Home DestinationsEurope The temptations of Timisoara

The temptations of Timisoara

by Bernard O'Shea
The Timișoara Orthodox Cathedral in Romania.

It’s hip to be in the squares of Timisoara, a European Capital of Culture in 2023.


Sometimes you see a photograph of a place and just yearn to be there, to immerse yourself it and experience it for yourself. And when I saw a photo of Timisoara in Lonely Planet’s Romania guide book (5th edition, published May 2010, before Instagram became a thing), I had to change my travel plans radically to include what Lonely Planet writer/photographer Mark Baker said in the caption was “a glamorous Vienna wannabe marooned on the western fringe of Romania”.

My plans up till then were to visit some of the grand capitals of Central Europe for the first time – Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest – then head to Sibiu in Transylvania to do a two-week course in Romanian (for my language blog My Five Romances). After that, a week of touring to take in sights such as Bran Castle, Peles Castle and Brasov. But now the Vienna wannabee was calling me as much as Vienna itself.

And what was it, exactly, in that photo that lured me? A city square with a large lawn in the middle and, in the background, a mustard-coloured baroque church and elegant double-story buildings in pretty colours – orange, pink, coral and splashes of  yellow – bathed in the early morning light. So early that there was no one around. It looked so idyllic and peaceful.

The book didn’t say what square it was, and I made it my mission to find out. The answer: Piața Unirii (Union Square).

Romania cast in a new light

I love baroque architecture, which I first came to appreciate in Brazil, where exquisite examples can be found in places such as Recife and Olinda, and the colonial gem towns of Minas Gerais. But to see this colourful cluster of buildings in Romania – a country that people often conceive of as grim and grey – was a revelation.

It’s extravagant, I know, to go well out of your way just to stand in the middle of a pretty square on a country’s fringe, but go out of my way I did. What could have been a short flight between Vienna and Sibiu became long train rides, including a farcical detour at Arad to take in Timisoara. But by the time I set out, I wondered whether the two-night stop in Timisoara would be enough. It’s Romania’s third largest city and capital of the Banat region; it has enough historic sites to satisfy the curiosity of those interested in such things; and it was where – in a remarkable, spontaneous act of bravery and defiance – the Romanian revolution started in 1989. Its museum dedicated to the revolution was high on my list of places to see.

The cafes and baroque buildings in Piata Unirii, Timisoara

Colourful buildings adorn Piata Unirii in Timisoara. Photo: ©Bernard O’Shea

A chance encounter

Funnily enough, when I eventually got there, I stumbled across Piata Unirii quite unintentionally. It was late in the afternoon, I had just arrived after a long train journey from Budapest with my father (now in his 80s), and he was feeling feverish. So once we had dumped the suitcases in our room, I set off on foot from the hotel, heading west down the main boulevard towards the city, in search of a pharmacist. But the quaint roads and cobbled alleys on the northern side of the boulevard seemed to be calling me – and so, forgetting my father’s needs for a minute (sorry, Dad) I succumbed to their allure and strayed down Strada Mercy to explore.

A couple of blocks on and, lo and behold, Piata Unirii lay before me. Right beside me, in a four-storey building known as the Palatul Salamon Brück, was a pharmacy decked out in patterns of fresh coats of pale green, white, maroon, and other embellishments (on the left in the photo above). It’s probably the most striking pharmacy I’ve ever set foot in.

Piata Unirii has many moods, depending on the time of day, the clouds in the sky and the angle of the sunlight. Each time you visit it, you see something in it that you didn’t see before. There is a patch of lawn about the size of a football field in the middle, criss-crossed by cobblestone paths; concrete benches around for people to sit on, and – strangely but delightfully – portable wooden chairs that you can pull up as you please. Enticing cafés and restaurants line the perimeter. At night, when it is lit up by old-fashioned street lamps, the piata takes on another glow of its own.

Landmarks of note around the square include the Roman Catholic Catedrala Sfântul Gheorghe (St George’s Cathedral) and the Serbian Orthox Church (both built in the mid-18th century), the old Serbian Bishop’s palace, and the city’s Art Museum, housed in the Palatul Vechii Prefecturi, or Old Prefecture Palace.

The description on a local map explains it best: Piața Unirii este una din cele mai frumoase si mari piete baroc din Europa … Piața Unirii is one of the most beautiful and biggest baroque squares in Europe.

Opera, castles and ferry rides

Piața Unirii is not the main hub of the city, though. That honour belongs to the more modern Piața Victoriei, or Victory Square, scene of some of the most dramatic moments of the revolution when it was jam-packed with protesters. Fearing that the city would be bombed by aircraft, people gathered there all night and day, figuring that no fighter pilot would dare to bomb a square full of people kneeling in prayer. It was a brave call!

The square is long and rectangular, with pretty gardens bookended by the Romanian National Opera House to the north (it used to be called Piața Operei) and the towering Catedrala Mitropolitană din Timișoara (Romanian Orthodox Cathedral) at the other. The cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating alongside the garden hedges are good spots for long lunches and dinner.

Very close to the Opera House is Castelul Huniade (Huniade Castle), now part of the Museum of Banat. To the south of the square, behind the Cathedral, is a rim of parkland and the Bega River, where you can do ferry rides.

If you walk between Piața Unirii and Piața Victoriei – which is easily done, they are only about 600 metres apart – you will come across another interesting outdoor space, Piața Libertatii  (Liberty Square). It was looking a bit tired when I visited, but has since been given a facelift. Nearby is the impressive Moorish-style Sinagoga din Cetate or Fortress Synagogue.

Catedrala Mitropolitană din Timișoara (Romanian Orthodox Cathedral)

The Catedrala Mitropolitană dominates the city skyline: Photo: Stachelvieh/Pixabay

A European Capital of Culture in 2023

For much of its history, Timisoara had suffered from federal neglect, having been “marooned” on the fringe, far from the national capital, Bucharest. Nevertheless, I liked the place, and could sense it was heading for a major revival. Judging by what I read on billboards there, I could sense the local governing authorities were very progressive and trying to get it back on the map.

Their efforts and ambitions were rewarded as Timisoara clinched the nomination of being a European Capital of Culture in 2021. However, because of the COVID pandemic, it has now been designated a European capital of culture in 2023, along with Elefsina in Greece. I would love to go back to see how much Timisoara has changed, and to be in Piața Unirii once more. TTW

See also, The Farce on Platform 3. No, 2!
For all Time To Wander’s stories on Romania, go here.


Bernard O’Shea travelled to Romania at his own expense. More information at romaniatourism.com.

You may also like

Leave a Comment