What comes to mind when you think of Romania? For me, it’s the homeland of the fictitious Count Dracula. Well, don’t think of Romania as a sinister place; far from it. It is a friendly country with much to recommend it. Some of its attributes include scenic mountain landscapes, colourful castles and fortresses, charming medieval towns and traditional villages, Black Sea resorts, lush green rolling countryside, and a vibrant capital. Like many other Eastern European countries, Romania has come a long way from being the drab, dull nation it was under Soviet domination. Today, it has caught up with the rest of the modern world while retaining its past. Let’s take a look at the principal destinations you should visit on trips to Romania and some of which may surprise you.
Bucharest, Romania’s capital is known for its wide tree-lined boulevards and used to be called “Little Paris” between the time of the two World Wars, due to its Belle Epoque architecture. Today, it is a bustling metropolis with a centre which is a mixture of medieval, neoclassical, and Art Nouveau buildings which give it a unique look. You will probably start off in the street called Calea Victoriei, on your trip to Romania, the city’s most famous thoroughfare which runs from the north of the city all the way down to the river in the south. It is lined with fine houses, palaces, churches, hotels, upmarket shops, and museums.
After that, you should head to the city’s historical quarters, the Lipiscani District, which is a jumble of cobblestone streets and former home to merchants and craftsmen but now home to art galleries, antique stores, and coffeehouses. Historical Revolution Square was the scene of the revolt against the regime of Ceausescu in 1989. It is also the site of the Royal Palace, a large concert hall, and the National Museum of Art. The imposing and huge Palace of the Parliament was built in the 1980s during the communist era and is the largest parliament building in the world. It also houses the National Museum of Contemporary Art and one of the largest convention centres anywhere.
Transylvania, Central Romania
Brasov is a town in the Transylvania region of Romania surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains. It is known for its architecture of different styles and periods. The city has a medieval atmosphere and has been used in many movies. It is ringed by stone walls and seven ramparts. One street is famous as it is one of the narrowest streets in Europe at 1.2 metres/4 feet wide. If you visit the old Town Hall Square, said to be the place from which the legendary Pied Piper led the children of Hamlin, you will see many Baroque structures. You will also see the largest Gothic church in Romania called the Black Church, which has a beautiful interior with stained glass windows, a huge organ with 4000 pipes, and is furnished with over 100 Turkish carpets. Concerts are held here in July and August. Catherine’s Gate in the city, erected in 1559 by the Tailors’ Guild, is the only original gate to have survived from medieval times. The Brasov Fortress, built in 1524, is situated on a hill overlooking the town.
Bran Castle (Dracula Castle)
For the record, Bram Stoker, the author, never visited Romania but felt that this location suited his story about Count Dracula based on Vlad Dracula (Vlad the Impaler), who ruled Romania in the 15th century. This moody-looking castle, which is only 30 kilometres/18 miles from Brasov, is perched on top of a 60 metre/200 foot high rock and has imposing towers and turrets. It contains 60 timbered rooms, underground passages, and collections of furniture, weapons, and armour.
Sibiu is another city in Transylvania you can explore on a trip to Romania. It is known for its Saxon-influenced architecture, dating back to the 12th century. It has a distinctly German flavour to it with its narrow streets and gabled buildings. It is a pedestrian-friendly city consisting of two parts, the Upper Town where most of the historical sites are located, and the Lower Town which is full of colourful houses on cobblestone streets. There is something called the Passage of Steps which connects the two.
In the centre of the Upper Town are 3 beautiful squares. One is the Great Square which used to hold public executions and which is adorned with some very attractive buildings including the Council Tower, built in the 13th century and which has an observation deck with views of the city and the mountains beyond. There is also the Brukenthal Palace, now home to the oldest and one of the best art museums in the country. The art collection includes paintings by Rubens and Van Dyck as well as works of German, Austrian, and Romanian painters. The Lower Town contains the Bridge of Lies, supposedly named after the merchants’ dealings with each other, and Goldsmiths’ Square, full of charming old houses with turrets. There are several other museums in Sibiu including ASTRA, the second-largest open-air museum in the world which features 300 buildings illustrating the lifestyles of the local country people.
Yet another interesting city in Transylvania is Sighisoara, which has a long history dating back to Roman times. It has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its well-preserved 16th-century towers, cobblestone streets, merchants’ houses, and ornate churches. It has been compared to Prague and Vienna for its ambience. It is also the birthplace of Vlad Dracula (Vlad the Impaler) who, as mentioned, inspired the story of Count Dracula. You can visit his house which contains a museum displaying medieval weapons. Some other highlights include the Church on the Hill, which contains 500-year-old frescoes, a 16th-century Venetian house, a citadel built in the 12th century, and a 14th-century clock tower. To add to these, it is enjoyable just to stroll through the hilly streets, winding alleyways, secluded squares, and steep staircases, feeling as though you have stepped back in time. In July, Sighisoara hosts the Festival of Medieval Arts and Crafts, where you can listen to troubadour music, watch costumed parades, and attend open-air concerts.
Yet one more town to consider visiting on your Romania vacation in Transylvania is Cluj-Napoca, and yet another place with much history. It is the unofficial capital of Transylvania, has a vibrant culture, and is a university city (6 universities in total). The main square has attractive buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries and is home to many shops and restaurants plus the 15th-century St. Michael’s Church, which is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the country. You will also find the Baroque-styled Banffy Palace, former residence of the Austro-Hungarian governors which now acts as a museum, featuring a collection of Romanian art. There is also an opera house which opened in 1919 with a performance of Verdi’s Aida. The city is known for its arts scene including theatre and concerts as well as a lively nightlife. Cluj-Napoca has many churches and museums too numerous to list. The Botanical Garden is one of the largest in south-east Europe and is home to around 10,000 plant species.
The highlight in picturesque Sinaia is Peles Castle, a masterpiece of German late Renaissance architecture and one of the most outstanding castles in Europe. Built in 1873, the castle served as the summer residence of Romania’s royal family until 1947. In its 160 rooms (each one decorated in a different style), you will find fine examples of European art, crystal chandeliers, stained-glass windows, and leather-covered walls. There is a 60-seat theatre which contains ceiling paintings and decorative frescoes designed by the renowned Austrian artists such as Gustav Klimt. In the armoury, there are over 4000 European and Oriental pieces dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
Timisoara has been influenced by many cultures, the Romans, the Tartars, the Turkish, the Austrians, and the Germans. These influences can be seen all over the city on a trip to Romania. Timisoara was the first city in Europe to use electricity to light up the streets and the second in the world after New York. The city has been called “Little Vienna” because of its year-round music and theatre scene plus its art galleries, museums, and nightlife. For those that remember the original Tarzan movies, Johnny Weissmuller was born here. The main square is Victory Square, named for the victorious revolution in 1989, which contains the imposing Romanian Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral.
There is a strong affiliation with the Jewish faith in Timisoara. The Jewish community flourished here in the 19th century when six synagogues were built in the city. Today, three remain with one still active. The New Synagogue, built in 1899 is currently closed but is one of the most beautiful buildings in Timisoara. There are many museums here, too numerous to mention. However, one is the Banat Village Museum, an open-air museum, which has exhibits of more than 30 traditional peasant houses dating from the 19th century. Craft fairs are held here periodically. Another is the Memorial Museum of the 1989 Revolution. This museum houses uniforms, documents, and a film about the Ceausescu dictatorship.
The Black Sea Coast
This region offers a mild climate, miles of sandy beaches, vineyards, and modern resorts suitable for a summer vacation. The Black Sea coast is known for cures of arthritic, rheumatic, internal, and nervous disorders. There are spas specializing in mud baths. One of the main resorts is Mamaia, a popular beach resort. The beach season is at its best between mid-June and early September, when average daytime temperatures are highest. You will find a good selection of hotels here.
So, in closing, you can see how much a Romania vacation has to offer, certainly in a cultural sense.