This is going to sound terrible, but before I had really started to research visiting Romania, I imagined it being this post-Communist bleak, run-down place with a cool Dracula castle and mysterious creepy mountains. Please don’t judge me for being clueless. Also, don’t judge me but I have a significant Dracula fascination. I read that book “The Historian” a few years ago and decided then that I had to visit Romania. It became clear once I did a little research that my original clueless thoughts did not accurately reflect what this beautiful country has to offer. It also was clear that one week was not going to be enough to see all these amazing places Romania has to offer but I did the best I could and came up with this one week itinerary for Romania
Table of Contents
Romanian. Decent English is spoken in larger cities and villages
Thank you: mulțumesc It took me days to pronounce this properly “Mool-tszi-mesk”
Romanian Lei (RON). 1 Lei = 0.25 USD
International airports in Cluj-Napoca and Bucharest and the country has a decent train system. I flew into Cluj via Wow Air (a discount airline based in Hungary) and out of Bucharest. Many travelers take the Budapest to Bucharest train which is quite a journey, an overnight trip from 7pm to 12pm the next day. I would spring for the sleeping compartment on this one! If you happen to be coming from Serbia, the city of Timisoara is very close the northern border. Not sure that there is a train but it is certainly drivable from Belgrade. There is also a night train between Sofia, Bulgaria and Bucharest that takes about 9 hours.
I found the train very easy and convenient with many larger stations having luggage storage. I utilized Uber in Brasov and Bucharest. Many people opt to self-drive which is nice for freedom but traffic can really make for some slow going at certain times.
Like all itineraries, this is just a suggestion to give you an idea of what you can do in a week’s time. I will often include places to eat (because that’s important to me) and if you trust my judgment…great. Since I certainly do not know enough to write extensive city guides, I only share a few places that impressed me. This route could be done in either direction depending on where you find the best transportation in and out. This is the order in which I did the trip.
After flying into Cluj, as it’s fondly known I slept. I had an exhausting week in Malta prior to this leg of my big European trip and because of that, I missed out on much that Cluj has to offer. I did get a small taste of this 2nd largest city in Romania and capital of Transylvania. Cluj has the countries largest university, Babeș-Bolyai University, which has a famous botanical garden. The town is full of students and artists has many cute cafes and bars and a cool bohemian vibe.
DIY Walking Tour with tips from Awesome Things to do in Cluj-Napoca
Start in Museum Square and walk towards Union Square where you can find the impressive St. Michael’s Church and the statue of Matthias Corvinus. After this stroll towards the National Theatre and then make your way to the Tailor’s Bastion. Follow Avram Iancu Street, pass by the Town Hall, and make your way to Central Park. If you still have energy, trek up to Fortress Hill for some great views.
Many people suggested I visit the nearby Turda Salt Mines, but I didn’t have time. They do look really cool!
This is right in Museum Square and is a cozy place for lunch and coffee. They also have great wifi. Did I mention that Romania has some of the best wifi in Europe! Seriously impressed. This cafe’s cuisine is a cool blend of Hungarian, Romania, Armenian, Jewish and Saxon. I had the Ciorba which is a Hungarian specialty. It is basically sour soup. I spent about 37 lei ($9) for soup, bread, coffee and some cool juice blend.
The service here left much to be desired and I could do without all the smoking (this is a common theme and complaint mine regarding eastern Europe) but the menu was really humorous and creative with a movie theme and the food was good. The large terrace is great during summer months and the place has a hipster vibe.
Sighisoara is a delightful pastel-colored dream village in the heart of Transylvania. I opted to break up my train trip from Cluj to Brasov with a stop here. The entire train trip from Cluj to Brasov takes 7 hours. It is 5 hours to Sighisoara. The train station here has luggage storage and is only 4 Lei ($1) for 3 hours of storage. How nice is that? I found 3 hours the perfect time to explore the village. Just make sure to check the train times so you know when to come back.
Sighisoara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to being such a well-preserved walled city. During the12th-century German merchants and craftsman were invited to Transylvania by the King of Hungary. He wanted these Transylvanian Saxons, as they were known, to settle and fortify the outskirts of the realm. You’ll notice that all the Saxon villages in Romania have a distinct look and are all really charming.
Sighisoara is easily explored on foot with only 3 main streets really. The town is unbelievably colorful and for great views make sure to climb the clock tower. You should also take the cool covered staircase up to the gothic church on the hill.
Sighisoara’s other “claim to fame” is that Vlad Tepes’ father, Vlad Dracul, was exiled here when Vlad Tepes was born (see my section on Bran Castle for more explanation about Vlad Tepes).
A historic old house (also a hotel) makes a nice lunch stop. I highly recommend the crispy eggplant salad.
Sorry, that’s all I got. I was only here 3 hours! There is a kitschy Dracula Cafe…
This central Transylvanian town is the perfect base to explore the region. It is on its own a wonderful place to visit with hiking in the hills and a beautiful old city. Give yourself at least a full day just to see Brasov. If you are the kind of person who doesn’t like moving around as much you can do day trips from here to the next few places on the list. For example, there are tours that can take you to both Bran Castle and Peles Castle in one day.
Hard to imagine that this idyllic square has a dark past with public trials and executions during the middle ages.
It’s the largest Gothic church in Eastern Europe. It’s obviously not black, but after a fire in the 1600’s the walls were discolored from soot.
Hike or take the cable car up to Brasov’s “Hollywood sign”
I do the free walking tour in every city that offers it. Who doesn’t love free stuff and I think walking tours are the best way to introduce yourself to a new city.
There are 2 locations with the smaller one on a side street and the other close to the main square. The food is traditional Romanian and is amazing. I adored the mushroom pie with garlic sour cream. Did I mention that Romanian cuisine is mushroom and sour cream heave, two of my favorite things. This with 2 glasses of red wine was 50 lei (13$) and with very good service. The main square location’s service was not as good. In both locations, the soup of day and stew of day were gone by dinner time (and they looked good) so go for lunch! This restaurant is very popular so be prepared to wait if you are there at peak times and in the summer.
These donuts are not only instagram worthy, but delicious. I didn’t know this until later but there is a location in Cluj as well. Located on Strada Republicii near the main square.
This place…ok so the showers are in the basement but at least they have separate female and male bathrooms with several shower stalls each. The breakfast is free and they offer you a free drink daily. This can be water, juice, beer…whatever. They also have a hostel dog that is adorable and they offer great small group tours every day. Just a ten minute walk into the city center.
This is “Dracula’s Castle”…oooh (queue ghost noises). Don’t worry…this is the least scary place on earth unless like me you are terrified of overly crowded touristy places. Bran actually means “Gate” so this is the Gate of Transylvania.I was floored by the number of tourists here in early August but then I was told this is Romania’s most visited place. I’m sure in non-summer times it is less crowded (except Halloween…that’s totally a THING). We waited about 35 minutes in line just to arrive at the ticket booth and another 15 minutes or so to enter. I went through at a moderate pace. Entire experience including waiting in line took me 1.5 hours. Not too bad for a day’s work. Note that trips to Bran castle are typically combined with other regional activities. You definitely don’t want to spend a whole day chasing Dracula!
Bran Stoker, the Irish writer who wrote the 1857 book “Dracula” never actually visited Romania. Dracula is often confused with Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), sometimes known as Vlad Dracula, who was a Wallachian Prince with a castle (now in ruins) located in the Principality of Wallachia. Bran Castle happens to be the only castle in all of Transylvania that actually fits Bram Stoker’s description of Dracula’s Castle, so now it is known throughout the world as Dracula’s Castle. In his book, the Count’s castle is described as “. . . 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.” Bran Stoker depicted the imaginary Dracula’s castle based upon a description of Bran Castle that was available to him in turn-of-the-century Britain.
The name “Dracula”, derives from the Crusader Order of the Dragon and Order of which both Vlad Tepes and his father had been associated. Vlad Tepes was the ruler of Wallachia from 1456-1462 and 1476. He was depicted by some historians of that time as a blood-thirsty ruthless despot who did horrible and malicious things (such as impaling) to his peasants. It isn’t clear if these are stories created for political reasons or facts.
In the villages near Bran, there is a belief in the existence of evil spirits called ghosts or “strigoi” It was believed that these living people, “strigoi”, lead a normal life during the day but at night their souls left their bodies and haunted the village tormenting people in their sleep. One can see how these local beliefs combined with the storied about Vlad Tepes led to this fantastical story of Dracula.
I was especially amused by the poor dude dressed as Dracula roaming around. Not sure if he’s the “official” sanctioned Dracula or just a random local man trying to make a buck. I felt bad for him in the summer heat since his white makeup didn’t want to stay put. His face was too kind to be Dracula and he looked really sad. I tried to chat with him a bit. I was amused (as were the parents) when a terrified small child refused to go near him.
I highly recommend eating one of the local pancake treats found in the food stalls across the street from the Castle area. This is a central European treat that has made its way to Romania at some point. In Hungarian it is known as palacsinta and in Romanian, clătite but here in Bran I saw the former used. I can’t pronounce either of them so… You can get these crepe like things with a several fillings bt the one with the cheese seems to be the most popular. It is a great snack to have to make that Bran castle line more palatable. Or palacsint-able. Hee hee.
If you want a fancy culinary experience worthy of Queen Marie, check out the Tea House. Recently restored and ready for some royal visitors. Bran Castle Tea House
Peleș Castle is a Neo-Renaissance castle in the Carpathian Mountains on an existing medieval route linking Transylvania and Wallachia. Its inauguration was held in 1883. It was the summer home of King Carol the I who brought independence to Romania. The cost of the work on the castle was undertaken between 1875 and 1914 was estimated to be 16,000,000 Romanian lei in gold (approx. US$ 120 million today). Wowzers!
Apparently, 300-400 men were involved in the construction. I have to share this quote by Queen Elisabeth of the Romanians:
“Italians were masons, Romanians were building terraces, the Gypsies were coolies. Albanians and Greeks worked in stone, Germans and Hungarians were carpenters. Turks were burning brick. Engineers were Polish and the stone carvers were Czech. The Frenchmen were drawing, the Englishmen were measuring, and so was then when you could see hundreds of national costumes and fourteen languages in which they spoke, sang, cursed and quarreled in all dialects and tones, a joyful mix of men, horses, cart oxen and domestic buffaloes.”
The complex is northwest of the town of Sinaia which is 48 km (30 mi) from Braşov and 124 km (77 mi) from Bucharest. By train from Brasov to Sinaia is only 1 hour. Driving actually may take longer because there always seems to be traffic! * Be aware that on Mondays it is closed and you can only visit the grounds but can’t go inside.
This castle is one of the most beautiful in Europe. I think if you only have time for one castle, this one should take priority over Bran Castle unless you are just obsessed with it’s tenuous connection to Dracula!
Sibiu is one of the most important cultural centers of Romania and a former center of the Transylvanian Saxons which I mentioned above. It did not become part of Romania until after World War I. Prior to this is was ethnically German and part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The current president of Romania happens to be descended from these Germans.
Sibiu is a lovely charming medieval town with a city center full of open squares, walled defenses, and centuries-old buildings and towers. There is a lower and upper town separated by a staircase. In the past, the wealthier Saxons lived in the upper town’s city center, while the peasants were in the lower town.
I would start in the main square, Piata Mare for your self-walking tour of Sibiu. Notice the buildings unique roofs with the windows that look like eyes. I absolutely loved this strange architectural feature. It is so whimsically creepy. Apparently, these are for ventilation in the attic. Take in all the pastel ornate buildings and the “eyes” on the main street, the Strada Nicolae Balcescu.
The Bridge of Lies near the Piata Mica (Small Square) is Romania’s oldest cast-iron bridge dating back to 1859. There are several legends. Most of them involve the bridge “knowing” when someone lies and it will creak and move and make strange noises. Couple would come here before marriage to “test” the woman’s claims of virginity. If caught lying the poor girl may get thrown off the bridge. Many couples tested their partner’s claims of love here. Other legends say that when local merchants were caught cheating their customers, they were thrown off of this bridge.
For great views of the town climb the Council Tower or the Gothic Lutheran Cathedral.
The Catholic Basilica here is very plain on the outside but stunning inside with pink marble columns. Even more ornate and completely different is the impressive Orthodox Cathedral.
If you are into museums and want to learn more about Romanian Art, check out the Brukenthal National Museum which is inside the palace the former Transylvanian Governor, Samuel von Brukenthal.
It has its own airport and it is located at 279 kilometers (3h and 38 min by car) from Bucharest. By train from Brasov is 2.5 hours and costs between $5-$9 USD. By car from Brasov is about 2 hours and 15 minutes, again, very dependent on traffic.
There are bakeries everywhere and you’ll see the covrigi, sort of a Romanian pretzel, everywhere. I like the ones with sesame seeds but they come in many varieties. All the various bakery items looked amazing. I also enjoyed the roasted corn found from many different street vendors. Sit in one of the many cute cafes that line the various squares. I came here on a day trip from Brasov and it was raining so I didn’t explore or sit and chill at cafes as much as usual.
Bucharest really took me by surprise especially when many people told me not to spend much time there. I only scheduled one night here and I really regretted that. After this experience in multiple places, I don’t know why I still listen to people! But listen to me folks. Bucharest is a regal and beautiful city with streets and streets of buzzing cafes, pumping bars, beautiful architecture and interesting monuments. all with the communist ghosts lurking under the surface. I’ve heard it called the New Berlin or the New Budapest. Whatever it is…it’s awesome. Uncrowded, underappreciated and unflinchingly real.
This is the youngest old city in the world. Say what?? Redesigned just a few years ago to energize locals and attract tourists, it is a happening place with a great cafe and party scene.
This beast of a building is definitely a testament to communist architecture. It’s massive at 365,000 square meters with 1,000 + rooms, it’s the second largest administrative building in the world. Check the website for tour information.
This yellow glass covered araced street hosts several indoor/outdoor eating establishments including an Egyptian-themed bar/restaurant, the Blues Cafe, a bistro, a Chinese restaurant and a wine bar.
Meaning “Carousel of Light”. This may be the most beautiful bookstore in the world. Recently opened, it is in a restored 19th-century building and features over 10,000 books, 5,000 albums and DVDs as well as a bistro on the top floor.
I always defer to the Culture Trip for good eats in various cities around the world. They have never led me wrong. A Romanian American friend recommended this place that happens to be on the Culture Trip’s list so of course, I had to go. Dating back to 1879, it is very popular with a stunning interior full of dark wood, vaulted ceilings and gilt elements reminiscent of the golden age of Bucharest. The restaurant also holds one of the oldest breweries in Bucharest. The name of the restaurant means “Beer Wagon”.
This is the place where those famous umbrellas are. If you want a photo without pizza eating tourists in it, go early! I feel like that’s my mantra: Go Early. Go Early! The pizza happens to be very good here and I am self-proclaimed pizza
This rooftop bar is the perfect place to chill with a cocktail watching the copper-colored roofs at sunset with some cool tunes. I especially enjoyed the long walk up the stairs to get here. It’s not often that the stairs give messages of encouragement. This also happens to be a hostel, FYI.
This grand hotel is budget friendly (for such a nice hotel) and is a perfect location at the edge of the Old Town. The staff here were super friendly and it has a gorgeous cafe. You step out the door and onto the buzzy cafe-lined streets of Bucharest.
This is more of a social gathering spot than a hostel and being the only hostel in the pedestrian old town has its perks. The hostel has beautiful city views as well.
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Again, I did all of this in one day! If you have more time and would like to know more things to do, read Highlights of Bucharest.
I hope I’ve piqued your interest to visit Romania. As most countries in Eastern Europe, it is a refreshing change of pace from Western Europe and much less crowded. I also find the prices of things in this region easier on the wallet! Romania stole my heart and I feel like there is much more to discover there. I will definitely go back!
Have you been to Romania? What is your favorite place?
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