Romanian Transylvania earned itself a top spot on Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Regions to travel to in 2016, which overnight raised its appeal with travelers from all over the world. Luckily, we got ahead of the travel trend curve (love it when that happens!) with our amazing adventure in Romania this past October.
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But we didn’t just travel to Transylvania. During our 10-day visit to the beautiful country, we embarked on a road trip from Bucharest to Săpânța (located on the Romanian-Ukrainian border) and back, crossing Transylvania, Maramures, and parts of Wallachia region. It was an action-packed trip full of incredible highlights!
Renting a Car in Romania
There are plenty of guided tours offered that hit the most popular attractions in the country, but you can’t beat the freedom of creating your own adventure with a Romania road trip. If you want to rent a car while you visit Romania, all you need is a valid driver’s license, and collision damage protection is offered for an additional fee.
There are plenty of car rental companies at Otopeni International Airport in Bucharest, and the rates are very reasonable if you reserve ahead of time. Just make sure your car rental includes unlimited miles, and see whether the rate includes liability protection.
1. The Bohemian Charm of Brasov
Our first stop on our Romania road trip, the town of Brasov, was an absolute treat. We stayed in the heart of the town, in the centre square, Piata Sfatului, which offered plenty of great people-watching. We loved meandering through its maze of cobblestone streets, admiring its Austro-Hungarian gingerbread roofs and medieval-style buildings, popping into boutique shops, bohemian cafes, and traditional restaurants serving delicious Hungarian-Romanian cuisine.
A great way to view the town from above, and probably Max’s favourite thing to do in Brasov, was to climb to the top of Tampa Mountain. A brisk hour uphill, and we found ourselves overlooking the entire town. If you’d rather not hike up Tampa Mountain, there is a cable car that operates 9:30am – 4pm Tuesday through Sunday, and adults can ride for 25 Lei round trip or 15 Lei one way.
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Go on a Hiking Tour of Piatra Craiului National Park
Located about an hour from Brasov, Piatra Craiului National Park features Romania’s highest limestone ridge and some of the most stunning scenery in the country. The national park is also home to one of the most biodiverse landscapes in Romania, with some 270 butterfly species and a third of all plant species found in the country. You can visit on your own or join a guided hiking tour that includes transportation and the option of visiting the famous Bran Castle on your way back to Brasov.
2. The House that Dracula Did Not Enter in Sighisoara
This incredibly well-preserved medieval town won us over as soon as we got out of the car. Located in the historic region of Transylvania, some 1.5hrs drive from Brasov, Sighisoara felt like stepping back in time. We loved roaming the narrow cobblestone streets of Sighisoara, admiring its colourful houses set amongst the rich autumn colours. And the view from the top of the Clock Tower was spectacular!
Visitors often come to Sighisoara to trace the roots of Vlad the Dracula, who allegedly was born in Casa Vlad Dracul just outside the Clock Tower located in the centre of the citadel. But we weren’t that interested. The house seemed like a bit of a tourist trap, and we found that our time was better spent in a different kind of house… House of Klein & Klemenzy, also known as the House Dracula Never Entered. It was here that we discovered a great selection of herbal teas, the best homemade chocolate!
Learn the True Story at The Dracula Investigation
Your epic Romania road trip wouldn’t be complete without learning the real history of the famous Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad Dracula. This wonderful exhibit was put together by students, incorporating art and technology to tell the story behind the notorious historical figure. The Dracula Investigation is in the town center, within walking distance of the Clock Tower.
From there, it was a long drive through beautiful pastures and rolling green hills towards the town of Sapanta.
3. Merry Cemetery and Locals in Sapanta
Sapanta is a small village located right on the border of Ukraine and Romania and is known to tourists and local travelers for one thing only – the Merry Cemetery. The cemetery, established back in 1935, features over 800 colourful tombstones inscribed with light-hearted poems about the life and death of the deceased that represent the villagers’ unique belief that death is a moment filled with joy and anticipation for a better life.
The humorous poems were inscribed in Romanian. But, we were lucky enough to have been traveling with a friend fluent in Romanian who was kind enough to translate a few of the poems for us. The humour was dry and, at times, pretty dark.
But this bizarre and unique “attraction” wasn’t the only thing that drew us to Sapanta. We loved the feel of the countryside itself and the incredible hospitality of the locals, especially at the small B&B that served us the best homemade sausage ever!
Visit The World’s Tallest Wooden Church
Located in the Sapanta-Peri Monastery, this 70+ metres high wooden church is definitely worth a visit if you already plan on visiting Merry Cemetery. Sapanta-Peri Monastery is just a few minutes away from the cemetery. Also, it is surrounded by beautiful gardens that are also open to visitors.
4. Virgin Forests of Maramures County
The best part of our drive through Maramures County was the beautiful, laid-back surroundings that we encountered along the way. The colourful trees, the horse and cart carriages, the never-ending winding roads, the sprawling wheat fields, and the damp, shaded virgin forest dotted with mushrooms of all shapes and sizes that we stumbled upon between the towns of Viseu de Sus and Sighetu Marmatiei.
This was nature at its best, unspoiled and untouched.
Visit Rodna Mountains National Park
If you have time, a visit to Rodna Mountains National Park is well worth it. The park is a designated UNESCO biosphere, and there is a wonderful variety of ecosystems in the area. Within the park are trails that lead to two glacier lakes, Horses Waterfall, and two different summits.
5. Towers and Ribs in Baia Mare
Not much has been written about Baia Mare in the guidebooks (or on Wikitravel, for that matter), but as soon as we parked our car for a quick bite to eat on Piata Millennium, we knew this town was worth exploring. We strolled around the streets, admiring the old houses (some dating back to the 1440s), and enjoying being the only foreigners in this small town in Maramures.
The biggest attraction here (other than a few museums that we weren’t really interested in) was the Gothic-style 120-foot-tall watchtower, known locally as Stephen’s Tower, which towered over the city’s centre. The tower used to be a part of the church that originally stood here in the mid-1300s. Although the church itself no longer exists, its remains can be seen preserved underneath the glass all around the square.
Baia Mare also turned out to be home to THE BEST ribs in Romania (as we voted) found only at Barbarossa Restaurant, located right in Piata Millennium. These alone were worth a stop!
6. Driving on the Transfagarasan
Transfagarasan Road, which stretches some 130 kilometres and connects the historic regions of Transylvania and Wallachia, is possibly the most picturesque and fun road to drive on EVER! It was constructed back in 1974 as a way to ensure quick military access across the mountains in case of a Soviet invasion but has since become an attraction for travelers, hikers, cyclists, and driving enthusiasts from around the world.
Driving along the Transfagarasan, we quickly understood its appeal. This misty road, often completely covered in clouds, is set amongst some pretty spectacular natural surroundings. From rugged rock faces to powerful waterfalls and perfectly still lakes, to vast virgin forests, nature created a perfect backdrop for every turn single along the route. We made a ton of stops to enjoy the crisp air, and the picturesque fall colors, and to admire the beauty of the Transfagarasan itself.
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7. Balea Lake
About halfway along the Transfagarasan, on the border between Wallachia and Transylvania, lies Balea Lake, a glacier lake situated at 2,034 m of altitude in the Fagaraș Mountains. Balea Lake was the last stop on our adventure through the Romanian countryside and it was by far our favourite! The views at Balea Lake were UNREAL.
But we were there not just for the views from the bottom. We were in the heart of Romania’s famous Fagaras Mountains and we couldn’t wait to finally do some trekking. Well Max couldn’t wait… you know how much he loves trekking. I, on the other hand, always drag my feet, and reluctantly tag along, trying my best not to fall down, or break down crying along the way.
There were a number of treks commencing from Bale Lake ranging from a few hours to a full day. Despite the frigid weather, we embarked on a 3-hour hike to the mountain ridge. It was a challenging yet incredible afternoon that tested our perseverance and rewarded us with some spectacular views of Balea Lake, of Transfagarasan Road and the peaks of the Fagaras Mountains.
8. Bran Castle
If you’re a fan of vampire lore, make sure to save room on your Romania road trip itinerary for the famous Bran Castle. Also known as Dracula’s Castle, this iconic medieval fortress is a big attraction for a lot of tourists visiting Romania, so you can expect it to be busy. The 14th-century castle is truly beautiful. You’ll have plenty of areas to explore and some amazing views of the dramatic landscape of the Carpathian mountains and valley below.
While there is no real connection to the story of Dracula and Bram Stoker travelling to Transylvania, Bran Castle is worth a visit if you’re a castle enthusiast or history buff. The castle was inhabited by the Romanian royal family up until World War II. Also, it is full of art and furniture from various periods.
Go for a Day Hike Near Bran Castle
A visit to the castle will only take a couple of hours at most. You can leave the rest of the day open for a hike through the gorgeous landscape surrounding Bran. There are plenty of trails in the area. This includes a one-loop trail that starts in the village of Moiecu de Sus, just 10km from Bram Castle. Here is a map of the trail. If it is too challenging or long, remember that this is just one of many hiking routes in the area.
9. Old Town Bucharest
If you’re flying into Bucharest, it’s well worth spending a day in the capital city at the beginning or end of your road trip in Romania. There are free walking tours through different parts of Bucharest, or you can explore the medieval city at your own pace.
If you decide to explore on your own rather than with a free walking tour, you can’t go wrong with Old Town Bucharest, especially if you only have a few hours. The cobblestone streets are full of restaurants and beautiful historic architecture. Old Town is home to the Old Court, the oldest site in Bucharest. Once the residence of medieval royalty (including Vlad the Impaler!) it has been abandoned since the 17th century.
Architecture enthusiasts will enjoy the historic churches and monasteries in Old Town, including Stavropoleos, Zlatari, and Selari. To unwind after the bustle of the city, you can head to one of the green spaces near Old Town for a stroll. Cismigiu Gardens is a short walk from historic Old Town, and is the oldest and biggest park in Bucharest.
Where to Eat in Old Town
You’ll see plenty of restaurants and cafes to choose from, but if you want to experience some wonderfully prepared traditional Romanian dishes, try Caru’ Cu Bere. Located just a few steps west of the Stavropoleos Monastery, Caru’ Cu Bere offers traditional breakfast, lunch, and dinner dishes, and they even brew their own beer. While a lot of the menu is meat-heavy, they do offer some wonderful traditional vegan and vegetarian dishes.
10. Explore the Transylvanian City of Cluj-Napoca
Located in central Romania, the vibrant city of Cluj-Napoca offers lots of cultural attractions and a more laid-back atmosphere compared to the hustle and bustle of Bucharest. The city hosts several festivals, including the Transylvania International Film Festival and several music festivals.
The best way to explore Cluj-Napoca is on foot. Most of the attractions are within walking distance from each other, and you can experience the city’s culture up close. Old Town is full of amazing architecture; then you can walk to Central Park Simion Barnutiu for people-watching. If you have time, consider visiting the city’s botanical garden, which is a short walk from Central Park.
Take a Day Trip from Cluj-Napoca
Cluj-Napoca is a perfect base for a Transylvania road trip. The Turda Salt Mine, Alba Fortress, and Corvin Castle are all a short drive away, and you could fit them all into one day. Guided tours to these destinations are available, and it’s a good way to enjoy the scenic countryside without worrying about driving.
We know that we barely even scratched the surface of Romania during our short visit. But the breathtaking sights, the clean, crisp air, the fall foliage, the incredible food, and ample opportunities to explore off the beaten path have definitely convinced us that it’s a country worth coming back to!