Bucharest is very much a continental capital, very different than, say, Split or Rome. Some have nicknamed it “Little Paris” or “Paris of the East” because is is full of stately architecture – grand boulevards, baroque domes, high windows, even somewhat Hausmannian style buildings. Though less pretty than many Transylvanian cites, Bucharest is full of fascinating history – perhaps the most bizarre is that of “the churches that moved” (more here) – a handful of churches that were uprooted and carefully transported by rail to outside the city centre so that the Communist leaders wouldn’t be able to see their spires from their new (ugly!) Stalinist architecture (the only real exception being the massive Palace of Parliament). Speaking of beauty, you only have to step foot inside the Cărturești Carusel Bookstore to fall in love. This beautiful storied building regularly tops list of Europe’s most beautiful bookshops! Built in 1903 by Greek bankers, such a thing of beauty (and money) could not evade the communists, and the building was confiscated during the 50s, and later, like much of Communist leftovers, was abandoned to decay on its own. So how was it saved? Well, a very determined grandson of the original owners spent two dozen years – yes that’s 24 years! – arguing that he is the rightful owner before it was returned to him in 2007, and the bookshop was born. Several stories with layered and undulating balconies, spiral stairs, grand staircases, huge windows, and beautiful white bookshelves, it’s not hard to see why it’s so lovely. It rather makes sense that the bookshop’s name means Carousel of Light.
Pro tip: Their English-language section is not massive, but it’s better than most. Prices though are very high, and sadly there aren’t too many Romanian authors translated to English. For bookworms, it’s better for browsing than buying!
These seemingly-quiet church spires rise up through the lush gardens of the tiny Snagov Island, in the centre of a small lake of the same name. It is purported that this silent little place is actually the final resting place of Vlad Ţepeş, more commonly known by his legendary nickname, Vlad the Impaler, or even more infamous, Dracula. A personage made famous by Irish writer Bram Stoker, a scholar and writer who never stepped foot on Transylvanian soil, the vampire Dracula is based on the story of the brutal and bloodthirsty Wallachian prince, Vlad Ţepeş, who spent most of his life doing two things – one, fighting against the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire, and two, impaling people. A lot of people – hence the nickname. There has been a church on Snagov Island since the 11th century, with the monastery founded in the 14th century during the reign of King Dan I ( which was from 1383–86), and finally the construction of a stone edifice in 1453, which was later improved into the present-day structure. Supposedly the monks at Snagov were particularly partial to Vlad Dracul – in keeping with “Christian” values, Vlad helped fund the monastery in return for absolving his sins, or so the old story goes. When Dracula finally died, beheaded in 1476 while fighting his long-time enemy the Ottoman Turks, Vlad Ţepeş was interred here (well, most of him was, excepting his head which was carried on a spike back to Istanbul). Though no one knows if this is actually true or that the body here is indeed Vlad, it is true that there’s a monument to Vlad Ţepeş here at Snagov, and people come from miles around to visit the final resting place of the most famous almost-vampire in Europe.
Pro tip: Snagov is on the way from Transylvania to Bucharest. Follow the signs to the monastery through a neighbourhood where there is a car park (expect a small fee), then cross to the island via the footbridge. There are also boats across the lake if you prefer the traditional method, costing you perhaps 100 lei. At certain times of year, there are roadside vendors selling fresh produce such as strawberries – much more delicious than anything you’ll find in the supermarket!
Have you ever wondered where the world’s heaviest building might be? If so, you probably didn’t imagine you’d find it in Romania… and yet, there it is. The Palace of the Parliament in downtown Bucharest, capital of Romania, claims the crown, weighing in at an incredible 4,098,500,000 kilograms (9.0356×109 lb)! Immense, colossal, intimidating and jaded, this massive relic of Romania’s not-so-distant Soviet past and their affinity for everything concrete, it took a team of 700 architects 13 years (from 1884 – 1997) to bring the Palace of the Parliament into existence. The building is everything you’d expect from the Soviet Era. A gem of Totalitarian architecture, it is a massive undertaking, involving an impressive amount of human labour, complicated architectural skill and huge amounts of building materials, showing off to the rest of the world the Soviet might, skill and technology on the edge of the USSR’s communist reaches. Despite its austere exterior, inside it is ornate and decadent, meant to dazzle the visitor with a different sort of might, in line with many other Communist-era constructions (the Moscow Metro springs to mind! And yes it’s true – if you ever visit Moscow, you have to visit its underground, it is indeed a tourist attraction). Today the Palace of Parliament houses the Parliament of Romania as well as some museums, and is worth visiting inside or out to appreciate its sheer size and the power it still exudes even decades after the clouds of Communism have settled and blown away.
Pro tip: Want to visit inside? Make sure you book over the phone 24h in advance; be sure to have your passport ready for inspection. Looking for some refreshments afterwards? Just a 10 minute walk away, head to Abel’s Wine Bar, a chic, hipster sort of place with delicious local Romanian wines and beers. There are plenty of reds and whites – be sure to try a local wine! Prefer beer? We recommend you taste the local microbrewery Ground Zero. You might not find these beers outside of Bucharest – which is a shame because it’s delicious!
In the far-flung province of Transylvania, there’s an even more far-flung corner, a little-visited region called Hunedoara. Far off the tourism radar, Hunedoara is remote, agricultural, and lost in time. Towering over the plains and village of Hunedoara are the Retezat Mountains National Park, part of the famed Carpathian Mountains. With about 20 peaks pushing over 2300m (7500 feet), the Retezat Mountains, like the rest of their cousins in the Carpathians, are a force to be reckoned with. However, quiet Hunedoara, tucked into the foothills of the Retezats, is a place caught in a time capsule. It is a place of dusty villages and traditional dress, of ancient plows and horse and carts and even Roma gypsy palaces. Here, you’ll find another side to Romania, one quite far from that of the cosmopolitan centres of Bucharest and Brasov. At one moment in history part of Dacia, the Roman Empire, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Transylvania, the Soviet Union, and modern-day Romania, Hunedaora is a region accustomed to change and turbulent times. Today, though, no place could be quieter and off-the-beaten-track.
Pro tip: Hiking in the Rezetat Mountains is no joke, and should only be done by experienced and well-prepared hikers – even better with a local guide. Otherwise, there are plenty of villages and lower-level foothills to explore. Hateg is a good base. The town of Hunedora may not be beautiful – but its Corvinus Castle sure is!
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.
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.
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.
Transylvania, like Wallachia, is an ancient region of Romania – mountainous, disputed, oft-changing boundaries. Fortresses and castles had to be built for protection, defending land and people. Făgăraș Citadel is one of those places. Făgăraș was built in 1310 on the foundations of a 12th century wooden fortress that had been burned by Tartars in 1241. Then it was enlarged in the Renaissance style with the sole purpose of impressing visitors (in fact, Italian architects were brought in to add said Renaissance grandeur). Then – sadly – Făgăraș became a military garrison, meaning that the once-luxurious interior was ruined, trampled, lost. Encircled by a moat and a tree-lined garden, Făgăraș remains a beautiful and impressive place. However, do keep in mind that today’s Făgăraș Citadel is plopped in the middle of Făgăraș town, with cars and cyclists whizzing by, the din of city noise as its soundtrack. Făgăraș Citadel is now a history museum – entry 15 lei, open year round – and a fantastic example of a Transylvanian castle!
Pro Tip: Făgăraș Citadel is a great stop for anyone driving between Brasov and Sibiu! Whether you visit the interior of the castle or just stretch your legs along the walls, it’s worth the stop!
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.