When most people envision European travel itineraries, not many include Romania – a country that gets a bad rep. Though it has one of Europe’s lowest salary averages, it also has one of Europe’s highest economical increases in recent years. It’s taken awhile for Romania to get on its feet, but it was worth the wait! Deep in the Transylvanian woodlands is the beautiful and not-so-famous city of Sibiu. Climb the stairs into the lovely old town of Sibiu, a true masterpiece of medieval marvels with towers, walls and historic houses. Like cities in Poland, Croatia,Lithuania and most other Eastern European countries, Sibiu (and other Romanian cities) is a colourful labyrinth of brightly-painted streets. Like other Transylvanian cities – such as Sighisoara and Brasov – Sibiu packs a bundle. From vast public squares to tiny, hidden-away bookshops, from beautiful church spires to streets lined with nothing but restaurants, Sibiu has something for everyone. Despite being a European Capital of Culture in 2007, Sibiu is still a relatively undiscovered this eastern charm. Originally a Daco-Roman settlement (Dacia was the name of the region before the Romans conquered), Sibiu exploded in size and economy when it as re-founded by the 12th century settlers from Saxony (modern-day Germany), concreting it as one of the most important medieval trade centres in this part of Europe. Later joining the state of Transylvania thanks to the Ottoman Empire, and after WWI, Sibiu once again changed hands – this time to finally become part of modern-day Romania.
Pro tip: La Taifas restaurant on the main Piata Mare has a nice terrace, great view and they do good food – including nice veggie dishes and delicious spritz, though there are many other restaurants on the smaller streets around the main plaza.
Irish author George Bernard Shaw once said “If you want to see heaven on earth, come to Dubrovnik,” – and yes it is that pretty. The white-stone marvel overlooking the dazzlingly blue Adriatic Sea is a true architectural beauty. By day, Dubrovnik, also known as Ragusa, is a tangled canvas of azure, orange and pearl-grey, and by night, it is a cheery glow of yellows and gold brushstrokes. Dubrovnik is made up of an array of wide boulevards and narrow alleys, a jungle of styles – Baroque, medieval, gothic. It wasn’t always so. In 1991, after the not-so-peaceful breakup of Yugoslavia, poor Dubrovnik was besieged for more than 7 months by the Yugoslav People’s Army in the scarily-recent year of 1991. The Old Town in particular suffered greatly at the hands of this pointless shelling, and it took more than a decade to painstakingly return Dubrovnik to its former glory (a fate that mirrors that Warsaw and Dresden after WWII, and most likely Notre Dame de Paris after the 2019 fire). Today, Dubrovnik is under a different kind of siege. While Game of Thrones, Instagram and cruise ships have succeeded in putting Dubrovnik on the map, it has gone too far. The explosion in popularity has pushed poor Dubrovnik to the brink of unsustainable overtourism, an affliction that unfortunately also affects other well-known destinations like southwest Ireland, Barcelona, Iceland and Prague. They are now staggering cruise ship arrivals to spread out the numbers, but until big cruise ships are forbidden to dock in small and medium-sized cities (Dubrovnik has just 45,000 inhabitants!), the problem will persist. For the sake of historic and heritage preservation, do not travel on big cruise ships (nothing over 250 people…) or coach tours as these forms of mass tourism are ruining national monuments.
Pro tip: As stated, do not travel on the big cruise ships. Instead, visit Dubrovnik in the off season (Oct-early April). If you’re dead set on arriving by sea, take the ferry from Bari, Italy across the beautiful turquoise Adriatic Sea – not only is it a lovely way to travel, it is cost effective and saves you a night of accommodation. Food here is similar to Italy – expect a lot of pizza and fish!
In most cities, the harbour, or “the docks” district is one of the least favourable parts of town – rough, rundown, dirty, overgrown, a bit forgotten. In Split however, this is not the case. One of Croatia’s loveliest cities (home to the amazing Diocletian’s Palace, the dramatic Marjan Hill, the stunning Trg Republike square, and a labyrinth of beautiful, winding streets), Split’s harbour and waterfront, called the Riva, is a charming promenade and one of Split’s loveliest places. The Riva was born some 200 years ago the French of Napoleon’s time lived there, though it has changed face and form several times over. Today home to an inundation of cafes, restaurants and bars, it is the throbbing heart of modern Split. And yet the Riva does not forget its maritime past, with piers, boat slips, customs houses and Port Authority buildings new and old framing the waterfront. The Riva is snuggled up behind the famous Diocletian Palace, ancient churches and an important monastery overseeing modern and traditional waterfront activities.
Pro tip: The Riva can be quite a busy place at all hours of the day, though it is at its liveliest in the evenings. Climb the nearby Marjan Hill for spectacular views over the harbour and watch the boats as the come and go.
One of Europe’s most fascinating Renaissance castles can be found tucked away under the Carpathian Mountains that march across the mysterious and beautiful country of Romania. Amongst Romania’s most famed sites, Peles Castle is actually a neo-Renaissance fortress. Built on what was once an important trade route linking Wallachia and Transylvania – Romania’s two principal trade regions – Peles Castle was inaugurated in 1883, making it one of Europe’s younger castles. Inside and out, expect grandeur, over-the-top luxury, and a clear exertion of King Carol I’s power. Peles Castle and the Alpine-esque resort town of Sinaia came about in the late 1800s when King Carol of Romania fell in love with the dramatic mountain scenery. It was under King Carol that Romania gained its independence (1877). The king wanted a regal yet original mountain resort, rejecting anything that wasn’t grand and unique. In the end, he went for German architect Johannes Schultz’s proposal, a grand palatial Alpine castle that combines the most distinctive and appealing features of classic European castles, including styles born of the Italian and later German Renaissance. In a way, this approach to locating the very best of European castles makes Peles Castle all the more fairytale!
Pro tip: Peles Castle and nearby resort town of Sinaia can be quite touristy – best to visit in the off season if possible. Take a stroll around the grounds of Peles Castle at sunset – the views will be stunning, and as the castle is closed at that hour, you’ll have the estate to yourself.
Other Neo Renaissance Fairytale Castles of Europe Built to Impress
Neuschwanstein Castle – similar to Peles, this castle was built in the 1800s by a king looking for a regal and quintessential fairytale castle
Kreuzenstein Castle – This castle is actually a hodgepodge of different castles, imported and re-constituted together after the original building was destroyed
Chateau de Chenonceau – One of the many chateaux of the Loire Valley, Chenonceau stretching over the river is the picture of elegance.
Chateau de Chambord– Another Loire Valley chateau, this massive castle takes the concept of royal hunting lodge to the extreme.
Macedonia – and Skopje in particular – is at a crossroads between old and new, east and west, Christianity and Islam. It is a place that perfectly blends cultures, traditions and architecture. The historic centre of Skopje is made up of an old Bazaar, as well as some 30 mosques and the ruins of several caravanserais (once popular along trade routes like the Silk Road, these were inns for travellers) – all of which are ever-present reminders of the city’s Ottoman past. But the Macedonians have also made the city their own, erecting churches and cafes and basilicas, infusing the conquering culture with that of the conquered. For it must be said that the Ottoman Empire occupied present day Macedonia for a few hundred years, from the 17th to the early 19th century. The Old Bazaar of Skopje contrasts strikingly with the shiny new sections of Macedonia’ capital city – the soaring skyscrapers and glittering statues and perfect grids. But the very best way to experience Skopje is outdoors. Find yourself a cosy cafe in the old bazaar lined by ancient facades and leafy trees and make yourself comfortable. Order platefuls of shish kababs and grilled veggies and Mediterranean salads and sticky baklava, and wash it down with a rich and heavy cup of Turkish coffee. Sit back in the sun with a good book and a local beer and listen to the clamour of bustling Skopje under a midday sun.
Pro tip: Head up to the ruins of Skopje Fortress. No entrance fee and you’ll get a great view of the city and all of its minarets and domes.
One of Romania‘s most beautiful and fascinating cities is certainly the colourful and vibrant Sighisoara. Snuggled into the heart of the hauntingly beautiful region of Transylvania, the dazzling and historic medieval town centre is one of the best preserved in the country, a fact that has not escaped UNESCO. Perhaps most famous for as the birthplace of Count Dracula (otherwise known as Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler), Sighisoara is colourful and historic town. Cobblestone streets, soaring towers, ancient walls, vibrant shop fronts, this town embodies everything you’d want in a medieval town – a photographers paradise. Settled in the 12th century (officially entering the registrars in 1191), Sighisoara was a frontier town settled (and defended) by German saxons at a vulnerable time in Transylvanian history when the region was ruled by the King of Hungary. A town built into the ruins of a Roman fort proceeded it, followed in 1337 by an urban settlement considered a regal city. For centuries, Sighisoara was an important and influential city in Central and Eastern Europe. With a strong and successful economy dominated by Saxon Germans (what’s new…), Sighisoara was a recognised haven for craftsmen, artisans, merchants and guilds. Not all of Sighisoara’s history was positive though. After a fairly successful medieval age, 17th and 18th century Sighisoara saw terrible fires, plagues, occupation, sieges and other horrors.
Pro tip: Though beautiful during the the day, don’t miss the city at night! In one of the towers, there is an impressive array of leather-working. For some of the best food in the city, head to the wine cellars of Gasthaus restaurant, just outside the walls. Great views from the Church on the Hill – climb it via the covered staircase and descend via the graveyard.
Ah Brasov – one of Romania’s most beloved cities. Tucked away into a corner of magical Transylvania, Brasov is a medieval city proud of its history. Caught between ancient tradition and a modernising Romania, Brasov is a shining symbol of the past, showcasing an era when Transylvania and Wallachia, two of Romania’s ancient regions, were in their heyday (though it wasn’t always so; that famous Vlad Dracula the Impaler? Yes, he got his nickname by impaling Turks during his never-ending fights with the land-crazed Ottoman Empire). Returning to Brasov. The best way to start your foray into the city’s ancient beauty is by climbing Mt Tampa (elevation 960m – roughly 400 m above Brasov). There’s a funicular but to truly dig into the dark forests of the Carpathians, to imagine what it was like during Brasov’s Middle Ages, you have to climb it on foot. From the top, behind the Hollywood-esque Brasov sign, you’ll be rewarded with amazing aerial views of orange-topped medieval Brasov, fringed by the lush forests that carpet the wandering Carpathian peaks. We have the Germans to thank for the fairytale orange tiles and princely avenues, which give way to the wandering alleys of the Romanian Schei district. After you drink in the stunning views, drink a well-earned beer from the tiny outdoor pub and then head back to town on the funicular.
Pro tip: The funicular costs 10 lei (16 return), and runs from 9.30-17.00 (from noon-18h Mondays); buy your tickets from the operator or even at the bottom of the cable car. The hike is well-marked and takes about 1.5 hours. Expect the summit to be busy.
On the shores of Lake Ohrid sits the ancient town of the same name. Historic, storied, beautiful – Ohrid is a place that stirs up emotion from within. It is indeed ancient – churches like the one here may date as far back as the 800s…! Built in the Byzantine style, it was not unusual for such churches to be converted to mosques during the Ottoman rule. Despite the fact that the Ottomans were supposedly open-minded when it came to religion, this apparently did not affect the church-to-mosque conversion. The best way to get a feel for old Ohrid is simply to stroll around this ancient place littered with Byzantine churches, beautiful quirky houses, cobblestone alleys, and an ancient Roman theatre. Find a cafe and relax outside on a terrace. Duck inside an ancient church to admire the ancient motifs painted on the walls and ceilings. Explore the ruins of the old fortress tucked inside the old city. Climb to the top of the hill and find a place to settle down and enjoy the magnificent panoramas of Ohrid town and lake – Ohrid the Beautiful awaits.
Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon in Ohrid, Macedonia
The Jewel of the Balkins, Ohrid lays on the edge of Lake Ohrid. From Romans to Ottomans, from Byzantines to Yugoslavs, Ohrid is a place comprised of historic layers, each foundation mixed with that of the one that came before. This Orthodox basilica, the Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon, was reconstructed in Byzantine style in 2002, on an ancient site where the original students learned the Glagolitic alphabet, which was created by Saint Clement (used to translate the Bible into Old Slavonic, the predecessor to the Cyrillic alphabet). The original church was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman Empire before eventually being torn down. Later, thanks to the Macedonian government’s newfound interest in historical monuments and tourism, they used what they knew of the original church to rebuild the basilica in all its former glory. At last.
Visit Other Lesser-Known Churches & Cathedrals in Europe
Macedonia is a place few Europe-travellers venture. Steeped in history flowing from its most famous inhabitant, Alexander the Great, Macedonia has been at a crossroads for many great civilisations – Greek, Roman, Byzantium, Ottoman. Each empire wrote its own history into the seams of Macedonia, apparent from its ample mosques, Byzantine basilicas, Roman amphitheatres, and winding alleys leading to the shores of Lake Ohrid. The lake is one of the deepest and oldest lakes in Europe, giving shelter to a unique underwater ecosystem, and the town that sits on its shores is even more unique. Taste the thick, Turkish coffee, quench your thirst with a glass of cold spritz or savour a shish kabab, skewers of mouth-watering meat and vegetables grilled to perfection. The narrow, ancient streets curve through the town and up the hill, and it seems like the further up you go, the further back in time you travel. Enjoy the Mediterranean climate as you explore this town lost in time.
The Church of Saint Clement of Ohrid, Skopje, Macedonia
Modern and sleek – in quite a contrast to the ancient orthodox that traditionally come to mind in this region – the Church of St Clement of Ohrid was begun in 1972 and consecrated on 12 August 1990 – which just so happens to be the 1150th anniversary of the birth of the church’s patron, St Clement. Impressive numbers aside, the modernity mixed with traditional design so clearly marks with the rest of the Macedonian capital. Wandering the ancient narrow streets of the bazaars, lined with tiny shops, covered archways, local merchants, and ancient mosques, it is easy to imagine oneself transported in time to the Ottoman Empire. Cross the Stone Bridge – a national icon in itself – to Macedonia Square (shadowed by the massive statue of none other than Alexander the Great), and you cross into the modern era, rebuilt after a 1963 earthquake. Neoclassical buildings, shiny high-rises, and fancy rotundas all recently constructed greet the wayward traveller. It is this interesting juxtaposition between old and new, past and progress, tradition and innovation, expressed here in the form of Skopje’s modern Church of St Clement’s, that is the most striking and remarkable thing about this capital city snuggled into the beautifully diverse Balkan Peninsula.
Vivid colours are one thing that Split does not lack. Turquoises and azures, cerulean and sapphire – blues of every shade – are the principle colours associated with this ancient Croatian city, as the Mediterranean laps gently against the city’s feet – but there are other colours too. Pinks sprout from Trg Republike (Republic Square), both from its beautiful stone walls as well as the bright flowers that encircle the cafes. Oranges – in the way of clay tiles – dress the roofs of the ancient city (much like in Dubrovnik). And greens decorate the walls, here in the way of brightly-painted shutters, elsewhere via luxurious palm trees and other exotic vegetation that fans Split’s streets, contrasting against the somber stone. In any case, Split is a city of vibrant life and colours!
Clip-clip, tally-ho! Jump out of the way because the Royal Kravats are coming by for the changing of the guard! The Royal Kravats, Zagreb’s light cavalry, have their roots in the French Royal Army during the 17th century. Anyone who has a basic knowledge of French can probably guess where the name comes from: “Kravat”, or “cravate” in French, means “necktie,” which was a Croatian special forces unit known for both their military prowess and the special scarf around their necks. Today, the position is ceremonial but still very exciting when in a great whoosh! a dozen speckled horses trot by you and down the cobblestoned streets of the Croatian capital, carrying decorated military officers on their backs, complete with capes, furry hats, and of course, cravats!