Since its status as the European Cultural Capital in 2007, Sibiu has become especially well known, far beyond Romanian borders. Previously, it had enjoyed renown as the Jewel of Southern Transylvania, though perhaps it was not quite as polished as it is today. Five years later, the city still offers a broad cultural programme throughout the year.
Like numerous other cities in the region, its origins can be found in a settlement founded by German colonists in the 12th century. They say that a certain Hermann was the leader of these settlers, so the village – initially mentioned in 1223 – was baptised and carries it unofficially even today the name Hermannstadt..
National Road DN 7 passes through Sibiu, which is actually one of the most important transit routes to Bucharest from the Hungarian border. Coming from Bucharest you head for Pitești and follow the road signs to Sibiu, five hours by car in total. Coaches leave Bucharest from Autogara Militari (Blvd. Iuliu Maniu no. 141, next to Metro Station Pacii), a recommendedable and low priced alternative to the train. If you prefer to travel fast and comfortably a plane might be your means of transport since Sibiu has one daily flight to Bucharest with Tarom, but only from Monday to Friday. Book in advance for excellent deals.
What to do
The oldest and most interesting part of the town lies at the end of a ridge that protrudes in from the valley of the River Cibin. In the middle of the old town you will find an incredible square, called the Great Square (Piata Mare). This square is framed with a couple of interesting houses. The most impressive ones are situated on the northern side. On your right-hand side you see the comparably new Catholic Church that was built ostensibly between 1726 and 1733 by the Austrian Habsburg sovereigns (having conquered Transylvania in 1699), who demonstrated to their respective protestant and orthodox subjects the new constellation of power. The next building on the left houses the Tourist Information Center on the ground floor. The ladies who work there are very kind and helpful. Beside this renovated edifice is the new town hall, and right above the tourist office is the office of the mayor, whose seat is taken by one of the few remaining Saxons in Transylvania, Klaus Johannis.
A nice side note: although Germans represent only 2 percent of the population in the city, namely some 2,000, they command the political power on both local and county levels. After 10 years of stagnation, the Romanians decided to vote for the Saxon, Klaus Johannis, who won the mayoral elections in 2000 , and, since then, has held office. Two hundred years earlier, there was also a Saxon who rendered outstanding services for the region.
Samuel von Brukenthal was the only Transylvanian governor during the Austro-Hungarian regency. He bequeathed a fabulous collection of paintings as well as real estate to the Saxon nation. The impressive baroque building at the square’s exit is the Brukenthal castle. Today it serves as the main complex of the museum with the same name, with its world-renowned collection of Flemish masterpieces. It, however, has a lot more to offer and, in any case, is worth a tour.
At this point we could go on and on, as every house could tell a story, but you will discover and learn more if you come to visit. When you leave the square between Brukenthal castle and the Town Hall you will reach the innermost point of the former three defensive rings (the Great Square was the third one). Huet Square (Piața Huet) is dominated by the Evangelic Church, dating from the 14th century. The Gothic church was finished around 1520. The building is currently under reconstruction. After many years of fundraising, the parish obtained EU funds which enabled the restoration. Despite the reconstruction, you should not miss the view from the tower. If you catch a clear day you will enjoy a delightful view over Sibiu, decorated with the panorama of the Carpathians.
Opposite the church entrance stands Brukenthal High School, a renowned school where pupils are still educated in German, thus attracting a lot of Romanian children with wealthy parents (Speaking German is a highly-prized asset in Romania!). Walk around the church and enjoy the view across the roofs of the lower town. If you have not noticed yet, keep an eye on the dormer windows, or let them keep an eye on you – these eye-shaped dormers are unique and almost exclusively found in Sibiu.
On the eastern corner of the square you see a little bridge above the road to the lower town; this is the so-called Liar’s Bridge. If you come at the weekend you will most likely see a newly-wed couple posing for their wedding album. Directly to the right is the Small Square (Piața Mică), then the second fortification, now the pub mile, where on summer evenings you will jostle for tables at the overcrowded bars and pizzerias.
Festivals all over the year
We mentioned Sibiu’s cultural programme at the beginning of our article. The city strives to preserve and strengthen its cultural profile by supporting a broad range of festivals, concerts and exhibitions. During the summer the streets and places, especially the Piața Mare, act sort of as an open-air stage with thousands of spectators.
An extraordinary highlight is the annual Sibiu International Theatre Festival which is held every spring, starting at the end of May. The festival comes with a multitude of events. It stages major international productions, the finest productions in Romanian theatre, as well as street and music performances from around the world, all taking place daily in Sibiu’s historical centre, in its squares and buildings, and inside the churches and medieval fortresses of Sibiu’s scenic surroundings. The festival also features dance–theatre performances, puppet theatre and light displays. The only hard choice is where to go.
There are a couple of other festivals such as the Jazz Festival in May, the Romanian-American Music Days in June, or the Rockfestival Artmania and the Medieval Festival both held in August. A long tradition has the annual pottery market which is held on the first weekend in September is also a long running tradition. A couple of years ago, Sibiu began organising a Christmas market in December, which is modelled on original ones in Western Europe, and is growing from year to year. If you are staying in Sibiu at this time of the year then we recommend drinking a hot mug of mulled wine at the snow-covered Great Square.
Besides, there is a vivid cultural life in the city, expressing itself by organizing small concerts and theatre performances in cafés, churches and other places. You can obtain the latest information about upcoming events i.e. in the official tourist office at Piata Mare.
Cafes & Pubs
Sibiu has a wealth of cafes and pubs. Just walk through any one of the three squares and take your pick. Don’t like what you see? Just walk 30 meters forward and there will be many more to choose from. Especially in Piața Mică (the Small Square) you will find a great selection.
By Holger Wermke