This humble city on the Hungarian border boasts a treasure trove of Baroque architecture and makes for an ideal first step when exploring Romania.
For an emerging travel destination, there are still quite a few places in Romania that have yet to fully pop up on tourist’s radars. Most certainly one of these is the understated city of Oradea by the country’s border with Hungary. Tourists are literally bypassing Oradea on their way to the heart of Transylvania and missing out on the varied architecture that livens up this unassuming city.
In truth, the city makes for a natural first stop when entering Romania from Western and Central Europe, breaking up what can be a long journey. From Budapest in Hungary, the train trip lasts roughly 4.5 hours with several more for those heading to the larger city of Cluj Napoca in Transylvania proper. Coming from Vienna which is itself several hours from Budapest, Oradea seemed like the perfect place to begin exploring Romania.
Oradea seems like a city that could see a transformation into a bigger tourist draw and is the kind of place you’d be curious to see how it has changed in a few years. While it currently has pretty light tourism infrastructure, the vast number of civil works going on could transform it into the standard starting point for tourists travelling to Romania from Western and Central Europe.
Aside from being a convenient place to stop when venturing into Romania from the west, the city’s main draw has to be its intriguing array of architecture found throughout the city. At one time part of the expansive Austro-Hungarian Empire, Oradea has kept that history alive with scores of buildings built in the baroque style.
A sensible starting point for exploring Oradea and its architecture is from the main square of Piata Unirii. Surrounding the square are numerous exquisite buildings, all skilfully renovated. You can easily spend a little time making your way around the square, going from building to building and admiring the varied aesthetics on display. Highlights in the square include the Palace of the Greek Catholic Bishopric, with its pastel colours and baroque facade; and the Vulturul Negru Passage from the turn of the 20th century, seen below.
Also found on the square are a number of very different and beautiful churches. One particularly to take note of is the Biserica cu luna, or Church of the Moon, an 18th century Orthodox church that has a mechanical orb on its tower rotating to show the phase of the moon. While it may look quite plain from the outside, the inside of the Church of the Moon is anything but. Entering the church, you will be struck by the bold blue walls and gilded frescos, despite its dim lighting. I personally can’t recall another church I’ve found to be so visually vibrant, which is impressive considering the relatively small space it occupies.
The other main area of Oradea where you can soak up the historic architecture is the pedestrian Calea Republicii, on the far side of the river. This long pedestrian street would seem to be a pretty standard mall with its commercial shops and cafes, were it not for all the eye-catching architecture you come across. Not all of it is in a pristine state and some of it is covered in netting, but a walk down Calea Republicii will have you regularly looking up at a facade, a balcony or a corner tower.
Perhaps my favourite building on the street is the spooky abandoned hospital at the northern end of the street. Strewn with shredded nets and broken windows, it looks like a perfect setting for a horror movie, and yet underneath is some seriously grand architecture. Seeing the state of some of the buildings in Oradea, you’re torn between the atmosphere and photo opportunities they provide and the sad truth that these buildings are falling into disrepair and could soon be lost for good.
Moving away from the city’s architecture, Oradea does have facets to enjoy. As it sits on the Crisul Repede river, Oradea has quite a bit of riverfront to explore. With the exception of the area by Union Square, most of the city’s riverfront is along quite streets or parkland. If you are looking for a peaceful stroll, walking along the gentle river will easily meet your need. As they are currently working on the main bridge that joins either side of the river, you may have to walk along the river out of necessity if you want to explore the other half of town.
Another sight worth visiting in Oradea is the city’s large fortress. Dating from the 12th century, this star-shaped fortress has been through numerous rebuilds and renovations. It is in fact, currently going through some restoration work which meant that the museums and inner courtyard were off limits during my visit. Still, you are able to walk through the courtyards of the fortress and wander through the pretty gardens that sit outside its walls. Standing below the crumbling brick walls gives you an appreciation for how impressive it is that they have survived the test of time.
At this stage, Oradea doesn’t have a huge range of hotels to support mass tourism, but it does have a few guesthouses and pensions that would meet many traveller’s needs. For my visit, I stayed at the Avalon Rooms, with spacious rooms and friendly service, despite some street noise. I also experienced the hospitality of Casa Mignon, as they ran one of the few well-regarded restaurants close by and south of the river. There, I tried their intriguing “Gypsy Pork” which may have been pork neck, with a tasty tomato sauce and potatoes. Would definitely recommend Casa Mignon, if you’re looking for a simple and affordable meal on the side of Oradea.
Oradea seems like a destination on the rise, partly from its favourable position on the route between Budapest and Transylvania and partly due to its wealth in charming architecture. Adding the city to your Romanian itinerary could be a great first step into this increasingly popular region.
Have you visited Oradea before? Where do you think people should visit in Romania that they don’t? Please share in the comments below.
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