The Republic of Moldova is a fairly unfamiliar landlocked country in Eastern Europe. It has a long history of land fragmentation, including stints at being part of the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Romania, and the Ukrainian SSR.
Per capita, Moldova has the poorest economy in Europe and is also the least visited country in Europe. Should that stop you from visiting? Heck, no! On a continent suffering from over-exploration, the world is beginning to submit to the allure of this culturally unique, affordable, off-the-grid destination.
Moldova has a rich history dating back to discovery of 1.2 million year old Paleolithic era Oldowan flint tools. Middle Age influencers included the Roman and Byzantine Empires, Goths, Huns, Avars, Bulgarians, Mongols and Tatars. Today, Moldova is a unitary parliamentary representative democratic republic, a combination of Slavic and Latin culture, but with a remnant of the past Russian influence.
We enjoyed a comprehensive tour of Chisinau, the lively capital with JayWay Travel. The city offers tourists a plethora of both peculiar and interesting sights, within the city limits as well as a short drive away, including the incredibly quirky time-warp Transnistria. [more about Chisinau in Unfamiliar Destinations].
1. Take a walking tour of the city
The best way to get around the former Soviet city is by foot. The main avenue is Bulevardul Ștefan cel Mare, the heart of Chisinau, and a good base for touring the city.
The Parliament Building with “Moldova” carved into the greenery is the most photographed site, but plenty of beautiful architecture still remains along with the utilitarian communist-era buildings.
2. Sit on a giant bench
The city is not without whimsical touches. We stumbled upon a giant bench in the midst of a block of utilitarian communist block architecture. We could not resist the urge to ham it up with a bunch of photos. Can you blame us?
3. Find the former KGB headquarters
How can you help but be intrigued by the place where planning and interrogations were carried out? If you don’t have a local guide to point it out, you probably would not guess that this particular building was one of the former KGB headquarters. The brightly flowered landscaping in front of the building’s façade belies the strategies that were once planned inside. Unfortunately, the building is now privately owned and indoor exploration was frowned upon by that establishment, so we were unable to enter.
4. Check out the rooftop views
As sunset approached, we climbed (okay, took the elevator) to the top of one of the city buildings. As luck would have it, there was a rooftop bar, so we each ordered a different local cocktail.
I sipped on a delicious “Passion Kiss” – grapefruit vodka, passion fruit cordial, sparkling wine, raspberry powder and egg white – and sat back on plushy cushions to watch the sun go down on the crowded city.
5. Visit Cricova Winery
Moldova has a well-established wine industry, most of which is exported. One of the most interesting operations is the Cricova vineyards and winery. Overland are acres and acres of vineyards and endless views.
But once you enter the frigid cold underground labyrinth, you’re whisked by an open-air trolley through miles of tunnels leading to storage cellars containing old and valuable wines, and the bottling facilities.
The tour ends in one of several themed tasting rooms.
6. Sample the local cuisine
The fare in Moldova is quite delicious, made even better when enjoyed in one of the traditional courtyard restaurants. My favorite was Gok-Oguz, an open-air Bulgarian/Turkish eatery. The cozy individual booths were fitted out with colorful tapestries, cushions, rugs, and pillows.
Although the servers spoke no English, they were really friendly and looked gorgeous in traditional dress.
Pork and lamb are popular, and the flavorful marinated kabobs are mouth-stuffing addictive. The meat is served with side dishes of dumplings, polenta, and roasted vegetables.
For a snack, lunch or a lighter meal, my recommendation would be a savory cheese pastry called plăcintă cu brânză.
I loved the favorite local desert is called papanași, small handmade donuts smothered in berries and heaped with fresh cream.
7. Try some cannabis coffee
Upon request, Tucano’s coffee comes with a dusting of hemp powder. It’s more hype than high, so don’t expect to…get high, that is. In ancient times, hemp was used in cooking, as an appetite enhancer (not so ancient, you say?), a source of vegetable oil and as a remedy. Great fun and a must-do photo op in Chisinau.
8. Relax in the green space
Chisinau is considered one of the greenest cities in Europe, boasting more than a dozen parks. Stefan cel Mare Park is one of the oldest parks in the city, founded in 1818. The park has seven entries, a large fountain, and the majestic monument of Moldova’s greatest ruler Stefan the Great, for whom the park is named.
Nearby Cathedral Park, in the center of the city, is where you can get the best views and photos of Nativity Cathedral, the city’s main church, and the Triumph Arch located across from the government house.
9. Visit Transnistria
Just a short drive from Chisinau is Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria. Sometimes referred to as “the country that doesn’t exist,” this tiny Soviet-era time-warp territory self-declared its independence from Moldova in 1991, but is unrecognized by the United Nations or any other sovereign nation.
This quirky “country” has its own government, parliament, and military. It is a large caviar producer and lays claim to the Kvint distillery, whose award-winning cognac is well-known throughout Europe. And where else could you possibly see a Soviet tank juxtaposed as if shooting a church?
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of JayWay Travel during her stay in Moldova, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.