Ever heard of Transylvania, a place somewhere in Eastern Europe that’s supposedly beautiful and mysterious? If the answer is yes, you’re probably thinking of vampires hiding in medieval castles surrounded by dramatic landscapes…
But Transylvania is so MUCH more!
[6 min read]
Lots of people I’ve met told me ‘I want to visit Transylvania’ but it’s not that simple - the entire area is larger than Austria and each part has its own cultural identity and natural beauty, with some regions being truly unique such as Maramures. And with all the vampire, touristy crap around, it's harder for independent planning travellers to make sense of everything...
That's why as locals we want to help. To visit the region of Transylvania requires spending a couple of days in this beautiful region, learning about its fascinating (medieval and thrilling!) history at major sights, seeing its natural wonders and - most importantly - how the locals live. The cultural heart of the Romanian people is best experienced in the village life as many of our historians and writers have said: a self-sustainable, simple and nature loving way of life, preserved over centuries from generation to generation.
Latin for ‘land beyond the forests’, the Carpathian Mountains provide natural protection for this hidden gem which is arguably among the most intriguing regions in Europe, alongside Tuscany or Provence. That’s probably why HRH Prince Charles fell in love with these parts during his first visit in 1998 and ended up buying two countryside retreats where he spends his summers!
With landscapes alternating between idyllic and dramatic, rich medieval history part of UNESCO heritage and a simple way of life in the countryside preserved as if in a time bubble, Transylvania will capture your heart instantly.
Orthodox Romanians, Catholic Hungarians (called Szekelys in these parts), Protestant Saxon-Germans and even Jews have lived here for almost 800 years so you can imagine the melting pot of cultures, traditions and lifestyles that followed. And the cities of Brasov, Sibiu, Cluj-Napoca or Oradea, your gateways into this fascinating region, are not only representative of this multiculturalism but also charming in their own way.
So here's the short guide we locals put together to help you see the best of Transylvania, with its must see sights and authentic local life feeling. And we know the best local guides and tours you can book to make the most out of your trip!
1. Bran Castle or (also wrongly known as) the infamous Dracula Castle
We’ll start with this just to get it out of the way: popular thanks to Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel and 1992 Hollywood movie, the castle itself is truly a sight to see. Set on a mountain ridge in dramatic landscapes, the badass medieval looks and menacing turrets will make an impression on you. Built 700 years ago as a strategic fortress to defend the valley against the Ottoman Empire expansion from Wallachia, the castle has a fascinating history of its own - check this page to read more about Bran Castle and see the tours we recommend.
It’s also Romania’s #1 tourist attraction and given the Dracula tag, also the most touristy. Closer to Brasov, the castle can also be visited on a day trip from Bucharest or Sibiu . We suggest hiring a local guide to help you navigate our roads and through all the tourist traps, maybe also see some local life.
And just in case you're wondering, seeing Peles - Brasov - Bran Castle does mean you visited Transylvania!
2. Fortified settlements part of UNESCO heritage
With so much migration and colonisation going on in the Middle Ages, many medieval towns in Transylvania were built with defence in mind, either fortified or with a citadel nearby to take refuge in. Now, these well-preserved old buildings are living testimony of the fascinating and plot-twisting history Transylvania has witnessed.
Most settlements in Transylvania have their own type of defensive structures, but there are two that stand out and have been included in UNESCO heritage: the Citadel of Sighisoara and the nearby group of 7 villages with fortified churches also known as the Saxon villages in Transylvania, Sași in Romanian (German ancestors). Both can be visited on our tours.
Besides being very old, they also preserve our local culture and ancestors’ way of life as if in a time bubble. You will literally make a trip back in time, especially if you visit the villages, spend 1 night and see local life. Brasov or Sibiu are good base camps to explore the area.
3. The most authentic Romanian castle - Corvin (Hunyadi) Castle
Time for another castle. A strong contender to Bran, Corvin (Hunyadi) Castle is a splendid gothic-meets-renaissance historic attraction which preserves its authentic medieval feeling.
Built in the 15th century as a fortified residence for a regional ruling dynasty, there is much Transylvanian history to be learned here (on a different plot than at Bran). There are also some legends about the family’s seal and symbol of the castle - a raven, Corvus in Latin, with a golden ring in his beak. It’s better than any ‘Dracula’ crap you’ll here, trust us.
Corvin Castle is located in the smaller town of Deva, close to Sibiu and Timisoara. It’s Romania’s #2 attraction and it has been growing in popularity considerably, but our partners would be happy to take you on a tour.
4. Go underground in spectacular (and healthy!) salt mines in Romania
Time for a unique sight - during your trip to Transylvania you should visit a salt mine. The difference between salt mines and all other mines is that breathing salty air is good for your health. People with respiratory problems are being sent by Romanian doctors for ‘sitting’ therapy in salt mines. There’s even evidence that the Romans spent time in salt mines 2,000 years ago for the same reason.
Going to a salt mine in Romania is like going to the park on a chilly day - you spend time reading, talking to others, playing all sorts of games, sports or even tasting wine. No cellular reception by the way - which is a major plus! The idea is to spend at least 3-4 hours inside and for this reason salt mines in Romania are usually set up as small amusement parks.
There are 2 salt mines in Transylvania you should consider visiting: Salina Praid, hidden in communist styled mountain resort, and the spectacular Turda Salt Mine (picture above). Its long corridors and man-made caverns have been beautifully decorated with lights installations, creating a stunning and unique view of a … cave! There’s also a small lake where you can exercise your rowing skills (or impress someone!). Close to the city of Cluj-Napoca, visiting Turda Salt Mine can be done on an easy day trips!
5. At the heart of Romania's modern history: Alba Iulia Citadel
Surprise - another historic sight, but this one of significant importance to Romanian history. The Alba Iulia Citadel is considered the spiritual birthplace of modern Romania. Within its walls the 1918 Great Union was proclaimed, unifying the principality of Transylvania with the rest of Romania (Wallachia and Moldova). It was the final moment of a 300-year long struggle for all Romanians to be united under the same state.
The citadel itself was built in the early 1700s on the remnants of a Roman castrum and served as a strategic fortification and centre or power in the heart of Transylvania. Today, Alba Iulia Citadel is a gorgeous sight which breathes history through its cobble stone. It hosts many buildings that can be visited and there is a guard changing ceremony every day at 12:00. Consider a day trip from Cluj-Napoca or Sibiu.
6. Transfagarasan Highway - a mouthful with awesome views
Judging by its picture - this needs no further introduction. Featured in Top Gear as ‘the best driving road in the world’- it probably is. I did it myself and it’s the best driving memory I have. Built during communist times with a special purpose in mind, lots of dynamite was used to carve this 2,000m high pathway.
Coming from Brasov or Sibiu you will drive on one side of the mountains until you eventually come onto a soft winding road leading upwards. Splendid views open up as you twist and turn at 60 km/h on your quest to the top. Once there you will see how sharp ridges guard marvellous views of the great plains of Transylvania. Transfagarasan means “across the Fagaras Mts.” from Wallachia to Transylvania. There’s also a cable car from the base, but the experience isn’t as a tour on Transfagarasan Highway!
7. Romanian local life, people and culture
By now you’ve probably met some locals and seen some places. Each one of the major cities in Transylvania has its own unique personality and a vibe that will intrigue you. And some, such as Cluj-Napoca or Sibiu, are easy to get to by plane, so they make for a perfect city break in Romania. The hip, trending and student town of Cluj-Napoca will contrast with the cultural charm of Sibiu or the medieval atmosphere of Brasov. All of them are rich in tourist sights, with plenty of spots to admire large, open squares or narrow cobbled-stoned streets to get lost and discover hidden gems.
But Transylvania’s beauty lies in its famed countryside, where the simple way of life of locals, their sense of community and hospitality will capture your soul instantly. Add to the mix beautiful landscapes, quaint village life and a slow pace for everything and you've got yourself a perfect holiday in Romania, far away from the busy cities. Spend some time in Crit, Saschiz or Viscri if you want to immerse into local life.
Or explore the nearby hills, encircled by the Carpathian Mountains. One of the things on our bucket list is to go horse riding in Transylvania - the hills are perfect for that! We even know the people that do it right, check our things to do page!
But some regions have a unique charm which will make your Romanian experience even more authentic - yes, that's possible. A trip in the Maramures region pictured above will impress you: centuries old Romanian traditions and customs, local handicrafts still in use and locals in traditional wear every Sunday (the Romanian traditional blouse called ie ) are still part of everyday life here. Besides the delicious food (with regional dishes!), there are some interesting attractions to see such as the Merry Cemetery of Sapanta or the UNESCO Wooden Churches. A 2 day trip from Cluj-Napoca is just what you need! That’s why we think the Maramures region is a ‘must see’ sight of Transylvania.
That’s it about the ‘must see’ sights of Transylvania. Our next blog post will cover the lesser known sights, off-the-beaten path spots that will take you on a deeper journey into Romanian culture. Included: hidden corners of natural paradise or what Prince Charles when he visits Romania. If you want to know when it will be out you can subscribe to our newsletter on the right side of this page.
I hope this was helpful - come visit!
Your Romanian Friend