However well-travelled you might be, chances are, Moldova isn’t one of the countries already ticked off your list for the simple reason that it’s Europe’s least-visited country. Yet this enigmatic land tucked between Romania and Ukraine has much to offer travellers seeking unspoilt nature and intriguing culture - far from the madding selfie-stick-brandishing crowd.
Moldova’s countryside is dappled with buttercup-yellow monasteries and record-breaking wineries, while capital city Chişinău serves a tasty blend of Paris-style boulevards with a side of Soviet chic. Then there’s the breakaway nation of Transnistria to explore. One thing’s for sure, visiting Moldova makes for a refreshingly unique European break - read on for 12 reasons to shunt it up your must-visit list.
Though enjoying rising global acclaim, Moldovan wine remains under the radar of all but a few in the know oenophiles - somewhat surprising (if not criminal in wine terms) given its quality, and the fact that grapes have been cultivated in the region since at least 2800 BC.
To right that wrong, visit Moldova’s most impressive winery, Milestii Mici, which is located a mere 30 minutes’ drive south of Chişinău. With 1.5 million bottles stored in a 55km subterranean labyrinth, it boasts the world’s largest wine collection, as recognised by the Guinness Book of Records. A tour of the winery takes in the tunnels via electric train or bicycles, with the option to eat, drink and make merry in the opulent tasting halls - a glamourous must-do experience for gourmands visiting Moldova.
Monastic life thrives across Moldova, meaning that church frescoes are lovingly maintained, tulip gardens immaculately manicured, and silvery domes polished to a shine, and you don’t have to be especially religious-minded to appreciate their beauty and history either.
Capriana Monastery, for example, is among the country’s finest architectural sights. Located 40km northeast of Chişinău, and often called the cradle of Moldovan culture, this complex of three churches surrounded by rolling hills and forests really is a top reason to visit Moldova. Established in 1429, the site’s Church of the Dormition is the country’s oldest church. To sample Moldova’s monastic culture (and wine) in convenient, comfortable style, you could look to book a multi-site tour that combines exploring Capriana Monastery with a visit to Cricova Winery and some of Chişinău’s highlights.
Another must-visit Moldovan marvel comes courtesy of Saharna Monastery. Given its stunning location - encircled by rocky hills and thick forests in a corner of north-eastern Moldova - it’s little wonder that this a popular place of pilgrimage (though we’re not talking Lourdes level visitor numbers). It’s also the perfect spot to enjoy a peaceful woodland walk with waterfalls tinkling in the background. Oh, and history buffs will be keen to explore the Iron Age fortress remains.
After traversing Moldova's tapestry of wildflower meadows and cornfields, the archaeological and ecclesiastical complex of Orheiul Vechi (Old Orhei) is a riveting contrast - a monastery resplendent with golden domes and white bell-towers backed by ashen cliffs. Situated 50km north of Chişinău, Orheiul Vechi is most known for its Cave Monastery - a complex of rooms and tunnels cut into a rocky ridge above the Răut River. But there’s more to this UNESCO World Heritage site than the monastery alone - traces of human life dating back to Paleolithic times have been unearthed here, and it’s been inhabited by hermit monks seeking solitude in its caves since the fourteenth-century.
To experience the fullness of Orheiul Vechi’s history and natural beauty, a ramble around the area comes highly recommended. Walkers will be rewarded with the picturesque sight of powder-blue farmhouses and splendid views over the cliff-top monastery, with villages like quiet Ivancea and folksy Brăneşti connected by fairly level terrain.
That may sound strange, but it’s entirely true. Unrecognised by other countries, yet fiercely distinct from the rest of Moldova, the breakaway nation of Transnistria (officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic - PMR) is an unforgettable day-trip to take from Chişinău, and certainly an essential experience when you visit Moldova. Tucked between Moldova and Ukraine, this contested strip of land has its own border control and currency, though the overwhelmingly pro-independence (and pro-Russian) results of its 2006 referendum have left it in political limbo.
A 12-hour stay in Transnistria requires no advance paperwork: simply bring your passport and register at the border offices. In a single day, you can visit the imposing fifteenth-century fortress at Bender, stroll among Lenin statues and grand war memorials in capital Tiraspol, and buy a jar of honey from gorgeous Noul Neamţ (a working all-male monastery).
While on your Transnistria day-trip, it’s worth making time to taste Tiraspol’s best-known creation - KVINT Divin cognac, though the distillery produces plenty of award-wining wine too. KVINT, by the way, is an acronym for “Kon'iaki, vina i napitki Tiraspol'ia”, meaning “cognacs, wines and beverages of Tiraspol”.
With spirits created on-site since 1897, when the company specialised in vodka produced from home-brewed wine, they now grow over thirty varieties of grapes on 2000 hectares, with an annual output of 20 million bottles of brandy, gin and vodka, plus a plethora of table and vintage wines. With a host of tasting packages to enjoy, your only problem is remembering to return to Chişinău.
Yep - you read that right. Saunter past the Arc de Triomphe. Amble along tree-lined boulevards where chic locals dunk croissants into café au lait… surprisingly, there’s more than a whiff of Paris about Chişinău. Boulevards are fringed by weeping willows, green spaces like Parcul Catedralei breathe life into the city centre, and the Arcul de Triumf is a dead ringer for France’s famous monument. To stay in style near the Arc, Art-Rustic Boutique Hotel is an elegant option.
Fear not if you prefer gritty to Paris-style pretty - Chişinău is a city of two halves, with forbidding brutalist architecture standing strong between its grassy squares and crumbling nineteenth-century townhouses.
Arguably the most interesting of these buildings is the Circul, a striking circus building northeast of central Chişinău. This spiky circular crown of concrete couldn’t look less like a traditional big top if it really, really tried. Other brutalist-style buildings to make a beeline for include the Presidency of the Republic of Moldova, the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova, the Moldova National Opera Ballet building, and Dinamo Stadium.
Strolling elegant Strada 31 August in Chişinău, it’s impossible to miss the garden packed with rocket launchers and dark green tanks. Behind this graveyard of defused weapons and aeroplanes lies the city’s Military Museum, one of Chişinău’s most impressive sights. Weaponry from thirteenth-century sabres to AK-47s illustrates the turbulent history of this young nation, while blood-curdling dioramas and WWII footage give an unflinching account of the hardships that preceded the birth of the Republic of Moldova in 1990.
But there’s more to Chişinău’s cultural scene than military-themed museums. Culture-vultures will love the National Museum of Ethnography and Natural History that's housed in a beautiful building not too far from the centre of town.
Meanwhile, bibliophiles will want to check out the Alexander Pushkin Museum, formerly home to the famous poet for three years, and now home to a collection of paintings, sculptures and editions of some of the works he wrote here. Then there’s the grand National Art Museum of Moldova, featuring works by 19th and 20th-century Moldovan artists along with exhibitions of local contemporary artists.
Chişinău is chock-a-block with welcoming restaurants serving tasty traditional fodder. Take La Taifas on Strada București, for example. This atmospheric basement restaurant serves Moldovan classics - pastries packed with cheese, mushroom, pork, or cherries; meatball soup; roast rabbit - with local musicians performing during evening service.
Further afield, if you fancy bunking down in a creaky farmhouse, and waking to a chorus of cockerels, the countryside around Orhei has a smattering of agro-tourism outfits, where half-board bookings include a feast of home-cooked Moldovan food. Casa din Lunca Pension in Trebujeny serves up a particularly impressive spread - thick slabs of mămăligă (polenta) jostle for table space with grilled lamb, and salads sprinkled with salty sheep’s cheese. Gulping the last drop of plummy Codru wine as another horse and cart rattles past, you can truly embrace life in Moldova’s slow lane.
Spanning over 6000 hectares, the Padurea Domneasca (Royal Forest) Nature Reserve is the largest of its kind in Moldova. Sitting pretty on the banks of the River Prut, and bordered on one side by Romania, it’s blessed with a dense bounty of trees - willow, oak, poplar and beech - with a huge population of herons around its lake.
With well-marked hiking trails, comfortable cabins overlooking the wetlands to overnight in, plus populations of red deer and European bison, this is a paradise for travellers seeking a back-to-nature break, with the chance to encounter some mightily impressive beasts.
On the edge of Padurea Domneasca Reserve, between the villages Braniste and Avrameni near the Prut River, you’ll find a haunting expanse of land known as the 100 Hills.
Since this 8km stretch of undulating mounds look so perfectly attuned to the flow of the meadows that run alongside the river, you could be forgiven for thinking they’re manmade. Yet scientists are investigating the cause of this phenomenon - landslides? Ancient avalanches? The remnants of 20 million-year-old reefs? While the debate runs on, the romantics among you might prefer the legend. According to local lore, this land was the site of bloody ancient battles and these mounds are the burial places of fallen soldiers, the largest of them allocated to heroes. Either way, it’s an absorbing place to amble when you visit Moldova.
More correctly, that should probably read “be surprised”, for Moldova’s second longest cave system is endearingly known as the Cave of Surprises. 40km from the capital, and stretching for 1700m on the right bank of the river Nistru, it’s thought to have been formed around 11 million years ago. And the surprise? The network was only discovered in the 1970s.
Today visitors can enjoy exploring the natural limestone halls and chambers, the largest of which is a whopping ten metres high. A word of warning, though - with some narrow spots to squeeze through, this isn’t for the claustrophobic (or confirmed chiroptophobics - the caves are home to a huge population of bats), but it’s sure to satisfy adventurers visiting Moldova.
Why should I visit Moldova? Is it worth visiting Moldova?
As we said at the start, Moldova is Europe’s least-visited country. But don’t make the mistake of seeing that as a reason to not visit Moldova. In fact, this makes it the perfect place for travellers who’ve been there and done that elsewhere in Europe. In short, Moldova is well worth visiting if you want to escape well-worn, crowd-packed paths, and if you like wine. Talking of which…
Why is Moldova famous?
Mainly for its world-class wine, ancient monasteries and unspoiled open countryside - and for its distinct lack of crowds. A pretty great combo, if you ask us.
Is Moldova expensive to visit?
You can confidently add “it’s inexpensive” to your growing list of reasons to visit Moldova. Chişinău has plenty of hostels and apartments for travellers on a budget, and even the fanciest hotels offer good value. Eating out is affordable, especially so in the countryside, and the cost of wine (did we mention the wine?) represents excellent value for excellent quality.
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Joanne is a Pembrokeshire-born writer with a passion for the nature, cultures and histories of the Caribbean region, especially Dominica. Also passionate about inspiring a love of adventure in young people, she’s the author of several books for children and young adults, hosts international writing workshops, and has written articles on the Caribbean and inspirational community initiatives for Rough Guides. Follow her