Moldova is the perfect backpacker’s country. It’s worth seeing, relatively undiscovered, cheap, and after 2 or 3 days you can pretty much move on. The best time to visit is the summer. July 27th is Independence Day and August 31st is National Language Day, both of which are big holidays full of downtown Chișinău (key-shin-now) festivities. If you have a chance to visit during Orthodox Easter, you’ll really get a taste for Moldovan culture.
English speakers, I would suggest learning a few phrases in Russian or Romanian. It was my experience that everyone spoke Russian, but not everyone spoke Romanian, especially in the capital. And if you’re really struggling, there are usually enough English speakers around to help out. Public transportation may be a little stressful for English only speakers, but taxis are pretty cheap. And if you’re looking to practice your defensive driving skills, you could always rent a car. I suggest downloading Navmii’s navigation app for Moldova; it was a life saver – strictly GPS, does not use cellular data.
This country and its people hold a spot so protected, loved, and nurtured in my heart that it’s difficult to come up with this list. When I visit Moldova, it’s to visit the people I know and love. If you’re interested in a mixture of cultural experiences and tourist attractions and visiting for the first time, these top five adventures will be perfect.
1. Central Market
Piața centrală (Pee-atz-uh chen-tral-uh) or the central market is a huge open air market in Chisinău selling everything from fruits and vegetables to car parts. You can buy just about anything here. This is where locals shop, so souvenir shopping is more appropriate in the art market on blvd. Ștefan cel Mare. In the central market you’ll find the cheapest prices, and if you’re looking to save a few lei, this would be the place to bargain. Moldovan produce is so flavorful, but if you’re looking for products not grown in Moldova, you’ll probably have the best chance finding them here. Don’t miss the chaos of the meat section, the narrow allies of home goods or the 20 knives with homemade cheese samples pointing your direction in the dairy tent. Grab some plăcinte (cheese, potato, meat, or cabbage filled pastry) sold in small carts, and don’t forget to try the tastiest fruits and vegetables from local farmers.
Wine is very important in Moldova. Most rural Moldovans own their own small vineyards, make their own wine, and store it in their own cellars below their homes. Moldova produced a lot of wine for the Soviet Union, and today you can tour the winery at Mileștii Mici (milesh-tee meech) and see the huge doors where certain wines were hidden and protected during the soviet occupation. You have your choice of nine wineries to tour in the country, two of which (Mileștii Mici and Cricova) have the largest underground cellars in the world. Book a tour through the fine folks at Winerest – they’re even Moldovan!
3. Orheiul Vechi
Orheiul Vechi (or-hay-ul vec) or Old Orhei is probably the most visited tourist attraction in Moldova. The old cave monastery Tipova is built into the stone cliffs where priests lived for years. You can walk in the cave today, but it is still a church, so women should be sure to wear a head scarf as is customary in the Russian Orthodox religion.
Eco-Resort Butuceni (Boo-too-chen) is a restaurant and hotel serving up all things “traditional Moldova” – accommodations, attire, and cuisine. Many of the old homes in the village have been purchased by the resort and renovated to reflect traditional Moldovan homes with a sobă or fireplace under the bead for winter heat, exposed wood beams, and colorful rugs on the walls and floors. It is a charming resort definitely worth a visit. The restaurant prides itself on true traditional Moldovan cuisine, and a master cooking class is offered to the public. I was lucky enough to cook with the ladies in the kitchen and learned how to make some of my favorite dishes. Just like all rural Moldovans, they prepare their food stores all summer long, so even in the winter, the restaurant is serving local, all natural food. Even the bread is made in house and baked in the wood-fired oven. Don’t miss your chance to try all the traditional dishes – sarmale (stuffed cabbage or grape leaves), zeamă (soup), friptură (stewed meat), mămăligă (polenta) with cheese, and of course plăcinte (pastry). And don’t forget to leave your mark by slipping a dollar (or your national currency) into the huge weaving loom in the dining room.
Blvd. Ștefan cel Mare (Shtef-on chel ma-ray) or Stephen the Great is the perfect downtown street to walk with wide sidewalks, shopping, parks, and cultural attractions. I suggest spending a morning strolling the street from Strada Ismail to the statue of Stephen the Great on Strada Mitropolit Gavriil Bănulescu-Bodoni. That street name is way too long. You can shop for souvenirs and old soviet memorabilia at the art market, explore Cathedral Park, walk through the Arch of Triumph, and meander through Ștefan cel Mare Park.
The eight monasteries in Moldova have so much history – some dating to the 1400’s and founded by Stephen the Great. The majority of the population is Russian Orthodox, and over the last ten years the Moldovan government has worked to restore the monasteries after their closures during soviet occupation. I suggest women carry a small head scarf to cover their head when entering the monasteries. It is also recommended that you wear a skirt, but most monasteries provide material to wrap around your waist.
I hope your travels will one day take you through this beautiful country where hospitality abounds and wine overflows!