When I did my travel planning to decide how many days I would stay in Chisinau I thought one day would be enough. Most travelblogs mentioned the lack of things to do in Chisinau and some even called it the most boring or ugliest capital of Europe.
It is true that there are not a lot of things to do in Chisinau if it comes to tourist attractions, but still I left Chisinau wanting more. I have to be honest that Chisinau might not be for everyone, but if you have just a little bit of interest in Soviet history and off the beaten path destinations then it is worth your time.
Moldova’s unique history
Moldova’s culture and language is very similar to that of Romania, but their histories went different ways. Ottomans, Russians and Romanians fought over, what was then called Bessarabia, for centuries.
In 1940 the Red Army took Bessarabia to become the Moldovian Soviet Socialist Republic. I love visiting cities from former Soviet republics and the more remnants of this past the better.
To my surprise Chisinau still has the essence of a typical Soviet city. Along with the endless flat appartment blocks and the brutalist architecture comes plenty of parks with memorials and statues. Maybe that is why for some Chisinau is ugly. The grim and concrete buildings look uninspiring at first, but they have many stories to tell.
Travel guide to the best things to do in Chisinau
I did not know that my visit coincided with one of Moldova’s greatest national holidays. Throughout the Soviet years Moldavians kept their own identity. Already before the fall of the Soviet Union, on the 31st of august 1989, they reinstalled Moldavian as the official language.
This day is still a big celebration in Chisinau and almost as important as independence day. Moldova’s independence came at a high price though. What was once a wealthy state in the Soviet Union, became the poorest country of Europe.
For solutions, Moldova wants to join the European Union and some even want a reunification with Romania. However, not everyone in Moldova is in favour of this idea. Some are still nostalgic towards the good old days of communism and prefer closer ties with Russia.
When I joined the crowds in Chisinau these problems seemed far away. The capital was in a festive atmosphere. A big concert with traditional music, in the Moldovan language of course, continued till late night.
The Valea Morilor Lake
What I liked most about Chisinau is the amount of green spaces in the city. Only a short walk from the centre is a large lake that is the perfect place to find some peace. Valea Morilor lake was built by the local youth organization of the communist party in the 1950s. It used to be Chisinau’s favourite recreation area. However, in 2006 increasing pollution of the lake killed all fish.
Chisinau drained the lake to clean it, but then ran out of money. For years it was nothing more than an empty wasteland. Recently, the Valea Morilor lake is finally brought back to its former glory. Now it is the pride of Chisinau and there are frequent events and exhibitions.
If you walk through the park you should pay attention. At the entrance of the park there are still some small Soviet mosaics on the buildings. Furthermore, when you go down the stairs to the embankment you will also find a small statue of the little prince from Antoine Saint Exupery. It is on a metal fence and only 4 inches high.
The War memorial
At the outskirts of Chisinau is the sober and impressive war memorial. As part of the Soviet Union, Moldovan soldiers in the Red Army fought against Nazi Germany. Like any post Soviet country the losses were great and almost 200,000 Moldovans died in the Great Patriotic War.
The Army museum
You can learn more about the Great Patriotic War and Soviet repression at the Army museum. The exhibition of Soviet fighters and planes in the garden is free. Inside there is more information about the horrors of Stalin’s regime in Moldova.
The Abandoned Soviet stadium & Street art
Nearby the Army museum is the abandoned Soviet stadium. Gates prevent people from getting inside, but there is not much to see anyways.
The football lawns that were once the best of the Soviet Union are now full with trees. The walls are all that is left behind, but they make it worth it to pay a visit. Street artists used them to paint colourful images on them. If an abandoned stadium full of street art has your interest you should visit soon. The US plans to buy the land to build a brand new embassy.
The monument of victims of political repression
The horrors of the Stalin regime were especially harsh in Moldova. The Moldovans were one of the ethnic groups that were deported to Kazakhstan only allowed to return after Stalin’s death.
Some 46,000 Moldovans were deported and those that survived the long journey were subjected to forced labour in Gulag camps. Historians believe that 12% of the Moldovan population perished as a result of the deportations.
If that wasn’t enough Stalin send less aid to Moldova during the Soviet famine in 1946. Around 123,000 Moldovans died of hunger. A number that is five times higher than elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
The abandoned Soviet circus
Like the Soviet stadium the Moldovan State circus has seen better days. The circus opened in 1981. There was space for almost 2000 people and artists travelled far to perform there.
It closed in 2004 for restoration, but its future remains unclear. The exterior architecture is impressive and in my opinion worth preserving. During my visit it was impossible to get inside, but I have seen pictures on The Bohemian blog that shows the interior is equally interesting with beautiful murals and statues.
When I was there, a very small part of the circus was open as a Dinopark for children. Much of it seemed to be happening outside though. Hopefully this means that there are more plans to use this building for other events as well.
Nativity Cathedral & the triumphal Arch
The heart of Chisinau is the Central park with the nativity cathedral and the triumphal arch. The arch is the symbol of the city and a memorial to the victory of the Russian empire over the Ottomans in 1829.
The construction of the nativity cathedral was shortly build after the Russian victory in 1830. During the Soviet years it was an exhibition centre, but it is now again an active place of worship.
The Moldovan National Opera and Ballet Theatre
Not all Soviet buildings are abandoned. I was happy to see that some are still used the way they were such as the beautiful moldovan national opera and ballet theatre. It is one of the few ex-Soviet opera companies that kept its own orchestra.
I did not have time to see one of the performances, but this is probably the cheapest way to go to the opera or to see ballet in Europe. Their website shows the current schedule.
A walk along the Stefan cel Mare boulevard allows you to see the most important government buildings. They are impressive and you will almost forget that Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Especially if you see the Presidents Residence opposite the Parliament building.
The Parliament building used to be the meeting place of the Communist Party. While most buildings are in typical Soviet style, some are more recent additions with a more European look.
Considering the fact that the Soviets despised religion, Chisinau still has a lot of churches that somehow survived during these years. Although most had different purposes in that time. The transfiguration of the saviour church next to the Presidents Residence was a planetarium. It was returned to the Moldovan Orthodox church in 1991.
Chisinau has no shortage of grim looking Soviet flats, but this is well compensated by the amount of recreational areas. I was surprised to see how green Chisinau is once you explore the suburbs. There are so many places to relax and escape the city. One of the reasons why you can spend several days in Chisinau is exploring all the parks.
I already talked about the popular valea morilor park, but that is not the only one in Chisinau. The Dendrarium park is equally popular. It is the largest park with over 1000 kind of plants and several ponds with ducks.
Other popular green spaces are the Botanical garden and the Riscani park with the Afghan War Memorial to Sons of the Motherland. The technical University has also opened its campus with an outdoors museum of technique in their garden.
Chisinau’s central market is a huge affair covering several blocks in the middle of the city. It is busy, chaotic and noisy, but without doubt you will find anything here. It’s a great place to try some local cheese or honey and to stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables. Cheap Chinese clothes and household items are also present.
Beyond Chisinau: Orheiul Vechi, wine cellars and Transnistria
Chisinau is only the beginning of what there is to do in Moldova and it pays to stay a couple more days to make daytrips in the region. Only 18 kilometer outside of Chisinau is the largest wine cellar in the world at Milestii Mici.
60 kilometers north of Chisinau is the cave monastery in Orheiul Vechi that is easy to visit by taking a marshrutka from the main bus station to the village of Trebujeni or Butuceni. Read more about how to get there by public transport on Kathmandu and Beyond.
At last you can visit Tiraspol, the capital of a country that does not exist and that feels like one big Soviet open air museum. Read more about how to visit Transnistria in the best of Tiraspol: celebrating Transnistria’s indepence.
Places to eat in Chisinau
La Taifas is a great traditional restaurant and one of the best places to try out the local cuisine. Moldovan food is very influenced by Romanian cuisine, but has some of its own delicacies. I ordered a Moldovian stew with meat balls and it was very nice.
This student cafe has a nice menu with a variety of Italian and local dishes. It is very popular with locals and can be very busy.
La Placinte is a chain throughout Chisinau with an extensive menu of Moldovan and Ukrainian food. The prices are great, but the quality varies.
Places to sleep in Chisinau
The small Amazing Ionika hostel can be crowded and noisy, but the owner for sure takes his business serious. It is a great place to meet other travellers and the owner is very helpful and informative.
Hotel Cosmos is probably above the average backpacker budget, but the building is still worth a look, even if you are not staying there. It is one of the few Soviet structures that is still used for its original purpose. Although the oversized hotel has a hard time finding enough customers these days.
How to get to Chisinau
There are daily nighttrains to and from Bucharest in Romania. The train journey lasts around 13 hours. From Bucharest the train leaves at 19:15 and arrives 08:45 am the following morning in Chisinau. From Chisinau it leaves at 16:45 and arrives at 06:05 the following morning in Bucharest.
There is also a train from and to Odessa on fridays, saturdays and sundays. In the summer months it runs more often. It leaves Chisinau at 06:57 and arrives in Odessa at 10:46. It returns from Odessa at 18:45 to arrive in Chisinau at 22:45. The train runs through Transnistria, but this should not be a problem.
There are also trains from Chisinau to Kiev, Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
Chisinau’s chaotic bus station has marshrutkas to every destination in Moldova and beyond.
I came from Iasi in Romania. From Iasi there are frequent minivans to Chisinau at the following times 6:45, 7:45, 8:30, 9:00, 9:30, 9:45, 14:00, 14:45, 15:20, 15:45, 17:30, 18:30.
There are also buses to Odessa. The journey takes around 7 hours and they avoid the Transnistria region. For Kiev or Lviv you can take the daily nightbusses.