What is Iași anyway?
It’s not the biggest Romanian city, but rumor has it that it is believed to be the cultural center of the country. One of the explanations for its extraordinary reputation is the fact that Alexandru Ioan Cuza University is the oldest one in the country. For a first timer it looks provincial and for some reasons people tend to associate this with a bad attribute.
Contrariwise, Iași is a positively provincial place. It gives the tourists a cozy feeling of never actually having left their homes. It’s one of the cities people shouldn’t visit, but experience. The locals are welcoming and hospitable and the cityscape is so green that’s really a challenge not to fall in love with it. The City of Lindens has never failed to impress the travelers with its beauty and authenticity. I’m not going to lie to you. It looks pretty far from an European metropolis: the traffic is a mess and so are the roads, even the main arteries are difficult to bear, the public transport is just like a cheap ride straight to the beginning of the 20th century and it’s really a small place. Yet I’ve never seen anyone to regret visiting or share negative reviews.
A bohemian piece of heaven with plenty of greenness, beautiful parks and, most importantly, a city giving you a pulsatile sensation, which vibrates life through all its pores. Depending on how you crowded you like a place to be, you can visit it during the academic year when it looks like a hardworking ant of students wandering here and there, or during the summer when it suddenly seems more spatious for an urbe so small.
Where to(during daytime)?
There are countless ways in which the city is going to impress you. Culturally, architecturally and, very important, socially. But first things first. While Bucharest is the one which used to be called The Little Paris, you can still get a cheap Eiffel thrill here. Grand Hotel Traian was designed by Gustave Eiffel and served as headquarters of the Romanian government during World War I. It’s really hard to tell the glamorous lodging from the cultural valences. And if you’re already accommodated in another place, it’s totally worth visiting at least for its restaurant, where the traditional sarmale cu mămăligă are served divinely or have a drink at the on-site English pub. Special tip: Avoid Oxford Pub karaoke nights as much as possible, unless you want to be surrounded by the drunkest, most tone deaf, weirdly dressed locals.
You ever heard that you should be afraid that you may end up robbed in Romania? No problem here, I assure you. Choose to stay (or at least visit) Golia Monastery, a fortified cultural monument with impressively thick walls, dating back since the 1600s. Byzantine frescoes and elaborate entrance ways, all to travel half a millennium back straight from the middle of the city.
The locals are not afraid of making their appreciation for the literary and historic heritage known. The first ones to speak of their cultural pride are the museums – there’s plenty of them – some a little boring and traditional, but some lurking with culture and historical significance. The Museum of Old Moldavian Literature (Muzeul Literaturii Române) is a must for whomever is interested the least bit in having the opportunity to pay respects to the Romanian literary symbols. And even leaving the cultural meanings aside, the place is quite an experience and it somehow manages to soak you in from the first steps, with its authentic reverberation and old exponates speaking of the local history.
Another must see that’s not just another museum, but a topos, is Pogor House Literary Museum (Casa Pogor). It’s on the way to the university, so there’s no need to deviate from your planned circuit. Vasile Pogor was a poet and literary theorist playing a crucial role for Junimea literary society, hence the exhibits showing the great programmatic and spiritual importance for the Romanian writers in the second half of the 19th century. All the information of the museum is in Romanian, but on the bright side any student you’d ask on the street or any local who happens to be there when you visit would be more than glad to guide you. The museum is closed on Mondays.
On your way to the university, but before getting to the Pogor House, there are two crucially relevant sites not more than two hundred meters before seeing the museum steps. On the left side there’s the Central University Library. It was established back in 1839, and it’s not only a noted cultural monument, but the place where the national poet Mihai Eminescu himself was librarian-in-chief. And it’s not just the exterior that’s classy and bohemian, but the interior as well, with its Carrara marble and Venetian mosaics.
On the right there’s the Voivodes Park, a quite small area with the statues of the most representative Moldavian figures in history standing in line like a sculpted chronology of the city. Voievode used to mean lord or prince, and the park’s statuary is just a cute little spot on your way to the university.
The Palace of Culture is not just one of the largest buildings in Romania, but the main attraction point of the Moldovian capital. The Palace was partly built on top of the ruins of the medieval princely courts and today it’s beautifully integrated with the Palas commercial center, the place where most of the biggest companies have their headquarters. Also, if you’re planning on doing any shopping, there’s no better place. But back to the palace, it’s designed in flamboyant neo-Gothic style, with its interior having the furniture ordered from Maple House, London. Unfortunately, the opulent interior is being renovated and it’s not open to the public.
There’s a great donjon tower right at the entrance, reminding of the royal period of the country, with crenels and alcoves dominated by an eagle with its wings open. Inside the tower there’s the famous carillon clock with eight bells assembly reproducing Hora of the Union song every hour. Don’t let yourself fooled by the archaic look of the design, because the monument was integrated with modern materials and technologies, especially since its fortification and restauration works began.
The Philarmonic, the National Theater and the Opera are one next to the other. It would really be great if you had the time to see at least one performance on each of them, since they’ve been developing so much after 1989. Since communism lasted a while in Romania, art has always been a source of defiance and rebelliousness. Luckily, even after the instauration of democracy, the locals are as much engaged in increasing the cultural standard from a generation to another. It would be really ingrate to recommend you only one of the three, since they are spectacular. But if it so happens that you can only choose two out of three places to go to, skip the theater; and if you’re only in town on a Friday night and yet want to experience a moving performance, choose the philharmonic. It’s not just because of the artists, but for the acoustic of the place as well. The Concert Hall used to be a Chatolic hall. Extra tip: The best seats are in the back of the auditorium.
Where to party?
La Bază. You can’t really say you went out if you didn’t check this spot. And the best part about it is that it’s both the locals’ and the foreigners’ favorite in town. There are all kinds of events and concerts, but usually it’s where people go out when they feel like dancing and socializing. Since there are many students in Iași with Erasmus scholarships and this is their favorite place to hang out as well (the students associations make sure of that!), it’s really impossible not to find someone speaking fluently in English, French or even Spanish or Italian if you’re lucky enough. The prices are good, the music is loud enough to erase any trace of self consciousness, and the design of the bar is a mélange of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin’s styles; of course, in line with the city appearance, you shouldn’t be surprised to find out that the entire interior is green. For a first timer, the wooden tables and doors separating the two main areas may look like an old central inn was turned into a party space. Special tip: Take a marker with you (or a lipstick if you’re a girl) in case you want to go to the toilet, it’s a local habit of people to leave their messages on the wall, a Romanian restroom advertising promoting parties and great quality time.
Taverna Music Pub. Say you’re more into rock music, or just that La Bază is full (there would be no surprise there, especially in the weekend, when people actually don’t even think of having a table to seat at). Fortunately, right next to this bar there’s another one, where there are free concerts almost everyday of the week (the Tuesday band – Aproape/Almost Unplugged is by far the best!). Most of the songs are covers after the best hits in history, and everybody’s always having a great time. During the weekend there are no concerts, just karaoke for the first part of the night (slightly less voiceless people than you’d see in Oxford Pub, but I couldn’t bet) and dancing until the morning when the karaoke is over. Fortunately, when people dance there’s not so much rock music and there’s a very fun mix of styles, from rock’n’roll to hip hop and, rarely, dubstep. Extra tip: The bartenders are really friendly here!
Cafeneaua Veche (The Old Coffee House) is just a small place with an intimate terrace perfect for the nights when you feel like having a peaceful conversation over French music tickling with violins and accordions. The coffee isn’t necessarily the best in town, but all the other derivates are really a must! Being located on Lăpușneanu Street,on the old town, it really feels like a bohemian atmosphere with linden scent, old, chic buildings and lanterns to keep you dreamy.
What not to?
Go to Metropolitan Cathedral. Unless you’re a very, very faithful Orthodox, you can skip this one. Don’t make the ineptitude to just sit in line at the queue just because you see one and you’re curious what happens there. People here, especially the very old ones, are a little habotnic about their religious beliefs. They do sit in queues just to worship the relics of the saints, so unless you’re interested in this, just admire the beautiful construction as you pass it by. Also, if we’re on the religion topic, don’t engage in any conversation, again – especially with the elderly – about their belief, just leave it like that.
Don’t go to the clubs. Aside from amateur remixes of the 90s songs or of the latest Romanian hits, drunk people hitting on each other and very loud conversations, there’s nothing much to see there. The pubs are more of an option, because they’re a mixture of fun and beautiful people.
Don’t make yourself any problems about the taxis, they’re as safe as possible. Because of the large number of foreigners the drivers are used to not charging more than it’s needed. Don’t go with the public transport, especially in the summer at rush hours, it’s suicide.