As I have been exploring Eastern Europe in recent years, I have begun realizing how much I enjoy visiting secondary towns in these countries (Krakow in Poland; Plovdiv in Bulgaria; Braşov in Romania; etc.). Then I realized I have also enjoyed other such cities elsewhere. I guess being away from the business of a capital city or a tourist mecca (e.g., London, Rome, Paris) draws me. I wonder why that is. I can’t say capital cities are not “real”; I mean, people live there and do the normal things people do. Is it just that these secondary towns anywhere are more charming because they are not busy trying to be important? Iaşi in Romania afforded me another chance to confirm this preference.
How did I decide to go to Iaşi of all places?
As I planned my visit to Romania and my side trip to neighboring Moldova, Iaşi (pronounced yash) was brought up to my attention as an interesting town from which to leave Romania to enter Moldova. I was curious as to why it was suggested so I did some research. I was already going to hit Braşov as the base for my Transylvanian Alps hike so I certainly could see another town. Well Iaşi is referred to as the cultural capital of Romania and that was all I needed to hear for my curiosity to now require satisfaction!
Sometimes my approach to visit new places is flying by the seat of my pants and I may miss some neat little museum or site of local historical meaning. But I like exploring, for the most part, without a pre-defined script. My visit to Iaşi was like that. I did get a map, I did read what were supposed to be THE main sights to see but, for the rest, I just meandered around town. And it was very cool to be in a city that most tourists never get to see.
Getting to Iaşi from Bucharest
I considered taking a train from Bucharest as it is oftentimes a good way to see the countryside but I had very limited time so I would have only been in Iaşi for an evening. So I decided to take a very cheap flight to maximize my time in the town. As with most airports, the domestic flights terminal in Bucharest was much “simpler” than the international flights terminal. Don’t count on the ATM working on the domestic terminal… And the airport in Iaşi? Thanks for asking!!
I landed at around 11 AM which afforded me an entire afternoon of walking around. I got into a taxi at the airport and $5 later, I was in town. Though Iaşi is not a large town, it has plenty of monasteries in and near town that could have been great to visit but I decided to focus in the town itself to keep it simpler.
My hotel in Iaşi in Unirea Square
As usual, I used TripAdvisor to find a hotel that sounded well-located and that was well-reviewed by other travelers. The Traian Hotel sounded perfect: located in the Unirea (Unity) Square, it was within walking distance of many of the places I sought to visit.
The Traian Hotel was built in the 1880s by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame, a few years before he created the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower! It has hosted the Romanian government (during WW I), famous people (like Greta Garbo), etc. It was one of the first buildings in Europe to be molded on a metal frame. The hotel was pretty inexpensive for an American pocketbook. The lobby was not much and the spacious room was simple but it offered cable TV, a modern bathroom, and yet decorated to reflect its period/heyday. It also included a free and very nice buffet breakfast at its restaurant.
I had read that there was a tourism office right by Unirea Square. However, it was not on it but on one of the main streets going through it right after it exited the square. I am glad I persisted in finding it as they were very helpful, providing me with great information not only what to see in the town but also in neighboring regions of Romania and Moldova as well. I thank the the folks at the Department of Tourist Development of the Iaşi Municipality and Delia for their help with the map and the info!
Walking around beyond the Unirea Square
I walked down to the Palace of Culture, built between 1906-1925, a beautiful piece of neogothical architecture and the image of Iaşi.
The Palace of Culture hosts several museums but I was more interested that day in walking the town, exploring its streets rather than museum-visiting so I walked around and ran into a festival area where the smell of sausages cooking and large tents from Timişoreana beer (Timişoara is a city in western Romania). The festival was seemingly starting that evening but I took advantage of the setup to have some good and VERY cheap lunch!
I visited churches and monasteries and that will be the subject of another post. Besides those impressive places, I also walked past the imposing School of Medicine and Pharmacy and other university buildings (it is a university town after all). The National Theater was also a beautiful structure (wished I had gone inside). Here are those buildings and a couple of other neat sights around town.
Iaşi was definitely different than Bucharest and even Braşov (which is not a capital city and of which I will write later). Perhaps being further away from the capital of modern Romania and closer to Moldova and the Ukraine gives it an influence lacking south of the Carpathians (where Bucharest is). It did not feel a rushed place. And it did not seem to have a café culture as other European towns have like Paris, Rome, etc. or even Bucharest with Old Town or Braşov with all the cafés around the town center. I cannot say it was incredibly beautiful like Salzburg, Krakow or others. However, Iaşi felt more accessible and “real”. It also allowed me to -yet again- experience how non-capital, non-touristy cities offer the visitor a different experience – and it was certainly worth it.