How many times have you heard the phrase ‘the most beautiful city in the country’? Right in the heart of Romania, Sibiu lives up to that cliché in full. It is not only architecturally intriguing, there is a certain feel to it that no other city has; it is bourgeois and quaint, medieval and authentic, welcoming and mesmerizing, all at once.
If I sound like an enamored fool, you will understand that the praise I bring Sibiu is not unfounded once you see and experience it for yourself.
Founded in the early 12th century, Sibiu has witnessed the comings and goings of many settlers and invaders and has wonderfully combined Saxon cuisine and respect for life, Austro-Hungarian architecture, Romanian hedonism and culture into a vibrant city, a place where its people fought for freedom, but at the same time built Romania’s first hospital, museum, school, zoo, printed the first book in Romanian and put up the first power line in Eastern Europe.
You will need at least two full days for Sibiu and its surroundings, depending on your interests. If there’s one thing this city isn’t lacking, it’s diversity in terms of what you can do and where you can go. From Drum n’ bass clubs to the best ethnographic museum in the country, from impeccably preserved monuments to immense parks, from theatre festivals to head-banging performances, Sibiu’s got it all!
Let’s start with Sibiu basics:
To get around the city and the nearby villages, you can purchase tickets for 1,5 lei/trip from the ticket booths around the major sights in the city or the automatic ticket machines you’ll find at most bus stops. You can also pay for your fare on the bus if you have a MasterCard or PayPass. Just outside Sibiu you’ll find the best ethnographic park in Romania, the Astra Museum. All you need to do is hop on bus 13-1 from the train station. You’ll need a couple of hours to wander about the place properly, and if you’re lucky, some caretaker will let you enter the houses and explain all the contraptions to you. Be sure to have enough space on your cam card, you can take amazing photos there. There is also a zoo right outside the museum, but unfortunately it has no werewolves or vampires on display.
A trip to the nearby mountain resort of Paltinis is also worth your time (bus 22 from the train station). It’s the oldest (120 years old) and highest (1440 m) resort in the country and you can visit it any time of the year – you can collect wild blueberries from the side of the winding roads in summertime or ski on its great slopes in winter. Serenity and breathtaking natural beauty are the key words for Paltinis. If you’ve made it to Paltinis it’s because you’re a mountain trekking nature-lover, which means you will probably be thrilled to walk the 4-5 hour trail from the resort into Cindrel Natural Park. With 2200 m peaks, glaciers and ice lakes, the park is stunningly beautiful and wild. You will need to be adequately equipped though, proper mountain gear like tent and sleeping bags are a must if you wish to spend the night, since there are no real tourist camping sites, seeing as the mountain trails are of average difficulty and duration (you can hike there and back in a day).
If you’re looking for a more rural feel of Transylvania, the villages around Sibiu are delightful and the people will gladly sell you some strong palinca (Romanian spirit drink made from various fruits – best is pear in my humble opinion) or excellent eco cheese. Rasinari, Cisnadie, Sibiel, Cisnadioara are enchanting hamlets filled with history, old Transylvanian style houses, even older churches and beautiful groves and orchards surrounding them.
If you are not completely exhausted after your trip back in time on tradition lane, you could venture up the Council Tower (Turnul Sfatului – Piata Mica) just in time to see the sunset. The view up there will please professional and amateur photographers alike, as you can get a 360 panorama of the whole city.
You can check the rest of the city in an afternoon, because you’ll mostly be wondering about the medieval center. There are two main squares, the Large Square (Piata Mare) and Small Square (Piata Mica). Almost every building here is a protected historic monument and they’ve all been given a major face lift when Sibiu was cultural capital of Europe in 2007. The City Hall, Catholic Church and Brukenthal Museum are the most imposing buildings in Piata Mare. But this is still Transylvania, so there are a few oddities next to the beautiful imperial-style buildings, such as a ‘lunatic cage’, where the public peace disturbers were ‘displayed’; today it’s been turned into a lovely fountain.
If you experience a strange feeling that you’re being watched, it’s because you are…by the houses themselves! The ‘eyes of the city’ (popular nickname for the buildings’ uniquely shaped skylines) will follow you around into Piata Mica, where you can walk on the Bridge of Lies and risk to have your hidden secrets revealed.
Once you cross it, you’ll find yourself facing a colossal Evangelic Church (where you can ‘repent for your exposed sins’), each of its mesmerizing gothic features will help you experience the ‘lost in time’ feeling I always get in Sibiu. And it’s not difficult to understand why you would have such a feeling, walking along the many old passageways or on the ancient fortress walls now transformed into a romantic boardwalk right beside the city center.
You’ve probably built up quite an appetite by now, so here are some moderately priced fine dining restaurants you can choose from: ‘La Turn’ has the most envied address in Sibiu – Piata Mare no.1. It is also a place where Transylvanian and Italian foods come together, in a pleasant ambiance, but what you should care about are the big hearty tasty helpings of each delicious and traditional dish such as sarmale (minced pork wrapped in cabbage leaves) or papanasi (donut-like cheese filled, deep fried dough, covered in cream and jam).
If you want to try out original Saxon recipes and the best beef in town, Hermania restaurant is the place to go to! Located on a side street from the city center (Filarmonicii Street), its inside is made almost entirely out of hard wood, maintaining the traditional Romanian spirit, but has elegant elements of décor that should help digest those meaty German dishes. Hidden away in a 500 years old cellar is Crama Sibiul Vechi – by definition a winery, the perfect place to warm up with some mulled wine in winter time or savor a sweet rosé in summer.
However, if your cholesterol levels are not high, the best thing to try here are the traditionally based recipes, creatively arranged to appeal to the eye and your stomach which will miraculously make room for these appetizing morsels. You can find this food lovers’ heaven on Papiu Ilarian no. 3 Street which connects the medieval towers to Piata Mare. If you’re looking for a place to digest the Saxon dishes, you can take a very long walk in the huge Sub Arini Park (it’s so big that it leads all the way into the nearby village) or stroll along the boardwalk mentioned before. If, however, you have a second desert stomach like I do, Redal sweet shop in the city center will delight your taste buds!
Now, finally, here are a few pubs you can check out, all of them in the old city center, naturally, all former cellars in centuries-old houses, all very stylishly decorated to create either the perfect intimate atmosphere or give you the party feel you needed. Oldies Pub usually plays reggae, rock and roll or soft rock, even salsa some days of the week. Wednesdays are karaoke night, followed by live concerts on Thursdays, sometimes held by very good foreign bands. Bohemian Flow Art&Pub plays good music as well, as its name suggests. Their karaoke night is Monday though; they have live music every Wednesday and hold parties every Friday and Saturday. The DaVinci Pub is for all you dnb/dubstep lovers, with parties every weekend!
But don’t let the night life fool you, Sibiu has plenty of opportunities for you to feed your cultural needs. The Radu Stanca theatre is where some of Romania’s best actors (who have won several distinctions at the Glasgow International Awards) perform regularly. The Brukenthal museum was the first opened in Romania.
There are also lots of cultural festivals you can choose from, depending on the time of the year you decide to visit Sibiu. The International Jazz Festival is usually held in the beginning of May, followed by the International Theatre Festival sometime around the end of May or the beginning of June. Transylvania International Film Festival is an annual film-goers paradise taking place mid June. The first hot days of August are when the International Traditional Folk Music Festival takes place, followed by the one you shouldn’t miss – the Medieval Festival held on the last weekend of August is where knights and noble ladies come to life again, tournaments and medieval feasts are organized to make sure you cannot get bored. October brings the Jazz & More Festival and the Astra Film Festival (the oldest film fest in Romania).
And, last but not least, the Christmas Fair (best holiday fair in Romania) is set up every December, with traditional deserts, mulled wine, delicious meats and cheeses, and 750 sq m of ice rink to warm up even the Grinch’s heart! Through its rich and troubled history, ethnic and cultural diversity, the majestic buildings and its overall charm, Sibiu has truly become a living modern city, a cultural gem you have to look closely at to appreciate its many nuances and hidden reflexes.