9 days road trip through mystical Transylvania - from castles to medieval towns
EuropeRomania9 days / August 2019
Highs & Lows
Dracula's Castle is a must visit, but don't miss the spectacular Peles Castle
The roads in Romania are very bad and there are few portions of highways, so getting around is slower that you'd expect
You'd be surprised how many people still think Transylvania is a fantasy land, conjured up by Bram Stocker as the homeland of Dracula. But Transylvania is very much a real place and it represents almost one third of Romania. It translates from Latin as "the land across the forest" and while you may not find vampires here, you'll have plenty of traditions to explore and historical places to visit.
We started our journey in Timisoara, Mara's hometown and the westernmost city in Romania, which will be the European Capital of Culture in 2023. From there we drove with our family eastwards through Deva on to Sibiu, the former European Capital of Culture in 2007.
Then we went up north to Bistrita, stopping in Alba Iulia, where the Great Romanian Union was signed in 1918, and at the otherworldly salt mine at Turda. If you have time, make sure you stop in Cluj Napoca, but we skipped it since we were pressed with time.
From Bistrita we drove back south to visit probably some of the most famous tourist sites in Transylvania: the mediaval town of Sighisoara, Dracula's Castle in Bran and the Peles Castle in Sinaia. While there, make sure you don't miss the Rasnov fortress and the scenic Bucegi mountains.
We ended the trip with a couple of days in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, after a roadtrip of around 1,000km.
Timisoara is the third largest city in Romania and is most famous for being the starting point of the fall of communism in the country in December 1989, where the Romanian revolution started. There are plenty of memorial monuments around the city reminding you of the victims of the revolution, especially in Victory Square. It was also the first city in Europe to have streets lit by electric lights and it has the oldest brewery in Romania, dating from 1718, which is still functional. Although you can't visit inside, make sure you visit one of the "crame" to sample the local beer and try "mici", a Romanian kebab served with bread and mustard.
The city is best explored on foot, starting from the Bastion - the medieval walls of the old citadel which now host cafes and art galleries. Then walk to Union's Square, the most beautiful place in town, where you can sit at one of the many outdoor terraces and enjoy the baroque architecture.
From there, take one of the many pedestrian streets that lead to Liberty Square and on to Victory Square, where you'll admire the Opera House and National Theatre. If you have time, you can watch a play in Romanian, German or Hungarian. At the other end of the square is the colorful Orthodox Cathedral, which is the tallest building in the city. Make sure to visit the Cathedral's museum, where a benevolent nun will show you around their impressive collection of religious artefacts.
If you are visiting in spring or summer, go for a stroll or ride a bike along the Bega Canal, dotted with numerous parks and recreation areas, as well as cute cafes and restaurants, such as D'Arc, Porto Arte or Terasa Banateana.
If you are pressed with time, you can try to squeeze in the main highlights of the city in one day. However, if you have a couple of days, make sure to check out some of the other historical neighborhoods, like Traian or Iosefin.
From Timisoara we drove about 3 hours to Deva, which is a good stop if you have time to check out the fortress on top of the hill. It's recently been restored and, although there is not much to do inside, you can walk around the ramparts for impressive views of the city below. To get to it is quite easy since there is a funicular that takes you up and down in a few minutes. There is ample parking as well, but you may need to wait in queue to go up depending on how busy it gets. We spent around 1 hour there before continuing our road trip onwards to Sibiu.
Sibiu is a charming town in the center of Transylvania that was built by Saxons in the 12th century, and it was the first city in Romania to get the title of European Capital of Culture in 2007. Since then, it's become a must see for tourists visiting Romania. The town is not too big, so you can easily do it in one day. The main attractions are in the Big Square (Piata Mare), and the whole area is pedestrian so you can walk around easily.
There are always fairs and festivals happening in town, especially during the summer. We were lucky to be there during an international food festival, with the whole square packed with food stalls and a live concert in the evening.
To get your bearings, start by going up the Tower of the Council (Turnul Sfatului), where you'll enjoy some spectacular views of the city. Just be ware you have to climb some narrow steps to get to the top - about 7 flights of stairs. Afterwards explore the little square with the beautiful iron Bridge of Lies and grab a bite or a drink at one of the many cafes.
If you have time, check out the Brukenthal museum, with some great artworks from Romanian and European painters. Explore a bit further and you'll reach the old city walls with the stone guild towers.
From Sibiu you can drive about half an hour to Alba Iulia, the place where Transylvania united with Romania in 1918, forming the Greater Romania. The date of the union, 1 December, is the national day of Romania.
In Alba Iulia the main attraction is the old citadel which has recently been restored. Entrance is free and you can walk along the old stone walls and cross a replica bridge to enter the old citadel. The first stop is the National Unification Cathedral, where the King & Queen were crowned as rulers of the Great Romania after the union. From there follow the main axes along the 6 main gates to explore the citadel and don't miss the changing of the guard and the daily canon salute at noon. It's quite a theatrical display but it brings the citadel to life. Check out the Roman museum and the dungeon if you have time before returning to the main gate where you can visit the oldest cathedral in Transylvania.
From Alba Iulia, the Turda salt mine is a short drive on the highway and is a unique place in Europe. Dating back to the 13th century, this huge salt mine built like a space ship will take you on a journey to the past while making you feel like you stepped into the future. After going through a tunnel staircase you reach the top of the main hall of the mine which houses a ferris wheel, bowling alleys, game room, an amphitheater. Walk down 13 flights of stairs or queue to take the elevator to the bottom to explore the hall. From there you can go even deeper to an underwater lake, where you can rent rowing boats or get warm with a cup of tea.
On your way back up you can check out some of the old mine mechanisms and there is also a treatment room for those that come to seek a cure for respiratory diseases.
Bistrita is a quaint town with a lot of charm but it's not usually on the tourist trail. We went to visit family and spend some quality time with them, but we also ticked off some of the local sights. The center of the town is a pedestrian area and is dominated by the Evangelical church, with the tallest medieval tower in Romania. The tower was recently renovated after a fire destroyed it a few years ago. There's also an elevator inside to take you to the top for some great views of the town.
From the church you can explore the shops in Sugalete, a covered arch street, and the pedestrian street with cafes and restaurants. A few minutes away is the beautiful central park, with a fish pond and a variety of trees.
Get out of the town to have a meal at the Hubertus restaurant in Sigmir, next to a small fishing lake and stay there to watch the sunset for a truly rural experience.
From Bistrita you can drive through Targul Mures to Sighisoara, one of the most famous medieval towns in Europe. Perched on top of a hill, the Sighisoara citadel is one of the last inhabited fortified towns and retains much of its traditional charm, with colorful craftsmen's houses and stone cobbled streets. You'll have to park in the "new" town and climb up through one of the gates in the citadel, where the main attractions are the medieval towers.
Start with the must-see colorful Clock Tower, which also hosts a history museum and offers unparalleled views of the town. The exhibits at each floor are also worth a look as they provide a glimpse into the old way of life for Transylvanians. Every hour, the clock at the top of the tower rotates different figurines so make sure to look up once you are back in the main square.
Opposite the tower is the house where Vlad Dracul was born - the Romanian medieval ruler that inspired the legendary character of Dracula. You can visit it but be prepared for a lot of kitsch displays of elements associated with the "Count".
From there you can take some time to explore the historical center and check out the many arts & crafts shops selling handmade souvenirs dotting the cobbled streets. Have a break in one of the cute cafes or wine bars in the old town square, before making your way to the covered wooden stairway dating from the 17th century, which leads to the Church on the Hill, a beautiful Saxon church that is one of the largest in Transylvania. The hill offers great views of the valley and there are a few paths to take you down to the old town.
Bran Castle, also known as Dracula's Castle, is probably one of the most visited tourist spots in Romania. Perched on top of a rocky hill among the Carpathian mountains, the medieval castle is as spectacular from the outside as it is from the inside. While you won't find any trace of Dracula (Vlad the Impaler never lived here) it does have a lot of charm and history. Once a military stronghold and then a summer residence for the monarchs, it is now a museum with historical artefacts and furniture.
Make sure to purchase your tickets online and be there early, since there's usually a long line to enter especially in the busy summer season. We visited during a local public holiday and had to queue for more than 2 hours to enter.
If you have time after visiting Bran castle, make sure to check out the Rasnov fortress, that is about half an hour drive from Bran. Located on top of a hill, the fortress was recently restored and you can visit different rebuilt houses that give you a glimpse into the medieval life. Try to get a local guide to explain the history and legends of the place to really make the most of your visit, you'll have a lot to learn.
To get there you'll have to park at the base of the hill and walk up for about 10 minutes or take one of the tractor buses for a fee.
After Bran, make sure you have time to stop in Sinaia at the Peles Castle, one of the finest pieces of architecture you will find in Romania and one of the most beautiful castles in Europe. It was built by King Carol I and the interiors are mainly made of wood.
Visitors are allowed to enter only with a guided tour that you can book at the moment of buying your tickets at the booth. There are guided tours in different languages including German, Italian and French other than Romanian and English. You can't book your tickets in advance, so make sure to get there early in the morning to beat the crowd.
There is a smaller castle next to it, called Pelisor, which charges separate entrance. Though not as glamorous as the main castle, the Gold room alone makes it worthwhile.
We ended our trip with 2 days in Bucharest. The capital city has plenty of sights to see, but you can pack as much or as little as you'd like depending on your time and pace. If you only have one day, make sure to visit the famous Parliament Palace as it is the second largest building in the world. There are daily guided tours you need to book in advance in different languages.
Stoll along the streets of the old town and stop at one of the many cafes and restaurants and if the weather is nice, check out Cismigiu park.
We departed from the International Airport in Bucharest, which connects to most European capitals and further afield.
Q & A
What would you have changed?The road trip was quite tiring since we covered 1000km in little over a week. There are many sights we wanted to tick off but it would have been nice to spend more time in certain locations like around Sinaia and Bran. We would recommend to extend this to at least 2-3 weeks to pace yourself.
Anything go wrong during the trip?Even though we stayed just a few minutes away from Bran Castle, we didn't book tickets in advance and we got there at 10am when the queue was already very long so we had to wait in line for 2 hours.
Restaurant recommendations?Food in Romania is cheap, diverse and delicious, so you can't go wrong with local restaurants. In Timisoara don't miss Fabrica de Bere or Curtea Berarilor restaurants for an authentic experience and local beers. The restaurant at Conacul Bratescu where we stayed in Bran was very good, though may be hard to find. In Bucharest, Carul cu Bere is an insitution and a must try!
Tips you would give a friend?Hire local guides wherever available, they are usually very well informed and passionate about the local culture and sights. You'll learn a lot from them and maybe even see things off the beaten path.
Packing tips?Pack for all seasons! Even if you plan to travel during the summer, make sure to pack several layers especially if you are going in the mountains. The weather can change quickly and drop 10 degrees from one day to another.
Transportation Tips?Driving is the most practical way to get around the country so you don't depend on unreliable train schedules. But it's also a dangerous journey since there are very few highways and the roads are often poorly maintained. Alternatively, you can use the trains but don't expect timeliness or cleanliness.
Any surprises?The food is very cheap! We paid on average 40 euros for 4 persons at a meal, including drinks!
Booking details?We booked everything directly through booking.com