _ Donuterie

Cluj is a living Transylvanian city.

Transylvania is a stunning place, one of the most underrated regions of Europe, and I love Brasov and Sighisoara. However… they can feel a bit touristy. Cluj, slightly off the beaten track, felt mercifully quiet to me – also because I visited in the dead of August, when everyone’s on vacation. And though the students were still gone when I was there, Cluj has a local vibrancy to it that comes from being a university town. I saw a few of them chain-smoking outside of coffee shops, and the hip vibe they lent the establishments was unmistakable.

Thinking of going to Transylvania? You totally should — and here are my reasons why!

Weekend in Cluj, Romania _ Architecture

But still, it’s pretty adorable.

Cluj’s historic center showcases a charming mix of Renaissance, Baroque, and Gothic architecture. Cluj also has refreshing green spaces, including a Central Park and a well-known botanical garden. My hostel was a bit outside the city center, but I enjoyed the walk along the river and through Central Park to get to the Old Town.

Weekend in Cluj Napoca _ Central Park Lake

Weekend in Cluj Napoca _ Central Park

Cluj’s café scene is stellar.

Part of my goal in visiting Cluj was to visit as many coffee shops as possible. From the quirky décor of Sisters Café to the trendy honeycomb design of Meron, I was plenty satisfied and caffeinated during my stay.

Weekend in Cluj Napoca _ Meron Cafe

Coffee + armchair + book = I’m never leaving.

Have you ever just needed a break and nearly broken your own neck trying to make it work? Worth it? Or just too much stress?

Interested in visiting Cluj? Check out my Snaps from my weekend in Cluj and see a mini-tour of the Romanian salt mine`!

How to get from Bucharest to Cluj Napoca by bus: The 9-hour drive, straight from Bucharest to Cluj can be grueling. However, it wasn’t too unpleasant. There are several buses that go each day, but I’d recommend having a local help you figure out how to buy a ticket and where to go. Make your reservation a day or two before to make sure it goes smoothly.

When to go to Cluj: I went in August and was disappointed that several restaurants and cafes were closed. (By the way, this happens all over Europe.) I was also there before the students returned, who would increase the city’s population significantly. My suggestion then would be to go in spring or fall to get the full flavor of the city.

A Weekend in Cluj, Romania

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