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Want to visit Transylvania? Great idea! In this travel guide we'll tell you why this region is so famous, what are the best places to visit, things to do and famous tourist attractions so you can plan an amazing vacation in Transylvania!
You probably heard Transylvania is a place somewhere in Eastern Europe supposedly beautiful, mysterious and where (legends of) vampires come from, hidden in menacing medieval castles. Or perhaps you heard about its charming, slow rural life from UK's Prince Charles who owns several village houses. Or maybe you've seen some beautiful pictures of famous tourist attractions?
While all these are true - except for the vampire part - there is so MUCH more about visiting Transylvania you should know! Because after reading this article, we know you'll want to travel here and see for yourself :)
Table of contents
- Practical details before planning your visit
- A brief history of Transylvania
- 1. Bran Castle aka Dracula Castle
- 2. The UNESCO Saxon Fortified Churches and Villages
- 3. See a Gothic castle full of legends: Corvin Castle
- 4. Go underground in spectacular (and healthy!) salt mines
- 5. Visit Romania's spiritual capital: Alba Iulia Citadel
- 6. Transfagarasan Highway - a thrilling ride with awesome views
- 7. Transylvanian culture in cities and villages
- 8. Transylvanian food and wine - a must try!
- 9. Go hiking in Transylvania
- 10. Stay in beautiful countryside mansions and restored village houses
Practical details before planning your visit
In my travels, lots of people I met told me ‘I want to visit Transylvania’ - but it’s not that simple! The region is 1/3 of Romania and it's larger in size than Austria! To get your basic info right (tourist cities, sights, public transport) you might want to start with our practical guide on the region of Transylvania or the general one about visiting Romania for the first time.
Long story short, popular Transylvania is a triangle-region between Sibiu - Sighisoara - Brasov known for its Saxon culture and villages with fortified churches. But formally, Transylvania is the inside the Carpathian arc: from Timisoara - Satu-Mare - Bistrita - Brasov. And it includes other like Maramures (N-W), Bukovina (N-E), Motilor Land (in Apuseni Natural Park) and Banat (S-W).
Each of these 4 regions have their distinct cultural identity with local celebrations, cuisine, folk costumes, unique places to visit and tourist attractions. Locals here have preserved their traditional, rural way of life as if in a time bubble - far from modern civilisation, mass tourism and even Covid!
As many of our historians and sociologists have said, the heart and spirit of Romanian culture is best experienced in the ancestral village where a hard-working yet self-sustainable, community-based, God-fearing, simple way of life in communion with nature has been passed from generation to generation.
This is why HRH Prince Charles fell in love with this region and owns where he spends his summer holidays!
So the most important thing you should know is that visiting Transylvania is NOT about seeing its top tourist attractions to snap some quick pictures or do a day trip from Bucharest to Brasov and Bran Castle.
The best thing to do is to experience the magic of the Romanian countryside and meet locals, see how they live, eat a home-cooked meal with produce from their households. To slow down and disconnect from the busy, technology filled and sedentary lifestyle the Covid pandemic accelerated, and to reconnect with nature!
This is by far one of the best things to do in Romania and in Transylvania especially. As you'll see, there are many things to do and places to visit and this is why tourism in the region is so big compared to the other two regions of Romania, Wallachia and Moldova. Check our collection of tours to get more inspiration:
If you're planning to visit Transylvania you'll need min 3-5 days to travel between different cities and tourist attractions. If you're short on time, arriving in Bucharest and want to get the a condensed tour of the region with the best places to visit, check out this amazing itinerary we prepared:
We prepared a similar one starting from Cluj-Napoca:
But if you want to have an authentic vacation in Transylvania, then you need min. 4-6 nights in the region. You can alternate between:
- visiting major tourist cities such as Brasov, Sibiu and Cluj-Napoca
- day trips from these cities to popular tourist attractions and places to visit (Bran and Corvin Castle, Sighisoara Citadel, the Saxon villages with fortified churches, Transfagarasan Highway etc.)
- do some cool things and tourist activities popular in Transylvania: hiking in the Carpathian Mts, bear watching, have an agro-tourism experience, do wine tasting in the picturesque hills
- experience authentic rural life by visiting Transylvania's sub-regions, staying in family-owned guesthouses and doing the best thing you can on your vacation - relax!
Due to its very local nature and Romania's underdeveloped tourism infrastructure, visiting Transylvania can be a little challenging. But no matter what you want to do - we can help you! We'll suggest do-it-yourself itineraries combined with day trips, or fully-guided custom private tours, or give you the info you need to plan better!
And for the Summer of 2022 we're planning a 10-day shared small group tour [Covid-safe!] with fixed departures that includes the best of what Romania and Transylvania can offer:
Before we get on with the list of the best castles, places to visit and tourist attractions in Transylvania, I want to tell you a few things about the region's history so you understand why these places are important and how to make sense of what you're about to see!
A brief history of Transylvania
Latin for land beyond the forests Transylvania is arguably among the most beautiful regions for tourism in Europe, easily comparable with Tuscany or Provence. But its history is complex and reflects its multicultural identity. If you're curious, Wikipedia has a whole page about the full history of Transylvania.
In short, more than 2,000 years ago large parts of the region was settled by our ancestors, the Dacians. The ruins of Dacian citadels are now part of UNESCO heritage. Dacia was conquered by the Roman Empire in 100 A.D and became a Roman province. Over the next centuries, the combination of locals, Roman settlers and migrants is what eventually gave birth to Romanians who continued to live in these parts.
After the Roman empire disintegrated, Transylvania became part of various empires and kingdoms. But feudal lords and princes from different subregions had their own interests. And Transylvania, fertile ground with lots of resources, was caught between the Ottoman, Habsburg and Russian empires. So alliances, betrayals, battles and truces were the norm especially during the XV - XIXth centuries.
Despite its very complicated political history, Romanians peacefully coexisted with Saxons, Hungarians, Jews, Slovaks and the many other minorities. So you can imagine the melting pot of cultures, traditions and lifestyles you will see in cities, villages and tourist attractions in the region.
And even though Romanians had always been the most numerous - we political autonomy and independence. Our language, culture and religion was not recognised which is why Romanian churches played an important role in keeping our culture alive - which is why you should visit them. All this lasted until the Great Union of 1918 in Alba Iulia when all Romanian provinces were united in the same state.
So you see, there is much history behind all the castles, churches and cities you'll see. But authentic Romanian culture was preserved in the rural village where Romanians could be free and themselves, far from foreign controlling powers and wars.
And now, let's see what to do and visit in Transylvania:
1. Bran Castle aka Dracula Castle
We’ll start with the most famous place to visit in Transylvania just to get it out of the way! Popular thanks to Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel and 1992 Hollywood movie, Bran Castle is truly impressive even without the added popularity! Perched on a mountain ridge in dramatic landscapes, the badass medieval looks and menacing towers will make an impression on you. Built 700 years ago as a strategic fortress to defend the valley against invaders, the castle has a fascinating history of its own.
It’s also Romania’s #1 tourist attraction also known as Dracula Castle thanks to its supposed - but unproven - connection to Vlad Dracula, a Romanian prince known for his cruelty who was the inspiration for vampire stories. Located in Bran, the castle can be easily visited on day trips from Brasov, Bucharest and Sibiu. But if you you want to avoid all the 'Dracula' tourist traps and (false) stories around this sight, consider one of our tours where our guides will give you the real story behind this famous castle of Transylvania.
2. The UNESCO Saxon Fortified Churches and Villages
With so much migration going on in the Middle Ages and the constant threat of invasion, South-Eastern Transylvania (the area around Brasov - Sibiu - Sighisoara) was colonised starting from the 13th century by Saxons Germans tasked by the-then ruling powers of Transylvania to build fortifications and defend the borders.
So many villages and small towns were fortified and citadels were built. Now, these well-preserved historical sites are living testament of Transylvania's fascinating, plot-twisting history. There are over 150 fortified constructions and places to visit so tourists will have a busy itinerary!
Viscri fortified church
Given their importance, two of these historic attractions have been included in UNESCO heritage: the Citadel of Sighisoara which is among the best-preserved still-inhabited citadels in Europe and a group of 7 villages with fortified churches also known as the Saxon villages in Transylvania. Of this group, the village of Viscri is the most popular, thanks to HRH Price Charles personal interest - he even bought a house here!
But besides being incredibly old, these medieval villages preserve our rural culture and ancestors’ way of life as if in a time bubble. You will literally make a trip 100 years back in time if you go visit them on a day trip or spend a night here in one of the many village houses turned boutique, deluxe guesthouses.
3. See a Gothic castle full of legends: Corvin Castle
In our opinion, this is the best castle in Transylvania even though it can't compete with Bran Castle's popularity! Corvin Castle also known as Hunyade Castle is a splendid gothic-meets-renaissance historic tourist attraction with an authentic medieval feeling.
Built in the 15th century as a fortified residence for a regional ruling dynasty, there is much history to be learned and seen here - and on a different plot line 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’ story you’ll hear - and we highly recommend you put this castle on your list of things to do on your vacation in Transylvania!
Corvin Castle is located in the city of Hunedoara, close to Sibiu and Timisoara. Although the castle has been growing in popularity considerably over recent years, getting there using public transport is very difficult so the best way is by car or on a guided day trip.
4. Go underground in spectacular (and healthy!) salt mines
Time for a unique sight - if you're visiting Transylvania you shouldn't miss going into a salt mine. The difference between salt mines and all other mines is that breathing salty air is good for your lungs. People with respiratory problems such as asthma are being sent by doctors for ‘salt therapies’ aka sitting and breathing the air. There’s even evidence 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.
Turda Salt Mine has an underground lake!
There are 2 salt mines in Transylvania you should consider visiting: Salina Praid hidden in the communist styled mountain resort of Sovata, and the spectacular Turda Salt Mine. The last one is famous for its beautiful lights installations creating stunning, unique views of the huge grottos, open spaces and salty walls! Visiting Turda Salt Mine undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Transylvania unique for its stunning views and unusual attraction!
5. Visit Romania's spiritual capital: Alba Iulia Citadel
Surprise - another historic place to visit, but this one of significant importance to Romanian history. 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) after WWI. It was the final, long-awaited moment of a 300-year long struggle - for all Romanians to be united and independent in the same state.
Start from: Cluj-Napoca (pick-up)
The citadel itself has an impressive history too! Built in the early 1700s on the remnants of a Roman castrum it served as a strategic fortification and centre of power in the heart of Transylvania. Today, Alba Iulia Citadel is a gorgeous sight which breathes history through its many buildings and cobble stone alleys. Before the Covid pandemic, it regularly hosted outdoor events and fairs and we hope they will come back again. But one thing remained: the changing of the guard ceremony which takes place every day at 12:00. Consider visiting Alba Iulia Citadel on a day trip from Cluj-Napoca or Sibiu.
6. Transfagarasan Highway - a thrilling ride with awesome views
Have a quick look at our video - this popular tourist attraction in Transylvania needs no other introduction! Named in Top Gear as the best driving road in the world for good reason: twisting and turning as you go up getting ever more beautiful views! Built during communist times for military purposes, it's also known as Ceausescu's folly due to the huge resources spent to build it.
Reaching as high as 2,133m altitude, the road crosses the mighty Fagaras mountains, the most beautiful and challenging for hiking in Transylvania. As you drive upwards you'll see their impressive ridges and peaks and when at the top you'll be rewarded with marvellous views!
Due to snow, the road is open for driving only from 1 July - 30 Oct. Outside this period it can be seen only coming from Brasov or Sibiu (so the North section) driving partially on the road until Balea Cable Car. The cable car will then take you across the section closed to driving up to the top of the road at Balea Lake. From Bucharest the road trip can be done only when the road is fully open. Wether in Winter or Summer, Transfagarasan Road and its spectacular mountain views should be on your list of things to do in Transylvania!
7. Transylvanian culture in cities and villages
Each tourist city in Transylvania has its unique personality and a vibe that will intrigue you. The hip, modern, student town of Cluj-Napoca will contrast with the cultural charm of Sibiu or the medieval, laid-back atmosphere of Brasov - check these link to see our and suggestions. The smaller cities of Sighisoara, Targu-Mures or Bistrita shouldn't be overlooked as they're also representative for Saxon culture and have many interesting things to see besides their large medieval squares and townhouses.
But Transylvania’s true beauty lies in its famous countryside and rural areas, where the simple way of life of locals, their sense of community and hospitality will capture your soul instantly. Add to the mix picturesque landscapes and quiet village life you've got yourself a perfect holiday in Romania to disconnect and wind down far from the business of city life.
There are lots of day trips or tours where you can experience this. You can go by car to visit villages or sights, or go on hikes from village to village, photo tours, horse rides, agro-tourism experiences -- you name it! Check our suggestions below - or contact us if you'd like a private custom tour.
Start from: Cluj-Napoca or Sibiu
There are lots of bike paths connecting the Saxon villages of Transylvania and this is a great way to explore the area!
Or perhaps you'd like to stay in a farmhouse turned modern guesthouse and have an agro-tourism experience?
And then there are some regions with a unique charm that will give you the most authentic countryside Romanian experience you can find. The traditional region of Maramures will impress you: centuries old Romanian traditions and customs are still part of everyday life, wood-carved decorations everywhere and locals wearing traditional costumes on Sundays to go to church (the Romanian traditional blouse called ie by the way). Besides the delicious food (all with home-grown ingredients!), there are some interesting attractions to see such as the Merry Cemetery of Sapanta or the famous UNESCO Wooden Churches of Maramures. Visiting Maramures (most accessible from Cluj-Napoca) is another ‘must see’ sight of Transylvania and Romania!
8. Transylvanian food and wine - a must try!
The whole region is naturally blessed with fertile lands and sun-bathed hills. Its many cultures and rural traditions of farming the land for self-sustainability have created a reputation for the delicious food and wines in Transylvania. Much of Romania's traditional food and products come from the region and they're famous and preferred even by locals.
The whole area around Sibiu is famed for its products and cuisine which was awarded the European Region of Gastronomy title in 2019. Lots of small old-school producers, young chefs who reinterpret traditional dishes and the locals' clear preference for 'buy local' makes this region truly delicious! You can discover this in the city's many restaurants or on day trips where our guides will take you to amazing lunch places wether family-owned restaurants or in households where locals will cook for you!
Even 2,000 years ago Transylvania's wines were famous among the Dacians, Romans and migrating people. There are lots of wineries in central Transylvania where the hills and weather are perfect for vineyards! From old-school, large-scale wineries to boutique, specialised producers, in the last 10 years the quality and popularity of Romanian wines has increased significantly - and so has wine tourism! Most wineries offer private tastings on demand and require a minimum of 2 people - we can arrange that for you on a custom tour. But you can also order a glass of Romanian wine in any restaurant, cafe or bar - we're sure it will surprise you!
9. Go hiking in Transylvania
The entire region exists because of the natural barriers the Carpathian Mountains form around it! Read our full guide on hiking in Romania to find out more - but in short, there are mountains and trails for EVERYONE no matter your physical condition or how much time you want to spend in the mountains. So exploring Transylvania's beautiful outdoors is one of our most recommended things to do on your holiday here!
Brasov and Cluj-Napoca are the best bases to go on hiking day trips or multi-day tours wether for a challenging adventure or to see nearby natural attractions. There are options from Sibiu and Timisoara too though not as many. The best part? On a guided trip our guides can take you from the low mountains (800 - 1,200m) to medium ones or to high ones (2,000m) depending on your interests and physical condition because there are so everyone can have a good time. You will see beautiful views of the countryside, impressive mountains in the distance, go through rural villages and even have a meal with locals -- while exploring Europe's last wilderness reserve (which is what Romania is dubbed)!
10. Stay in beautiful countryside mansions and restored village houses
The combination of Transylvania's cultural spirit, heritage buildings, beautiful countryside and sustainable, ancestral way of life attracted many locals tired of the big city life looking to create a different life. From 2008 onwards a trend started where many village houses, estates or bourgeois manors were bought, restored and transformed into boutique, luxury guesthouses for tourists.
Offering premium accommodation services, locally sourced organic foods, amazing views and a beautiful example of how rural life can blend with modern needs, these guesthouses are so beautiful and popular they're in high demand all year long! Check here for some inspiration and you can find most of them on Booking.com or AirBnB. However, most of them are in remote areas accessible only by car and are on the expensive side. Nevertheless, spending one or two nights there will be a unique memory from your holiday in Transylvania!
As you can see, the best things to do in Transylvania are not just simple tourist attractions. It's about discovering its diverse culture and regions, experiencing rural life, admiring nature and relaxing! I hope this article will gave you a taste of what to do and it will help you plan your visit here - and if you have any questions reach out, we're here to help!
Your Romanian Friend