I recently went on a road trip through Transylvania, the northwestern region of Romania. While this only represents one specific slice of the country and one that’s part of the popular tourist trail, it certainly gave me some great initial impressions of Romania.
The country still seems to be a bit of an underdog among European travel destinations, but if it isn’t on your travel list it absolutely needs to be. The following are just a couple of the reasons why I loved traveling in Romania.
1. Romania defies preconceptions
I thought I knew pretty well what to expect of Romania. I pictured a deeply melancholic country: one with sad farmers with calloused hands plowing the fields, or with endless dreary communist-era buildings stacked like dominoes along cracked concrete roads. Riiiight?
Well, guess what? That’s not quite what I saw — or at least, it made up just a little part of a bigger picture. It might seem silly, but until you’ve actually visited you’re often still relying on stereotypical images, and I think in northern Europe these are probably the first and only images that pop up.
If things had been all gloomy and gray in that classic Eastern European sort of way, that would have certainly been interesting (I hear the capital can be like that at times). But I didn’t expect Romania to be also so full of vibrant colors, beautiful castles, hip cafes and restaurants, and so much charm. As I strolled the cobblestone streets of historical Brașov — with its medieval architecture and cute little alleys backed by lush green hills — I felt like I had discovered one of Europe’s secret travel spots.
2. It’s a crazy patchwork of history
It’s fascinating how today’s modern borders, especially in Europe, often hide so many deep and complex histories. Crack open another country and, sure enough, loads of cultural influences and hidden historical connections come bursting right out.
Such is the case with Romania; dig just a little bit into its history, and you soon realize that the modern country of Romania has so many deeper historical layers behind it.
What’s particularly interesting is that Romania is essentially a country of two halves, split along the Carpathian Mountain range that runs more or less through the middle. Wallachia is in the southeast, while Transylvania is in the northwest.
Protected by the towering snow-capped Carpathian peaks, Transylvania found itself on a natural border that once held the Ottoman Empire at bay. It’s because of the Ottoman threat that loads of the mountain passes and valleys became home to beautiful castles and fortified churches.
The region also developed a distinct culture thanks to many Hungarian and Saxon (i.e. German, more or less) influences. As you explore the region you’ll even notice that some towns still have two different names, one being Hungarian from the times they were a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The name Romania itself can be traced back even further to — you guessed it — the Romans. Even though the people in these parts weren’t Romans, they decided to assume their name sometime in the Middle Ages.
The Romanian language, by the way, is very much Romanic and not at all Slavic — so if you know let’s say some Spanish or Italian, you will be able to figure out a fair bit of Romanian.
As a Dutchman, I was also intrigued to learn that the Romanian currency, the Lei, has a connection to the Netherlands. Lei means lion, which refers to the Dutch leeuwendaalder (lion thaler) coin that merchants once used in the Middle Ages. Romania minted their own copies of Dutch coins, which is just another example of those deep connections running through the continent.
When visiting Romania, you’ll surely find many angles from which to learn its rich and storied past — and how it’s intertwined with so much of other European history.
3. The food is really good
Romanian food is delicious and somewhat of a reflection of its history as well — as it includes plenty of Hungarian, Austrian, German and even Greek and Turkish influences.
(When I mentioned some of my favorite dishes to Romanian friends, they kept saying those were from somewhere else… but let’s just say I really like the Romanian versions of whatever they borrowed!)
The cuisine is for the most part pretty hearty and chunky, with much gastronomic devotion focused on things like pork, tripe, cabbage, and so on. Make sure you arrive on an empty stomach as many dishes are served with big sides of polenta and cheese.
I became an instant fan of Sarmale, a minced meat with rice wrapped in pickled cabbage leaves. Ciorba de Fasole is another curiosity, a bean soup that’s served in a bowl made of bread. I’m guessing the original idea was to eat the soup and then eat the soup-soaked bread, but in its modern form the bread is just a (perhaps somewhat wasteful) bread-based receptacle. It’s nevertheless a fun thing to order at least once.
4. It’s great value for money
Despite a rapidly growing economy, Romania still lags far behind the rest of the EU. That can be bad news for Romanians; in Brașov I spoke with a young barista on his cigarette break bemoaning the country’s 200 Euro a month minimum wage. His dream was to emigrate to Canada — not to pursue some illustrious career, but simply to be a barista in Canada. (He’s not the only one with such aspirations; more than 3 million Romanians left their country in the last 10 years.)
On the flip side, Romania’s poor economy does make it a comparatively cheap travel destination. As a backpacker, you can probably get by on about $30 to $40 a day. I traveled more in flashpacker style on this particular trip, staying in some charming Airbnbs (usually 20 to 30 Euro a night) and dining in mid-range restaurants (typically 10 to 15 Euro including wine). Regardless of your travel style, it’s going to be pretty great value for money. Even in a somewhat fancy restaurant, you’d be hard-pressed to spend more than 20 Euro a person, which is still incredibly cheap compared to quite a few other European countries.
5. The beautiful nature
From the moment I saw the distant white peaks of the Carpathian mountains from the church towers in Sibiu, I knew Romania’s landscapes wouldn’t disappoint. It has some of the wildest nature in Europe, including one of the biggest bear populations. While I visited Romania on a road trip and didn’t get to do much hiking, the passing landscapes were constantly catching the eye — especially when driving through the epic Bicaz Gorge in the northeast of Transylvania.
Romania is a much more varied destination than you may assume, and I highly recommend seeing it for yourself. It instantly slung its way to the top of my personal list of favorite European destinations. I can’t wait to go back and spend more time in Wallachia, in Bucharest, and along the coast.
And yes, Romania is very welcoming and safe country, which oddly enough doesn’t go without saying. I noticed this when I told some people I’d be going to Romania, as their reactions betrayed some strong (and I think misguided) preconceptions. Honestly, I bet you’re more likely to get robbed in Paris than anywhere in Romania.
Romania struck me as utterly peachy and wonderful, and I implore you to go and see this beautiful country for yourself.
Continue Reading: Beyond Dracula’s Castle: My 7 Favorite Places in Transylvania