Ah, Moldova. The poorest country in Europe and often cited as the unhappiest place in the world, Moldova is not a place that makes it onto the Europe itinerary of most backpackers.
Sandwiched in between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova is actually one of the least visited countries in Europe, with only 12,000 visitors annually (only outdone by Lichtenstein and San Marino)! This is in sharp contrast to other European destinations, with Paris alone receiving 50 million tourists every year, and France as a nation receiving 90 million.
Visiting Moldova means getting truly off the beaten track in Europe and delving into the unknown, into a place where time came to a halt 20 years ago.
Should You Visit Chisinau? It depends | Visiting Moldova
Why did I visit Chisinau?
Chisinau (also known as Kishinev) is the capital city of Moldova, and everybody I met who had already been told me not to bother.
‘It’s depressing, there’s nothing to do there,’ they shrugged.
Most of them had only been to tick Moldova off their lists, including a guy I met in my hostel who was visiting Chisinau for all of 2 hours in a bid to see every country in the world in 12 months.
I didn’t want to be that guy.
I wanted to visit Moldova and its capital of Chisinau and dig a little deeper. I wanted to find a reason to love this poor, neglected country and write a glowing article telling you all of the reasons why you should visit Moldova at your earliest convenience.
Unfortunately, this article is not going to do that.
I was so desperate to fall in love with Chisinau that somehow the fact that I didn’t disappointed me massively. I absolutely adore uncovering hidden gems and raving about them to everyone I meet, inspiring people to visit places that they’d never usually consider, like Albania or Ukraine.
Visiting Moldova was something else I hoped to inspire people to do, but I can’t sit here and tell you that my Moldova trip was full of magic and awe, because it just wasn’t.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that this will not be a real guide to Chisinau. There are not tonnes of things to do in Chisinau that I can tell you about, I didn’t experience much of Chisinau’s nightlife and I honestly just didn’t connect enough with the city to write as comprehensively about it as a guide would warrant.
That being said, there are definitely things that I enjoyed about Chisinau and so what I will be doing is painting a portrait of what visiting Moldova and Chisinau is really like, and whether or not I believe that Chisinau is worth visiting.
First impressions of Moldova
Moldova gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and before that it was a part of Romania.
Unfortunately, years of Soviet Rule followed by a huge economic crisis (1992 – 2001) resulted in mass amounts of poverty in Moldova, something that became very obvious to me as soon as my bus crossed the border from Ukraine.
As we trundled along the potholed roads, I gazed out of the windows at rural Moldova. Dotted along the country lanes were ramshackle cottages with overgrown gardens and the odd chicken or malnourished cow wandering around. Women in long dresses and headscarves picked fruit and carried heavy wicker baskets down the roads and stray dogs barked at our large coach.
In some ways it was beautiful. Rolling hills, tiny hamlets and old men with lined faces and weather-beaten skin. Fruit trees and wildflowers. It was idyllic.
But then I noticed the peeling paint and broken fences and wooden roofs that had seen better days. I noticed the isolation of it all and shivered when I realised how cold these dwellings must get in the harsh Eastern winters. I looked at the faces of the beautiful teenage girls tending to their gardens and felt sad. What opportunities did these girls have in terms of education or careers? Probably not many.
Girls in Moldova are more likely to become victims of sex trafficking than women from anywhere else in Europe, and when you see the reality of life for many of them, it isn’t difficult to see why. Why would they not want to take a chance on a glitzy opportunity in Germany or the Netherlands from a sketchy ad in the local paper?
I tried to shake away these thoughts and visit Moldova with an open mind. I had booked four nights in Chisinau which I hoped would give me enough time to get a real feel for the capital of Moldova.
However, my first impressions of Chisinau were not great. Even the biggest cheerleaders of the city will tell you that Chisinau is not about to win any beauty contests. The Soviet-Realist architecture is dilapidated and depressing, the air is thick and dusty and everything just feels kind of bleak.
It isn’t Chisinau’s fault that it is ugly. Most of the city was destroyed in the Second World War, and unlike Warsaw in Poland, it hasn’t risen from the ashes like a phoenix.
If I had to describe how Chisinau looks in a word, it would be forlorn.
So why would anybody visit Chisinau?!
First off, the wine in Moldova is great. Moldovan wine is some of the best in the world, and Moldova has been making its own wine since as far back as 3000 BC!
In fact, wine is the number one economic product of Moldova with Moldova being the second largest wine exporter in the world – not bad for a tiny nation that most people have never even heard of!
Not only that, but Moldova is also home to the second largest wine cellar in the world, and as luck would have it, it is only 15km from Chisinau!
Cricova Winery has over 120km of underground wine storage and is home to the world’s biggest wine collection of more than 1.3 million bottles. World leaders including Barrack Obama, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin keep their own personal wine collections at Cricova, and Cricova Winery was the first ever winery to produce sparkling wine using the exact same method that Dom Perignon himself used!
Whether you’re a wine lover or not, Cricova Winery is definitely one of the biggest Moldova tourist attractions and an absolutely fascinating experience. I learnt so much about the history of Cricova and Moldovan wine that I would recommend it to anyone visiting Moldova – it makes a great day trip from Chisinau and considering that a tour of the winery plus wine tasting costs only 23 EUR, it’s a bargain too!
Now, as far as things to do in Chisinau itself are concerned, it gets a little tricky. Chisinau is not a city packed full of tourist attractions, and so most of the major Chisinau attractions can be seen in a day.
In fact, you can see pretty much everything on a Free Walking Tour, which is exactly what I did. The tour that I opted for was the Free English Walking Tour with Your Friend in Moldova. The tours only run around once a week, but if you can attend one while you’re there then I definitely recommend it as it’s always nice to have some context about the things that you are seeing, plus Your Friend in Moldova is a tiny local business so it’s a great thing to support (I always suggest a minimum of a 5 EUR tip at the end of the tour).
The starting point of the tour is at the Triumphal Arch on Strada Stefan cel Mare. The Triumphal Arch was built in 1840 and commemorates the victory of the Russian Empire over the Ottoman Empire during the Russo-Turkish War (1828 – 1829).
Fun fact – Aeroflot Premium actually made a list of the most beautiful Triumphal Arches in the world and this one nabbed the number 5 spot, beating the Arches in Budapest and Barcelona! Moldovan people are really proud of that!
Just behind the Triumphal Arch is the Central Park which is the oldest park in Chisinau and is where you will find lots of statues of the most significant Moldovan writers, as well as one of the first ever statues of Alexander Pushkin, another famous writer. Also here is the Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity, an Orthodox cathedral that is pretty plain on the outside but has an interior full of glittering gold and is definitely worth a quick look.
Also on Stefan cel Mare you will find a handful of other ‘things to do in Chisinau’ (which are really just buildings to look at for a few minutes and then continue on). These buildings include the National Opera, Ballet Theatre, Parliament and the Government National Palace.
When we were there it was quite exciting – not only was there some important government thing going on at parliament with lots of important people outside (our tour guide informed us!), but there was also a dinosaur roaming around the street. Yes – there are dinosaurs in Moldova!
As we wandered around the centre of Chisinau we found lots of stalls selling old Soviet memorabilia including pins, medals, coins and a load of other weird and wonderful souvenirs which our tour guide told us were actually legit, if not overpriced.
Only one of the main Chisinau attractions was not included on our walking tour, and this was the Chisinau Water Tower, which my friends and I visited later in the day.
The Chisinau Water Tower doubles as the Museum of the City of Chisinau, which was founded in 1979, while the tower dates back to 1892. For a small fee, you are able to enter the tower and explore the various floors, as well as going up to the observation deck at the top for panoramic views over Chisinau.
Honestly, the museum kinda sucks.
No. Scratch that. The museum really sucks. There is just a bunch of old documents and random artefacts (books, clothes, newspaper clippings etc.) with no explanations as to why they are there – not even in Moldovan!
The view from the top is also nothing special, partly because the tower is only 22m high, and partly because Chisinau is just not an attractive city. That said, it’s worth going to the Chisinau Water Tower purely because there are so few things to do in Chisinau as a tourist that every little helps.
While there is not much else in the way of Chisinau attractions, Chisinau is home to a lot of parks which are a great place to relax and enjoy the sun. I frequently went to Valea Morilor to read my book by Komsomolsky Lake. This park is not only home to natural springs, but in 2009, Moldovan archaeologists found remains of a mammoth skeleton at the bottom of the lake!
Other nice parks to visit in Chisinau include the Public Park of Stefan cel Mare (or just ‘Central Park’) which I mentioned earlier, the Botanical Garden where you can feed the ducks and see Japanese sakura blossoming, and the Valea Trandafirilor park which is home to three beautiful lakes.
Transnistria – The country that doesn’t exist
Another reason why people visit Moldova is to base themselves in Chisinau and visit Transnistria as a day trip.
Visiting Transnistria was one of my all time travel highlights, and it is something that I would recommend to anyone with even the slightest interest in history.
Transnistria is a self-professed independent state that broke away from Moldova after the dissolution of the USSR. However, despite having its own government, parliament, currency, flag, military, police, postal system, national anthem and coat of arms, only three other ‘states’ recognise it, and none of these states have been recognised themselves! To the rest of the world, Transnistria is a part of Moldova, and there is still tension between the two (although Russian peacekeepers prevent any civil unrest).
My friend and I paid for a private tour of Transnistria and our guide showed us around the capital city of Tiraspol, as well as Bender. We learnt that Transnistria really bloody loves Russia, that it misses the days of the Soviet Union, and that Transnistrians really like Lenin statues.
For anybody wanting to get truly off the beaten path in Europe, Transnistria is about as far from the tourist trail as you can get, and I am not exaggerating when I say that it was a real travel highlight for me.
Read more – Transnistria – The Country that Doesn’t Exist
The ugly side of Chisinau
There’s no sugar coating it – Moldova is poor, it is unhappy, and it is the second most alcohol-dependent country in the world (losing only to Belarus).
Chisinau is a grey and dilapidated city that most Moldovans are trying to get out of. This is the reason why so many girls from Moldova respond to the flyers that are stuck to abandoned buildings, desperate for the opportunity to work abroad and create a life for themselves.
Moldova is one of the worst countries in Europe for human trafficking, with over 400,000 Moldovan women being trafficked from the country since 1991. The vast majority of these women have been trafficked into the sex trade.
What’s more, Moldova is quickly becoming a destination for child sex tourism. Children from as young as 13 can be found working in brothels, massage parlours and saunas in Chisinau, forced to service men from the EU, Australia, the USA and more.
Moldova also has problems with drugs and arms trafficking, and corruption is a huge issue as well.
I don’t say this to scaremonger and dissuade you from visiting Moldova or Chisinau.
Organised crime very rarely affects tourists.
You are at no more risk of being sold into sex slavery in Moldova than you are in the UK and you will likely not be the victim of a violent crime in Moldova. The biggest risk to you if you visit Chisinau is petty theft, and even then, you are far more likely to be robbed in Paris or Barcelona than you are in Chisinau.
Chisinau is a safe city for tourists.
The reason why I point out the negative side to Chisinau is that human trafficking is something so close to my heart that I couldn’t write about Moldova without touching on this issue.
Is Chisinau worth visiting?
It isn’t that I actively disliked Chisinau. It’s more that I found an absence of things to love. Does that make sense?
I didn’t find a thriving coffee culture, I didn’t find row upon row of dive bars or eurotrash discos. I didn’t find a whole load of interesting Soviet architecture (but plenty of the dull stuff). I didn’t find controversial street art, beautiful cobbled streets or old Ottoman bazaars.
While I very much enjoyed the cheap wine and my trips to Cricova and Transnistria, there wasn’t much in Chisinau itself to warrant visiting without making it part of a larger trip.
If you are already travelling through Eastern Europe then you should definitely stick Chisinau on your itinerary. You will learn a lot and despite the fact that I didn’t find it super stimulating, it was still interesting to visit a place that I knew so little about.
I would not recommend visiting Chisinau if you have limited time and are trying to choose a single destination for a city break. There are many off the beaten path cities in Europe that have more to offer (in my opinion) than Chisinau, and I would not dedicate your only vacation time to Moldova’s capital. For somewhere similar but with more to do, I recommend visiting Pristina, Kosovo.
I would also not recommend visiting Moldova in general if you are not an experienced traveller. Tourist infrastructure in Moldova is practically non-existent (think unreliable public transport and dodgy roads) and the backpacker scene is in its infancy, with the vast majority of people not speaking any English.
While that is great for more experienced travellers, those just starting out might want to choose a more developed country that is more used to tourism.
Things to know before visiting Moldova
Where is Moldova?
Moldova is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe which is bordered by Romania to the west and Ukraine to the North, East and South.
Getting to Moldova
If you want to enter Moldova by plane, then Bucharest, Istanbul, Kiev, Munich and Moscow are among the cheapest places to fly from. Wizz Air offers flights from Milan, Bologna, Venice, Rome and London. Flying into Moldova from other destinations can be very expensive.
If you want to enter Moldova by train then you can take an overnight connection from Ukraine or Romania. I took the overnight train from Chisinau to Bucharest and it was quite the experience – at the border the train is actually manually lifted onto a whole new set of wheels, and the process takes forever!
You can also take the bus to Chisinau from Romania (Bucharest and Brasov) and Ukraine (Odessa).
General tips for visiting Moldova
The best time to visit Moldova is undoubtedly in the summer. This is when the weather is at its best and festivals and camping are all in full swing. Unlike other European capitals, Chisinau sees so few tourists that you will not encounter the vast crowds that you would elsewhere.
The language in Moldova is Moldovan, which is identical to Romanian. Some Moldovans refer to their language as Moldovan in order to emphasise the country’s independent status, and some refer to it as Romanian.
The currency in Moldova is the Moldovan Leu (MDL). 1 MDL is the equivalent of 0.051 EUR.
Moldova is not in the EU or the Schengen Area.
If you visit Transnistria, you will not be able to reach your embassy and receive consular help. If you get into trouble in Transnistria, it will be extremely difficult for your home country to assist you, and Moldova will not be able to either.
Useful taxi apps for Moldova are Yandex and iTaxi. They are similar to Uber.
If you are a single man travelling in Chisinau and looking to meet Moldovan girls, you should beware of the ‘bar girl scam.’ This is when an attractive Moldovan girl will ask you for directions or strike up conversation in the street before suggesting that you go for a drink somewhere. She will lead you to a bar and proceed to flirt with you and enjoy some drinks, before ‘disappearing’ to the ‘toilet’ and leaving you with a bill equating to hundreds of euros. This is a very common tourist scam in Moldova and other Eastern European countries (Read my post about the Krakow strip club scams for information on similar scams!).
Chisinau is cheap. Moldova is one of the cheapest countries in Europe, and your money will go far here.
Beware of ATM scams in Moldova. To be on the safe side, I suggest always withdrawing money from inside a bank and never from an ATM on the street.