As the sun casts shadows around the lively, yet relaxed Piata Mica square in the centre of Sibiu, a barman at NOD — a trendy cafe-come-bar — brings out a strong, locally-brewed 1717 beer in a 750ml champagne bottle, and a flute to serve it in. At 92 lei a bottle the beer may be overreaching and pricey, but with live jazz permeating the square as locals slightly outnumber tourists, something is clear: this scenic and well-developed Transylvanian city has a lot to offer.
By Stephen McGrath
What is striking about Sibiu is that, while it lacks the name recognition of Bran, or the UNESCO citadel of Sighisoara, its charm has a particularly Germanic flavour — and its size and beauty makes it a highly enjoyable place to go for a short break.
Sibiu boasts a combination of rich history, splendid architecture, rich museums, many cultural activities, — including the oldest jazz festival in Romania, and an international theatre festival — and various culinary delights, all packed into a highly functional city, with a good balance of locals and tourists. It feels almost finely-tuned to make you feel as though you’re on holiday but also mingling with the local community. It’s easy to see why Sibiu was voted the European Capital of Culture in 2007.
Although the journey from Bucharest is long — 4 hours by car, 5 and half hours by train — it is a scenic one: panoramic views of the Fargaras mountains in the distance can help the time pass pleasurably. As can a snack or good book. Trains from Bucharest depart Gara de Nord daily at 10am and 2pm. Both trains will get you to Sibiu in time to check-in to your accommodation and venture out for food and drinks. There’s plenty of choices.
Among the city’s many average eateries — mostly targeting tourists in the squares — there are some hidden gems. The best cuisine in town, as suggested by a quick straw-poll of locals, is to be found at Capsicum, a small bistro with a homely atmosphere just minutes’ walk from the touristic crowds. Its international menu changes weekly depending on the available fresh produce. It’s worth booking to ensure you get a table on a weekend.
Beyond good food and drinks, however, there’s a mixed handful of accessible and impressive things to see.
One of them is the opulent Holy Trinity Romanian Orthodox cathedral — which has vast, vibrant-coloured wall murals contrasting against swathes of gold — and was completed in 1904. With its decorative domes and neat, two-tone brickwork, it wouldn’t look out of place in St. Petersburg. Only a few minutes walk away is an impressive Lutheran 14th century Gothic cathedral. It was the worshiping place of the first settlers, the Saxons. For three centuries — up until 1796 — mayors and various other prominent local figures were buried here. Newlyweds can occasionally be spotted here on weekends, which adds a certain local charm.
Both of these churches are a short walk from the main 15th century Piata Mare, which is ideal if you want to recharge with a coffee before your next move. This is where Sibiu stands above many other Romanian cities: it caters for the culture-hungry, the history buffs, or the people who want to just kick-back and enjoy a relaxing weekend.
Another must-see is Brukenthal Palace: a superb baroque building presenting excellent art collections from many European painters, dating from the 15th to 18th centuries, and which served as the palace of the first Habsburg governor of Transylvania. Also noteworthy is the Museum of Pharmacology in Piata Mica, where Romania’s first of many pharmacies was situated.
Another great thing to do is visit the medieval city walls and towers, which protected the city from external threats as far back as the 15th century. Each tower was manned and maintained by one of the city guilds.
However, one of the best things to do in Sibiu is simply to wander the parochial streets and alleyways of this medieval city, taking in the architecture, and happening upon some of the small independent shops, such as Jujube concept store, which sells plants and various independent Romanian-made gifts: from leather bags, to perfumes and massage oils.
What makes Sibiu so enjoyable for a weekend break is the proximity of everything, especially if you have kids. You can walk around the city and visit most of the significant spots in a day. Equivocally, getting lost around the city’s small side streets and medieval stairways to view the impressive — and distinctive — Saxon architecture is a also a treat. You’ll rarely be a long way from the centre.
Dracula aside, Transylvania has long been perceived as Romania’s crown jewel. Sibiu, however, is arguably the best and most accessible city in the region. It certainly makes for a great weekend getaway.
Stephen McGrath is a British journalist living in Romania. His work appears regularly in the international press, for publications including The Times, BBC, The Guardian, The Independent, New Statesman, Forbes, The Spectator, International Business Times, among others.