Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania

With churches and pubs, small shops and hotels as well as some impressive museums, Sighetu Marmatiei in Baia Mare County is one of Romania's most important tourist destinations.

The cheerful settlement of Sighetu Marmatiei in the far north of Romania has always been a melting pot of numerous peoples. Romanians, Ukrainians, Hungarians and Germans, as well as Catholics, Orthodox and Jews have left their mark on the small town and made it interesting for tourism to this day. So interesting, in fact, that it is one of our Top 10 Sights of Romania.

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PICTURES: Sighetu Marmatiei

Photo gallery: Sighetu Marmatiei

History of Sighetu Marmatiei

Sighetu Marmatiei has been the capital of many empires in its past. Its first settlement dates back to the Bronze Age. Since then, the princes of Moldavia and Transylvania resided in Sighet until the city finally belonged to Hungary in 1733 and finally to Romania from 1960.

Sighetu Marmatiei was the scene of political persecution and oppression during both the Second World War and the subsequent reign of communism. The terrible times of that time can be relived in the impressive and partly disturbing Sighet Memorial.

Sights of Sighetu Marmatiei

The Piața Libertății is the best starting point for a sightseeing tour of Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania - © Fraba / public domain/Wiki
© Fraba / public domain/Wiki

All the important sights of Sighetu Marmatiei are within walking distance in the city centre and can be explored within a day. Only for the way to the open-air museum on the outskirts of the city is a car an advantage.

Piața Libertății

The Orthodox Church in Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania, is probably the most striking building in the town - © Fuchs / CC BY-SA 3.0/W
© Fox / CC BY-SA 3.0/W

The best starting point for a sightseeing tour of Sighetu Marmatiei is the Piața Libertății, the Freedom Square in the centre of the two main streets that run through the city from east to west. Most of Sighetu Marmatiei's museums and churches worth seeing are grouped around the elongated square with the small park in the middle.

To the east is the town hall and opposite it is the impressive Biserica Reformată, made of sunny yellow bricks. Parts of the church date back to the 11th century, making it the oldest church in the city.

Equally impressive is the Orthodox church with its massive towers, probably the most striking building in Sighetu Marmatiei. The tourist information office can also be found here.

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Ethnographic Museum of Maramureș

Some rooms in the open-air museum of Sighetu Marmatiei look downright artistic, Romania - © FRASHO / franks-travelbox
© FRASHO / franks-travelbox

The Muzeul Etnografic al Maramureșului is located on the north side of Freedom Square next to the Roman Catholic Church of St. Borromeo built in 1736. It shows typical rural life in the Maramureș in the form of carpets, gates and utensils. Most worth seeing, however, is its outpost, the open-air museum on the outskirts of the city.

Dr Ioan Mihalyi de Apșa Museum

Diagonally opposite the Maramureș Museum is the Casa Muzeu Dr. Ioan Mihalyi de Apșa, which presents not the rural but the bourgeois life of the region. Built in 1844, the house once belonged to a certain nobleman named Dr. Ioan Mihalyi de Apșa and, with its own library, displays valuable rococo furniture and beautiful paintings by the politician, scientist and art collector.

Sighet Memorial

The Sighet Memorial presents the horrors of communism in Romania in an impressive way in a former political prison - © FRASHO / franks-travelbox
© FRASHO / franks-travelbox

Today, the Sighet Memorial commemorates the totalitarian regime and the victims of communism and its resistance. The memorial consists of a museum and the International Centre for Studies on Communism. It was founded in 1993 by the Romanian writer couple Ana Blandiana, the president of the Civic Alliance, and Romulus Rusan, the current director of the memorial.

PICTURES: Sighet Memorial in Sighetu Marmatiei

Photo gallery: Sighet Memorial in Sighetu Marmatiei

In 1998, the Council of Europe designated the Sighet Memorial as one of the most important memorials in Europe. Still under pressure from the post-communist regimes until 1997, the memorial was finally also recognised and supported by the national government.

Sighet Museum

In the museum in the former prison in Sighet, Romania, the gloomy atmosphere can still be felt today - © FRASHO / franks-travelbox
© FRASHO / franks-travelbox

The Sighet Museum is located in the building of the former Sighet Penitentiary. The prison was built as early as 1897 under Austro-Hungarian rule. In 1948 it was converted into a political prison of the communists, which was notorious until 1989 due to the strict prison conditions (no heating and meagre meals).

In a total of 50 exhibition rooms, which are located in former prison cells, the terrible events of the communist era in Romania are presented. The museum is meticulous about sticking to original facts and pointing out gaps in the documentation.

Exhibitions in the prison cells and famous inmates

The Hall of Kitsch Communism at the Sighet Memorial in Romania shows the "golden age" that Romania was led to believe after World War II - © FRASHO / franks-travelbox
© FRASHO / franks-travelbox

The prisoners included leading church members, top politicians and ministers of the "wrong" parties, generals and critical communists. Among the most famous inmates were the Romanian Prime Minister and leader of the National Peasant Party Iuliu Maniu, who is considered one of the fathers of Romanian democracy, or the Catholic Bishop Anton Durcovici, who was later beatified.

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Today, some death cells commemorate their famous inmates, in some cells the inhumane prison life can be reconstructed and others deal with the totalitarian regime in general. For example, one room in the Sighet Memorial is dedicated to all those historical buildings that were destroyed for the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest.

Prayer and Meditation Site at Sighet Memorial

On the walls of the ramp leading to the underground memorial at the Sighet Memorial are engraved the names of thousands of victims from prisons in Romania - © FRASHO / franks-travelbox
© FRASHO / franks-travelbox

In 1996, an underground place of prayer and meditation was added to the Sighet Memorial in Romania. The names of 8,000 victims from the prisons, camps and deportation sites in Romania are inscribed on the walls of the ramp leading to the "Room of Reflection and Prayer". The names of other inmates who were once imprisoned in Sighet for political reasons are engraved in the inner courtyard and in the cemetery for the poor.

Monument "The Sacrificial Procession

The bronze monument "The Sacrificial Procession" in the Sighet Memorial in Romania was created in 1998 by Aurel Vlad - © FRASHO / franks-travelbox
© FRASHO / franks-travelbox

In an inner courtyard of the spacious prison is the bronze monument "The Sacrificial Procession", created in 1998 by Aurel Vlad. The 18 figures of the monument are moving towards a wall with partly raised hands, which - similar to communism - robs them of their freedom and blocks their view of the horizon. The unmistakable shape of the statues has become a kind of landmark of the Sighet Memorial.

International Centre for Studies on Communism

The second part of the Sighet Memorial is the International Centre for the Study of Communism in the Romanian capital Bucharest, which is directed by Romulus Rusan. In addition to the research department, the centre also houses an archive, a publishing house, a department for contemporary witnesses and exhibition rooms. Documents, photographs, eyewitness accounts and objects were collected here and subsequently exhibited in the museum.

International Summer School for Young People

Since 1998, the International Summer School for Young People has also been part of the Sighet Memorial. The summer school is directed by the French historian Stéphane Courtois, who became famous in 1997 for publishing the "Black Book of Communism". Every year in July, historians, journalists, writers, doctors, economists, composers and international filmmakers teach here.

"Shtetl" - Jewish quarter

From the Sighet Memorial, on the other side of the two main streets, lies the Jewish quarter of Sighetu Marmatiei, the "shtetl", where the traveller is immediately greeted by the synagogue from 1854 on Strada Basarabiei.

The synagogue in the Jewish quarter "Schtetl" is the last of formerly eight left in Sighetu Marmatiei after the Second World War, Romania - © Vberger PD/Wiki
© Vberger PD/Wiki

It is the last one left. There used to be eight synagogues in Sighet with their own Jewish cemeteries and a Yiddish newspaper. Since the Second World War, when around 12,400 Jews were deported from Sighet until 1944, only around 100 Jews still live in the town.

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Casa Elie Wiesel

One of the most famous Jews in Sighetu Marmatiei was the Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who was deported with his family to the concentration camp in Auschwitz in 1944 and liberated a year later in the Buchenwald concentration camp.

For a voluntary donation as admission, his birthplace on Tudor Vladimirescu can be visited, which presents not only his life but also the time of the Holocaust in Sighet.

Cattle market (Târgul de animale)

It takes a little longer to walk to the cattle market on Strada Nicolae Bălcescu, which can be reached from the shtetl in about half an hour. Here, not only fodder and household goods, but also live cattle, calves and pigs are sold in the middle of the city until around 1 pm. A special kind of spectacle that is put on especially big on the first Monday of every month.

Open-air museum of the Ethnographic Museum of Maramureș

The open-air museum on the outskirts of Sighetu Marmatiei is a branch of the Maramureș Ethnographic Museum, which is located in the city centre on Freedom Square. Next to the impressive Sighet Memorial, the museum village is the second most important sight of the small town in the north of Romania.

PICTURES: Village Museum in Sighetu Marmatiei

Photo gallery: Village Museum in Sighetu Marmatiei

Visit to the museum village of Sighetu Marmatiei

The open-air museum is located in the east of the city and can be reached via Bogdan Vodă. From there, Strada Muzeului branches off, leading directly to the open-air section of the Maramureș Museum, established in 1981. For a small entrance fee, visitors can enter the idyllic grounds, where they immediately feel transported to Romanian life in the 16th and 17th centuries.

On the way in the village museum of Sighetu Marmatiei

Some rooms in the open-air museum of Sighetu Marmatiei look downright artistic, Romania - © FRASHO / franks-travelbox
© FRASHO / franks-travelbox

On green meadows under shady trees, about 30 historic courtyards are spread out, their pantries, living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms fully furnished.

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Some rooms are simple, with bare stone walls and tamped earthen floors. Others are downright ornate with wood-panelled walls, carefully carved furniture and colourful carpets.

Between the farmsteads, wells, looms, mills, presses and other agricultural implements bring life back to the past.

Tip: Every year on Sunday around 18 May, a folk festival is held at the open-air museum, bringing the historical setting to life with traditional costumes, dances, traditional food and souvenir stalls.

Artful carvings

Elaborate carving on an archway at the Sighetu Marmatiei Open Air Museum, Romania - © FRASHO / franks-travelbox
© FRASHO / franks-travelbox

When wandering through the museum courtyards, it is also worth taking a closer look at the ornate decorations on the wooden fountains, gates and beams. All of these are made of hand-worked timber and represent the construction methods of the Slavs, Hungarians and Romanians of the time. Many archways are decorated with elaborate carvings consisting of Cyrillic and sometimes even Arabic characters.

Oncesti Wooden Church

Perched on a hill in the museum village, the traditional 16th century wooden church of Oncesti, Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania - © FRASHO / franks-travelbox
© FRASHO / franks-travelbox

Perched on a hill in the museum village, the traditional wooden church of Oncesti dates back to the 16th century. It was built between 1572 and 1614 and is the oldest building in the open-air museum. Unlike many other wooden churches in Maramureș, some of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, only a few fragments of its once magnificent murals remain.

Festival of Winter Customs

Those who stay in Sighetu Marmatiei in winter will witness a colourful festival with parades, dances, theatre and traditional costumes from 20 to 27 December. At the final masquerade parade on 27 December, which is also the highlight of the festival, the inhabitants of the small town appear as grandma and grandpa, bears, goats and devils, and many a person dares to express behind the mask what they have wanted to get rid of all year.

Related links:

Official website of the Sighet Memorial

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