I’m going to make an embarrassing confession. Until recently I couldn’t point to Moldova on a map, let alone give fellow adventurers a single reason why it deserves a visit.
But after spending nearly a week in the country on Intrepid’s Moldova, Ukraine and Romania Explorer trip, I discovered so much more than its location (it’s wedged between Romania and Ukraine). One of Europe’s least visited countries, it’s slowly revealing itself to be packed full of worthwhile attractions.
When there, my group and I walked, dined and danced alongside locals in modern cities and rural villages. I sampled food and drink much, much better than anticipated. I learned about the complicated history and the compelling culture. All this, and so much more.
With these experiences in mind, I’ve compiled a list of reasons to visit Moldova. Here are some must-dos, some spots the group loved, and an inside perspective into a region few travelers have yet to discover.
Make new friends
It may take a little effort before locals warm to you, but they will. Consider this a quirk of history. The area, formerly known as Bessarabia, was ruled by multiple empires throughout history including the Ottomans and Russians. At one point it was a region of Romania, and later a territory in the Soviet Socialist Republic. After declaring independence in 1991, it has faced delicate relations with Russia, and has a breakaway region, Transnistria, within its borders.
That is to say, Moldovans may be wary of visitors at first, but after a conversation (the younger generation speaks English) over a cup of strong coffee or a shot of local brandy, you’ll have a friend for life. This tour, packed with a mix of planned activities and free time, provides ample opportunity to meet locals perched on bar stools or lingering in outdoor cafes.
Sample wine in the world’s biggest cellar
From full-bodied reds to sweet white Rieslings, visitors will find plenty of wine in Moldova. While the wine is only now starting to be widely exported outside of Eastern Europe and Russia, it’s one of the best value in Europe. Diners can easily find a high-quality bottle for under $10 on restaurant menus or grab a bottle in a grocery store for half that.
One of the best spots to sample the spirits is the Mileștii Mici winery, whose 120 miles of underground tunnels hold the world’s largest collection of wine. It’s a must-see in Moldova, and our group made the pilgrimage to sample red, whites and sparkling wines from local vineyards in a tasting room dating back centuries.
The winery is so large that tour guides zipped us across a small portion of the tunnels in a car, as opposed to on foot.
Sing and dance alongside a Eurovision finalist
Don’t discount the culture in this diminutive country. In 2005 Moldova’s favorite percussion-playing grandmother, Lidia Bejenaru, took the Eurovision stage with rock/funk group, Zdob şi Zdub.
They placed sixth – the country’s highest placement ever in Europe’s annual music showcase. The reason judges cite grandma’s energetic performance pounding the drums in traditional garb – a sort of sexagenarian version of Sheila E.
Today, she still performs typical Moldovan folk songs alongside her husband at ceremonies including cultural feasts and weddings. We had the chance to sing and dance with the duo at a home lunch overflowing with food and local wine. What an experience!
In Moldova’s capital, Chişinău, cafes, restaurants, and shops dot the roads surrounding Cathedral Park, as well as the Boulevard August 31 1989 (a lively street named for Moldova’s independence day). Sip a strong cup of coffee, similar to Turkish coffee, while nibbling on flaky pastries or cake-style sweets.
Alternatively, opt to relax al fresco with the locals lazing on benches in Cathedral Park while enjoying a takeout cup of espresso from one of the many snack stands offering beverages, ice cream and sweets.
You’ll spot plenty of young entrepreneurs in warmer months taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi available throughout the green grounds.
Explore Chişinău like a local
While smaller than Europe’s other capital cities, Chişinău still packs enough for a long weekend. In addition to lounging in the park, stroll the Piata Centrala. This is the city’s main outdoor market and boasts vendors selling fruits, meat, clothing and just about anything else available in a mega-mart back home.
Ask your guide for primer on Moldovan shopping etiquette, then hone your haggling skills at the Souvenir Bazaar, which carries far more than trinkets. Here you’ll find antiques, souvenirs, artisanal goods, and plenty of Communist-era relics. If you ask nicely, you may even get a free kaval (traditional flute) lesson from a local musician.
Leave time to explore the Nativity of Christ Metropolitan Cathedral, the city’s main Orthodox church boasting impressive frescoes and a reconstructed bell tower (the original was destroyed in WWII).
Don’t be afraid to take the trolley buses. The routes are extensive, and a one-way fare is about $0.15. Download an interactive map before arrival for easy navigation.
Run through fields of sunflowers
No visit during summer is complete without stopping to smell the (sun) flowers. Most car trips through the countryside wind across small roads and large highways where you’ll pass fields of the bright yellow blossoms that stretch for miles across the horizon.
Stop to snap an Instagram, but know that the flowers are much more than decorative. Moldova depends on the hearty helianthus annuus as a major export crop, processing the seed for food products and cooking oil.
Feast on a budget
Where can you indulge in a three-course meal, with local wine, for under $10? Moldova. From casual spots in Comrat to restaurants offering traditional or international style cuisine in Chişinău, meals will hardly make a dent in the wallet.
The country is known for meat-heavy dishes, however there’s plenty of lighter options and vegetarian dishes. Be sure to sample Moldovan-style borscht which can be ordered with or without meat.
Dining with my fellow travelers was a great way to sample a large variety of local foods, including Plăcintă, a savory pastry available with a variety of fillings including salty cheeses or meats. If you’re on the road and not sure what to eat, look for an Andy’s Pizza. It’s a local chain that offers pizza, Moldovan specialties, salads, and cocktails.
Insider tip: restaurant service is much slower than in Western Europe. They aren’t ignoring you, it’s just a different pace. Be sure to leave enough time if you have a bus or train to catch.
Discover hidden monasteries
If climbing to the top of a hill to visit an ancient cave monastery isn’t on your bucket list, it should be. The Orhei Vechi monastery is perched high atop a hill overlooking the Răut River. The structure was dug by Orthodox monks in the 13th century, abandoned in the 18th century, and is currently home to a few solitary monks once again.
Walk outside to the cliff’s ledge and place a coin in the naturally pitted limestone structure for good luck. Just don’t look down if you are afraid of heights!
And don’t wait until this country gets discovered by travelers worldwide. Now is the time to visit.
Experience Moldova on a small group adventure with Intrepid Travel. Check them out.
(Hero image c/o Nir Nussbaum (repeated inline). All other images c/o Kristin Amico.)