Located in Eastern Europe and part of the former Iron Curtain, Romania does not draw in many tourists compared to many other nations within the European Union. Nevertheless, in recent years their numbers has been steadily rising to an annual total of 9.3 million international tourists. Given its geography and geopolitical past, the country has a lot to offer in terms of both cultural heritage and diverse landscapes.
It’s a blend of both the East and West, in a mixture that can be found in everything from its architectural style to its cuisine and local customs. Transylvania, the land of the mythical Dracula, is also part of Romania, so you’re sure to be impressed. Here are 10 tourist attractions in Romania you won’t want to miss.
10. Bucharest and the Palace of Parliament
As an international tourist coming to Romania, chances are that your first stop will be the country’s capital city, Bucharest. As the sixth largest city in the EU and over 555 years old, Bucharest has a lot to offer to the people who come and visit. However, Romania’s capital is not exactly tourist-friendly. Not that it’s dangerous or anything, but as far as public transportation and basic tourist information go, the city leaves a lot of room for improvement. Nevertheless, what Bucharest lacks in convenience it definitely makes up for in hidden treasures waiting to be discovered.
Romania developed its own distinct architecture during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, known as the Brâncovenesc style, which it then improved upon during the late 19th century. This architecture can be found all over the city’s center, but can be better experienced in certain neighborhoods such as Cotroceni or Dorobanti. And as far as nightlife is concerned, Old Town is among the liveliest districts in the whole of the EU.
One imposing feature that becomes immediately apparent to anyone who’s visiting Bucharest for the first time is the Palace of Parliament. Commissioned by dictator Nicolae Ceausescu during the country’s Communist Era, this building dominates the city’s landscape for miles around. Over a fifth of the historic city was demolished during the 1980s in order to make room for the grand boulevards and Soviet-style apartment buildings. An entire neighborhood was also razed to the ground in order to build the Palace of Parliament, which is the largest administrative building in the world, and the heaviest structure ever built. With over 1,100 rooms, the Palace is a great example of megalomania you can visit.
9. Peles Castle
Commissioned by King Carol I of Romania in 1873 and finished ten years later, Peles Castle is considered by many to be among the most beautiful in the whole of Europe. Built in a German new-Renaissance architecture style, Peles is nestled at the foot of the Bucegi Mountains, in the picturesque town of Sinaia – which is also a favored hiking and ski resort. The castle acted as a summer residence for the royal family from the moment it was built, up until 1947. The interior, with its 160 rooms, is equally as decorated as the outside – with each chamber maintaining its own décor and individual theme. The Weapons Room holds over 4,000 pieces from both Europe and Asia, while the castle’s movie theater is believed to be the first venue where a movie projection took place in Romania.
On the same grounds, a second castle was built for King Carol’s successor, King Ferdinand. Known as Pelisor (Little Peles), this smaller version is equally as striking as its larger counterpart, especially on the inside. The Golden Chamber, for instance, has its walls and furniture covered in the precious metal. After the end of WWII and the rise of the Communists to power, both castles were seized and the royal family was exiled from the country. Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu aimed at turning Peles into a protocol residence, but thanks to the caretakers, that never happened. They reportedly told him that the castle had a mold problem that could pose a serious health hazard to those living inside. In any case, Peles was closed to the public from 1975 to 1990, after which it reopened as a museum.
8. The Danube Delta
Located at the southeastern fringes of Romania, where the Danube River meets the Black Sea, there’s Europe’s second largest marshland, known as the Danube Delta. Second only to the Volga Delta in Russia, this one has a total area of 1,994 square miles. It remains one of the most pristine locations on the continent and an important pit stop for many migratory birds coming to and from Africa and Europe. The Danube Delta is also home to the largest colony of pelicans in the world, as well as 300 other species of birds and 45 species of freshwater fish.
Accessible only by boat, the delta’s marshlands and many lagoons did not exist some 5,000 years ago. Back then, the area was nothing more than a gulf in the Black Sea. But over the centuries, silt has been steadily accumulating at the mouth of the Danube, slowly expanding the delta to its present form. Even to this day, the marshlands are growing buy about 130 feet every year. But despite its ever-changing landscape, people have been living here for many centuries. Still relying mostly on what the delta has to offer, the locals haven’t changed their lifestyle that much. They are still building their homes with reeds and you will still find them on their small wooden boats with a fish rod in hand.
7. The Old Wine Road
Given its geographical location, Romania has had a very long relationship with wine. Both archaeological and historical evidence points to the fact that vineyards have been growing in the region for at least 2,700 years. Some historians even go as far as saying that the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, and its Roman version, Bacchus, were based on a Thracian and Dacian god, Sabazios. Even to this day, Romania is the 13th largest producer of wine in the world and the sixth in the EU.
Only a relatively small region within the center of country isn’t suited for wine production because of its high altitude. Nevertheless, there are over 250 wine cellars across the country which can be visited all year round. The best times to go, however, is between April and October. The Old Wine Road follows the southern and southeastern side of the Carpathian Mountains and passes by many vineyards, manors, monasteries, wine museums, and other historical sites along the way. But this is by no means the only place to have a great glass of wine, and wherever you may end up, wine tasting is a must for every tourist (who enjoys the occasional adult beverage) visiting Romania.
6. The Mountainous Dacian Fortresses
For a taste of Romania’s ancient past, the best place to visit is high up in the mountains. Sarmizegetusa Regia was the capital of the Dacian people who inhabited the area during the times of the Roman Empire. Built sometime during the 1st century BC, this fortress, alongside five others in the area, acted as both the seat of the Dacian Kingdom, as well as a unique defensive system that was used in the wars against the Romans. The main fortress is also the largest, being separated into three areas: the stronghold itself, the civilian quarters, and a sacred site. This sacred area was built on two terraces and dedicated to the local deities. The Great Sanctuary has a circular structure, somewhat similar to Stonehenge, and served as both a ritual site and an astronomical calendar.
Now, even though all six fortresses are nothing more than ruins, each is unique in its own way, either for its function or hard-to-reach location. Legend also has it that the last Dacian King buried a huge treasure somewhere in those mountains. Prior to the Romans’ arrival, he had a river temporarily diverted from its course, and hid the treasure beneath the riverbed. But before you decide to go and look for it, the legend also talks of a curse. Anyone who goes searching for the hidden treasure will be bitten by a venomous snake and die.
5. The Town of Sighisoara
Right in the heart of Transylvania lays the town of Sighisoara. Even though a settlement existed in the area as early as Roman times, the town as we know it today was founded by the Transylvanian Saxons during the 13th century. During the 14th and 15th centuries, Sighisoara’s increasing economic strength ensured its survival throughout the centuries as one of the “seven walled citadels of the Saxons.” And even though it was neither the richest nor the biggest of the seven, Sighisoara has become the most popular in recent times. Today, the town is famous for its brightly colored architecture, its cobbled alleyways, steep stairways, many defensive towers and turrets, medieval churches, and the main citadel itself.
Of the 14 original towers, only nine have survived the test of time. Each of them was built and maintained by one of the craft guilds in the city. Another fun fact about the place is that it’s the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, the infamous ruler of Wallachia and the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. His house, where he lived until the age of six or seven, still exists and can be visited.
4. The Danube Gorges
For its 1,780 mile-long course, nowhere is the Danube River more impressive and awe-inspiring than when it passes through the Carpathian Mountains. Forming the natural border between Romania and Serbia, the gorges, also known as the Danube’s Cauldrons, sometimes give the impression that the water is boiling. Now, even if this is not the case, this narrowing of the mighty river does make navigation a bit difficult at times. Nevertheless, this is the biggest and oldest river canyon in Europe.
Besides taking a boat cruise on the Danube, you can climb the surrounding mountains and enjoy the spectacular views. You can also explore the many caves found here, which were used dating back to ancient times, either as safe havens or as ambush spots against boats going up and down the river. And as proof that this place is drenched in history, there is an ancient memorial plaque on the Serbian bank, commissioned by the Roman Emperor Trajan to commemorate the building of a bridge used by the Roman Legions to invade Dacia. On the Romanian bank, however, there’s a 180-foot-tall stone face carved straight into the cliff, depicting the last Dacian King. This is the largest such stone statue in Europe.
3. The Monasteries of Bucovina
The northeastern region of Romania prides itself with its many monasteries. Built during the 15th and 16th centuries, these medieval churches are unique in Europe and famous for their exterior murals. Built by combining both a Gothic and a Byzantine architectural style, and mixed in with their own unique elements, these monasteries are enduring pieces of cultural heritage for the world to see. Commissioned by Prince Stephen the Great and his successor Petru Rares, each of the 40 monasteries and churches are said to have been built after various victories in battle, fighting the Tatar raiders from the east.
Most of them have also acted as fortifications against these marauders, safeguarding both people and ancient manuscripts alike. Eight of them are also included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Besides their architecture, these monasteries also stand out for their unique coloring dyes used for painting the murals. The original recipes have since been lost, and even with today’s technology, they are impossible to reproduce. Nevertheless, according to chemical analysis, trace amounts of traditional Romanian plum brandy was found in both the plastering and the colors themselves.
2. Turda Gorge and Salt Mine
Back during the time of the dinosaurs, much of what is present-day Romania was part of the ancient seabed. Because of this, certain regions are rich is salt deposits, such as is central Transylvania. This is where you can find the Turda Gorge and salt mine. The outside gorges offer a spectacular view of narrow vertical cliffs, waterfalls, caves, lush forests, sunbathed meadows, and picturesque villages. Over 1,000 plant and animals species call this place home, and many of them are endangered. The entire area is a favored hiking destination, with over 250 climbing tracks of varying difficulty.
The underground is equally as striking as the surface. The salt deposits have been under continuous exploitation, ever since the time of the Romans. Today they are open to the public, offering its visitors incredible views of the depths. The towering galleries, somewhat reminiscent of the descriptions found in Tolkien’s books, are now lit by a mesmerizing lights display. Inside you’ll find various activities to delight yourself with, like mini-golf, tennis, bowling, football, or pool. There’s also a large Ferris wheel that takes visitors close to the roof of the mine, so as to see the many stalactites from up close. One of the many galleries also has a huge underground lake, on which you can take a quiet boat ride.
1. Dracula’s Castle
Bran Castle owes its notoriety in large part to the myth created around Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Perched on a 200-foot-tall rock, the caste was built by the Transylvanian Saxons during the 15th century, on the site of a former Teutonic Order stronghold from the 1100s. And even though Stoker never visited Transylvania, he envisioned Dracula’s Castle based on British descriptions of this particular fortress. So, as far as blood-sucking vampires are concerned, this castle is the place to visit. And interestingly enough, there’s also a connection between the caste and the infamous Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia.
Bran Castle sits right at the entrance of a mountainous pass that connects the historic regions of Transylvania and Wallachia. Back in medieval times, the castle acted as a customs house, heavily taxing Romanians who wanted to do business with the then Saxon town of Brasov. This made the relationship between Vlad the Impaler and the lords of Bran, strenuous at best. Whether the Wallachian prince ever captured the castle is unknown, but he was imprisoned there for two months, after he was himself captured by the Hungarian King in 1462.
Those who will go and visit this mythical castle should also think about exploring the other medieval towns and fortresses in the region, including the city of Brasov. The pass that sits at the base of Bran Castle should also not be ignored. A series of caves exist here that were regularly used by both outlaws and prehistoric animals, like the now-extinct cave bears. The nearby village of Pestera (Cave) offers some truly amazing views of both the imposing Carpathian Mountains and of how people used to live during a time when “vampires” still roamed those lands.