Set to take the title of ‘European Capital of Culture’ in 2021, Timisoara is Romania’s third biggest city. Located in the far west, close to the borders with Serbia and Hungary, it’s the perfect place for a short city break.
While Romania’s more obvious tourism destinations include Bucharest and Transylvania, there’s plenty to hold your attention in Timisoara, and the ridiculously cheap inter-European flights, low cost of activities and hot yet dry summer weather make it even more appealing.
Although Timisoara is steeped in history (it has more historic buildings than any other city in the country), one of its most significant events took place less than 30 years ago. As recently as 1989, local protests in the city centre sparked the beginning of the Romanian Revolution, which led to a communist leadership and Big Brother-style political system being abolished.
Tourism in Timisoara peaks in the warmer months, but Romania’s diverse climate means it’s perfect for winter activities like skiing, sledding and skating too. Alternatively, you might want to plan your trip around one of Timisoara’s annual festivals, or – if you like the quirkier things in life – the charity rubber duck race, which takes place on the canal in early Spring.
There are three main squares in Timisoara – Victory, Freedom and Union. Within easy walking distance of each other, these are the focus for history and architecture in the city.
The Orthodox Cathedral is situated at one end of Victory Square and is the main attraction. Standing at 90 m tall, and with nine towers reminiscent of those in a Disney palace, this is the biggest Orthodox cathedral outside Russia. Making your way from here along the pedestrianised promenade, you will pass a selection of fantastic restaurants with outdoor seating, some elegant flower gardens and a centerpiece fountain. The other end of Victory Square is often bustling with street performers and pigeons. This is where you will find the opera house, as well as a fantastic new rooftop restaurant.
Connected to Victory Square by a short street is Freedom Square, which is home to the house of the army, part of the university and a library. In one corner is a small model map of the city centre, as well as a modern statue of a man talking on an invisible mobile phone. This is a very popular place to snap a selfie.
Perhaps the most picturesque of them all, Union Square is surrounded by pastel-hued architecture. A Baroque palace houses the Art Museum, and the Serbian Episcopalian Church and St. George’s Cathedral sit at opposite sides.
The lack of crowds, stunning buildings and wealth of eateries in Timisoara, as well as its small size, make it a very pleasant and hassle-free place to explore.
There are a few exhibitions of local art and history in Timisoara, but the three main museums are the Art Museum, Communist Consumers Museum and Banat Village Museum.
In the basement of a bar, the latter is a small collection of communist memorabilia, including books, magazines, LPs, figurines, toys and some larger household items.
A 15-minute taxi ride from the city centre, the Banat Village Museum is a traditional village showcasing the kind of housing used by people in the region over time. Although this attraction could be significantly improved by the introduction of reenactments, guided tours or interactive games and tasks, it’s fun to explore the buildings, and the cool shade of the forest makes it a lovely place for a peaceful stroll. At 5 Lei (£1) per entry it’s also very cheap. The best time to visit is probably September, when this museum hosts the PLAI festival of ethnic and world music.
The Art Museum (10 Lei / £2 per entry) is housed in an attractive Baroque-style building and showcases both classical and contemporary art. Heavily featured are the works of Corneliu Baba, who is renowned for his portraits of cultural figures. This museum is currently displaying a fascinating temporary exhibition called ‘Meating’, which uses 24 realistic resin, silicone and bronze sculptures and four oil paintings to portray human anguish.
With temperatures soaring to the high 30s in the summer, it’s virtually impossible to avoid the temptation of Timisoara’s outdoor public pools. On average, they only cost around 15 Lei (£3) to enter, after which you can spend an unlimited amount of time basking on a sun lounger, doing lengths or chilling poolside with a cold beverage. Some of the pools have more of a family-friendly vibe, with shallow kids’ pools and the occasional slide, while others, such as the popular Sun Beach, have more of a club-like atmosphere with loud music, bars and large beds for your whole group to share.
These pools are open between May and September, and some double up as ice rinks in the winter. Weekends are the busiest time to visit (with some operating a one-in, one-out policy when full) and many are closed for maintenance on Mondays.
ALTERNATIVE MODES OF TRANSPORT
Although cycling and fishing appear to be far more popular with the locals, the uninterrupted footpath that runs alongside the Bega Canal is the perfect route for joggers. It’s impossible to get lost, the terrain is flat and the shade of the trees that line its banks bring respite from the heat.
On the south side of the canal, close to the bridge that leads to the Orthodox Cathedral, is a small jetty and rental shack for kayaks and pedalos. In one hour you can cover the stretch of water that runs through the central part of town.
‘Boris-style’ city bikes are an alternative way to get around, although the system for renting them is unfortunately quite complex and involves registering ID online.
For a more relaxed pace, take a stroll in one of the city’s parks. Roses Park, a pretty space filled with white wooden pavilions and over 300 species of rose, often hosts events, including the Hearts Folk Festival in July. Adjacent to Roses Park is the Children’s Park – an extensive playground with an inflatable slide and trampolines, as well as a studio inside a disused tunnel where you can paint clay figurines.
If your kids are a little older (or you’re still a big one at heart), there’s a tree canopy adventure course incorporating zip lines and rope bridges around 30 km northeast of the city. One of the oldest settlements in Timiș County, Domeniul Herneacova was originally opened to the public as a place for young children to learn horse riding, but there is also a lake to enjoy, as well as three forest paths for cycling and hiking, and a selection of restaurants.
EATING AND DRINKING
Romanian food is generally heavy and meat based, but the menus often include dishes from Italy, Serbia, Hungary and Ukraine.
In the summer, almost every restaurant offers outdoor seating, often with refreshing mist dispensers built into the parasols. It can be difficult choosing where to go, but the incredibly cheap prices mean you can eat out guilt free for every meal.
Whether you prefer a rooftop view (Craft, Victory Square), sweet goods from a bakery, lunch in the centre of a bustling square, drinks in a quirky canal-side establishment with outside seating and live entertainment, or deliciously refreshing gelato (Massimo), Timisoara has you covered.
About 30 km away from Timisoara is Cramele Recaş – the second biggest producer of wine in the country with around 1200 hectares of vineyards. Grapes have been cultivated here since the second century AD.
Having received over 600 awards (32 so far this year), Cramele Recas is clearly at the head of its game. In 2011, its 2010 Cuvée Solo Quinta Blanc was named the best dry white wine in the world at a prestigious awards ceremony in Paris.
Since 2003 it has been possible to arrange tours and tastings, and the winery now welcomes around 15,000 tourists a year. The guides speak fluent English, as well as some German and Hungarian. A short tour includes a description of the harvesting process and an introduction to some of the machinery and equipment used. The cellars house four tasting rooms, which have an atmospheric medieval feel. A loaded plate of bread and cheese is provided as a delicious accompaniment to the selection of reds, whites, rosés, sparkling wines and sweet desert wines available for sampling.
Tours and tastings should be pre-booked online or by phone to avoid disappointment.
It’s also possible to organize a private tour involving lunch with locals in an isolated hamlet near Timisoara. The people who live there get by without electricity and access their homes via wooden ladders in the rocky mountainside. As an added bonus you can combine this with a trip to some thermal baths on the way back.
OTHER THINGS TO KNOW
A good meal in a restaurant on one of the main squares will cost on average around £5 and a cocktail only £3. Entrance to central local attractions, such as the museums or swimming pools is rarely more than a few pounds.
Romanian sounds very similar to Italian – so much so that locals can converse with Italians without them ever having studied each other’s languages. English is commonly understood, especially in hotels, restaurants and tourist hotspots.
The WiFi generally works very well in hotels and restaurants. The city centre also has free WiFi, which you can access without a password.
Although the hotels are very affordable by international standards, they tend to be quite basic. The better-rated ones cost in the region of £45 per night, but cheaper deals can be found. A bed in a hostel dorm is around £10 per night. There are also plenty of AirBnB options in Timisoara, offering the opportunity to either stay with a local or to use their whole property.
Timisoara has very low levels of crime. While the city centre is the most convenient place to base yourself, you can safely walk along the canalside and back streets after dark. This is actually when the city really comes to life.
It’s possible to find return flights for around £30, but £60 is probably more realistic. It takes just under three hours to fly to Timisoara from London and the city is two hours ahead of GMT.
I spent four nights in Timisoara as part of a press trip organised by Mihaela Codre – a London-based architect who works to help promote her ancestral city as a tourist destination. I was joined by bloggers Monica Stott and Elle Croft. For more tips on visiting Timisoara, visit The Travel Hack and A Bird in The Hand Travel.