All the pixies tumbling and sticking landings in the Olympics women’s gymnastics competition has me thinking back to one particular pixie and her home country — Nadia Comaneci and Romania.
Now back in 1976 Romania was firmly in that Soviet Bloc, practicing communism. And, yes, this is the home of Transylvania so I know you’re thinking about Dracula and vampires. But no, there aren’t vampires here. But there are castles. My point is this was not a country you were putting on your bucket list back in 1976.
But guess what? Romania is one of the hottest countries to visit in Europe right now. And rightfully so. It has a little something for everyone — from a traditional culture, to a rich history, to beautiful scenery, to fabulous food and friendly locals. And, even better, it’s not nearly as pricey as its neighbors to the west.
Here is some of the best of Romania:
The capital of Romania, this is one of those former Soviet cities that went from dull and grey to hip and colorful. The old city has been renovated and there are cafes, night clubs, restaurants, pubs and museums.
There are some lovely orthodox churches to see as well. Be sure to spend at least a couple of days here.
There is a bit of coastline in Romania and it stretches along the Black Sea. Resorts in towns like Mamaia, Neptun, Jupiter and Mangalia dot the coastline. There are spas in many of the resorts as the Black Sea coast has always been known for its cures.
If you want to be more active, you’ll find loads of water sports like kite surfing, windsurfing and waterskiing.
The Black Sea is a very popular summer destination, so be prepared for crowds. Mamaia has some of the best nightclubs if you’re looking for a party.
This is a great reason to visit Romania. There are some beautiful castles in this country.
Bran Castle, Dracula’s Castle, is the most famous. This is the castle thought to have inspired Bram Stoker in writing his famous book. It’s located in the town of Bran and is approximately 160km north of Bucharest. The castle itself is a museum with art and furnishings collected by Queen Maria, who favored this castle back in the 1920’s.
Bran castle also sits in a lovely area with the Bucegi and Piatra Craiului massifs surrounding picturesque valleys. The town of Bran itself is also worthy of some time.
Not as famous, but perhaps more beautiful is the Medieval Corvin Castle, also known as Hunyad Castle.
Located northwest of Bucharest in the town of Hunedoara, it might lack the setting of Bran Castle, but wander inside and you’ll see what a stunner it is.
The Bear Pit, the dungeon, the torture chamber, the royal chapel and the knight’s hall are all very cool. You can also climb Capistrano Tower where the monk Ioan of Capistrano lived.
Peles Castle lies in the Carpathian Mountains near the town of Sinaia. It too lies north of Bucharest and is close to Bran’s castle.
But Peles Castle is newer, having been built in the late 1800’s. However, it’s gorgeous and sits in a stunning location. It was a favorite summer residence of the royal family until 1947.
One of the interesting sites to see is the Sala Mare De Arme, the collection of arms and armor. Peles houses one of Europe’s best collections of hunting and war implements.
The other truly impressive room is the Honor Hall which covers three floors. The walls are decorated with intricately carved woodwork. Here you’ll also find alabaster sculptures and bas-reliefs as well as stained glass panels. It’s quite dazzling.
Romania has some beautiful Medieval towns that are worthy of wandering about.
Biertan is a small town in central Romania with a UNESCO World Heritage Site — a fortified church. It was founded by the Saxons and is definitely worthy of some time. The story goes that only one divorce has taken place in the town. You see, if couples were considering divorce, they were locked in the tower where there was only one bed (a single), one table, one chair, one plate and one glass. And in 300 years, only one divorce!
Sighisoara is also in central Romania and is also a town founded by the Transylvanian Saxons. It’s one of the most beautiful and best-preserved Medieval towns in Europe and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Sighisoara has lovely cobblestone streets to wander about, ornate churches to investigate and 9 towers to look up at. It’s really a magical place to spend a day or 2.
Sibiu is one of the larger Medieval cities in the area with almost 150,000 folks. It’s a former European Capital of Culture and another place settled by the Transylvanian Saxons.
It’s a pedestrian friendly city with an upper town, filled with most of the historical sites, and a lower town where most of the houses are. There are imposing towers, public squares and historic churches throughout the city. And you’ll find some interesting museums as well. This is a fabulous city to spend a few days in.
Going from one of the bigger towns to one of the smaller takes us to Viscri. This town of around 2000 is definitely worth some time mostly for its fortified church which is thought to be the oldest church in Transylvania and one of the best preserved. You can actually go up into the tower for some spectacular views.
Viscri was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. A visit here really is like stepping back in time.
Mountains, Valleys, and River Deltas
We can’t leave Romania without mentioning more of the natural world. Romania will surprise you with its natural beauty along with its cities and towns.
The Carpathian Mountains run from the Czech Republic into Romania. There are some gorgeous places in Romania to get out into these mountains. Retezat National Park in the west-central part of the country has over 60 peaks over 2300m. Here you’ll also find glacial lakes and one of Europe’s last remaining old-growth forests.
Piatra Craiului National Park might be the most beautiful park with the most dazzling limestone ridge in the country. You can actually hike the 25km ridge if you’re up for the 2 day challenge. This park also has some cool caves to explore and some excellent rock climbing. There are some wonderful mountain villages to wander about as well.
The Rodnei Mountains are definitely a lesser-visited area of Romania, sitting in the eastern part of the country near the border with Ukraine. This is the national park to explore if you’re up for some longer hikes or if you like to ski — in June. There are some fabulous longer trails here and the area is known for late snow making skiing and snowboarding possible in early summer. It too has some notable caves to explore.
The largest and best preserved of Europe’s river deltas is the Danube River Delta. Fish and birds rule here where the Danube flows into the Black Sea. It’s a very special spot and a protected UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site. There are over 2200 square miles of rivers, marshes and canals to explore. And this area is definitely best explored with a guided tour. If you’re a bird nerd, this is the place for you.
The Best of It All
The last spot in Romania is a mix of the natural world and the cultural world — Maramures County in the far north of the country. This area is often regarded as the most traditional part of Romania. It’s truly like stepping back in time. Here you’ll find a culture rooted in history. Here you’ll see unique wooden churches with spires reaching up toward the sky. Here you’ll gaze upon a pastoral landscape, softer and gentler than Transylvania to the south, but no less appealing. Here you’ll discover colorful villages filled with warm people embracing their history and culture. This is the area of Romania that is at the top of my personal list.
And the cost?
Well, that’s what makes this country even better (as if all the above wasn’t reason enough). You’ll easily be able to find a mid-price place to stay for about $30 per person. Meals will cost about $10-15 for mid-range restaurants and train and bus tickets will run about the same if not a bit cheaper. Many sites such as museums will only set you back about $7. So Romania is much cheaper than France or Italy or Germany and is no less beautiful or intriguing.
So…are you ready to plan a trip to Romania? I know I am!