I would say that it's the rule, rather than the exception, that we plan our trips based on cost. For example, we had a four day weekend in the fall and decided to visit Timișoara, Romania because the cheapest round-trip tickets we could get from Madrid to pretty much anywhere in Europe were there. We'd certainly never heard of Timișoara before, but after a bit of research, we decided to take the plunge, grab the cheap tickets while they were available, and figure everything else out later.
We went back and forth on whether we should spent the entire weekend in Romania, beginning and ending in Timișoara and branching out to see the surrounding area, or driving 3-4 hours away to Budapest in neighboring Hungary. Since we were gone over Danny's birthday weekend, he got to have the final say, you know, since I got to go to London for my birthday! ;) Budapest it was, but we still decided to spend most of the first day of our trip in Timișoara after flying in late on a Wednesday night.
Our Airbnb host was Romanian, and we enjoyed chatting with her over a leisurely breakfast before walking through the city's Botanic Park, where we found locals sitting and relaxing, and saw the green of summer hanging on strong as signs of fall were slowly creeping in on some trees.
Our first proper stop was Piața Unirii, or Unirii Square. We walked into the square, and were just stunned! It's so beautiful, with its colorful, well-kept buildings (including two cathedrals), cobblestone paving, and big pots of flowers - the bright blue sky couldn't have hurt, either. We stayed here for a while before moving on, and couldn't resist stopping by again before leaving town too.
D - I had no clue what Timișoara would be like before we got there and when we saw the town square I was just floored by its beauty. Some of my favorite experiences I've had while traveling have been seeing places for the first time that I hadn't even seen in pictures beforehand. To me, it almost feels like the difference between knowing what you're going to get for Christmas, and having no clue what you're going to get and being surprised by the perfect gift! You still get the gift either way, but the feeling of surprise elation only comes through the latter.
Next we visited Piața Libertății, Timişoara's oldest square, and only a couple of minutes away from Piata Unirii. We saw so much ordinary life happening in Timişoara, but nowhere more than here in Libertatii Square: people walking to work, reading the news in the sunshine, catching up with friends, taking their baby for a ride, waiting for the tram - Timişoara is for people living and isn't packed with tourists, at least not yet.
D - This was my first exposure to Eastern Europe and going in, I think I expected it to have a bit of a dismal and gray vibe. Walking around Timişoara really challenged those preconceived notions! It was as vibrant and lively as really any other European city that we've been to.
Timișoara's central square (although, I would argue, not the most beautiful ;)) is Piața Victoriei, or Victoriei Square. This square includes sights like the Opera House and the city's main Orthodox Cathedral, which sit on opposite ends of the long square from each other. Get your Starbucks or McDonald's here, some of the only American chains we saw during our time in what some call Romania's most cosmopolitan city. The nearly 80-year-old cathedral is a stunner, featuring intricate paintings and gold decorations lit up by the numerous candles placed all around the space.
D - Calling it a square really seems a bit deceptive to me, but I guess it's really about a public place where people gather more than the shape of said place. Victoriei Square (or Victoriei oblong polygon promenade) is really cool because of its length. From the Opera House, the cathedral rises majestically out of the earth almost reminiscent of something from Disney World.
On another note, I'm not generally into religious iconography but I found the paintings in the cathedral to be quite captivating for some reason. Perhaps they reminded me of comic book art or something.
We finished our time in Timișoara with a walk on the path along the quiet Bega River that runs through town. Boats are available for rent during the summertime, something we certainly would have enjoyed had we more time and perhaps slightly warmer weather (although, no complaints - we definitely had a gorgeous day for mid-October!). As we walked through town, a place offering a lunch special (soup, main course, and dessert) for a good price caught our eye, so we took the vegetarian option, ate, and drove to Budapest!
We spent two full days in Budapest (Friday and Saturday), which felt just about right, and drove back to Timișoara on Sunday morning, leaving plenty of time in case we ran into lines while crossing the Hungarian-Romanian border, traffic, etc. Thankfully all went well, and we had time for lunch at Biofresh, a vegetarian and vegan restaurant in Timișoara, where the food was fine, nothing special, before returning the rental car at the airport and flying back to Madrid. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to tell you that I got sick on the plane and the only thing I had eaten that day (aside from a plain bagel with cream cheese for breakfast before leaving Budapest) was our lunch at Biofresh. Danny was fine though, so, must've been a fluke (he also never got sick in Turkey, and that was a theme of the summer for me).
If you can't tell by now, we really enjoyed our day in Timișoara. I know there's more to see and do that we didn't get to, but it gave us a taste of Romania - our first visit to the country - and made us hungry for more. We hardly encountered any tourists, at least not ones as obvious as we are. ;)There are pros and cons to visiting a place off the beaten tourist path, but on the Thursday that we visited, it felt like we got a snapshot into daily life in the city (we also stayed in what felt like a very normal yet unphotogenic apartment highrise in a residential neighborhood and visited a few nearby supermarkets and opticians looking for contact solution, which we forgot at home). Timișoara's been chosen as the European Capital of Culture for 2021, so before all of the festivities start and, potentially, change the feel of this quiet, elegant gem, add it to your Eastern Europe itinerary or Bucket List!