It comes as a surprise to some, but Transylvania is not just a fictional setting from Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel — it is, in fact, an actual place. While its connection to the famous vampire might pique your interest initially, I quickly discovered that this region of Romania is full of surprises. (See also my reasons why I loved traveling in Romania.)
The Dracula thing expectedly does get played up a little bit. Tourist restaurants in Sighisoara, the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler who served as his inspiration, serve things like Dracula’s bloody steak or his ‘favorite wine’ and such. But for the most part, the region is pretty low-key and seems mostly off the tourist radar.
If Romania is not on your list, it should be. Thanks to its beautifully preserved Medieval towns, stunning landscapes, and a wonderfully traditional culture, I think Transylvania might well be one of the most underrated regions of Europe. I recently went on a road trip through Transylvania together with my girlfriend, and the following places were among my highlights.
Small quiet city with a charming old town
Sibiu was the first place we visited in Romania, quite simply because it was easy to fly there via Munich. It turned out to be a great place to start, not only because it sits right at the heart of Transylvania, but also thanks to being a thoroughly charming Medieval town.
It’s worth heading straight to the Sibiu Lutheran Cathedral and climbing up its 73m high steeple via stone stairs, through what seems to be a choir practice room, and then up several floors of vertigo-inducing wooden stairs covered in pigeon poop — until you finally reach the church bell tower. Up here you can embrace your inner Quasimodo while enjoying some great panoramic views of Sibiu. Distant snowy mountains form the backdrop behind the town’s orange-roofed houses and its church towers and domes.
The old town of Sibiu is in wonderful condition and is pleasantly walkable, with its cobbled squares and leafy parks where granddads gather to play chess in the afternoon. The town has some fun and peculiar details, such as the Medieval part featuring a lower and upper section, as well as having a square with baroque buildings with an almost Viennese grandeur.
It was here in Sibiu that I was also introduced to the region’s hilariously dopey looking houses, owing to the Saxons who built them here. Their tall pointy roofs and narrow attic windows make you very easily see faces in them… and the squintiness of their eyes make these houses look, well, as high as a kite. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
We took our first dive into the Romanian cuisine at Crama Sibiul Vechi, a former wine-cellar-turned-restaurant specializing in local dishes. The food was mostly of the grandmothers-kitchen style, and the sarmale (Romanian cabbage rolls) was the best I’ve had on the trip.
Outside Sibiu are a couple of villages that are decently interesting to visit if you have your own transportation. In Rășinari, many of the houses lack a person-sized front door and instead have a huge horse carriage-sized one — while in the village of Christian, you can find a nice example of the region’s famed fortified churches.
Spectacular mountain pass (but usually closed)
After Sibiu, it was time to see some epic landscapes…
At first glance, the Transfăgărășan road seemed about as unpronounceable to me as Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano. But ignore all the squigglies — just read it as Transfagarasan — and things get a lot easier.
This winding mountain pass over the Carpathian range gets touted by many a listicle as one of the top places to see in Romania, so I dutifully went there… only to discover that snow keeps it closed for up to 9 months of the year. This seems like, umm, maybe pertinent information to share, but all travel sites I’d consulted were entirely silent on this crucial detail. GRRR.
So to be clear: the Transfăgărășan is usually only open from July until September!
It was a little frustrating to drive all the way to the mountains only to be thwarted by concrete roadblocks half-way up. In May, we could only get as far as the starting point of the cable car, which can take you to Bâlea Lake if the schedule permits (but we were already too late). Some tantalizing glimpses of distant snowy peaks did convince me it would be an amazing place to go in season. As a consolation prize, we had a little picnic with a view of the Făgăraș Mountains.
Tip: if the Transfăgărășan road isn’t open, try driving the Transalpina instead. I wish I’d known this beforehand!
Bustling historical city with many nearby castles
The plan was to stay in Brașov for two nights, but upon arrival I immediately knew we had to extend our stay. Brașov immediately draws you in with its Medieval charm; its old town rests between two forest-clad mountains, which form a wonderful green backdrop as you peek through its cobbled streets and alleys. Atop of one of these sits a Hollywood-like ‘BRASOV’ sign, just so there’s no mistake about where you are.
The center is pleasant and largely pedestrianized, featuring a beautiful Gothic church that’s been dubbed the Black Church ever since it got scorched in a great fire in the 17th century. A hike up the Tâmpa mountain is well worth it for the viewing point and the trails around the Brasov sign (a cable-car also runs here), as is a shorter hike up an opposite hill to the Braşov Citadel. But one of Brașov’s true delights is simply to stroll the streets and check out some of the funky cafes and inexpensive restaurants, for which you’ll be truly spoiled for choice.
Brașov makes for a great base from which to make daytrips around the area. About 15km west is the charming town of Râşnov which, not to be outdone, also has a Hollywood-style sign — not to mention its own impressive hilltop fortress.
Bran is a further 10km west and is home to Bran Castle. It once guarded the border between Transylvania and Wallachia, but is heavily marketed as Dracula’s Castle based on a vague connection to Vlad the Impaler. Tacky souvenir stalls surround the castle making it feels a little tourist-trappy, though it may be less so in the off season. I more enjoyed visiting Peleș Castle, which may have been built much more recently (in the early 20th century), but has spacious grounds where you can go for a lovely walk.
Given that Brașov is the region’s main tourist destination and has many possible daytrips nearby, you might want to give it at least a 3-day stay.
By the way, while I didn’t get the chance, I’ve been told the seven ladders canyon is an excellent hike near Brasov.
A spectacular gorge
It was uncertain whether going to Bicaz would be worth it, as it lay beyond the more obvious circular route through Transylvania. But it was definitely worth the detour, as the Bicaz Gorge was probably the most scenic location of the trip. You end up driving right through a deep chasm through the mountains, often having to stop to admire the views. Beyond the gorge also lay the Bicaz Dam, from which you get some nice views of the lush green valley below.
On the way back, the Bicaz river eventually flows into Lacu Rosu (the red lake), named after its reddish alluvia deposits — though it definitely seemed to be a green lake when we visited.
The Locu Rosu wasn’t quite the scenic natural location I’d expected. Instead, it was more of a recreational picnic location, complete with paddle boats, swingsets and souvenir shops. Fortunately, we were there during Labor Day, so it was abuzz with families having BBQs and partaking in the local festivities. I loved snacking on Kürtőskalács, a sort of coiled snake-like sugar bread.
Lakul Rosa might not be quite a must-see just by itself, but the gorge is simply spectacular, and Bicaz also seemed like an excellent jumping off point for exploring the surrounding nature.
Photogenic Medieval town
Sighisoara is a wonderfully picturesque town you can instantly fall in love with. When we climbed the cobbled streets up to our Airbnb while passing brightly colored pastel houses, I could have squinted my eyes and fooled myself that I was in the colonial town of Antigua in Guatemala — so vibrant were these facades. Of course, the Saxony and gothic architecture poking out from behind the roofs reminded me that I was, in fact, in Romania.
There isn’t necessarily so much to do in Sighisoara as there is to simply appreciate. In this colorful and fairytale-esque town, part of the fun is just to get lost in its tiny alleyways and see what’s there — which could be a cute antique store, or maybe just an alley cat. It’s the sort of place where you can be happily drinking coffee and just watching the world go by.
A Medieval covered wooden stairway leads up to a central hilltop on which rests a 13th century fortified church, as well as a gorgeous old graveyard partly overgrown with wildflowers (and with some graves dating back to WWI). From this hilltop, you also get some nice views of Sighisoara and its citadel below.
Sighisoara is much smaller than Brașov or Sibiu and it may have fewer things to see, but you definitely shouldn’t miss this gorgeous little Medieval town.
Village with a UNESCO-listed fortified church
Transylvania once formed a frontier with the Ottoman Empire, which led to the construction of numerous fortresses along the Carpathian mountain range. In smaller towns, it also led to the fortification of existing churches, of which the church in Biertan is a wonderful specimen.
The walled church sits atop a small hill, poking its head over the little village when viewed from a distance. It takes just an hour or so to see the place, though I strongly recommend making a stop if you find yourself anywhere near Sighisoara.
Fun fact: the church grounds also has a “marital prison” from Medieval times. If a couple in these parts wanted a divorce they first had to spend six weeks inside the prison — all the while sharing a single pillow, a single set of cutlery, and so on. The couple would only be granted a divorce if they absolutely couldn’t work out their problems during this time.
Epic former salt mines turned amusement park
I have toured a few mines before, but never did I see anything like the enormous Minecraftian caverns of Salina Turda. When I first stepped onto the balcony of its 112-meter deep main hall, I must have literally gasped.
One reason the Turda Mines are so big is that mining has been going on here for nearly a thousand years (yes, a thousand). But it’s only since 2010 that it features a range of funfair attractions and a ferris wheel.
The games can entertain you for a while, though don’t expect that much information on salt mining or the history of the mines; the Turda Mines are worth a visit mostly for their impressive scale. I’ve seen some bloggers complain that the experience isn’t that authentic as it’s essentially a mini theme park, but I think it’s quite worth a visit anyway. It takes about two hours to see it properly.
The town of Turda itself is totally unremarkable, though we found a cute hilltop B&B amid some vineyards that made for a delightful stay. With more time we might have checked out the nearby Turda Gorge, but we already had to get back to Sibiu in time for our flight home.
The trip took 9 days starting and ending in Sibiu. We covered a lot of ground on this route — for a more leisurely pace, I’d recommend going to one less place or having a day or two more to spend. Renting a basic sedan cost about 22 Euro a day via Rentalcars.com.