Out of all the regions of Romania, Transylvania is undoubtedly the most notorious. The name itself stirs the imagination, conveying pictures of deep and impenetrable forests and images of looming castles where vampires secluded themselves many moons ago. Of course, Bram Stoker is no stranger to this perception but the reasons that drew him to set his infamous vampire story in this specific region of Eastern Europe are apparent to anyone visiting the region for the first time.
Transylvania is a land of tales and legends for its very own essence nurtures the imagination. The rugged landscape of the Carpathian Mountains, the bear-infested coniferous forests that dominate the horizon, the ancient fortresses and fortifications that watch over sleepy old villages all concur to create the unique atmosphere that almost seems to bring Bram Stoker’s characters to life at every corner. But Transylvania cannot be defined by a single book written in the 19th-century. Rather, it is Romanian at its core.
Throughout history, Transylvania was home to a lot of different peoples, making it an open book of Romanian history from the first Dacian settlements to the Saxons and the Hungarians. This rich cultural heritage is never as clear as it is in the paved streets of the citadel of Sighişoara, in the Black Church of Braşov or in the fortified churches scattered in a countryside that seems to have barely awoken to modernity.
Visiting Transylvania feels like jumping back in time as much as it feels like entering the dream of a Victorian writer of yore. It is as much about opulent castles as about horse-driven carts, architectural masterpieces and humble village houses, fearsome mountains and tranquil countryside that seems frozen in time.
Here is our top picks to enjoy the sheer diversity of this wonderful region.
Sighisoara is often times referred to as the pearl of Transylvania and even if this name sounds like a cheap marketing strategy, the city truly is a gem to discover. Listed by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, its walled old city is among the most well preserved medieval citadels in all Europe.
Its history is said to go back to the 12th century and the city grew more prominent with time as a commercial and strategic hub, leading it to develop a system of fortifications that remains to this day the city’s most iconic landmark, although this title can also be claimed by the birthplace of ruler Vlad Tepeş or Vlad the Impaler, from whom Bram Stoker drew his inspiration for Dracula.
Sighişoara definitely stood the test of time and, save for the tourists, it would seem that nothing has changed within its walls for the past few centuries. Apart from the Clock Tower, which became the city’s face, the citadel doesn’t offer much to visit per se but its charm lies in getting lost, counting all the different shades of colors on the ancient houses and soaking in its atmosphere straight out of a Grimm Brothers' tales book.
The magic of the scenery gets even more daunting at dawn so it is well worth spending one night within the citadel. Plus, waking up in the early morning to embrace a view on the city from the top of the Clock Tower is a moment to remember.
Braşov is the 7th most populated city in Romania and it is for that reason that arriving in the city can disappoint the visitors expecting it to be a quaint old town. Yet, beyond the newly built concrete buildings and endless roundabouts lies the very definition of a quaint old town.
The city used to be known as Kronstadt, underlying its Saxon heritage, and its historical centre might be small but it is packed with architectural masterpieces. The most iconic landmark is the Council Square, a place that held markets as early as the 16th century, followed by the 14th-century Black Church that stands nearby.
Wandering the streets of Braşov is a sure way to discover the city’s hidden gem as the historical centre is completely pedestrian-friendly, adding to the laid-back appeal of the city. Nature is very close too and the city is surrounded by hills, fortification towers and fortresses that offer a panoramic view on the city that’s best enjoyed at sunset.
Braşov’s other key asset lies in its central location that makes it easy to use the city as a base to further exploring Transylvania. The castles of Raşnov, Peleş and Bran are only a short drive away and so are numerous national parks that are perfect for a hike.
Transylvania’s wild and majestic natural scenery could only be topped by even more monumental castles and the peoples who inhabited the land made sure of that. Of course, their concern was far from aesthetic and most of the castles that can now be visited were defensive fortresses built to counter the attacks of the many invaders that tried to conquer the region over the years.
The Raşnov fortress is one of these fortresses and it was built on a hill overlooking the village of Raşnov on one side and the woods on the other. The Poenari Fortress was erected on a rocky outcrop in the mountains for the same reasons and its history is closely linked to that of Vlad Tepeş, whose reputation in fierceness and cruelty came from his fighting of Ottoman armies in their attempt to turn Wallachia province into Ottoman land.
The Bran castle, on the other hand, which has nothing to do with Vlad Tepeş and is yet known as Dracula’s Castle, has been transformed into such a sophisticated citadel that it is hard to remember it used to be a defensive stronghold.
Even more sophisticated is the Peleş Castle, which was built during the late 19th century and developed into a refined palace, home of the arts nestled among a ravishing natural setting.
4. Fortified churches:
Fortified churches can seem like an oxymoron but in a land so constantly threatened by foreign invasions, they grew out of necessity. Transylvania accounts for more than 150 fortified churches dating from the 13th to the 16th century. Out of all these monuments, only seven have been listed by the UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. While all seven share common features, they differ greatly in terms of architecture but also in terms of scenery.
The church of Biertan is one of the most stunning sites with its gothic architecture, standing high on a hill, overlooking picturesque vineyards. Viscri, on the other hand, is well-known for its highly distinctive wooden towers but above all, for the peacefulness of its surrounding countryside and its untouched rural atmosphere.
The church of Prejmer, near Brasov, is located in a relatively plain village but its outside walls are the most impressive, almost looking like an ancient amphitheater from the outside.
Beyond their mere historical and architectural interest, fortified churches are a way into the Transylvanian unspoilt countryside and they can all be visited easily as side trips from the main cities or as stopovers along the road.
Sibiu doesn’t deal with as much publicity as the aforementioned cities of Sighisoara and Brasov and it is precisely why it belongs to our list. Formerly known as Hermannstadt, the city is one of Romania’s most prominent cultural hubs. It was designated as the European Capital of Culture in 2007 and Sibiu hasn’t rested on its laurels since then, organizing cultural events and festivals and even holding the first Christmas Market in Romania.
The historical town is split between the Upper Town and the Lower Town, both of which can be explored easily on foot to delve deeper into the stunning architectural diversity of the city, from Medieval to Baroque and even Art Nouveau buildings. Sibiu’s prime landmarks are aplenty, from the Grand Square to the fortifications and the Baroque Brukenthal Palace.
Yet, the city also boasts hidden gems such as the Orthodox Cathedral and its incredibly ornate frescoes which will impress even the most jaded traveler. Another of Sibiu’s unique features is its so-called “houses with eyes” as the roof windows of most buildings in the city seem to be staring at the visitor.
With so many aces up its sleeves, there's no wonder why Transylvania is Romania's most touristy region. Despite its fame, it still remains authentic and juggles easily between world-famous landmarks and off-the-beaten path gems devoid of any crowd. Tell us in the comments which places you'd like to discover there and if you've already been to this amazing place, share your favorite places!