A trip to a region surrounded by mysteries and legends; a seductive veil that should not obscure its real sides. The Transylvania of Vlad Ţepeş and Stoker’s Dracula is a land of severe castles and fortresses located on steep cliffs, where it is not difficult to imagine supernatural creatures. But it is also and mainly a Region of colorful Saxon towns and villages suspended in time, monasteries and singular fortified churches, thick woods and ski resorts. A wide “corner” on the edge of Mitteleuropa and yet inside it, where the Germanic, Wallachian (Romanian) and Hungarian cultures converge.
“Transylvania is freezing“. “You’d better go there in summer“. These are common statements about Romania’s most famous and visited region. If the first one is definitely true, some objections can be put forward to the second one. A trip to Transylvania during summer – highly recommended – will allow you not to (literally) beat the teeth while visiting towns, castles, fortresses and monasteries; to enjoy the restful view of the green Carpathians and to travel with a light equipment.
But do not underestimate the appeal of visiting a land of myths and mysteries in the middle of winter, when adventures are diluted in amazing views with an extra dose of suggestion: the snow, the crisp and dry air to cut the face and making everything clearer and still, as the scenery had been “frozen” in its timeless charm.
4 Days in Transylvania
We reached Transylvania from Milan for a four-day itinerary, landing with a low-cost flight to Bucharest Otopeni. Then we boarded a brand new Ford, rented at the airport at the Duo Rent a Car local service. From here, we headed towards Braşov through Highway 1, so as to penetrate as much as possible in the spirit of the places we crossed.
As soon as Henri Coanda airport is left, the Pannonian plain marks the landscape, which appears to be the evident continuation of the metropolitan area of the Capital city, before characterizing itself more and more in a rural key. In the meantime, looking to the North-East, the first peaks begin to appear: it is right to that direction we head, towards the imposing mountains more and more visible and snow-covered, rising gradually as we enter Muntenia region until we are completely immersed in the shadow that the mountains create.
We cross the Transylvanian Alps – the southern Carpathian chain that marks the border with Transylvania – and we reach Braşov throughout dense, evergreen conifers, larches and beech forests, villages with increasingly gothic and picturesque buildings, and steep slopes.
Transylvania: The Cities
Turning around “urban” Transylvania means discovering and immersing yourself in the charm of cities, towns and villages from the late Middle Ages, all with a “colorful” Germanic style and a fortified structure. Starting from Braşov – our itinerary base – the “Saxon” development clearly appears in the low houses surrounding the streets of the historical center, which reach their climax in the central square (Piaţa Sfatului). It is, therefore, no coincidence that the huge dark-walled church that we meet here – Biserica Neagră or “black church”, whose name derives from the fire that blackned it in 1689, considered the largest Gothic building between Vienna and Istanbul – is a Protestant church (in a country with a decisive Christian-Orthodox presence). And it is not by chance that the main Orthodox church of the city is instead confined outside the ancient medieval walls.
Behind Brasov’s Walls
The reason is clear: due to the presence of the Saxons of Transylvania and the Hungarian domination, Romanians citizens were deprived of many political and civil rights and forced to live outside the walls, devoting themselves to agricultural activities.
So, a trip here is a must (where still the true Romanian district stands) to admire the church of Saint Nicola, with its towers similar to a small castle. Its religious complex also includes the first Romanian higher education institution, the Şcolile Centrale Greco-Ortodoxe, born in 1838. In addition to this, Brasov boasts other cultural primates: both the first typography of Transylvania (1558) and the first Romanian-language newspaper, the Gazeta Transilvaniei (1838), were founded here.
Do not miss a walk along the remains of the fortifications that still persist in the city and that worked as a defence against the Turks over the centuries, but also against the punitive raids of the infamous Vlad Ţepeş, who fought against the nobles who did not obey his will. In the fortified plant you can still find two accesses to the city, Ecaterinei Gate and Şchei Gate.
A Walk in the Woods
Not far from here, Brasov offers another of its primates, a tourist attraction that yet may disappoint a bit: Rope Street, one of the narrowest lanes in Europe (from 111 to 135 centimeters), initially built as a corridor for firefighters and whose existence was documented for the first time in the 17th century.
Yet Brasov is clearly a mountain town: it is common to bump into skiers downtown during the winter season. Comfortable city buses lead visitors to the tourist resort of Poiana Brasov (1,000 meters above sea level) in less than half an hour. From here, chairlifts and cable cars go to higher altitude. A visit here is recommended even if you do not ski: you may go for trekking to enjoy the wonderful view of the dense, softly snow-covered woods. The view over the city is superb also from Tampa, a mountain overlooking Brasov, reachable with a medium-long walk through the woods, or by cable car in a couple of minutes.
More city suggestions. In addition to Brașov, you can include – within a longer itinerary in Transylvania – also the cities of Sibiu, Târgu Mureș, and Cluj-Napoca. All of them are connected to the history of Saxons; the two latest ones still boast Romanian and Hungarian biculturalism. But, first of all, you cannot avoid another destination.
Transylvania’s “Jewel” and the Villages
You definitely cannot miss a visit to Sighișoara. Located in the heart of the Country (from Brașov, go on for 118 km northbound, towards Târgu Mureș), but far from the most popular routes, this is the birthplace of the real Vlad Țepeș Dracul, the bloodthirsty Wallachia prince (he was born there in 1431 and he spent some years there as a child). This city is considered the real jewel of the region.
With late medieval origins, the city perfectly maintains the urban structure of a fortified citadel, one of the few of this kind in Eastern Europe to be still inhabited. The center is recognised as UNESCO World Heritage, with the citadel enclosed by walls. Only one advice: get lost inside the city, walk through the alleys, and linger over the beauty of the colorful buildings. The typical Mitteleuropean-style buildings hit the gaze, housing numerous inns and souvenir shops, including small artisan and art shops that preserve the laboratories and work tools of the past. Enter them freely for a taste of the old, placid daily life.
Sighișoara Towers and Vlad Tepes’ House
You can still admire nine turnul (towers) in the city. Among them, the clock tower stands out, the symbol of Sighișoara, dating back the mid-sixteenth century but rebuilt at the end of the nineteenth century. It boasts a fine music box with seven wooden figures who exit the bell tower at the stroke of midnight. Today the tower houses the city’s history museum and tourist info-point.
In the same neighborhood there is also the house of the Impaler. The interior is disappointing: very little remains of the 15th-century dwelling, that is Vlad’s natal room set up in a kitschy way. Welcoming the few visitors in a bleak atmosphere are a coffin, some very high volume organ music, and some rubber bat that grazes the hair while you go up the access steps. The climb to the Church on the Hill, on the other hand, is worth a minimum effort, even only to walk up the staircase entirely covered by a wooden roof.
The Road to Sighișoara
In addition to the town, the road to reach Sighișoara is itself an attraction. The town can be reached from Braşov via the main road 13, or “of the villages with fortified churches in Transylvania”. Already a revealing name. Indeed, not only the most important cities but also small rural communities began in the past to fortify the center of their villages around the church, adding defensive towers and warehouses for food to cope with Ottoman invasions. Thus, the inhabited centers developed in the following centuries around these fortifications.
Going along the main road, therefore, you will pass through villages that really seem to be suspended in time and almost uninhabited: rows of low colored houses for hundreds of meters along the road, with the walls built around the biserica (church) to dominate the landscape. You should note that these fortified churches are mostly Evangelical, a confession that esrablished itslef here very easily thanks to the Saxon substrate present since the time of the first urban development. Amazing views of undisturbed peasants on small carts loaded with wood and other household goods, and still drawn by horses or donkeys, will accompany you.
Seven of these villages throughout Transylvania have been declared UNESCO heritage sites. In the surroundings of Braşov, right on the main road 13, you can visit Bunesti (a town born from the union of 5 small villages, of which Viscri houses the fortified church) and then Prejmer.
Transylvania: The Castles
Here they are, the manors of Transylvania, and it is a duty to start from it: the severe Castelul Bran, in the district of Braşov (less than 30 kilometers far away, driving on a partially bumpy road with an amazing view on the higher Carpathians mountains, over 2,000 meters, standing out on the plain).
It is well known that this isn’t the real castle of Vlad Țepeș Dracul – the Impaler of Wallachia – but rather the sinister fortress that inspired Bram Stocker the abode of the literary and cinematographic Dracula. It is less well known that Vlad never lived in this fortress, although he passed several times through the Bran gorge (where once the border between Wallachia and Transylvania was located) during his movements from one region to another in search of political support for the maintenance of the throne.
As much as possible (without prejudice to the sacrosanct literary and vampire fascination), the invitation is to go beyond the myth of Dracula while visiting the castle.
Inside Bran Castle
The appearance is that of a fortress, highlighted by the high and steep cliff where it stands and which isolates it from three sides. The castle overlooks the valley (just as in the vision that Stoker attributes to the protagonist of his novel, the solicitor Jonathan Harker), softened by pretty turrets and half-timbered interior facades. In the past, in fact, more than by royals and nobles, it was inhabited by castellans and deputies who exercised administrative, fiscal, and control functions in the surrounding area.
The current furnishing (rather spartan, with the exception of the music room and the library) are mostly dated between 1600 and 1900, with “arrangements” created in the period between the two World Wars, when Bran Castle became a royal summer residence. After the annexation of Transylvania to Greater Romania, in fact, the castle was donated to the royal family and was the favourite home of Queen Maria and her daughter, Princess Ileana.
Bran Village Museum
Overall, this is a striking castle where having fun among tunnels, spiral staircases, towers, narrow passages from one wing to the others, overlooking the courtyard and the beautiful valley. Always accompanied by the presence of the moustaches of Vlad Țepeș.
Once the visit is over (admission for 40 Leu, around 9 euros), take some time at the foot of the castle among the typical rural houses transferred to Bran from traditional villages. At Bran Village Museum, you will spend some moments stepping back to the peasant life of centuries ago.
The visit to Peleș Castle is totally different. We are in Sinaia, a mountain resort 50 kilometers south from Braşov, in the region of Muntenia to be precise, but practically on the border with Transylvania and already deep in its atmosphere.
Once at the top of the village, the castle fabulously appears after traversing a path through the trees from the parking lot. It looks imposing, with its towers and the rustic elegant Bavarian half-timbered facade. The first surprise is its modernity. Built between 1873 and 1914 as the summer residence of the first king of united Romania (German Charles I), it was among the most avant-garde castles in Europe at its inauguration (1883), and the first building in Romania to be equipped with central air heating system, electrical system, elevators, and centralized vacuum system.
Once inside, you will discover a diffused masterpiece. The richness of decorations and furnishings is incredible (they are much older than their container; some of them have Italian origins, such as the enormous Florentine Renaissance table that welcomes guests in the lobby, the Burano glass chandeliers, and the mother-of-pearl furniture). The castle is a museum that, through the unique pieces it collects, summarizes different European architectural and furnishing styles; from Italian and German neo-Renaissance to neo-Baroque, with Rococo elements, Empire style, and twentieth-century style.
Peleș Castle Rooms
One room in particular, in its spectacularity, seems to have nothing to do with the rest: the Moorish Hal, used for parties and inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, accompanied by the small Turkish drawing room. The royal residence even boasts a theater (with paintings made by none other than Klimt) and a concert hall. Live music shows can be attended for free upon reservation. The bookcases and the wooden cabinets hide, as in the castle tradition, several secret passages. The table entirely made of Indian Teck wood stands out among the furnishings of the wing added in the 20th century: it took about 100 years to inlay it!
Actually, Peles’s is not a single castle, but a large residential complex, equipped with small houses for the court and servants too. Not far from the main building stands the smaller art nouveau Pelișor Castle, commissioned again by Charles I for the heirs to the throne, Ferdinand and Mary, and reflecting the taste of the princess. Among the 99 rooms that compose it, the Golden Room stands out, whose walls are entirely covered with gold thistle leaves, the symbol of Scotland (homeland of the future Queen Mary).
The Monastery of Sinaia
While going up from the center of Sinaia towards the castle, you will notice a large, typically Orthodox building that resembles a fortress. This is the construction that gives celebrity and name to the place, and it is even more important than the royal residence. It is the Monastery of Sinaia (from the biblical Mount Sinai), built at the end of the seventeenth century to keep a promise, the one of Prince Mihail Cantacuzino. Escaping from Bucharest and the persecution of the Ottomans, he arrived on these mountains safe, and here he was protected by a community of hermit monks. Thus, he had the first church of the future monastic complex built here, a building then enlarged by the second (and now main) church.
Transylvania: The Fortresses
Reaching the Cetatea Râşnov is (again) an experience itself. The most visited fortress of Transylvania is accessible from the namesake town located on the road between Braşov and Bran (therefore ideal to join the two destinations in a one day trip), from which we continue for a short distance towards the woods of Poiana, along the 73A road. After leaving the car at the large parking lot, spend 5 Leu (about 1 euro) and jump on the tourist train pulled by a tractor. It leads directly to the fortification (unless you want to try a half an hour uphill walk).
As you walk among ruins, walls, and half-crumbling huts of what was a true citadel, let your mind go back in time, to a bloodthirsty Middle Ages. The fortress was built by the Teutonic Knights around 1215 (another order to defend Christianity against the Ottoman Turks), and it is famous both for the fact that it was conquered only once in its history (around 1600) and for the presence of a legendary well 143 meters deep. It is said that the lack of water during a long siege caused two Turkish prisoners to be placed to dig a well, with the promise of freedom at the conclusion of the work: although this was completed after 32 years of work, however, the promise was not maintained and the prisoners were killed. From the top of the citadel, the view of the plain below and of the Carpathian Mountains is priceless!
For families with children, a stop at Dino Park on the way back is also recommended.
It dominates the horizon of a stretch of the “Villages with fortified churches” road we have already talked about, built on a basaltic rock above the homonymous village (still in the district of Brașov). Rupea fortress, assaulted several times but never conquered, was the last refuge of the Transylvanian Saxons rebelled against King Charles I of Anjou of Hungary, but it was also the residence of the royal representation. Throughout history, its main role was to host the people of the surrounding villages during the repeated attacks by Tatars and Turks. The entire architectural complex, with the remains of some buildings and the deep well that guaranteed the survival of the refugees, is divided into three parts: the Superior Fortress, dating back to the 14th century, the Middle Fortress, built in the 15th century, and the Lower Fortress (18th century).
We are once again just outside the borders of Transylvania, yet still in the Carpathians, in Muntenia. This place is a must-see: it is the true fortress of Vlad Țepeș, on the slopes of the Făgăraș Mountains, in the narrow valley of the Arges and near the national Drumul Transfăgărășan road, one of the most interesting mountain routes in the Country and maybe in Europe.
The fortress, now in ruins, can be visited only after reservation. While climbing a staircase of 1,480 steps, pay attention to the real inhabitants of the area: the bears! The fortress was built in the 13th century during the reign of Wallachia, alternating periods of glory and abandonment. In the fifteenth century, it was recovered and strengthened by Vlad III of Wallachia, who inspired the myth of Dracula and who apparently used Turkish prisoners to rebuild it.
In 1462 Vlad’s brother, Radu, in command of a Turkish army, besieged the castle. Legend tells that faced with the prospect of a victorious Turkish assault, Vlad’s wife threw herself into the river below (since then called Râul Doamnei, “princess’s river”), while Vlad fled to the mountains with the help of the inhabitants of nearby Arefu (who he later donated lands to, in order to show his gratitude). Following the death of the Impaler, in 1476, the castle was again abandoned.
Nearby the fortress is the city of Curtea de Argeș. It is one of the oldest in Romania, the old capital of the historical region of Wallachia, according to tradition.
What to Eat in Transylvania
In the heart of Romania, get ready for purely continental and very spicy flavors (paprika, pepper, garlic). The typical dishes of Transylvania are a set of Romanian, Hungarian and Saxon recipes, to reflect the mixed identity of the region.
So, way go to go to mixed meat sausages, mushrooms, pork, and beef (and possibly, especially in Brasov, even bear meat) all prepared mostly in the form of stews, but also grilled or in soup. Goulash, pastrami (from pork or mutton), tasty sarmale (rolls of cabbage or vine leaves stuffed with minced meat and rice, very common throughout Eastern Europe) are the most popular dishes, together with stewed and sautéed cabbage with aromas and tomato as accompaniment to sausages or meat (which is often smoked). You will also be amazed by the common use of polenta, served with pastrami or stew.
Cheese and Soup
Among the soups (ciorbas), the “Transylvanian” is the commonest, based on smoked gammon, tarragon, and sour cream. The Wiener Schnitzel is also quite popular. Let’s not forget that Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918.
The Brânză de burduf is a typical cheese from the Carpathian mountains, a pressed sheep’s paste cheese. The mixture of coagulated milk, salted and kneaded, is left to rest and mature for a few weeks in the stomach of a sheep or in a pine or fir bark container.
Among the desserts, there is the traditional, ancient, Hungarian Kürtőskalács widespread across Transylvania: a sweet pastry cooked on a cylindrical spit that slowly rotates on the fire. Papanasi is also eaten all over the Country, made of fried or boiled dough filled with sweet and creamy cheese, sour cream, and jam.
Transylvania: Useful Info
The heart of Romania can be reached by flying to Cluj-Napoca or – with more frequent services – to Bucharest Otopeni directly from Italy and other European cities (by Alitalia, Wizz Air, Ryanair, Blue Air); then it is necessary a two-hour journey by car or bus from the capital city. In addition to these airports, the closest one to Brasov is Sibiu (147 km). It is served from Italy and other European destinations only with connection flights (mostly throughout German hubs). The same happens with the Târgu Mureș airport (169 km).
We recommend Duo Rent a Car (duoinchirieriauto.ro), a young and growing Romanian company, present at Bucharest Otopeni airport and in the other main cities (Timișoara, Cluj Napoca, Târgu Mureș and Sibiu), but also (moving away from Transylvania) in Bacău, Iași, Constanta. The car variety is wide (Volkswagen, Opel, Ford, Seat, Skoda, Dacia) with a very low average age (from 1 to 3 years). Fares from only 3 euros per day and a guarantee deposit that varies between zero and 1500 euros, based on the damage coverage you choose: no coverage (maximum deposit, very low rental rate); limited coverage (300 euro deposit and average rental rates); Total Relax, zero risk (no deposit and higher but still fair fares, around 140 euros for a segment c car for 4 days).
Where to Stay in Transylvania
Located in Brașov, Vila Alba is a small hotel with a panoramic position over the old town and the mountains. Just a few hundred meters from the town center, it is an excellent accommodation for those not too demanding in terms of style and service, without giving up a minimum of comfort. Double room without breakfast from 36 euros per night (small studios for families are available too).
Visitors can find comfort, style and warm sophistication at The Pines Boutique Villa, a little out of the center but in a beautiful panoramic position. Double room with breakfast from 80 euros.
In the home town of Vlad Țepeș, Hotel Sighişoara is an elegant venue in a typical 16th-century building within the walls of the ancient citadel. It features a traditional Romanian restaurant, a wine cellar, and a wellness area. Double room with breakfast from 44 euros.
Restaurants in Transylvania
In Brașov, you must try downtown Sergiana restaurant, with folkloric interiors, background music from Transylvania. The ingredients come directly from the local cellar, and the dishes are served by waiters in typical costume. Full dinner (dessert excluded) for less than 15 euros.
Casa Romaneasca, just outside the walls, in front of the Orthodox church, is a very popular place also for Romanians. It sports wooden interiors and features live music. Before eating, the traditional (and singular) proposal is ţuică, a strong alcoholic distillate based on plums. It seems to be kindly offered but generally it is charged. Bill between 10 and 15 euros.
In Sighișoara, Casa Ferdinand is a cozy little restaurant just outside the walls, with wooden ceiling and furniture, also equipped with a terrace and pub area. Here you can taste the typical sarmale, grilled meat and papanasi as a dessert. A large single dish, drink and dessert for 10 euros.
Souvenir and Shopping
In Brașov, Rope Street Museum is recommended for a stop during the visit around the city. Here you may have a hot drink (they have a large variety of teas) while browsing among small craft souvenirs. The environment is cozy, and just behind the very narrow Strada Sforii. In the main street (Strada Republicii) Pebs concept store offers jewellery and handicraft objects, including miniature reproductions of traditional Romanian houses. In Sighișoara, the realm of typical handicraft and a corner of true Romanian culture is Art & Crafts (strata Piata Cetatii 8).