The largest city in Transylvania, and the storied Romanian region’s unofficial capital, Cluj-Napoca – or plain Cluj in regular conversation – is some way from the clichés of Dracula-worthy architecture and dark-hearted goings-on. For that, you need to head to central Transylvania; here, in north-west Romania, towards the Hungarian border, this university city has a noticeably young population and a good line in cute coffee shops, with communist-era buildings standing alongside grand orthodox churches and architecture from Saxon and Hungarian eras of rule.
Cluj’s history is long, originally dating back to the second century. Nowadays, in a Romanian context, it’s second only in size and forward-thinking intent to the capital Bucharest, with a vibrant cafe culture, lots of tempting restaurants and plenty of sizeable festivals.
A comfortable bed
Accommodation can be a little variable in Romania – given the general affordability of the country, it's often best to go for the top end of the hotel spectrum to avoid any nasty surprises. And there are few fancier options in Cluj than the Grand Hotel Italia (www.grandhotelitaliacluj.ro), which has a touch of Wes Anderson about its overall look and vibe, with wide corridors and dressed-up staff. The hotel is above much of the rest of the city, in two senses, located in slightly elevated, well-to-do suburb Buna Ziua, with rooftop views across Cluj. Double rooms cost from €97 (Dh396).
At the western end of central Cluj, the City Plaza Hotel (www.cityhotels.ro) is a more-functional option, on a quiet side street, with a spa and a small restaurant that's not nearly as grand as its name (Marco Polo). Doubles cost from 601 Romanian leu (Dh539).
Find your feet
Central Cluj is walkable in a way that the sprawling Bucharest can never be. The old town is the quaintest area: start at St Michael’s Church, a Gothic landmark that lays claim to being the second-largest church in Transylvania. Across the square is the Matthias Corvinus statue, in tribute to the 15th-century Hungarian king who liked to walk among his subjects in disguise, something that he could probably have managed in this microcosm of Cluj, with its range of bustling bars and restaurants. In the daytime, meanwhile, you can snack on local pastries from nearby hole-in-the-wall shops.
Walk through the Central Park to the west of the city centre and you will reach the Cluj Arena – home to one of the country’s most successful football clubs in recent years, CFR Cluj.
Meet the locals
Cluj’s coffee shops are where its residents congregate throughout the year, whether cosy inside during winter or seated on the streets during warmer months.
Flowers Tea House (Emil Isac Street) is a favourite with students and twentysomethings, with brightly decorated walls, chatty young staff and a menu that majors in myriad flavours of tea.
For something slightly edgier, explore the backstreets to find steampunk cafe Enigma (Iuliu Maniu Street). It has a bar and a passable menu of international dishes, but the real draw is its decor, strewn with metallic accents and strange industrio-futuristic figures.
Book a table
Another less-visible hidden gem, on an easily missed, graffiti-tagged side street, Roata (www.facebook.com/restaurantroatacluj) serves traditional Romanian food in large portions within an almost-rustic interior. Among a meat-heavy menu that features the likes of tin-kettle-baked venison stew (49 leu [Dh44]), there's an entire section of cabbage dishes, as well as the hearty, cheap likes of polenta (5 leu [Dh4]).
Wander north from the old town, over the Somesul Mic River, and you will find Samsara (www.samsara.ro). Well, specifically, you will find two outlets a few hundred metres apart: a teahouse with a hippy-ish vibe and majlis-style seating; and a foodhouse, which serves a fantastic range of vegan vegetarian, raw and organic dishes, from raw bread to sushi, as well as a range of delicious soups from 12 leu [Dh11].
You won't travel to Cluj for its purchasing potential per se, although a lot of younger Romanians congregate at the Vivo! shopping centre (www.vivo-shopping.com). It's a short trek out of town and not entirely worth the journey for those of us spoiled by the UAE's mega malls, but will satisfy cravings for most major high-street brands at pocket-pleasing prices.
The summer season, which brings multiple demonstrations of Cluj's cultural cache. A variety of festivals visit the city, including international music extravaganza Untold, which this year welcomes the likes of Ellie Goulding and Armin van Buuren (August 3 to 6; www.untold.com), and the Transilvanian Film Festival (June 2 to 11; www.tiff.ro).
What to avoid
Although it will look gorgeous from the warmth of your hotel room, Cluj in the depths of winter, when temperatures plunge and things can get restrictively snowy, is best given a wide berth. And eschewing driving in the old town is wise where possible, because parking spaces here are limited.
Wizz Air (www.wizzair.com) flies weekly from Dubai World Central (Al Maktoum International Airport) to Cluj from 358 leu (Dh322) return, including taxes.
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