Moldova piqued our interest as an off-the-beaten-track travel destination years ago, and we were finally able to schedule a trip to the tiny, landlocked nation this year. Nestled between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova remains one of the least visited countries in Europe (they hosted less than 100,000 visitors in 2015). With a robust tradition of winemaking and a history that includes the Romans, Ottomans, and inclusion in the Soviet Union, we were excited to explore all this rarely-visited nation had to offer.
What to See
We started our trip in the capital city, Chișinău, which, beyond having its own attractions, serves as a great base for day trips to some of the wineries and historic sites outside the city. As Moldova doesn’t have a strong history of tourism, the list of “traditional” tourist sites is limited. We found it was enjoyable to simply walk the city, exploring the neighborhoods and watching life unfold around us.
Chișinău’s buildings were heavily damaged by a 7.3 magnitude earthquake in November 1940, followed by heavy fighting during World War II. Between 1947 and 1949, Soviet-assigned architect Alexey Shchusev came up with a plan to rebuild the city in the Stalinist Empire style. Soviet reconstruction continued until Chișinău’s independence in 1991, and the city today largely reflects the impact of this reconstruction featuring all kinds of unusual Soviet-era buildings as well as blocks and blocks of communist-style housing.
We made it a point to seek out some of the more interesting buildings, and found the Romanita Collective Housing Tower and Chisinau State Circus on the outskirts of downtown were worth a look. In town, we spent a night at the oldest central hotel in Chișinău, the Hotel Chisinau. That location was a great base for a walking tour of Soviet buildings such as the majestic Monument of Liberty, the Cosmos Hotel, the (now defunct) Hotel National, the closed Moldova Tur Office, and the Moldtelecom Building.
The area of the city near the two parks, Parcul Catedralei (Cathedral Park) and Grădina Publică Ştefan cel Mare şi Sfînt (Steven the Great Central Park), was also a nice place to wander. There are some other Soviet architectural gems in the area like the imposing Government House and the National Palace Concert Hall, as well as the Soviet Memorial to Communist Youth statue and the Triumphal Arch which was completed in 1841.
The area of the city near the parks also seemed to have the highest concentration of museums and sites of interest to visitors. The national Moldovan Orthodox Cathedral, Catedrala Nasterea Domnului (Nativity Cathedral), in the center of Cathedral Park is a beautiful neoclassical cathedral built in the 1830s. We also visited the National Art Museum which just underwent a 13-year refurbishment and offers a wide-ranging collection of art from the region. In walking distance from Cathedral Park, we sought out the Pushkin Museum, the property where the Russian poet spent three years of exile between 1820 to 1823. The small museum houses a number of his belongings and documents his travels and time in the region. There was a small printed guide offered in English, but signage on the displays was limited. The staff was more than happy to give a tour of the rooms in Romanian, however!
Where to Stay
We split our time in Chișinău between two very different hotels. The Art-Rustic Hotel is in a quiet, residential neighborhood several blocks from Cathedral Park. As a smaller 13-room property, we found the hotel staff very attentive and happy to answer questions or provide advice about the city. We had a spacious room with air conditioning and a small balcony. Breakfast is included, and is served in the small bar on the first floor with a nice buffet-style spread. The Hotel Chisinau also captured our attention as the “vintage” option. As the oldest central hotel in Chisinau, it features among the prominent Soviet-designed buildings at the southern end of Boulevard Ştefan cel Mare. The hotel is a throwback to communist times and it feels like not much has been touched in the lobby, stairwells, or hotel rooms (thankfully, they have updated the property with wifi). The staff is exceedingly friendly and the room rates couldn’t be beat. Both hotel locations provide different access to city sites—Hotel Chisinau is closer to the train station, and the Art-Rustic Hotel puts you closer to Cathedral Park.
What to See
Orheiul Vechi (Old Orhei) is located just over hour by car from Chișinău, and given its rich history and religious significance, it is an important sight for Moldovans and visitors alike. Old Orehi lies in a region where the sleepy Raut River snakes through the landscape and has created natural limestone promontories. Evidence of habitation here goes back to prehistoric Geto-Dacian tribes who carved habitation and places of worship into the cliffs. Since then waves of inhabitants have moved through the valley leaving traces of their existence.
The main attraction in Orheiul Vechi is the cave monastery, carved by Orthodox monks in the 13th century on the large promontory above the town of Butuceni. A more modern, above-ground church, the Ascension of St. Mary, was built on top of the hill in 1905. Visitors can climb the promontory from the small visitor center/museum near the entrance to Butuceni and visit both St. Mary’s and the cave monastery (the church and old living quarters), accessible from a staircase under the belltower. The monastery complex was shut down by the Soviets in 1944, but was reopened by monks in 1996 and is still active today. Unfortunately there is no signage to explain the history at the monastery itself, and the visitor center only has information in Romanian; it’s best to read up on the history in a guidebook or online.
A billboard outside the visitor center alerts travelers to other historic sites in the same valley and we spent half a day trying to track some of them down. We easily found the remains of the 12th century Tatar baths next to the bridge near the village of Trebujeni. The archaeological site doesn’t seem to be a draw for tourists and had no signage or labels. We had the place to ourselves, and were able to climb all over the walls and were left guessing what each of the rooms was originally designed for. Even harder to find were the remains of a mosque, caravanserai, and medieval church which we discovered down a dusty path in a corn field—the exact location was just a guess based on Google satellite views until we stumbled upon the foundations of the buildings. We also made a stop at the walls of a medieval citadel which are bisected by the main road into Butuceni. Inside the walls are the foundations of an old stone dwelling and the remains of the governor’s palace (which at this point is just an overgrown pit within the citadel walls). There is also a traditional peasant house in the village of Butuceni which can be visited for a look at typical rural life in Moldova, complete with a descriptive signboard in the yard outside.
Țîpova Monastery is another cave monastery complex north of Orheiul Vechi, and we ventured there by car from Butuceni the same day we visited the sites of Orheiul Vechi. The major M2 road got us most of the way, and once we turned off that road it was about 15km of bumpy, potholed dirt road to get to the town of Țîpova. You enter the monastery complex through the gates leading to the newer blue church, and just past that church a well-marked trail leads down the cliff to the cave monastery.
The monastery complex consists of a number of cave churches and dwellings built over several different periods of time, perched 200m above the Dneister River. The “Dormition of Our Lady” is the youngest cave church complex, built in the 15th century. It remains active as a church and is staffed by an Orthodox monk. You can also walk through the remains of the thirteen interconnected rooms of the St. Nicholas Church, built in the 14th century, and the even older 11th century church, “The Elevation of the Holy Cross”. The complex had both religious and military value, given its strategic position above the river, and several informational signs (in English) give background on the importance of each set of rooms in the complex.
From Orheiul Vechi we had one day left to explore the Moldovan countryside, and we weighed several options before deciding on a visit to Soroca. Soroca is about a two-hour drive north of Orheiul Vechi, with most of the drive being on the fairly new M2 highway. The main draw in Soroca is the fortress, built in the 16th century by Moldovan prince Petru Rareş. The fortress is located at a strategic position on the Dniester River, which today splits Moldova and Ukraine (a small ferry boat shuttles between the two countries at this location, only available to those with Moldovan or Ukrainian passports). The unique circular fortress has been recently restored with the help of EU funding, and visitors can climb to the top levels of the fortress and see the views from all five towers.
Also in Soroca, we climbed the 600+ steps up the hillside to the Candle of Gratitude. Built in 2004, the obelisk-type monument has a chapel inside, and a deck with panoramic views of the Dneister River.
Moldova has a long history of being a wine-producing region, and exploring their wineries remains one of the large draws in visiting the country today. We explored Cricova, Mileștii Mici, and Chateau Vartely during in our time in Moldova. Read more about our experiences visiting the wineries.
One location we were very excited to visit was the state of Transnistria, a sliver of land bordering Ukraine on the Dniester River. Transnistria declared independence in 1990, allied themselves with Russia, and operates as an independent nation today. No UN member recognizes Transnistria’s sovereignty, which leaves this little “country” in limbo today. Read more about our day in Transnistria.
Where to Stay
After leaving Chișinău, we were looking forward to enjoying some time in the countryside. We stayed in the village of Butuceni, located just below the hilltop monasteries of Orheiul Vechi and a couple minutes’ drive down a bumpy dirt road from the entrance to the historic area. Eco Resort Butuceni (also known as Agro-Pensiunea Butuceni) offers basic facilities in several restored old buildings along the road in the tiny village. Breakfast was included and featured a nice variety of filling options in the small buffet, including some local jelly donuts, a rice pudding, and farm-fresh fried eggs. Dinner was available too, with an emphasis on traditional Moldovan fare and the resort’s own home-made wine. Prices were reasonable, but the rural location led to some challenges, including a power outage one morning and limited hot water.
What & Where to Eat
Moldovan food is rustic and hearty, and we had many delicious meals during our time in the country. The cuisine is very similar to neighboring Romania. Moldova’s fertile soil means there is no shortage of fresh produce; during our summer visit, we ate lots of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, garlic, and watermelon. Some of the traditional dishes we would recommend include:
- Borș and ciorbă: these are sour soups that are common starts to a meal. Ukrainian borș is the traditional red beet soup, while other variations can include chicken, meatballs, or vegetables.
- Plăcintă: these small pie-like pastries are usually filled with cheese, cabbage, fruit, or meat. Depending on the filling, they can make a great appetizer, a tasty dessert, or just a quick snack.
- Mămăligă: like Italian polenta, this is a thick cornmeal porridge that accompanies many meals and is a true staple of traditional Moldovan and Romanian cooking. It is often served with sour cream or crumbled farmer’s cheese.
- Tochitură: meat stew, made either with or without a tomato-based sauce. In Moldova, we primarily found the kind made without tomatoes, instead having a simple sauce made from the meat’s juices and fat; it has a drier consistency more like a meat stir-fry than a stew. Often made with several different types or cuts of meats, tochitură is usually served with mămăligă, a fried egg, and cheese. A vegetarian tochitura de ciuperci (mushroom stew) is a great accompaniment to mămăligă.
- Sarmale: rolled cabbage or vine leaves stuffed with meat and rice, usually served with mămăligă.
- Papanași: if you save some appetite for dessert, these cheese-filled, berry-topped donuts are sure to fill you up. Best shared with a friend!
We had excellent meals in Chișinău, and can recommend these restaurants for traditional food:
Vatra Neamului: A traditional Moldovan restaurant with an elegant interior and large back courtyard, located near the National Art Museum. We enjoyed the al fresco dining and their large menu of traditional food options.
Sălcioara: We stumbled upon this restaurant on what seemed to be a particularly festive night—a duo playing traditional music complete with an enthusiastic group of diners. From outside, the restaurant doesn’t look like much (its located in a basement), but the interior décor was traditional Moldovan with floral carpets and lace tablecloths, and offered very friendly service.
Gok-Oguz: This restaurant is set outside of downtown Moldova (a taxi was necessary), and features Gagauzian cuisine. The Gagauz are an ethnic group of Turkish descent found in southern Moldova (in the autonomous region of Gagauzia) as well as in other pockets of Ukraine, Bulgaria and Greece. The restaurant has a lovely internal courtyard and has a strong emphasis on lamb and mutton dishes. There were many soups, several vegetarian options, and we enjoyed a dessert of stewed plums.
La Placinte: A casual chain restaurant recommended by our guesthouse, La Placinte has many locations throughout the city serving a wide variety of Moldovan dishes and wine at very inexpensive prices.
Getting There & Around
Air: Chișinău’s small airport (KIV) is the only international airport in the country. Located just 12 km south of the city center, it’s about 15-20 minutes’ drive and inexpensive by taxi and there is also a city bus route that connects the airport to downtown. There are flights to a handful of major western European cities, including Lufthansa flights to Munich, but we found it easiest to connect through Bucharest with SkyTeam partner TAROM. The airport is small, but modern and easy to navigate. There’s a basic café and a duty-free shop, but unfortunately no currency exchange to get rid of remaining Moldovan lei upon departure.
Bus/Maxi-Taxi: Since we were traveling to Chișinău from Iași, Romania, our most convenient option was a maxi-taxi between the two cities. Transbus Codreanu has several departures in the morning and mid/late afternoon leaving across the street from the train station in Iași. The ride took about four hours, with one hour of that time spent at the Romanian-Moldovan border. The 20-passenger van was not air conditioned, making for a hot ride in the summer heat. The road from the border to Chișinău was being rebuilt and what was available for travel was in rough shape, making for an incredibly bumpy ride. From Chișinău there are also bus and maxi-taxi connections to Tiraspol, Bucharest, and Odessa, Ukraine.
There’s an extensive network of buses and trolleybuses throughout Chișinău that are just 2-3 lei (about 10-15 cents) per ride.
Train: It’s possible to reach Chișinău by train, but unfortunately the timing didn’t work out for us to try it. There’s an overnight train daily from Bucharest to Chișinău (passing through Iași early in the morning), but it’s a slow trip. Aside from the usual customs formalities, the border crossing also involves changing the train’s wheels since the track gauge is different in Romania than it is in Moldova (and the rest of the former Soviet Union). There’s a newer, faster train connection between a station south of the city center in Iași, but that is only currently running on weekends.
There is also a train between Chișinău and Odessa via Tiraspol (running east in the morning and west in the evening). While it ran daily until recently, as of 2017, the train was only running Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Great info on train travel to Moldova is available at Seat61.com.
Car: We rented a car for our trip up to Orheiul Vechi and Soroca. In general, driving in Moldova is fairly challenging. Many roads are in poor condition and few drivers obey road rules. The streets of Chișinău were very potholed and the multi-lane traffic circles seemed to be total mayhem. Heading north out of the city, however, the M2 was in good shape thanks to recent investments in rebuilding by the European Union and United States. While most of the road is a highway, the road still passes through the center of many towns and you need to stay alert to horse-drawn carriages, bikers, and wildlife throughout the journey. The secondary roads we traveled were in decent condition, as long as you stayed alert, and back roads were often dirt and gravel.
Sixt has a rental car office right in Chișinău’s Atrium shopping center, convenient if you want to leave right from the city center. Many other rental agencies have offices at the airport.
With no Moldova-specific guidebooks in print and limited information on the internet, we weren’t sure what to expect before our trip. We certainly succeeded in getting far off the beaten track of typical European tourism. While there aren’t many exceptional “must see” attractions, we were glad to have the chance to explore and experience this small country with its friendly people, good food, high-quality wine, quiet countryside, and unique history.