Are you looking for a place to spend the weekend this lovely spring? On a budget? Chisinau is calling every type of tourist. Whether you are looking for an adventure in the most “developing” European country, a romantic getaway in a cute little capital, a unique cultural experience, or just a stamp in your passport (been there, seen that), I have a plan ready for you.
Go-to mode of transportation: marshrutki (mini-buses). The driving is wild.
Friday evening: Make plans to go see a show at the Theater from Rose Street. I promise you have no chance of actually finding the theater without having a regular of the theater (no, random person on the street won’t know) personally lead you there. Instead, you’ll have an adventure searching for it and seeing what a real Chisinau neighborhood looks like until you give up and duck into a sketchy-looking place for a bite to eat.
Saturday: Souvenir time! Get to the flea market near the railroad station early. If your sense of adventure includes searching among second hand clothing, broken phones and god knows what else for that awesome 50 cents Soviet computer drive or $3 fur mittens, this is for you. Next, get on a marshrutka and settle in for a 2 hour drive to Tsipova. Trust me, it’s worth it. The views of the Dnistr River are incredible, you can climb through escape tunnels in cave churches, and you can go on a real hike. Not a nice nature walk. Like a “will you hold this thorny branch out of my way” and “BLIN (a mild Russian cuss word) I just slipped down this steep rocky slope” sort of hike. You’ll be rewarded with a waterfall at the bottom, and when you make it back up to the top, a tasty, simple dinner at the monastery.
Sunday morning: Go to Codru, the neighborhood in the south of the city. Stop in the Linella (a supermarket chain) and buy a lot of plachinta. Then head toward the abandoned kolhoz (collective farm). Pick a direction and go until you are completely lost, then take out your phone to check google maps and remember you have no wifi here. Then plop down, eat your plachinta, and struggle on with renewed energy until you make your way to some sort of street. Find a marshrutka, any marshrutka, and hope it takes you back to civilization.
The Romantic Getaway
Go-to mode of transportation: once again, marshrutki. You will have a lot of physical contact, I promise. Space is limited.
Friday evening: Wine tasting is a romantic thing to do, yes? I’ve heard through the grape vine (haha) that Moldova has good wine. Settle in for a ride to Milesci Mici, the largest underground wine storage system of tunnels in Europe.
Saturday morning: Souvenir time! If owning matching (ish- they are all unique) hand-knit sweaters seems like an AWW THATS SO CUTE moment to you as much as it does to me, find the yarn store on Moscova. On your way out, buy some flowers from a grandmother on the street. You’ll make both her and your date’s day. Then head back to the center to Komsomokskaya Ozera (Lake). It’s a pretty walk, but more even more fun is the natural spring up on the hill, where you can cleanse yourselves together in mineral water if naked old guys have not claimed it first.
Saturday evening: Walk up to 31 August 1989 street to, in my humble opinion, the bes restaurant in town, called Tiffany’s. Don’t hold back: portions are small, so you’ll want appetizers, drinks. But save the desert and coffee for the French cafe next door, home of the best croissants in Chisinau. You think this will all cost you a fortune? That is the beauty. You would have to try very hard to make all of this (drink+appetizer+entree+coffee+croissant) add up to more than $15 per person. Then head over to the Theater of Opera and Ballet, and buy some $10 orchestra seats to something romantic like…opera or ballet.
Sunday morning: Hit up the central market. Get as lost as possible among the tents. Two goals here. First of all, the likelyhood that you will find wedding dresses is high (romantic, right?) Second, you’ll need food. Do a brinza (goat cheese) tasting in the big tent and buy what strikes your fancy. Get yourself some kalach (round braided bread–this becomes important, stay tuned), fresh fruits, Bucaria (locally manufactured) candy. Get unlost and make your way to the dendrarium for a picnic. After meandering among the flowers and finding yourself a spot, lay out your food and get ready to break bread–that is, kalach. In Moldovan tradition it is necessary to kiss kalach before you can eat it. And while you are already kissing things…
The Erudite Experience
Go-to mode of transportation: trolleybus. The reliable means of transport for the average Chisinau citizen. 10 cents per ride.
Friday evening: Souvenir time! Hightail it to the knizhni rinok (book market). If you make it before approximately 4 pm, you’ll be treated to a book lover’s fantasy: everything from 19th century books in German to the complete Dostoevski, sold only as the complete Dostoevski. (That would be 12 volumes.) 99.6% guarantee that you can find a soviet-era edition of any given Russian classic. You can also pick up some dictionaries to learn some language and make your the rest of your experience more erudite. Maybe your language skills can even convince your new book seller friends to invite you to dinner for real Moldovan food and conversation?
Saturday morning: Hit up the national history museum for your overview on what this country is. Don’t spent too much time there, though, because the main event of the day will be a day trip to Old Orhei, a monastery/ancient town with all kinds of cool artifacts. You can also get the feel for the traditional Moldovan village as you walk through the town to a restaurant for lunch.
Saturday evening: Go see a play at the Chekhov theater. At least once a month you can catch a major Russian classic, i.e. something by Ostrovskii, Gogol, Dostoevskii, Tolstoi, or the namesake himself, Chekhov. Success rate for these shows is about 60% but worth it for the erudite feeling of going to see a Russian classic at the thee-a-teh. And it’s only $5-7 for front row seats.
Sunday morning: True nerds visit national libraries. If looking through a paper catalog and reading newspapers from 1945 that only exist in this one library in Chisinau, Moldova seems like your type of thing, rock on. Just don’t have any actual goals about what you are looking for or you will be there too long and will miss your flight. Also byotp (bring your own toilet paper).
Go-to mode of transportation: taxi. It costs about the same to take a taxi across the city as a single ride in the New York City metro. If you are already being touristy, why not?
Friday evening: You want to do the tourist thing? First stop: the statue of Stefan cel Mare in the center of the city. Take a nice selfie. Then cross the street and go right to the iconic (as far as iconic goes in Moldova) victory arch. Selfie number two. Turn around and admire the parliament building and all that democracy (read: protests). Selfie number three. Look at each other, confused that you have somehow managed to see all the tourist sites in Chisinau within 3 minutes. Then go to La Plachinta, a “traditional” Moldovan restaurant chain, for dinner and order the stuff with the strangest sounding name (mamaliga).
Saturday morning: considering that you have already seen all the “must-see” attractions in Chisinau, make the couple-hour trip to Soroki. Here you will find more to do. The list: 16th century fortress (selfie number four), the “Gypsy mountain” with a bunch of strange houses, such as a replica of the Capitol building (selfie number five) and a thousand some steps up to a spectacular view of the Dnestr River and Ukraine (selfie number six).
Saturday evening: Once you get back to Chisinau, get some bubliki (cheese and cinnamon are especially recommended- about 20 cents a piece) at the stand across the street from the National Palace. Then, because you are good tourists, you planned your trip for when there is a traditional Moldovan folk dance show at the National Palace.
Sunday morning: Souvenir time! On boulevard Stefan cel Mare a few blocks east (“up” in local speak) is a tourist market for this very purpose. Whether you want an I ❤ Moldova t-shirt, a matroshka doll (it’s actually Russian, but no one back home will know the difference), or a painting by a local artist, you are covered. By this point you’re probably tired and are at a loss for what else to do–how about just getting some coffee before your flight? The magnetic pull of the foreigner trap Tucano will be too great to resist. About one out of three patrons at any given time are speaking English. And your wallet will be comforted by the fact that you are paying somewhat close to western prices ($2 for coffee). Actually though, the signature coffee (Tucano coffee of course) is really good. Just fair warning: don’t order a large if you are used to Starbucks temperatures, because it come in a large round cup and will therefore (surface area science stuff) will become lukewarm within 30 seconds. Bonus: there is free wifi, so you can post all those selfies to Facebook. #moldova #europeshiddengem.