This is how to have the best Transylvania trip!
Thanks to Bram Stocker and the omnipresent pop-culture image of Dracula the vampire (and all his reincarnations), this is usually the first thing that people inquire about when planning a Transylvania trip.
Transylvania (meaning ‘land beyond the forest’) has in fact a lot more to offer the discerning traveler – fascinating history, authentic local culture, scenic Carpathian landscape, great mountain hiking and biking, and awe-inspiring medieval citadels and fortified churches.
Planning a Transylvania trip? Here are 10 tips to help you have the best experience…
First things first…Bran Castle is NOT Dracula’s Castle
There is no historical evidence that Vlad Tepes (a.k.a. The Impaler) – the medieval local ruler who inspired Stocker’s 19th-century Gothic novel and around whom the Dracula myth was built, ever resided in Bran Castle. Back in the 15th century, he fought the invading Ottomans and may have spent some time in the fortress, but there is no mention that it was ever his home. By the way, Bram Stocker never even set foot in Romania…
The castle’s current appearance is from the 1920s when the Romanian Queen Maria had the abandoned structure restored to be used as a royal residence. It is one of the country’s most visited attractions as evident by the busloads of group tourists which crowd its narrow hallways and winding stairwells during the summer months and around Halloween. Smart travelers should try their best to visit early in the morning or later in the afternoon and avoid the tacky vampire tours around Halloween like the plague.
Getting there and around
If Transylvania is the only part of Romania you will be visiting, then your best bet would be to fly in and out of Bucharest. Trains and buses run daily from the capital to towns in Transylvania and are an inexpensive yet slow and sometimes logistically challenging option. Renting a car is certainly possible, but keep in mind that Romanian drivers tend to be rather aggressive and speeding, tailgating, and overtaking are quite common.
For maximum flexibility, comfort, and convenience on your Transylvania trip, do yourself a favor and hire a local English-speaking guide. There is no better person to take you around, help you meet with the locals, and give you insider information and tips no guidebook could. This will allow you to stop whenever and as often as needed, make your own schedule, and reach remote areas which may not be served by public transportation. With 5 – 7 days at your disposal, you can spend a couple of days in Bucharest and then take a loop through Transylvania making stops in Brasov, Sighisoara, and Sibiu.
Discover medieval Saxon strongholds
Saxons in Romania?! You bet; they have lived there since the Middle Ages. Back in the 12th – 13th century, Saxon settlers were invited to develop the region economically and defend its borders from invaders. In the following centuries, these ethnic German colonists built castles, fortified towns and villages, formed trade guilds, and became wealthy craftsmen and merchants. Because of their useful skills and talents, the Saxons were granted land, privileges, and tax incentives and many prospered, achieving elite social status.
Following the expansion of Saxon settlements in Transylvania, the region became known as Siebenburgen (German for ‘Seven cities’), referring to its most prosperous fortified towns. Nowadays, these historic Saxon strongholds make great stops on every trip in Transylvania. The beautifully preserved and charming old towns of Sighisoara (the birthplace of Vlad Tepes), Sibiu, and Brasov are all worth a visit.
Marvel at the villages with fortified churches
These fine examples of Saxon defensive architecture date from the 13th – 16th century when Transylvanian villages were often organized around a fortified church (Kirchenburg) which offered protection in times of foreign invasion. 7 of these fortified churches are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
One of the best-preserved is the 15th- century fortified church at Biertan located on a hill in the middle of the village. Its fortifications include massive defensive walls connected by towers and gates surrounding the church.
The largest fortified church in Romania is in Prejmer. It was built by the Teutonic knights in the early 1200s and endured many sieges during its five centuries of existence. Equipped with towers, drawbridges and a secret subterranean passageway through which food supplies could be brought in, the church complex also included designated rooms for each of the village’s families in case of siege.
Stop for a tour of a former royal residence
A masterpiece of new-Renaissance architecture and a must-see on any Transylvania trip, Peles Castle is Romania’s finest and considered one of the most stunning castles in Europe.
Located on the border between the provinces of Wallachia and Transylvania, the palace complex was built in the late 19th century as a summer residence and hunting lodge for King Carol I – a German prince who became the king of independent Romania after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The palace contains some 160 rooms lavishly decorated with antiques, medieval weapons, period furniture, ebony, mother of pearl, exquisite fabrics, leather, and Murano chandeliers.
Hold your breath on the Transfagarasan road
Another reason to get a local driver on your Transylvania trip is to experience the thrill of the Transfagarasan – Romania’s most spectacular and famous alpine road. Crossing over the Fagaras mountain range, the 56-mile-long road connects the historic provinces of Transylvania and Walachia through a series of tunnels, viaducts and bridges.
Driving this road is not for the fainthearted as it winds and follow many steep hairpin turns, long S-curves, and sharp descents. Large sections of it are non-barriered and with sheer drops of over a 1,000 ft. Transfagarasan’s highest point is the half-mile-long Capra Tunnel which is at an altitude of 6,700 ft. The road is usually closed from late October until late June because of snow, but may close even in the summer, so it is always best to check in advance and make sure it is open.
Stumble upon authentic traditions and festivals
Traveling through Transylvania really feels like stepping back in time. Horse-drawn carts rumbling along dirt roads, shepherds tending their flocks, and villagers making hay are all signs that the traditional ways are still alive. Transylvania’s multi-ethnic heritage (including German and Hungarian) is charmingly apparent in the folk costumes, architecture, cuisine, music, and festivals.
Go for the unspoiled outdoors
The Carpathian Mountains of Central Romania are one of the least-exploited adventure destinations in Europe but actually offer some of the finest alpine hiking. The Fagaras Mountains’ spruce forests, deep valleys, lush pastures, and alpine lakes are crisscrossed by a network of well-marked hiking trails and chalets. Some hikes can take days to complete while others can be done as day-trips for leisure walkers.
Biking tours let you pedal through the Transylvanian countryside with stops at Saxon villages, medieval castles, and wineries to learn about the local culinary and cultural traditions.
Explore medieval castles
Want to see the castle where Vlad Tepes (a.k.a. the Impaler) really lived? Just off the Transfagarasan road, stop at the ruins of the Poenary Castle, perched like an eagle’s nest high on a hill overlooking the Arges River. Make sure you are in good shape as the legendary cliffside citadel is only reachable after climbing up more than 1,400 steep steps.
Romania’s grandest castle is by far is the Corvin Castle near Hunedoara. The Gothic-style structure was built on the site of a former Roman camp. In the mid-14th century, it became the residence of Transylvania’s ruler – Iancu de Hunedoara, who upgraded the fortress transforming it into a stunning castle with a lavish Knights’ Hall, an impressive drawbridge, high buttresses, inner courtyards, a chapel and some 50 rooms resplendent with medieval art.
Learn about centuries-old handicrafts
Hand-made in the region around the town of Horezu, the Horezu pottery is protected as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. What makes it unique are the centuries-old hand techniques used to shape the clay, the use of traditional tools – potter’s wheels, hollowed-out bull’s horns, quills, and wire-tipped sticks for decoration, and wood-burning kilns. Decorative elements include stylized flowers, spirals, stars, and the famous Horezu Rooster.
Another recognizable form of Romanian art are the famed painted eggs, especially prominent around Easter. Their intricate patterns and symbols are believed to hold a secret meaning known only to residents of the regions where they were painted. They can have a single color, typically red, symbolizing the passion of Christ. Alternatively, local women and girls use elaborate techniques and colors to decorate the eggs and these vary from region to region. Popular motifs include cross, sun, moon, plants, animals, and decorative patterns.
Ready to pack your bags (and some garlic to fend off those bloodthirsty vampires) and plan the best Transylvania trip? We can help customize an itinerary to match your interests and needs including to other regions in Romania like Maramures with its iconic wooden churches and well-preserved rural traditions.