During my visit to Transylvania in the heart of Romania, I did not run into Dracula, but I did see beautiful mountains, imposing medieval castles, colorful town squares, and incredible fortified churches. While the real Transylvania is considerably different than the one you read about in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it is no less fascinating.
Brasov is the largest city in Transylvania, and because of its central location is probably the best place to use as a base to explore the region. Brasov itself is home to several interesting sites, including the Black Church, which is one of the largest Gothic churches in Southeast Europe. It is so named because a huge fire in the 17th century caused its exterior to be blackened from the smoke. Brasov is also home to Strada Sforii (translated as “Rope Street”), which at less than 4 feet wide is the narrowest street in all of Eastern Europe. It’s barely wide enough for two people to walk through side by side!
A short bus ride from Brasov is Bran Castle, which is probably one the most popular attractions in all of Romania. It’s nicknamed “Dracula’s Castle”, as it was presumably the inspiration for Dracula’s castle in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, although the “real” Dracula Vlad Tepes never actually lived there. In the Middle Ages, it was used in defense against the Ottoman Empire, and more recently as a residence of Queen Marie of Romania. The castle does look quite imposing from the outside (which would explain why Stoker used it as inspiration for Dracula’s castle), and inside it is a labyrinth of hallways, staircases, and rooms which contain furniture and exhibits on everything from the history of the castle to the legend of vampires. When visiting the castle, be prepared to wait on a very long line to get tickets, and expect to be inundated by vampire-related souvenir vendors all over town.
Another worthwhile day trip from Brasov is Sighisoara, whose medieval citadel is a World Heritage site. Sighisoara is the birthplace of Vlad Tepes (otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler), who was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Vlad went on to become ruler of Wallachia (another region of present-day Romania), and was known for torturing his enemies (the Ottoman Turks and the Saxons of Transylvania) by impaling them on a stake, carefully avoiding their vital organs so that they suffered a long, painful death. In Sighisoara, you can visit his childhood home, which has now been turned into a sort of mini haunted house (be prepared to be greeted by a screaming vampire in a coffin when you enter). While there aren’t many must-see attractions in Sighisoara, it does sport an authentic medieval atmosphere with old buildings and cobblestone streets. It’s fun to wander around the citadel for a couple of hours, and climb to the top of the clock tower for great views over the city.
On the train route between Brasov and Bucharest (the capital of Romania and most visitors’ point of entry into the country) is Sinaia, a relatively small city that is home to the impressive Peles Castle. Although Peles Castle is not very old compared to most European Castles (it only dates back about 100 years or so), it is absolutely beautiful on both the inside and out. It was also one of the first European castles to be built with electricity as well as a working elevator! Unfortunately, you need to visit on a guided tour (and it costs extra to take photographs, unless you’re very stealthy like me). While you’re waiting for your tour to start, have a walk around the outside of the castle and its impressive gardens. Inside the castle are more than 100 rooms (although only a small fraction of which are open to visitors) and all manner of elaborate statues, woodworkings, and paintings. After visiting Peles Castle, head over to nearby Pelisor Castle and have a look around if it is open (it wasn’t when I visited).
Another beautiful medieval town in Transylvania is Sibiu, which some people choose to use as their base instead of Brasov (the two cities are about 3 hours from one another by train). Sibiu is surrounded by a medieval wall containing several large towers that are very well-preserved. It is worthwhile to wander around the wall and visit each of the towers. The town itself is relatively small and can easily be explored in just a few hours.
If you have some time left over afterwards, take a short bus ride to the excellent ASTRA museum, which is the largest open-air museum in Europe. The ASTRA museum has hundreds of actual buildings on display from various eras in Romania’s history. The exhibits include houses, churches, windmills, and workshops that were transported from different all regions throughout Romania. Keep in mind that these are not reconstructions, these are the actual buildings that were once inhabited and used by farmers, shopkeepers, millers, and craftsmen. Most of the buildings are very small and were inhabited by poor and working class people, so the museum provides an excellent opportunity to see how the poorer classes lived and worked throughout Romania’s history. Keep in mind that the buildings are are spread out over a huge area (nearly one half square mile), so try to allow a good two to three hours to explore the site.
No article about Romania should be written without mentioning the amazing fortified churches that are spread all throughout the region. Built during the medieval ages as a defense against the invading Ottoman Turks, these fortified churches were more like small towns. Each containing a church and watchtower in the middle of the grounds, they were surrounded by a huge defense wall with enough space for housing, food, and supplies for nearly one thousand people! The townspeople could survive inside such a space for months during an impending invasion. Today, many of these fortified churches are preserved as museums (with some of them designated as World Heritage sites), where you can explore the small apartments where people lived, the defense walls with slits for shooting arrows at invaders, and the churches with preserved frescoes from hundreds of years ago. Although there are literally hundreds of such churches scattered throughout Romania, among the best (and most visited) are the Viscri, Biertan, and Prejmer churches. As these are located in small towns within the countryside, it’s best to have your own wheels or visit them on a guided tour.
The region of Transylvania is considerably different than the rest of Romania, and feels like a country within a country. Its fascinating history, mountainous landscape, and imposing castles and fortresses lend it a mystique that makes it easy to understand why Bram Stoker chose it as the setting for his famous novel. And although Dracula may not live here, be sure to watch out for Vlad the Impaler when you visit!