Travel to Lonely Planet’s best destination for 2016: Transylvania.
If you Google the word “Transylvania“, you will find that besides representing a historical region in central Romania, it offers many other different and often unique delights. From the bloody legend of Count Dracula to mysterious medieval castles and churches, from the picturesque and remote Saxon villages hidden behind rolling hills to charming and cosmopolitan cities. We can keep on going with natural reserves, salt mines, wildlife, adventures, old mansions, UNESCO monuments, medieval festivals and fortresses, chic spas, handicraft workshops, quaint traditions, great food, and of course the people – the real soul of this historical region. I think we can all agree that even Google itself might feel a little overwhelmed by such diversity.
“The land beyond the forest,” as the Latin name means, is witness to its own renaissance. It all started with Bram Stoker’s world-famous novel “Dracula”, through which readers from all over the world were able to explore a faraway land, full of mystery and intriguing stories. As tourists arrived here in search of Dracula, they discovered a great deal more and then stories about these unique places started to spread.
Probably the most vocal admirer of Transylvania is Britain’s Prince Charles, who does not miss any chance to speak warmly about this region and urges people to travel to Romania. It is easy to understand why he fell in love with this region, especially after you’ve seen the film Wild Carpathia, written and presented by British journalist Charlie Ottley. And even more now, when Lonely Planet ranked Transylvania 1st in their 2016 Best Travel Regions, we believe that the true value of this place is about to be acknowledged worldwide.
All right, all right, you say, I get it. I must visit Transylvania if I want to be part of the travel fashion trend of the year. But where should I go and what should I see? Do not despair, as below you will find in no uncertain terms what you should not miss while in Transylvania.
Charming medieval cities
Theses cities were founded by the Saxons during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. They are considered to be some of the most beautiful cities in the country and attract thousands of tourists annually from around the world. These places successfully manage to deliver an extraordinary visual impact, while at the same time allowing you to connect with the olden days as well as accessing various leisure opportunities. Here are some of the most popular cities to visit:
The city is also known as “Kronstadt” (its German name), meaning “City of the Crown.” It is very well connected to Romania’s capital city, Bucharest, so tourists can easily reach it by train or car.
As soon as you get to the Council Square you will understand the reason for the “royal” name of this City of the Crown. You will be impressed by the more than 500 year-old local architecture, the great views that the surrounding mountains provide, and the numerous museums you can visit. You should see the Black Church, emblematic of Brasov and the largest Gothic church in Eastern Europe. It also boasts the heaviest bell in Romania as well as the largest collection of Anatolian carpets in the country. If you are lucky enough to be there for one of the organ concerts that take place in summertime, you will be surprised by the extraordinary acoustics of the church. You should also know that there are local guides who welcome individual tourists and who will be more than happy to share their stories with you. For instance, why is the Black Church called the Black Church? You will have to come here to learn the answer. Of course, there are other sites that are not to be missed, such as: Saint Nicholas Church, the First Romanian School, the Rope Street (one of the narrowest streets in Europe) and Saint Catherine’s Gate.
Also, the surroundings are quite impressive as history merges beautifully with the wild landscape of the Carpathian Mountains. You can visit the medieval Bran Castle (which became so famous thanks to the legend of Dracula) or Rasnov Fortress (one of the best preserved medieval fortresses in the country) or enjoy the beautiful Poiana Brasov mountain resort. Also close to Brasov is the stunning fortified Saxon church of Prejmer, which is the largest of its type in Transylvania and certainly one of the most beautiful.
Did I just say stunning? That means it is the right moment to mention Peles Castle, although not strictly located in Transylvania. It is very close to the former border between Transylvania and Wallachia, and an important highlight for tourists. In 2015 it was chosen as the most stunning castle in the world by Global Traveler USA, others at the top of the list being Prague Castle and Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. Peles castle still belongs to the Romanian royal family, and is a place you really should not miss.
Last but not least, there are the wild trails of the Carpathian Mountains, still traversed by large carnivores in Romania. I am talking about the Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti, jokingly called LiBEARty, the only reserve of its kind in the country. More about this later.
Sibiu is one of the major cultural centers in Romania, and was designated in 2007 as the European Capital of Culture. It was also founded by the Saxons of Transylvania, and was known as Hermannstadt. It is considered to be the most beautiful city not only in Transylvania, but in the whole country.
Since it’s one of the standout cities in the region, it’s well served when it comes to the local infrastructure. It also features a modern airport so you can easily connect with various cities and countries all over Europe, as well as with other cities in Romania.
It’s a place that tries to be as “green” as possible, a great example here being the revival of cycling that has led to the creation of a bicycle path that goes on for 43 km. As we said earlier, Sibiu is a major cultural center – so once you come here you have plenty of cultural sites to visit. There is the Gong Theatre, the State Philharmonic, the Cathedrals, Thalia Hall, and many other similar establishments, all of these offering great cultural performances.
You can also visit the Brukenthal National Museum, ASTRA National Museum Complex, the Steam Locomotives Museum, and several interesting parks including the Sub AriniPark, the Lira Park, Strand Park, and the Corneliu Coposu Park.
Do not miss a walk in the two town squares (Large and Small), and most importantly, ladies, test the faith of your beloved while standing beneath the Liars’ Bridge – without a doubt one of the most popular monuments in Sibiu.
The city is also known for the great tourism in the region, because alongside culture it also showcases numerous festivals and it’s even great for trekking, making it a complete experience for those that want to visit Romania and enjoy it in all of its glory.
Despite not being as large or imposing as the cities mentioned above, Sighisoara stands on its own merits thanks to its unique location and history. During the 12th century, many merchants and craftsmen lived in the region and they changed the overall architecture and appeal of the town. The city still has a sizeable German population and at one point had many Germanic names.
Sighisoara is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, boasting one of the best preserved medieval citadels in the world. What is even more interesting is the fact that this medieval citadel in still inhabited.
Since the old town is very well preserved, many tourists come for its beauty and for the overall appeal of the region. The imposing Clock Tower is the major landmark of the citadel. It is home to the History Museum of Sighisoara, something you should not miss – most of all thanks to the majestic view of the entire citadel from the top of the tower. The climb is really worth it!
There are also other points of interest in Sighisoara such as the Weapons Museum and the Covered Staircase, at the end of which you reach another important landmark, the Church on the Hill. You should also know that Sighisoara is forever tied to the name of Dracula. Vlad the Impaler, the cruel voivod whose life served as a source of inspiration for Bram Stoker for his Count Dracula, was born here. I am sure that you wouldn’t like to miss a visit to his former house, would you?
Another charming city, actually one of the oldest cities in Romania and which in 2015 enjoyed being the European Capital of Youth. Cluj-Napoca is a dynamic economic center but also an important travel destination. One can admire the Matthias statue, the imposing Catholic Cathedral, the main squares, and the beautiful architecture of the buildings. Cluj-Napoca also hosts the Untold Festival, the largest annual electronic music festival in Romania, and is located not far from the Turda Salt Mine, the most impressive salt mine in Eastern Europe. You will read more about this in Point 4 of this article.
You should also know that in wintertime, all these cities offer charming Christmas Markets in the style of those organized traditionally in the larger cities of Germany. You can find more info about these markets here.
Medieval castles and fortresses
When you say Transylvania, your mind instantly thinks of all medieval things. As Charlie Ottley says in his “Wild Carpathia” documentary, “this is perhaps world’s only surviving medieval landscape”. Here we shall talk about the beauty of the castles and fortresses built in the shade of the protective Carpathian Mountains. So, what can we visit?
Bran Castle is the most visited castle in Romania. With a constantly increasing number of visitors from all over the world, the castle has an intriguing story related to the Transylvanian Saxons, the royal family of Romania, and of course, the legend of Count Dracula. Nowadays, Bran is a private castle belonging to the successors of Queen Marie of Romania and despite its being over 600 years old, is a very active castle with many cultural events, the most important and entertaining being the annual Halloween party. Whether you are alone or traveling with a group, visiting the castle is easy as you can download an app straight to your mobile phone and learn about the tumultuous history of the castle in your own language. Besides your phone, it is said that some cloves of garlic might also be quite useful during the visit. You never know what could happen in Dracula’s Castle…
Rasnov Fortress is located about 20 minutes’ drive from Bran Castle. It is one of the best preserved medieval fortresses and was built by peasants. Thanks to some great preservation, the fortress was chosen to be the set for many historical Romanian and foreign movies. For example, the inspiring film “Cold Mountain” was filmed here. Quite nice to imagine Jude Law and Nicole Kidman wandering around the cobblestone paths of this medieval fortress. In December 2015, Condé Nast Traveler selected Rasnov Fortress for its Top 10 Most Beautiful Snow Castles in the World, together with Hradcany Castle in Prague and Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria.
Alba Iulia Carolina Citadel is located in the city of Alba Iulia, a precious symbol of Romania as almost 100 years ago, it was here where the Great Unification took place on 1st of December .
The city boasts one of the largest and most spectacular medieval citadels in the country, and is built in the famous Vauban style. The citadel can be visited by choosing one of several tours, each with a theme of its own. Don’t miss the changing of the guard which takes place every day at 11:00 o’clock, and is particularly spectacular in summertime.
Corvinus Castle, also known as Hunedoara or Hunyadi castle, truly represents a landmark in the Gothic Renaissance architectural style. It is acknowledged to be one of the largest castles in Europe and mentioned in the top “seven wonders of Romania.” Here tourists can walk through the large halls and visit different chambers but most importantly, they will discover intriguing legends about the castle and the people who have passed through it. For instance, they will find out that Vlad the Impaler was kept here as a prisoner by the owner of the castle, John Hunyadi, Hungary’s military leader and regent until the King came of age.
Saxon villages and their fortified churches
Transylvania is very popular for its rural landscape and for the over 850-year-old Saxon legacy. They began to settle here in the eleventh and twelfth centuries at the invitation of the Hungarian Emperor and founded different settlements, villages and medieval towns, some of which are now the most beautiful cities in Romania. Unfortunately, after the 1989 Revolution most of the remaining Saxons left for Germany, abandoning their homes in Transylvania. Only a few have remained here and they are trying to maintain and preserve their traditions and culture.
How can one explore this legacy? Visiting the picturesque Saxon villages found in the rolling hills of Transylvania, walking along the dirt roads, observing the locals and interacting with them, visiting the impressive fortified churches, and experiencing the traditional food and drink. Most of the settlements are remote villages in peaceful isolation, which attract many tourists interested in spending an authentic cultural holiday or, sometimes on the contrary, an active and adventurous one.
At present there are more than 150 fortified churches of which 7 are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. These are not just ordinary churches. In the Middle Ages, in order to face foreign attacks and to provide a shelter for inhabitants, massive walls of fortifications were erected. Thus, the gentle churches were fortified in order to create a safe space for the locals to carry on their lives during the periods of battle.
In Transylvania, one should visit as many of these as possible because each has its special charm. Nevertheless, we will mention only our favourites for now. First comes Prejmer Fortified Church, located very close to the city of Brasov, also built by the Saxons and the largest church of its type in Transylvania. The impressive three rings of fortifications protectively “embrace” the church allowing the locals to find shelter in the more than 270 small chambers during an attack. Each family had their own chamber. Once you enter the courtyard, turn left and admire the former school room where the Saxon children used to study. For a better idea, below is a video about the Prejmer Fortified Church (Video Credit @Aerial Media)
I will mention another great place, Viscri – also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is a truly remote village as you have to go even deeper into the typical Transylvanian landscape. After driving along a winding road, you will finally reach Viscri village and its white church nestled on the top of a hill. Walk along the cobblestone paths, admire the well-preserved local architecture, enjoy a ride in a horse-drawn cart, and you can even spend the night in one of the local guesthouses which provide excellent accommodations in typical eighteenth-century Saxon houses. At sunset, watch the cows coming in from the fields and heading without any guidance, each to its own home. So here, you should never underestimate animals, most of all, the cows! This is the spectacle of rural life, simple and slow but with a certain genuine beauty that inspires a comfortable and peaceful feeling for the viewer. And if you are lucky, you could also greet Britain’s Prince Charles who actually owns two houses in the village and spends one week here every year. The Prince fell in love with the Saxon culture and is trying to help and educate the locals on how to preserve their legacy and to promote it for tourism.
“Transylvania is the last corner of Europe where you see true sustainability and complete resilience. There’s so much we can learn from it before it’s too late.” (Charles, Prince of Wales)
Continue your walk and head to the fortified church, climbing up the alley. It is preferable to arrive at the church in the morning before 12:00 o’clock, as after then it could be a bit difficult to find it open.
Visit Viscri Fortified Church dating from aprox. 1100, climb up to the tower and enjoy a breathtaking view over the whole area. You can also visit the small museums built inside the walls of the fortifications. Viscri is also a great place to start exploring the rolling hills of Transylvania by bike and visiting the neighboring settlements.
Other villages that are worth a visit are Biertan (another World Heritage site), Saschiz, Axente Sever, ValeaViilor, Harman, Crit, and the list goes on. You can start your journey by watching this great film about the Fortified Churches of Transylvania.
Turda Salt Mine
One of the things that Romania is popular for is salt, and because in our lives we sometimes need some salt and pepper, we literally add some to your visit in our country. In Romania there are several salt mines open to tourists, such as Targu Ocna, Ocnele Mari and Slanic Prahova (the largest salt mine in Europe). But the most impressive is definitely Turda Salt Mine, very close to the city of Cluj-Napoca.
It is considered to be the most beautiful and modern salt mine in Romania, and quite famous abroad as well. The first excavations here date back to the 13th century (one of the oldest salt mines in the world) and after 1932, this huge underground space was used for several purposes, including a bomb shelter during WWII and later as a storage center for cheese! Nowadays, one heads down more than 90 metres to discover the history of the salt mine and salt excavation in Romania, but probably the most important is the theme park which, once you reach it, gives you the feeling of being in wonderland. You will find an underground lake with rowboats for visitors, an amphitheater, a bowling alley, ping pong courts and even a Ferris wheel. In 2012, Turda Salt Mine was very close to becoming the Batcave for Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises.” Who knows? Maybe next time!
Natural Reserves and Adventure
The Carpathian Mountains represent a truly important landmark not just for Transylvania, but for the whole country as well. Here, people have learned how to live in harmony with nature, leaving the necessary space for the native wild animals. In Romania, you can still find old and unexplored forests, and you can still observe bears or other large carnivores in the wild. In the Carpathian Mountains one can find the second largest population of brown bears in Europe (after Russia).
The cities mentioned above, most of all Brasov and Sibiu, are good points from which tourists can explore the high peaks of the mountains and admire waterfalls, impressive glacial lakes, or stunning caves. I could say that these hikes are perfect for avid photographers. Mountains such as Piatra Craiului, Parang and Retezat promise great scenery for hikers and offer good accommodations in the local chalets.
Biking in Romania is a new and quite fashionable trend in tourism. Even though there are not so many marked bike paths, you can easily explore Transylvania by bike with a small group or with the locals. We recommend the area between Brasov, Sighisoara and Sibiu, following the paths through the forests that link the remote Saxon villages. If you are still not convinced, have a look here at a bike trail in the Viscri area.
If you are still having second thoughts, you might be happy to know that Transylvania is recommended for biking in The Guardian’s Top 10 Europe Adventure Holiday Destinations.
Don’t forget to visit the LiBEARty Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti, not far from Brasov. You will see and learn the stories of the brown bears brought here from different corners of Romania. I think this natural reserve is the perfect place for us to understand the fragility of our environment and how we can so easily affect it or better yet, improve it. Guided visits to the bear sanctuary are offered in Romanian and English, and start every day (except Mondays) at 10:00, 11:00 and 12:00.
If you are even slightly interested in visiting Romania and more specifically Transylvania, then checking out the places mentioned above is highly suggested. Not only do they offer you the ability to witness a great historic legacy, but they also offer truly memorable experiences. If you love history or just want to enjoy a pleasant vacation, then you should really visit Transylvania. It’s definitely a one of a kind place, and one that offers great value on many levels. Just come and enjoy this unique and colorful region – you will love it!