Of course, when we travel, we would love to visit the whole country – but this is usually not possible. Considering the general aspects of the country and the interests of a regular traveler, we have tried to include the most important landmarks of the country. In addition, we considered specific traits of the country, the level of uniqueness, how touristy that place is, how beautiful, and how representative that destination can be for the country. Feel free to comment, write your own ideas and give us your suggestions for other places in Romania.
1 The Romanian Countryside
We always tell our travelers that the real Romania begins where the asphalt ends. Few countries in Europe are definitely even fewer so close to western Europe, where the rural world is so well preserved. In Romania, this world still lives according to old rules and ancient beliefs. Get up early in the morning and visit a village and its surroundings. If you wouldn’t take into consideration the cars, electrical poles, and peasants on horse-drawn carts speaking on cell phones, you might think you have gone 100 years back in time. It is here, in this rural world, that you can see farmers with a scythe on their shoulders going to the field. It is here where thousands of haystacks’ll surround you. Cows might turn your highway into a simple road for their own convenience. But perhaps the most important characteristic of the Romanian countryside is the farmers – or as Romanians call them, the peasants. It is time to forget about luxurious hotels, 5-star services, and shopping malls. It’s the moment to meet a local, to enter his house and taste his wonderful organic food, washed down by some tsuica, a local strong plum brandy. During the Sunday services or important religious holidays, join the locals at church. In places like Maramures, many people still wear their traditional costumes with pride. You might blend into this world yourself by wearing some of the same costumes.
The best-preserved rural areas – some because of the traditions, others because of the architecture – are found in Maramures, the northern part of Romania. There is also the former Saxon area, located in the southern part of Transylvania, and the Székely region in the eastern part of Transylvania.
2 Traditional Accommodations
Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to accommodations, and from person to person, those preferences can be very different. One might like luxurious 5-star spas; another might enjoy a simple tent. However, in recent years the locals began to realize the great impact of genuine traditional accommodations. Based on this criterion, several people renovated old houses and estates or just built entirely new buildings. These places respect the environment, and the local community takes part in their upkeep and management. Many of them offer great food, often coming straight from their own gardens. They organize daily trips around the village or its surroundings and sometimes also offer riding trips. The most famous are those bought by Britain’s Prince Charles, in Valea Zalanului and Viscri, and turned into guest houses. Other excellent accommodations can be found in Crit at Casa cu Zorele, in Maxut at Polizu Manor, or in Maldaresti at Conacul lui Maldar.
3 Medieval Towns
Travelling might not be just a trip to a new destination, but also a trip back in time if we visit well-preserved locations. There are several places like this in Romania, especially the old towns of Sibiu, Sighisoara, and Brasov.
Sighisoara is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe and famous for being the birthplace of Vlad Dracul, better known as Dracula. This fabulous UNESCO site, still not over-crowded with tourists, is a great place for walking tours. Its cobblestones streets and alleyways will lead you to the house where Vlad Dracul lived, the Church on the Hill, which dates back to the 14th century. And to the extraordinary Clock Tower, the symbol of the town.
Sibiu, the European cultural capital in 2007, boasts the largest medieval town in Romania. Towers dating back to the 13th century, 15th-century houses which still preserve their original frescoes, and the impressive Evangelical Church give Sibiu the feeling of a real medieval town frozen in time. All these add a vivid cultural life that includes jazz and classical concerts, theater, and film festivals.
Brasov, surrounded by green mountains and medieval fortified walls, is one of Romania’s most important tourist destinations. Built by Saxon colonists almost 800 years ago, the city of Brasov preserves its central old town, which these days enjoys a vibrant street life with many bars and restaurants. Of course, there is no way you can avoid the Black Church, as it is one of the largest churches in Eastern Europe. The main advantage of Brasov is its proximity to many other famous tourist landmarks in Romania. Just 16km from Brasov is the stunning UNESCO site of Prejmer, the best-preserved fortified castle-church in the country. Passing through Poiana Brasov, the country’s most famous winter resort, you’ll arrive in Rasnov, the site of a great fortress perched on a hill with a splendid panoramic view over Transylvania. Not far away lies the castle of Bran, known best to foreign travelers as Dracula’s Castle.
4. Peles Castle
There are few castles in the world that can match the beauty of Peles Castle. And this is said not by us, but by many other worldwide newspapers and travel websites.
Peles Castle, built at the command of the first Romanian king (actually a German prince), was the first truly modern castle in Europe. Construction started in 1873 and was finished only in 1914. The overwhelming interiors, boasting several styles from Moorish to German Neo-Renaissance, house fine collections of paintings, ceramics, sculptures, and weapons. But the wood carving is the main asset of the castle, probably matched only by the beauty of the Carpathian Mountains, which surround the castle like in a perfect postcard.
Built-in Sinaia, one of the most famous mountain resorts in Romania, Peles Castle is one of the major tourist attractions in the country. It is definitely a must since it is located just 120km north of Bucharest. Therefore, a day tour from Bucharest, like this one, would be perfect for a short vacation.
5. The Carpathian Mountains
Tall craggy cliffs, gentle slopes, green meadows, unique wild plants, the largest population of bears to be found in Europe, impressive narrow gorges, and stunning panoramic views – all of these can be found in the Carpathian Mountains.
They are not just a natural wonder, but they also represent the cradle of the Romanian civilization since it is here that our ancestors retreated to in times of invasions.
They are divided into the Eastern Carpathians, the Transylvanian Alps, and Western Carpathians on the Romanian side. If the Eastern Carpathians are the widest, the Transylvanian Alps are the highest, and the Western Carpathians are known for their gentle slopes and limestone formations.
The most impressive is the Fagras Mountains, being the tallest (2544m/8346ft) and crossed by the famous Transfagarasan Highway, which Top Gear calls “the most beautiful road in the world.” The Retezat Mountains are known for their national park and their many glacial lakes.
The most popular among the southern range is the Bucegi Mountains, which boasts the longest funicular in Romania and the King’s Stone Mountain.
The Western Carpathians, with their impressive caves and sinkholes, still boasts a well-preserved rural life. It is here that you can find the occasional houses and small villages and a way of life that vanished years ago in most other places.
During the winter season, you can enjoy several ski resorts such as Sinaia, Poiana Brasov, Vatra Dornei, and Cavnic.
6. The Fortified Churches of Transylvania
This unique combination of churches and fortresses is found only in Transylvania, although some of the painted churches in Bucovina display similar characteristics.
Built by the Saxon colonists beginning in the 12th century, these fortifications stand as fine examples of the advanced technology and culture typical of the Germans from Transylvania. As soon as they arrived, they realized the need to protect themselves and construct the fortified churches. The entire community was involved in the process, and during the invasions, every person was sheltered by the strong wall of these medieval fortresses. The most impressive are Prejmer, Biertan, Viscri, Cisnadie and Cisnadioara. It might be hard to believe, but several churches are still in use, even though the German community disappeared in the 20th century.
7. The Danube River
Napoleon used to call it the “king of all rivers,” and there are many reasons for this. It is the only major river that connects Europe from west to east, making it one of the most strategic rivers. It gets to Romania in the south-eastern part of the country and soon forms the stunning gorge known as the Iron Gates. This area is not just a splendid natural zone, but also it is here that you can see two mountain ranges – the Carpathians and the Balkan Mountains – and two countries, Serbia and Romania.
The journey up the Danube River ends in the Black Sea in the form of a spectacular delta, one of the world’s most important unspoiled natural areas. It is certainly one of the last wild frontiers of Europe, a place with hundreds of species of birds and fish. The gorgeous landscapes, the virgin forests jutting out the water, the vast surfaces of the wetlands are a pure paradise. To all of these, add the remote villages and the wild sandy beaches where the river meets the sea. Longer or shorter tours, like this one, can be organized into the delta of the Danube.
8. The UNESCO churches of Bucovina and Maramures
The painted churches of Bucovina are an exquisite example of Byzantine art. Beautiful frescoes of the Orthodox churches were for the first time painted on the exterior walls in Bucovina, and even today, several are as vivid as the day they were painted. For the first time, everyone who sees them is overwhelmed by hundreds of paintings representing saints, biblical stories, and even scenes with a fine sense of humor. The best-preserved painted churches are Voronet, famous for its Last Judgment fresco; Sucevita, known for the Ladder of the Virtues; and Moldovita, which boasts the Siege of Constantinople.
On the other side of the Carpathian Mountains, in Maramures, the wooden churches are another type of religious construction. Built by skilled craftsmen, these wooden churches, considered to be the highest wooden structures globally, stand up even now as proof of the local faith. The oldest was erected in 1364 and is located in the village of Ieud. The wooden church of Desesti boasts the best frescoes, while Surdesti is among the most beautiful wooden structures in Maramures.
Bucharest, probably the most underrated city in Europe, is the city of contrasts. Green, large French-style boulevards run through many areas of the city.
Next to them, there are likely to be small, picturesque streets squeezed by ugly Communist blocks.
Beautiful green neighborhoods with 19th and 20th-century villas built in different styles coexist next to the slums of poor minorities.
Bucharest is a lively city with an Old Town full of restaurants and bars. Parks such as the lovely Cismigiu Gardens can be a wonderful retreat during the scorching summer days. Bucharest is a place of culture, with a great many theaters and jazz bars. It is a city full of history, unspoiled, and happily, still free of mass tourism.
Many Romanians, including the Ministry of Tourism, might go crazy when they read that Gypsies are considered a tourist attraction in Romania because they think it’s just a stereotype about their own country. But actually, this minority could be helped through tourism. Officially there are 621,000 Gypsies in Romania (based on the 2011 census), which means that this ethnic group represents 3.3% of the total population. However, in reality, the number is much higher.
Facing discrimination throughout Europe and usually considered guilty of all the crimes committed by a small but obvious group, the Gypsies have learned from experience how to live in a permanent state of insecurity. Some have learned how to run small tourist activities by transforming their homes into guest houses in recent years. Others continued to do what their ancestors taught them. They are unmatched in making copper pots and in the art of music. It’s well-known that Johnny Depp fell in love with Taraf de Haidouks, a genuine Gypsy band from a poor village. They can be seen and visited all over Romania, but the majority live in the counties of Mures (Transylvania) and Dolj (Wallachia).