I really struggled with what to write about Moldova. I spent 5 days here, based in the capital, Chisinau (pronounced Kish-in-ow), between time in Ukraine and Romania. Flying in from Kiev, I took a minibus across the border to Iasi. So I’ve done a mixture of both story time, and things to know before you go. I had such high hopes for Moldova, and it ended up being one of the biggest disappointments (and worst times) of my entire trip.
Why? Because I got sick.
When you travel, whether you’re a blogger or not, you generally showcase the most glamorous, amazing, inspirational experiences. But let me tell you. There’s nothing glamorous about waking up at 3:00 in the morning, having to crawl to the bathroom because you’re temporarily blinded, and then proceeding to puke your guts out for the next 4 hours. It’s not fun. It was awful. And I’m here to show you that traveling isn’t always an inspiring joy ride. Sometimes travel can be just shit.
I have no idea what it was, besides some sort of stomach bug. Maybe it was something I ate. Maybe it was because I had some filtered tap water for the first time in a month (instead of bottled water). Maybe it was partly heat stroke from sleeping in a stuffy hostel room with no window and no ventilation besides the door to the hallway. I don’t know. But whatever it was, it made me really, really sick.
Getting sick when you travel is a huge topic that deserves its own post. But the most disappointing part of getting sick in Moldova was that I missed out on several things that were high on my bucket list. Including basically the reason I came to Moldova in the first place!
I got sick and stayed at the hostel for a day, then was better and went to a winery the next day. Then the day after that, Adam got sick (unexpectedly), so we were stuck at the hostel again. And because of both of us getting sick on separate days, we missed visiting Transnistria.
What is Transnistria? It’s a self-proclaimed state between Moldova and Ukraine. No other countries recognize it as a country. It’s a country that doesn’t exist. They have their own police, government, army, currency, and everything. They have a strong affinity with Russia and speak Russian (in addition to Moldovan/Romanian, and Ukrainian). There’s a statue of Lenin outside of Parliament. The money is like Monopoly money, since you can’t use it or exchange it anywhere besides Transnistria. Their flag still has the communist symbol of the hammer and sickle on it. And it’s easy to get to the capital, Tiraspol, from Chisinau: just about 2 hours in a marshrutka (shared minibus) that costs next to nothing. This was the place that I was most looking forward to in Moldova, and not being able to go was the biggest disappointment of the trip by far. Check out this article by National Geographic for more.
Another place I also missed out on visiting was the cave monastery at Orheiul Vechi. This place is meant to be amazing! With 4 full days, we had planned to have one day in Chisinau, one day in Transnistria, one day at Cricova Winery, and one day at Orheiul Vechi. I think this is a great itinerary to hitting up all of Moldova’s hotspots! Although in hindsight, I probably wouldn’t spend a whole day in Chisinau. But due to getting sick, Moldova just did not go to plan. I absolutely intend to go back to Moldova in the next year or so, to be able to visit the places I missed this time around!
If you’re headed to Moldova, here are my tips for visiting and some things you should know before you go.
Things You Should Know About Moldova
- There’s not much in Chisinau. Chisinau is a bit bleak at first. There aren’t very many attractions, and the city isn’t one many people visit. It’s primarily a city where people live and work. There are some really nice parks in Chisinau (Stefan cel Mare for one), as well as a few impressive buildings. The Nativity Cathedral is beautiful, and you should definitely see the Triumphal Arch (Chisinau’s take on the Paris classic). A few hours is more than enough time to “do” Chisinau.
- MOLDOVA IS A HUGE WINE DESTINATION! I’m putting this in all caps just so that people will notice and actually go. And hopefully shut up about French wine in the process. The wine in Moldova is cheap and amazing. Moldova is a huge wine destination, and has been for ages. 1/2 of all bottles and 1/3 of all sparkling wine in the Soviet Union was produced in Moldova. That’s a lot of wine. There’s an annual wine festival in October every year.
- Cricova Winery is one place you can’t miss in Moldova. The winery is located just outside of Chisinau and is amazing. There are 20 million liters of wine at the Cricova Winery, and half a million champagne bottles alone. There are 120km of underground tunnels, and 80km of those are used for wine storage. The lowest point of the winery is 100 meters underground. The tour itself was excellent (you ride trains through the tunnels), and you can see some of the top priceless bottles of wine in the world. The tasting included 4 tasters, of white, red, rose, and sparkling. I absolutely recommend this! The tour and tasting cost 490 lei per person, or roughly £21 // $28. You can get to the winery by public transportation from Chisinau—bus #2 from Vasile Alecsandri St, which was 4.5 lei one-way (19p in pounds or 25 cents in dollars). Tell the lady who collects money for tickets that you want to go to the winery (or show her a brochure or picture), and she’ll tell you when to get off.
- Wine is CHEAP. We got two bottles of wine from the Cricova Winery. They were nice bottles in a mid-range price (not the cheapest, not the most expensive). The price? 131 lei for both of them, or about 65 lei each. That’s just ~£2.80 // $3.65 a bottle. I’M NOT KIDDING. FROM THE OFFICIAL WINERY. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, GO DRINK WINE IN MOLDOVA!!!
- Everything is pretty cheap. Due to getting sick, I didn’t spend much money in Moldova (besides on various over-the-counter drugs). But it’s pretty fucking cheap. Public transportation is super cheap. Food is cheap. Beer and wine are cheap. Hostels are cheap. It’s an all-around excellent budget destination.
- There are very few streetlights in Chisinau. A lot of the streets are unlit. I got pretty scared getting to my hostel at 10:30 at night when there were no streetlights and we were making our way by the light of our phones. Be extra cautious if you walk around at night. Don’t walk around alone at night. It’s much better to pay a bit extra and take a taxi.
- There isn’t a sewage system in Chisinau , so heavy rain will flood the streets. The day we went to the Cricova Winery, the heavens opened up and it poured rain for hours. It was extremely difficult walking around the city, as sidewalks and streets flooded and made it impossible to cross without wading through water up to my shins. Be careful and give yourself extra time if it rains heavily.
- The official language is Romanian, but Russian is also used. One of the biggest surprises for me in Moldova was that people used Russian here as well. Not very many people spoke English, so this was a huge bonus for me as I could communicate on a very basic level with most people. While in some countries (such as Latvia), it can be perceived as offensive if you speak Russian, I never really encountered this in Moldova.
- There are no ATMs in Chisinau Airport. I’m not kidding. An entire airport, and there was not one single ATM. This was a huge problem, as it meant we couldn’t get cash out like we had planned, and because…
- The currency exchange at Chisinau Airport doesn’t accept coins. We had some Euros that we tried to exchange for Moldovan lei, but it was all in coins. They only accept bills. Luckily, Adam had about 4 Romanian lei (in bills) that we were able to exchange so that we could get from the airport into the city center. But make sure to have bills if you’re flying into Chisinau and want to change money. I never use currency exchanges (it’s always cheaper to get cash out from an ATM), and especially never at airports. So it was a bit stressful.
- It’s also really confusing to get from the airport to the city with public transportation. I definitely wish we had just gotten a taxi into the city center (it costs about 5€, so it’s not expensive at all). We arrived late and ended up taking a tram from the airport into the city center. You can book a taxi at an official desk in the airport, so you won’t have to worry about getting ripped off. If you’re arriving in the evening, just get a taxi.
- Taxis are notorious for ripping people off. Unfortunately, it’s just the way things are. Always try to get your accommodation to call you a taxi whenever possible. Always ask the driver to use the meter, or agree on a price before you get in.
- Most people visit Moldova as they transit between Romania and Ukraine. Very few people visit Moldova on purpose (Adam and I definitely did though!). Most tourists you meet stop in Moldova for a few days between Brasov/Transylvania in Romania, and Odessa on the Black Sea in Ukraine. Nearly every other traveler you meet will be going this route.
- Crossing the Moldovan border into Romania is very strict and will take a long time. On my bus journey from Chisinau to Iasi in Romania, it took 2 hours to get through the border. We had to get off the bus and run our bags through a luggage scanner. And when I say strict, I mean it’s strict: we saw two guys who had to put their tires through the luggage scanner. Give yourself plenty of time if you’re crossing this border overland.
- The “Numa Numa” song (Dragostea Din Tei) is Moldovan! One of the best songs ever created was done by a Moldovan band, O-Zone. Getting pumped for Moldova, this is what I listened to over and over. Such a jam! Another great reason to visit Moldova!
- Moldovan people will surprise you. As we were sitting on the tram from the airport to the city center, I asked the woman doing tickets if she would help us get off at the right stop (in my subpar Russian). By the time we got off the tram at the last stop, we had had 7 (SEVEN!) different people try to help us with directions, coming over to where we were sitting on the tram, and communicating in 3 different languages. One guy even turned on his data hotspot so that we could get onto GoogleMaps to get to our hostel. (!!!) Wow. The kindness of strangers can be overwhelming sometimes.
- A big shout-out to Olga at Chill Hostel. She is basically the best thing about the hostel, an all-around amazing person, and definitely saved both Adam and I when we got sick. She went above and beyond for people at the hostel. She took Adam to the pharmacy to get pills for me. She called her mom to find out how many pills I should take. She called her cousin in Odessa so that they could call the train company and see how many seats were left on trains from Odessa to Kiev for another person. I honestly don’t know what we would have done without her. Thank you, Olga! 🙂
- There are very few other tourists. Along with Belarus, Moldova is the last truly undiscovered place in Europe. Don’t wait—go now. With the globalized world we live in, it’s only a matter of time before Moldova sees heavy loads of tourists as well. This country is well and truly off the beaten path, and that in and of itself is reason to go. Go now, before it all changes. It’s an experience like nothing else.
Moldova is a land-locked country between Romania and Ukraine. It has a population of 3.55 million, with about 670,000 people living in Chisinau. The official currency is Moldovan lei (not to be confused with Romanian lei, which is a separate currency!), abbreviated to MDL. The language is Romanian (sometimes it’s called Moldovan, but it is essentially the same as Romanian), but people will understand/speak Russian. Moldova is not a member of the European Union or the Schengen zone. The capital, Chisinau, is sometimes also called Kishinev (Кишинёв), as that is what it’s called in Russian. Most people visit Moldova in transit between Romania and Ukraine.
Chisinau has plenty of buses, trams, and marshrutkas (shared minibuses) to get you around the city. Prices for these are very, very cheap—just a few lei. If you’re taking a marshrutka, I always ask the driver if they go to my destination (or tell them the name of my destination), so that they know to stop for me. Routes and timetables may change frequently—always try to ask a local for help if you’re getting around by public transportation, as they’ll know the most up to date information. There are three separate bus stations in Chisinau, spread across the city, that serve different destinations in Moldova, in Transnistria, and neighboring countries (especially Romania and Ukraine). There is a train station as well.
Where I Stayed
I had booked to stay at Tapok Hostel through Hostelworld, but due to their error and overbooking, I ended up at Chill Hostel (they’re owned by the same person). Despite the sketchy walk between the two late at night, I’m really happy that I stayed at Chill Hostel just because of the amazing employee, Olga, who helped me when I got sick. While Chill Hostel isn’t particularly great (most things in the bathrooms were usable but broken, and my 4-bed dorm had no ventilation or air circulation making it pretty stuffy in 90˚F weather), it’s a nice place to meet other travelers and is cheap enough that I didn’t mind a lot of the issues. It’s on a street with no streetlights, so be careful if you’re coming back late at night. If I stayed here again, I’d book the private room (especially because it has a fan and air conditioning).
Moldova did not go to plan for me. Despite getting sick and missing opportunities, I still have a pretty positive impression of Chisinau. Moldova is truly one of the last undiscovered places in Europe. Go now, before the rest of the other tourists get there!
Have you ever been to Moldova? Or another destination off the beaten path?