Few regions of Europe are as widely-recognized as Transylvania. Mythical home of Count Dracula, vampires, and mountainous castles, this region of Romania haunts the imagination of much of the world. And yet, beyond all the folklore and pop-culture stories lies a Transylvania that is largely unknown. The region is much more than Dracula and vampires, even if the historical Vlad Dracula was born here in the 15th century. If you’re planning a Romania vacation, Transylvania is a great place to consider.
From Vampires to Princesses
Transylvania is a pastoral region in central Romania that boasts rolling hills, small castle towns, and some of Europe’s best untouched wilderness. Being an English scholar and a filmmaker, I was not immune to the lure of Dracula legends and movies when I visited during a trip to Europe. Part of the appeal of visiting Transylvania is experiencing the landscape that has founded so many of our favourite modern myths. Walking through the streets of Bran and gazing up at the Gothic castle perched on its looming cliff evokes images from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, and other classic movie adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel.
But then you enter Bran Castle and realize that Vlad the Impaler might never have lived there. Instead, it was a vacation home belonging to Queen Marie, the nation’s last queen and a member of the British Royal Family. The myth is dispelled a tad, but the gorgeous landscape and inspiring architecture erase any possible disappointment. Vampires aren’t real, but the joys of Transylvania, from its flower-crested hills to its medieval towns to the wooden churches built by the Saxons, very much are.
You can access Transylvania most easily by bus by way of Romania’s capital city, Bucharest. You could also take a train from Bucharest or from Budapest, Hungary by way of Cluj-Napoca, but be warned, Romania’s transit infrastructure is crumbling. Roads are speckled with potholes and trains are slow and in need of servicing. Veteran Globetrotters won’t be put out, but I remember a nighttime stop at the poorly-lit and ill-equipped train station in Teius that I’d rather forget. If you plan ahead, you’ll fare better than I did and avoid any unpleasant nighttime stops on your way to Transylvania.
The region of Transylvania consists of several cities and towns clustered around the Carpathian mountain range. The largest of these is Cluj-Napoca (or simply Cluj), which acted as the capital of the region when it was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Cluj is on the rise as a student town, with a bustling nightlife and more modern metro area. But for more classical tourism on your Romania vacation, head to Brasov, Sighisoara, and perhaps Sibiu to see all that the region has to offer.
A Medieval City Tucked Between Picturesque Mountains
Brasov is the most popular of Transylvania’s towns and cities. It has a population of just under 300,000 and boasts a great café culture. The well-kept and sunny Piata Stafuli, the city’s central square, was home to witch burnings and mass executions in the past, but you’d never know from looking at its delightful exterior. The square is charming with its clock tower, wide brick walkways, colourful facades, and many cafés and restaurants. It’s a great place to have a morning coffee and pastry before starting your day, or to relax with a pint in the late afternoon after having seen the city’s many historic sites.
From Piata Stafuli, it’s a short walk to the Gothic Black Church, whose stones were turned black during a fire in the 17th century. From there, you can stroll through Strada Sforii, one of Europe’s narrowest streets, which can barely fit one person width-wise. Upon exiting the street, you’ll be met with a view of the Hollywood-style sign that sits on the hillside.
Picturesque mountains ring the city. Take the cable car up the main hill, Mount Tampa, and explore the sign and gaze down upon the city. You can take the cable car back down if you’re feeling tired, but I’d recommend Globetrotters take a leisurely stroll down the far slope of the mountain instead. The rolling hillside is dotted with wild flowers and short grass. You might see a deer lope by or some regional birds chirping in the trees. When walking down the backside of Mount Tampa, you get a taste of the pastoral wonder of Transylvania. It’s about as pretty a hillside as you’ll find in all of Europe.
Europe’s Best Remaining Wilderness
In fact, Transylvania as a whole boasts some of Europe’s best countryside. As you’ll notice on most trips to Europe, the wilds of Western Europe have been erased over thousands of years of civilization. In contrast, Romania’s natural beauty is largely untouched. Part of this is due to the remoteness of the region, which was often ignored by conquering armies due to their desire to move westward into Europe and settle in more temperate regions. The policies of former Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu also forbade hunting in the country, so it’s teeming with wildlife, especially bears.
Whatever the reason, large parts of Romania seem preserved in their medieval form. As for its stunning natural beauty, the Carpathian Mountains are second only to the Alps when it comes to skiing and mountain resorts. If you’re heading to Eastern Europe during the winter, this itinerary is a perfect way to experience the region’s outdoors.
While the main attraction of Transylvania remains the Dracula myth, the rugged natural beauty is not to be forgotten and is easily accessed from Brasov.
Traces of the Real-Life Dracula, Vlad the Impaler
It’s a short drive from Brasov to Bran, the small town home to Romania’s most famous castle, Bran Castle. Forever linked with Count Dracula due to its imposing Gothic features, the castle has only tenuous links to the real life Dracula, Vlad the Impaler. But that doesn’t mean the castle won’t spark the imagination when it comes to vampires and medieval myth. As you climb the hill to enter the gates and gaze up at the castle, you’ll understand why it has inspired so many stories.
Inside the castle you can explore its hidden passageways and learn about its historical significance. Major exhibits are dedicated to Queen Marie and Vlad the Impaler. In the village at the base of the castle, you can wander a medieval garden or explore the bustling market offering all manner of vampire-related wares.
The small castle town of Sighisoara, a few hours from Brasov, is the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. A bust of the man himself sits outside the Church of the Dominican Monastery, in the heart of the old town. Nearby in the tiny Piata Cetatii, you can find the house Vlad was born in, Casa Dracula. The building has been rebuilt over the years, so unfortunately the original fourteenth-century architecture is not intact. Casa Dracula is primarily a decent restaurant where you can sample several dishes named after Vlad, from “Dracula’s Stew,” served with traditional Romanian polenta, to “Medallion of the Vlad Dracula House.” The kitsch factor is a little high here, but the building is interesting in and of itself. Being able to boast that you’ve eaten dinner at the birthplace of Dracula is an added bonus.
The Saxon Churches of Transylvania
Sighisoara is a lovely town and a highlight of any Romania vacation and Globetrotting adventure through Eastern Europe. You can walk the entirety of the city within an hour or so, but don’t let its size fool you. There’s far more to do in Sighisoara than its population and geographical size let on.
Sighisoara also serves as an access point to the various Saxon towns that dot the countryside. In the 12th century, several Saxon communities moved from the western reaches of the Holy Roman Empire to Transylvania to defend the empire against Ottomans and Mongols. The legacies of these Saxon communities are their many fortified churches. While the Saxon community in Transylvanian has shrunk to negligible numbers, their churches remain in the region. You can tour the churches and climb their fortified bell-towers and see their traditional handcrafts. Visiting the Saxon villages is a perfect way to end your tour of Transylvania. It demonstrates the historical and ethnic richness of the region.
Hearty Polenta and Fiery Brandy
Before you head to Transylvania and see its beautiful landscape for yourself, I’d like to offer a brief word on its cuisine. Compared to the world-class cuisine of France and Italy, Romanian food can be anticlimactic. It’s peasant food, meant to shore up energy for long work days of rural labour. It’s full of butter, cream, and carbohydrates. If you’re on a diet, you might have troubles. However, aside from the mild mamaliga or polenta that’s served at every meal, there are some hearty dishes you’ll remember.
The homemade charcuterie that you’ll get if you dine off the beaten path at people’s homes or on private tours is exceptional. But the main highlight of eating out in Transylvania is tuica, a Romanian palinka or fire brandy that Romanians drink and offer liberally during their meals. Expect to be offered a shot to start your meal if you’re invited to someone’s home. And as I found out during a particularly-lively tour of the Saxon churches, Romanians will fill your glass every time you empty it. So if you’re not used to doing four shots of 80-proof fire brandy at lunchtime, perhaps risk impropriety and drink slowly. Teo’s Cellar in Sighisoara offers particularly great tuica. Its wild berry variants are exceptional.
Transylvania holds many charms beyond the pop-culture appeal of its Dracula mythos. It offers Globetrotters a delightful mix of gorgeous landscape and rich medieval history.