A Weekend In Romania – Trip #3 of 2023

Trip #3 of 2023 - A Weekend In Romania

Hastily arranged, a last-minute opportunity arose to spend a weekend away in Cluj-Napoca, a city in Romania 🇷🇴 (<- this link is a plug to our Romania section of the guide) we last visited in 2018. As well as a chance to check in on some old favourites, we decided to include a day and night in Oradea, a city in the North West of the country close to the Hungarian border which we had never previously visited.

Day #1 – The Long Night

Arriving at Cluj-Napoca 2:45am local time from Leeds Bradford Airport, we made the brave, possibly unwise choice to eschew a hotel for the night and instead simply find a bar, stay out and take an early train to Oradea at 5:50am. On arrival at Cluj airport it was quickly apparent Romania had received heavy snowfall the previous week. The snow had stopped but not cleared away. Icy temperatures had set in, a bone-trembling -10 Celsius as we stepped out of Arrivals into the airport car park.


A taxi ride to the centre later, we reviewed our brief list of venues claiming to stay open after 3am on a Friday and made an attempt to visit Submarine, a bar/club hybrid with an interesting theme and decor. Just off the main square, we were relieved to see the city still lively with clutches of groups emerging from bars and nightclubs. However, when we approached the building Submarine was in we found wooden scaffolding and a sign on the door that despite translation remained unhelpfully vague. After a few attempts to pursue the matter we were forced to abandon the idea and headed for a place we knew would be open – La Țevi 🇷🇴.

On our last visit, La Tevi was the epitome of a scuzzy down-n-dirty dive bar popular with all manner of goths and misfits generally consuming large green bottles of cheap lager. It certainly won’t be everybody’s choice of venue, but it does what it does well. If you get in with this crowd they’re as friendly and loyal as you’ll get anywhere else.

This time, on our 2nd visit we found space at the bar next to the fireplace, roaring away. We looked at the options of beer which had expanded considerably to include a wider range of regional lagers with some craft beers. The tap options are still dreadful but if you’re after something that’s not a gassy Euro lager, they have several options in bottles, the best being from Capra Noastră.


We spent a couple of decent hours here knocking around with a selection of people who were far further on than us until it made sense to take the 40 minute walk to the station in the deep cold.

The 5:50AM train to Oradea takes around 2 hours 30 minutes on a grubby hand-me-down from Deutsche Bahn that hasn’t been well looked after. Broken toilet, broken windows, broken heating, and small. Two carriages was barely enough to squeeze in the passengers and it was a truly godawful journey, punctuated two dozen stops at villages in the middle of nowhere, each time releasing all the residual heat we had built up, resetting the carriage temperature to Baltic. Due to the state of the train, even when daylight arrived it wasn’t possible to raise spirits by taking in any of the lovely countryside vistas. But eventually the mind-numbing, sleep-deprived shivering ended – we had arrived!


Day #2 – All Day in Oradea

After all that, the warmth of the station hall in Oradea felt like a big swaddling hug from one’s granny. The cold had set in deeper than surface level though, and it was time to get some liquid central heating. Unfortunately the woman at the kiosk misinterpreted my request for a hot chocolate and I was served some ersatz hybrid of Ovaltine and cheap coffee which lasted about 3 sips before being binned. Not a great start. Christ, was it all going to be worth it?


Oradea enjoys a – let’s be polite – obscure reputation outside this region and enquiries with other well-travelled friends didn’t yield much either. However, cursory research actually piqued my interest. The city to Oradea’s south, Timișoara has a vast inheritance of crumbling Art Nouveau architecture too vast, too intricate and too beyond repair for a city with their budget to begin restoring, making the city centre an atmospheric place, haunted houses and faded glamour. Oradea was similar, except that for one reason or another, some money had come rolling in from the EU and many of its own marvels have been spruced up and fitted in their Sunday best!

Oradea has lots of side streets with low-key diverting and unusual constructions but reaching the main thoroughfare through to its main square and shopping streets suddenly unfurls startling, dramatic, colourful mansions and palaces. To a Westerner this feels all so hidden, and, to be cynical for a minute, so under-exploited as a destination.


We realised pretty quickly on our last visit to Cluj-Napoca that due to a lack of pub culture, bar-going in Romania doesn’t really happen until late afternoon at the very earliest. After breakfast, a trip to Oradea fortress, the apartment check-in and a much needed nap, we visited Columbus Café 🇷🇴 at opening time. This pub is located in the Palace of the Black Vulture, arguably Oradea’s emblem – an awesome name too.


Columbus Café had a nautical theme with a mast, sail, and ‘deck’ type wood-fittings. Some people may already be shuddering at the prospect of such a theme but it was actually fairly muted and well-executed, easily ignorable. All the wood at least produced a cosy appearance and some natural atmosphere inside, while there was also terrace seating covered with the beautiful arcades in the Palace. The pub served a bottle of beer – Märzen – as it happened which was in effect a house beer, named after the palace. This was passable – in these regions you adjust your expectations accordingly.

After dinner and a strategic time-out, it was time to get involved in the nightlife properly, beginning at Lokal 🇷🇴. This venue is very typical of the alternative scene in Romania, based in a network of rooms in what appears to be an old apartment complex, with covered outdoor seating and a bohemian atmosphere among the faded grandeur. Their drinks offering was pretty decent, far beyond the incredibly limited distribution we found last year in Sibiu. Craft beer has punctured through the macro offerings meaning most bars will have at least one or two atypical choices alongside those plugged by Heineken, SABMiller et al. Lokal was the standout venue in Oradea with a friendly feel, a core audience of post-grads and a firm sense that in late spring and summer it blossoms into its full potential.


Moving on, our next venue was Gekko Pub 🇷🇴, another house/complex turned into a bar and club, with a series of rooms and a courtyard. This is not central, but easily reached about 15 minutes walk from the centre. On entrance we were confronted by some bouncers. After explaining we are English they appear to abandon the normal spot checks and questions and let us in anyway with no frisking or payment (top tip for any locals). The pub itself is on the extreme end of unpretentious, simply a bruised and battered hangout spot for youngsters that resembles a sixth form common room. Loungey sofas, table football, big screen, etc. The drinks options weren’t so great here, but it’s cheap and cheerful and when the warmer months approach, the courtyard will be one of the better spots in the city to go to.


The final venue on our list, Café Moszkva 🇷🇴 followed a similar format, a large building repurposed into a bar, live music venue, courtyard, hangout spot and basement club. Resources are also stretched thin so a lot of space receives only the minimal TLC and decoration, giving it an alternative feel. There was no bouncer this time, but we arrives to a throng of people smoking/vaping in the courtyard. On entry you are effectively in a townhouse with a stairwell and corridor leading off to what were previously grand old rooms, but are now fixtures of the bar itself. Moszkva’s audience was somewhere in between Lokal and Gekko’s – young, down-to-earth, one of the first times I have felt conspicuously old, albeit not to feel unwelcome in any way. Pumping music, live gig going on upstairs and a very decent selection of drinks including several craft beers makes this a well-equipped choice for a late hangout in Oradea and finished up as our second favourite in the city.


Day #3 – Return to Cluj-Napoca for an evening of Hungarian folk culture!

We were dreading a repeat of the train that took us to Oradea, so made a personal decision to book first class for the return – for a price that was still not very expensive given the length of journey. Thankfully the train on this occasion was a spacious, length, typically central/Eastern Europe affair, with compartments (which I prefer) giving a private and relaxed journey back to Cluj-Napoca, enjoying lots of sweeping sights of snow-capped hills and meadows in what is still a sparsely populated corner of Europe.


Apartment check-in times are an obstacle any seasoned traveller needs to navigate, making pub choices around agreed check-in times, so on arrival with time to kill we decided to visit Klausen Pubhouse 🇷🇴 for the first time. This pub bears no relation to the rooftop brewpub Klausen Burger 🇷🇴 (which we somehow failed to find this time after having previously visited), as Klausen is the old German name for Cluj, so as commercial property, its use is fair game. Klausen Pubhouse is stodgy in a reassuringly familiar way, its design a portmanteau of pub styles from Irish to Czech: curved ceilings, chunky seats, hues of creams and greens. It was no surprise that the first foreign voices we heard aside ours was in this place. Not wishing to be sneery about that, this sort of pub has a solid reliable appeal and also offered a Romanian brewed IPA on draft that didn’t suck. It also got busier during our visit.


After some food there we made a repeat visit to Insomnia 🇷🇴, a 1st floor apartment bar and cultural centre that made probably the biggest impression on us during our 2018 visit. In between then and now the venue has been given a facelift, moving closer to a kind of aspirational chic that hasn’t done it any major favours, with a redesign of the bar area also spoiling the pub-like feel it used to have where you would sit in a bar room itself. During this visit there was a photoshoot so the sight of preening individuals posing didn’t help either. However, the choice of drinks has improved, the courtyard area has been better exploited and they continue to host off-beat events. As Cluj’s oldest bar (still not that old) there will remain a degree of nostalgic appeal.


After check-in and a rest, we decided to check out two of Cluj-Napoca’s craft beer venues, The Brewhouse 🇷🇴 and Beer Wall Café 🇷🇴. The former was only around the corner from our apartment, and is a corner bar on a beautiful little street, the sort that you have to pinch yourself is in a major city centre. The Brewhouse offers a large range of Romanian craft beer supplemented by a connected brewing operation, Blackout Brewing whose wares occupy around half of the taps. The interior is tasteful and well designed, and there is altogether an absence of anything to complain about (aside the prices which are pushing UK levels). The main issue is that there is so little to really grasp on to that’s distinctive, that provides a sense of identity.


Beer Wall Café is a 10 minute walk away, through the central square towards the riverside. There is a nice cobbled lane by a stream and a painted barrel by the door guides you to the entrance. Inside you’ll find a more generic craft beer bar appearance – blackboards, raised seating, industrial chic, but it isn’t overly obnoxious or starkly lit, and the drinks selection is, once again, excellent. The ‘beer wall’ does what it says without ever being impressive enough to justify the dramatic sounding name for the place. While it didn’t quite make our guide, we also found there wasn’t much to criticise and really enjoyed the Zimand wheat beer we had (brewed near Arad) that was impressively authentic.


A few doors down is Old School Coffee House 🇷🇴 where we paid our 2nd ever visit. This place defines low key with a bookish café bar vibe, lived-in decor and fitting, friendly service and a couple of craft beer options in addition to the norm. They attract a corresponding audience which stays the right side of pseudy.


After an evening meal we noticed one of our guide entries, Zorki 🇷🇴 wasn’t open, so took a gamble on an interesting venue out of the old town. Heltai FolkCenter 🇷🇴 is not well-reviewed online, however there are some mitigations. Based on its format (probably love or hate) and the inevitable ethnic contrasts, some people have taken a dislike to the place. We are not among those people.

The evening almost didn’t happen. On arrival we entered through a driveway to what appeared to be a venue fully closed for the evening. Lights off, no-one sat in the courtyard, no music or sound of conversations. We tried different rooms – conference centre, offices, and made a last effort to try the door in the far corner – now we were in business.


Heltai Folkcenter is a Hungarian cultural centre whose dealings go well beyond operating its pub – which is a simple traditional kocsma, its bar room a timeless rickety affair with a bookshelf and simple seating. The drinks selection is Hungarian focused – mainstream selections of beers like Csíki Sör and hard liquor like Unicum, but there is a perfunctory selection covering most bases. The prices are cheap and fair in accordance with those offerings.

Initially the place felt like it was winding down, with 4 or 5 groups chatting among themselves, but after half an hour a slow influx of people changed the momentum and suddenly there was the sense we were instead building up to something. This was surprising given their official hours close at 11pm!

As suspected, the music began to play, first with a fiddle, then an accompaniment of double bass, before an impromptu band had developed, with traditional dancing, a room full to bursting and at this point we were sharing a table with some of the locals.

A few beers – then whiskies – later, the blurry, fulfilled merriment and excitement of being at the right place in the right time may have led to some excitable tweets from our account. We stick by the general vibe though – one more occasion where we walked through a scary dark door to find a great pub and have a wonderful time.


Day #4 – More Cluj, then home!

After a day without sleep on arrival and a late night, we caught up on sleep ahead of the final day in Cluj. We walked up to the old citadel hill late morning in bright sunshine, then through to the long city park where skaters were still using the frozen pond to the large modern football stadium at the end, where melting icicles were causing a hazard! Lunch was at Fabrica de Bere 🇷🇴 which has had a change of operation since 2018. Rather than being focused on Cluj’s ubiquitous beer Ursus, local craft beer operation Bârlog run this flash pub restaurant. Unusually they offer 6 of their beers on tap, so we of course ordered a tasting tray of them to accompany our lunch. As a venue the vibe is too restaurant and the decor and atmosphere too embedded in aspirational lounge bar culture to consider including on our guide, but it was a good opportunity to try more local beer.


The walk back to the centre from there is grim, a busy, noisy polluted road with pavements that apparently still haven’t been relaid even after 4 years. At least there wasn’t 10 centimetres of snow to trudge through this time.

One of Cluj’s peculiar themes is steampunk, a design style that many local artists appear to have coalesced around. There’s a fun little museum you can visit in the centre that sets the tone, which can then be augmented by visiting bars like Enigma 🇷🇴, Submarine 🇷🇴 and Joben 🇷🇴 who share this design style. We visited the latter and found it predictably low key and café-like in the early afternoon. The frustrating thing about Joben is that it does have many interesting items to look at, but they are bogged down in otherwise generic furnishings that tilt the place towards being a modern mainstream lounge bar rather than an alternative one. It’s still worth having a nosy visit if you’re at a loose end.


With time running out before our flight, we fit in two 1st times visits, first to Blériot 🇷🇴 which was a studenty, fairly alternative hangout spot that mid-afternoon on a Monday was virtually deserted. It looked to have a bit of potential however and one to bear in mind.


And finally….. Shadow Café 🇷🇴 a well-reviewed 1st floor apartment bar (haven’t we heard that a few times already) with classic rock n’ roll stars on the wall, and a decent drinks selection. Again, the setup is designed to segue from sedate café to lively bar seamlessly. While a little more could be done with the decor, it must be said that the place is a strong all-rounder and we’re happy to recommend it.


Final thoughts!

The main development since our previous visit to Cluj-Napoca is the emergence of craft beer bars which widens the diversity and provides a challenge to the existing venues, one which they have adjusted to by nearly all including in their offering, which is a big positive. Finding the FolkCentre and being there at exactly the right moment is a stroke of good fortune – be careful to ensure your visit there coincides otherwise you might find your experience significantly differs.

Oradea was a welcome highlight with a beautiful, quirky and distinctive centre and just enough going on from its tower climb, citadel + museum, Orthodox church and funky architecture to fully justify a day and night there. Although the trains are rickety, reaching Oradea in terms of time is perfectly possible from Cluj, but we’d recommend not trying to cram in a visit and return to Cluj on the same day.

Romania’s bar scene is still far too geared around a small section of society – you won’t see almost anyone aged over 40 in most of these bars, while the action itself gets underway reasonably late. Prior to then, sleeping cafés and stodgy pubs don’t exactly inspire. However, focusing on the positives, the nightlife is lively, very unpretentious, good value and increasingly satisfying in terms of its drink offering.

Insomnia, Cluj-Napoca

back to Romania

Strada Universității 2, Cluj-Napoca 400091, Romania
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –6/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Insomnia in the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca claims the title of the longest continuing pub in town.

22 years (23 in May this year) doesn’t seem to me a long time in the life of a pub, so perhaps this has something to do with the turbulence of the revolution at the turn of the ‘90s, and/or a change in cultural trends? I am from a country where so many pubs have remained open over a hundred years or more, so this strikes me as peculiar.

Cluj-Napoca is a university town and so the nightlife reflects the demands of young people. You’ll struggle to find anywhere (deserving of the label ‘pub’ at least) where young and old people mix as they would in England, or indeed many other countries in Mainland Europe. In fact it was difficult to find the sort of old-man’s drinking hole you’d expect to see everywhere. Another surprise.

Insomnia is very much geared towards a younger crowd – if not young then young at heart – with bright, psychedelic décor, paint thrown up the wall Jackson Pollock style and giant lampshades covered in stretched Insomnia-logo t-shirts. About that logo – a not particularly discreet drawing of two animals humping. That aside, the place is funky and seems to have survived 15 years without looking overly dated.

You will notice from their website a rather esoteric mission statement (some of which might be lost in translation) which is reflected in the bar itself. It is the perigee between taking themselves too seriously and not taking themselves seriously at all. This must come from its early days as an art gallery. While the venue is now predominantly a bar, they still host events of varying flavours – book launches, poetry readings, the odd festival here and there.

 

The bar, as with most you’ll find in Cluj, is set up for sitting rather than standing, which means dealing with table service – not my favourite thing in the world. In Romania I noticed some people become rather upset when they have to order at the bar. Not sure why – getting drinks that way is quicker, direct and you can settle the bill there and then, saving everyone time and effort.

Insomnia also has a slightly different format in that they expect you to settle the bill upon the drinks being served, which took a little getting used to when most table service involves you settling the bill at the end of the evening. I can only imagine they have had some trouble with people leaving without paying – which again could be solved by switching to bar service!

The other gripe is that, quite alike other central European countries, it is possible to reserve tables in advance. Is this a good thing? In practice this hardly ever works well in a pub, as it deters people who haven’t got a reservation sitting in that spot until the reservation starts, costing the bar money and making the arrangement feel off-putting. Also, when the bar is really busy, save for two or three empty tables, simply because of a couple of reservations that may last for only one round of drinks, where is the logic there?

In Cluj, all beers seem to have arrived on the same lorry, so you can expect the local brew Ursus and its variants (which are okay at best), and other SABMiller-owned brands including some English beers. The choice here is neither great nor terrible – they have covered several bases, but after a couple of days in the city, seeing the identical drinks everywhere becomes a little dull.

Draft beer is also served in 400ml glasses, a cynical way of gaining 20% on every drink, and quite pointless given the bottle sizes are 500ml and often cheaper. It’s difficult to criticise Insomnia over any other Cluj pub for this, as it is unfortunately commonplace. The upshot is that most people order bottles, not draft beer as they are better value for money – given the expense involved in setting up a bar, this seems hideously counter-productive.

Insomnia also offer what they call “long draft”, 2.5l of beer arriving in an enormous trophy-like stand with its own tap which I saw a few people taking ‘advantage’ of.  You know you are in student land when gimmicks like this pop up.

Anyway, moving back to the positives, Insomnia’s atmosphere inside is lively and well-paced, while the surrounding décor certainly helps keep things upbeat.

Insomnia is also based on the first floor of a historic building, which I often like as bars of that sort always feel quite bohemian. Outside the bar you will step out onto the balcony walkway of an inner courtyard, the typical sort of atrium you get in ex-Hapsburg cities (especially those with Hungarian history). This situation is appealling and adds to the experience.

Insomnia can be found just a few seconds walk from the main square, which is also handy as the main squares of European cities are generally host to far more corporate venues than this. Insomnia, more than others, underlines the all-encompassing young feel of the city, not to mention a European city centre that yet hasn’t been ruined by corporatising everything.

Maybe Insomnia will continue for another 23 years to come – and onwards – or perhaps the economic tides will sweep it away. I certainly hope to find it is going strong when I return, and hope it doesn’t take me 23 years to do so!

I strongly recommend Insomnia for your visit to Cluj, primarily as a fun alternative venue, and a strong all-rounder that does a lot of what it takes to be a good bar well, or really well.

Lastly, be aware Insomnia closes at 1AM, so if you are having trouble sleeping, you’ll need to move elsewhere!