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Transylvania's former capital effortlessly brings together medieval and Baroque architecture, and is home to Romania's second largest Gothic church – St. Michael's. Downtown Cluj-Napoca is somewhat of an open-air museum, one that breathes a nostalgic air of epochs forgone and contains no shortage of actual museums and attractions. Transylvania's notorious historic ruler – Vlad III, also known as Vlad the Impaler or Vlad Dracula – served as inspiration to the figure of Dracula in, first, Bram Stocker's sensational novel, and later the public imaginary and pop culture. Little reminds visitors to today's Cluj (Transylvania's former capital) of the region's sinister past – European Youth Capital of 2015 buzzes with life, much due to its ever-increasing student population, which favours Cluj-Napoca's bohemian cafes, hip bars and – most notably – vibrant nightlife establishments. Due to its relative obscurity, Cluj remains an off-the-beaten path destination with prices that seem too low to be true – food and drink tend to be laughably cheap, and so are accommodation and transportation – at least for the time being. Cluj also plays host to quite a few cultural festivals throughout the year, so timing your trip to coincide with one of those is surely something to consider.
Cluj-Napoca's charming historic town center is a pleasure to stroll through, with most attractions easily reachable by walking. Some of the city's highlights include the Ethnographic Museum (the open-air Ethnographic Park will require using public transport to get to), the curious Pharmacy History Collection, and the Gothic St Michael’s Church – the showpiece of Cluj's central square (Piata Unirii). Bohemian cafes and cool bars dot the city, making for interesting break spots.
Cluj-Napoca's dining scene is as varied and diverse as the city's cultural heritage - it features eateries specializing in Transylvanian, greater Romanian, Hungarian, and other world cuisines, down to relatively recent imports such as steakhouses and sushi bars. Some local specialties include different varieties of "ciorba" (soups), meats (sausages especially), and "mamaliga" (known as "polenta" elsewhere in the world) that often comes as a side.
Keeping pace with emerging European destinations, Cluj boasts a vibrant cafe scene. There is often a rather fine line between what constitutes a cafe versus a bar, and the former often double as latter after sundown. One dessert to simply not be missed is the quintessential Romanian "papanasi" - a deep-fried pastry stuffed with a cheese or jam, topped with a sweet cream more often than not. Cheap eats on the go include pretzel-like "covrigi" and sugar-dusted doughnuts called "gogosi" .
As Cluj's young population flourishes, so does its nightlife - with roughly one in every five residents a student, demand for evening entertainment remains high throughout the year, with supply to match. The concentration of bars and clubs is truly extraordinary for a town as compact as Cluj-Napoca, with establishments to fit a multitude of tastes - from underground bars to flashy night clubs to dimly lit, refined live music venues. Local drinks include a whole plethora of regional wines and "tuica" - a plum brandy.
When in Cluj, look out for all things local - whether it be sweet (jams, nuts, dried fruit, honey) or savory (cheese, preserved foods, wine, and more) treats, traditional handicrafts (jewellery, embroidery, woven rugs, ceramics, and woodwork), or the excellent quality, affordable leather goods (one brand that enjoys a good reputation for those is Marelbo, with two locations in Cluj). Dracula memorabilia is as popular with visitors to Transylvania as it has ever been, which means vampire-themed souvenirs fill tourist shop shelves. Do not leave town without paying a visit to a local market (haggling acceptable).
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