Architecture, Travel – “I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool.” Writes Bram Stoker in the first pages of his masterpiece Dracula, 1897. Located in Romania’s green heart, Transylvania is shrouded in legend and mystery. Shadowy folklore has soaked deep into the soil of this land, but Transylvania is much more than tales of vampires and dark history. Get ready to discover bucolic villages surrounded by hilly fields, thriving forests, vibrant and elegant Mittel-European cities like Cluj Napoca or the fairytale-like Brasov. Check these must-visit destinations for a serendipitous road trip of the real Transylvania.
- RELATED STORIES: Discover more architecture and design from Romania.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION – Although it is not part of the Schengen Area, Romania is part of the European Union, and EU citizens can explore it without a Visa. In the past years, the country has been investing a lot to keep pace with other European countries, and significant steps have been taken. You will be positively surprised.
Cities and villages are always well-preserved, safe and clean. Locals are helpful, down-to-earth and kind. English is widely spoken. Paying with a credit card shouldn’t be a problem. Even if not always wide, the streets are in good condition but trafficked in cities’ rush hour. There are no motorways in the region. Since trains are pretty slow, we recommend renting a middle-sized car.
Not far from Sinaia, Peleș Castle, 1873, is a masterpiece of German Neo-Renaissance architecture [Map]. It was commissioned by Carol I, the first king of Romania, as a summer residence after independence.
Guided tours invite visitors to explore some of its 160 rooms, all adorned with fine European art: paintings by great artists, Murano crystal chandeliers, German stained-glass windows, and Cordoba leather-covered walls but also secret passages and the 30,000 books Royal Library.
Spend at least a night in Brașov and explore its pastel-coloured houses, cobbled alleys, gothic pinnacles, baroque facades and medieval towers [Map]. The city is renowned for its bohemian cafes, fancy restaurants, noisy pubs and many festivals and events. The core of Brașov is Piața Sfatuli, which is connected with the Black Church, the largest Gothic building in Romania.
The Cathedral Sfantu Nicolae and its cemetery offer some of the city’s best views. Alternatively, reach the Hollywood-style sign on the top of Mount Tampa [by foot, but very steep, or by cable car). According to the legend, Hamelin the Peter Piper re-emerged in Brașov.
Bran (Dracula’s) Castle
Rooted on a rock and surrounded by luxurious mountains, Bran Castle really looks like the one described by Bram Stoker [Map]. It was “on the very edge of a terrific precipice […] with occasionally a deep rift where there is a chasm [with] silver threads where the rivers wind in deep gorges through the forests.”
The Irish writer never visited Transylvania but depicted the imaginary Dracula’s castle based upon a description of Bran Castle available to him in turn-of-the-century Britain. Inside, you learn more about Queen Maria, the castle’s former owner, than the fictional Count. Since it is one of the most touristic destinations in Romania, make sure to get there at least an hour before it opens up.
Râşnov Fortress is located on a rocky hilltop, 650 ft. above the town of Râşnov and 19 km Southwest of Brașov [Map]. The citadel has its share of sieges, heroic fights, and medieval confrontations. Visitors can stroll between sturdy watchtowers, browse medieval-themed souvenir and craft stalls, and admire views of rolling hills from the fortress’ highest point.
Prejmer Fortified Citadel, UNESCO
Transylvania is known for its many fortified churches and citadels, some of which are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. One of the best-preserved ones is in Prejmer, a village 15-minute drive from Braşov [Map]. Initially constructed in the early 1200s by Teutonic knights, a 15th-century reconstruction shaped it into the battering-ram-proof fortification that stands today, encircling a Gothic church. The 270 store rooms were once packed with produce, allowing inhabitants to stay fed while under attack.
Bucolic Viscri, UNESCO
“Transylvania is in my blood.” once said King Charles III. “The genealogy shows that I’m descended from Vlad the Impaler, you see. So I do have a bit of a stake in the country.” The British monarch is particularly fond of Viscri, where he also bought a house you can rent when he’s away. Besides that, with its blue houses, the UNESCO fortified church, and rural countryside, Viscri is the quintessential Romanian village. [Map]
We stayed at Viscri 32 restaurant and guest house, which provides brilliant accommodations with refined interiors in traditional style. The village provides the best solution for a relaxing week-end with food from the farmers, cow parades in the evening and lovely walks in the countryside.
Last but not least is the Neo-Romanian style Cantacuzino Castle in the town of Busteni [Map]. The castle served as a stopover for the Cantacuzino family on its way to Brasov. More recently, it has been the set of the Wednesday Netflix series.
With its Unesco-protected old town, pastel-coloured buildings, stony lanes and medieval towers, Sighișoara is one of the most picturesque towns in Transylvania [Map]. You wouldn’t tell that Vlad Ţepeş, the bloodthirsty Prince who inspired the myth of Dracula, was born here. You can visit his house located just a stone’s throw from the clock tower.
Târgu Mureș is a small town worthy of a pit-stop [Map]. Its Piața Trandafirilor hosts statues, cafes, churches, the Culture Palace and the Ethnographic Museum. A few minute’s walk away is a perfectly preserved citadel and garden.
Cluj-Napoca is Romania’s second-largest city [Map]. Thanks to increasing flight links to European cities, it’s the best access to Transylvania to avoid a long drive from Bucharest to Brasov. It’s home to universities, a vibrant nightlife and landmarks dating to Saxon and Hungarian rule. Surrounding its central square, Piața Unirii, is the Gothic-style St. Michael’s Church and the dramatic Statue of the 15th-century king Matthias Corvinus. Visit the unexpected Steam Punk museum [Map].
Traditional Romanian architecture has been faithfully reassembled at the Parcul Etnografic Romulus Vuia, an open-air museum 5km northwest of central Cluj [Map]. Not far is the infamous Hoia Baciu, Europe’s most haunted forest, where people disappear, phones go wild, and scientists puzzle in front of circular clearings where trees don’t grow.
Turda salt mine
Visiting Turda salt mine is like entering another dimension halfway between a NASA spaceship basement on another planet and the den of a James Bond villain [Map]. Walk along 900m of cave corridors, zebra-striped with salt and dirt, to discover a chapel with a salt-encrusted Jesus and Mary; salt miners used to pray here before their shift.
Then you reach the 112m deep and 67m wide underground pit, Josif Mine, which hosts a dystopian fun park equipped with a Ferris wheel, playgrounds and shops. A second pit even deeper features a small island that you can circumnavigate with a small rowing boat.
Alba Carolina Citadel
Alba Carolina is Romania’s largest Citadel and the main attraction of Alba Iulia in West Transylvania [Map]. Within this star-shaped citadel are museums, churches and the Unification Hall that sealed the union of Transylvania with Romania in 1918. Originally constructed in the 13th century, the present fortification dates mainly to the 18th century. If you’re short on time, focus on the dazzling Coronation Cathedral and National Union Museum.
Corvin Castle is one of the most beautiful castles in Romania and one of the largest castles in Europe [Map]. Its construction began in 1440 and was designed as a defence fortress against the Ottoman Empire. Many say that Vlad the Impaler was imprisoned here and went mad during his exile. The towers often held captive war prisoners as well as ordinary criminals. Prisoners were thrown in a bear pit to be mauled to death by wild animals. Visitors can also explore different large halls for ceremonies and feasts.
Sibiu is Transylvania and Romania’s cultural capital [Map]. Home to the country’s first hospital, school, library and pharmacy, the city hosted concerts by Strauss, Brahms and Liszt. Today, it is at the forefront of Romania’s cultural scene through its opera, theatre and film festivals, rock, jazz and more.
Sibiu is also famous for its houses with eyes. There are legends according to which the eyes were built to frighten the people, making them believe they are being watched. Their real purpose was to act as a ventilation system for the houses’ attics.
Castelul de Lut Valea Zânelor
On the banks of the Porumbacu River, at the foot of the great Făgăraș mountains, the Castelul de Lut Valea Zânelor complex resembles a gnome village [Map]. It has been created from clay, sand and pure whimsy. Legend has it that the land where the castle is located was inhabited by fairies who still protect the place that was once their home.
Cave-Shrine of Șinca Veche
Mystery and awe hang thick in the air in Șinca Veche, 30 km southwest of the town of Făgărăș, on the E68 route [Map]. Natural light pours through an opening in the ceiling of a cave shrine. The faithful arrives to stand within this simple grotto, bathe in its healing light, and pray for fertility or health. A short walk from the cave is a tranquil monastery. Please dress modestly and respect the quiet.
The Transfăgărășan, or DN7C, is a spectacular 150 kilometres-long winding highway crossing the Carpathian mountains [Open from April to October, Map]. Dotted with steep hairpin turns, long S-curves, and sharp descents, it is both an attraction and a challenge for hikers, cyclists, drivers and motorcycle enthusiasts.
Nicolae Ceausescu commissioned it as a response to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. The dictator urgently wanted an alternative escape route to Transylvania. Thirty-eight soldiers died due to extreme working conditions to complete it in only four years and a half. Once crossed the Carpathians, the road plunges into the forest again until reaching the Poienari Castle, now just ruins under renovation, where the real Dracula, Vlad Ţepeş Darcul III, a.k.a. the Impaler, Prince of Walachia, actually lived and ruled.