25 July 2022
Located in the centre of Romania, Transylvania is at the heart of its country. This 100,290 km² region is home to 7 million souls - one of which belongs to Dracula himself… But it turns out the spookiest thing about this place is its ability to sweep even the most sceptical travellers off their feet. This is a place where history, architecture and natural beauty reign supreme.
Whether you’re exploring Medieval fortresses or majestic forests, Transylvania’s charm is inescapable - and that’s even with its cool climate! Transylvania is one of the coldest regions in Romania with an average daily high temperature of only 16°C and a climate that is cold and wet with a few beautiful summer months; this is a place so intriguing and so abundant in culture and beauty that it could lure in even the most hardcore sunseeker.
What makes Transylvania, Transylvania?
1. Dracula's home... or is it?
Transylvania is no stranger to vampire folklore and spookiness. This is the place where Dracula came to life (or should we say, rose from the dead?). Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula” is rumoured to have been inspired by a 15th century Transylvanian prince named Vlad III Drăculea. It’s said that this military governor, born to a noble family, had a cruel penchant for impaling his enemies on stakes, earning himself the name Vlad the Impaler.
According to locals, Vlad’s home still stands today: Bran Castle. This Gothic fortress is one of Transylvania’s best-known - and most-visited - landmarks. Carved dramatically on a hilltop, Bran Castle is both beautiful and appropriately spooky, with Dracula-esque touches to send shivers down your spine. Take the glass elevator that traces Dracula’s supposed escape route in the novel, explore medieval interiors and, if you want to dive headfirst into the vampire theme, go nuts and spend Halloween here—the only time of the year when the castle is open at night. Despite the locals’ best storytelling efforts, there isn’t actually any evidence that Vlad the Impaler ever lived in Bran Castle… It’s more likely that he didn’t even live in Transylvania. Historians believe that Poenari Castle, located in the Transfagarasean mountains, was Vlad’s actual home - so if you fancy a road trip, be sure to check it out.
2. "The last truly medieval landscape in Europe"
Described as “the last truly medieval landscape in Europe” by WWF, a trip to Transylvania is like a trip back in time. Horse-drawn carts rumble along dirt roads, while shepherds tend their flocks and villagers make hay in the sunshine. Explore beautifully preserved Medieval towns like Brașov, the capital of Transylvanian Saxon located just 166km from Bucharest. This picturesque city is surrounded by the beautiful Southern Carpathians, just a stone’s throw away from some of the most stunning Romanian castles. Wander through winding cobbled streets as you admire colourful Medieval buildings, discover the city’s imposing Gothic cathedral and take in incredible views from Tampa Mountain. Head to the Old Town to take in the very essence of the city’s Medieval heart as you explore the markets in Piata Sfatului, the home of Brașov’s markets since 1364; discover the region’s history at Casa Sfatului, once the Town Hall, now home to Brașov’s County Museum, or take in the Biserica Neagră - the largest Gothic church in Eastern Europe.
Good to know: The Black Church of Brașov (Biserica Neagră) is the biggest Gothic church between Vienna and Istanbul. Partially destroyed by the fire in 1689, its walls turned black and so the church got its current name.
Feldioara - one of Romania’s lesser known Medieval locations - has sat in the middle of the Transylvanian countryside since 1355: one of the most important settlements of the Burzerland region in the Middle Ages. The town is surrounded by the Marienburg Fortress - a great wall that dominates the landscape. Founded by the Teutonic Knights between 1211-1255, the fortress is one of Transylvania’s most attractive views. The walls were used by Romania’s German community for 100s of years before being abandoned. Centuries of natural decay and neglect of its surviving structures reduced the fortress to a ruin until 2013, when it was rehabilitated by the Brașov County Council. Today, you can visit a perfect reconstruction of the Medieval fortress that incorporates its oldest surviving elements. The Evangelical Church of Feldioara - built in the 13th century alongside the fortress as a point of main religion expression for the Teutonic Order - is also worth visiting.
Located at the top of a hill and still surrounded by its Medieval fortified walls, Sighisoara is yet another one of Transylvania’s treasured. Colourful crooked houses, cobbled streets and wooden towers are just a few of the features that make this city a little gem of a lost Medieval world. This is the place where Dracula himself (or, as we’ve already learned, Vlad the Impaler) was born, and you can even visit his house at Str. Cositorarilor no5. Discover some of the city’s most impressive landmarks, including the striking 15th century Clock Tower that used to be the main point of access to the city, as well as 8 other Medieval towers that have been perfectly preserved and strategically placed around the Citadel. Among the most scenic to visit are the Turnul Cizmarilor or Bootmakers’ Tower; the Turnul Croitorilor or Tailors’ Tower, and the Turnul Frânghierilor or Ropemakers’ Tower.
3. The incredible wildlife
Surrounded by the dramatic scenery of the Carpathian Mountains, Transylvania is home to some of the most varied and wonderful wildlife. From grand forests where bears and wolves still roam, to rolling mountains and sprawling meadows teeming with life, this is a place whose natural beauty is unmatched.
Bears - Home to Europe’s largest population of brown bears, Transylvania is the best place to spot these incredible beasts. Around 5,000 bears roam the oak and beech forests of the Carpathian Mountains, their population having flourished during the Communist period when dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was the only person allowed to hunt. Observe wild bears with a ranger at a number of Forestry Commission-owned hides, including the popular Stramba Valley hide north of Zărnesti. If you’re not so keen to meet one in the wild, the Libearty Bear Sanctuary near Brașov cares for more than 70 bears rescued from cages and circuses.
Bats - True to its spooky reputation, Transylvania is home to some of the biggest bat caves in Romania. The Valley of the Fortress Cave could comfortably fit a cathedral inside and – of course – lies just up the road from Bran Castle, AKA Dracula’s Castle. The nearby commune of Pestera is also teeming with pitch-dark caverns that are home to five species of bats.
Birds - Home to alder, oak and ash forests rooted between sand dunes and watery veins, the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve is a great bird-watching spot. With 300 bird species, Transylvania is the perfect place for birding. Take a guided boat ride to watch pelicans and egrets stride through the tidal waters, or head to the Zarnesti Gorge to watch incredible birds like the lesser spotted eagle or Ural owl in their natural habitat.
Bison - Hunted to extinction centuries ago, bison are a rare spot in Transylvania. These majestic beasts were reintroducted to the mountain in hopes that their grazing would balance the ecosystem. As the new kids on the block, seeing these 500-kilo-plus beasts slowly taking back the forests is a real treat for any wildlife lover.
Lynx - Reaching weights around 40kg, these Carpathian lynxes are among the largest in Europe: the closest the continent can get to mountain lions. Perfectly designed for their surroundings, these incredible felines will be hard to spot with their leopard-like camouflage and furry snowshoe paws.
Fun fact: Transylvania is home to 60% of Europe’s bear population, which once was home to the largest brown bear on record - at a whopping 480kg!
4. A storied cuisine
Romania is home to some incredible food, but we recommend trying the region’s top two delicacies:
Goulash is one of Transylvania’s most favourite dishes. This stew, made of meet, vegetables and liberal amounts of paprika, goulash has a distinctive, deep brown/orange hue and both girls and boys in Transylvania are expected to know how to make it. The dish can be found in restaurants all over the region, but we recommend eating it in the way it was intended: simmered outdoors. Cooking goulash outside is a popular pastime and social event in Transylvania - much like barbeques are in England. Friends, with children and dogs alike, often head to the woods in the heat so make fire, drink beer, listen to music and cook goulash in a large cauldron called a bogràcs - enough to feed everyone (dogs included!). If you have local friends or hosts, we’d suggest doing this during your visit to Transylvania, and an abundance of hotels actually have fireplaces or pits specifically for this purpose, with all the equipment you need.
As you’re already trying the region’s delicacies, be sure to try out the region’s infamous beer: Az igazi Csíki Sör - or Csíki Sör for short. The beer’s name translates to “the real beer from Miercurea Ciuc.’ A dig at the beer brand Heineken, who once took Csíki Sör to court for having a name too similar to their beer Ciuc. Capitalising on the controversy, the underdogs, Csíki Sör’s producers, started marketing their beer as “Forbidden Csíki.’” The whole matter struck a language-rights chord in neighbouring Hungary, where a lot of Csíki Sör is sold, and the Hungarian government even encouraged people to “protect” the Hungarian-named Csíki Sör and boycott Heineken Romania’s product. The controversy - plus the David-and-Goliath aspect to the story - managed to bring Csíki Sör into popularity and the two companies eventually agreed to peacefully co-exist. You can find Csíki Sör in a number of different flavours and colours: blonde, brown, cranberry and honey. Though the controversy around Romania’s forbidden drink is exciting, don’t forget to drink lots of the country’s oldest beer too: Timisoreana.
Good to know: No meal starts in Transylvania without a shot of palinca (a.k.a. “țuică”). This is a 40% ‘sipping’ alcohol that is served in an elaborate shot glass and is meant to partner each course of dinner. Double-distilled over the course of six years in oak and mulberry barrels, its contents of apples, pears, plums, apricots and peaches sound positively healthy, but don’t be deceived, this is one tough liquor!
5. The world's best road trip
Transylvania is home to some scarily potholed and unpaved roads, but the Transfăgărășan Road goes against the grain on this front. Built as a military route in the 1970s on Ceauşescu’s order, this winding road twists and turns through the Făgărăș Mountains, zigzaging up a barren valley to Lake Bâlea and through a 900m-long tunnel, before continuing down through the forests of Wallachia region.
Heavy snows throughout most of the year mean that the road is only open for a few months annually - usually from late June until early October. Be warned though - the road is usually packed full of petrol-heads, so join them at your own risk! If you do choose to brave the roads, you’ll quickly see why the Transfăgărășan was dubbed the best in the world. Stretching 150km long through the mountains, the stunning mountain scenery and breathtaking lakes that surround your car will leave you speechless.
Good to know
Brown bears - though fascinating to watch - are dangerous. Before hiking, find out whether there are likely to be bears in the area and what to do if you encounter one.
If you are offered a shot of palinka, you are considered a friend, so don’t decline. (Maybe you can refuse the second or the third one, as it’s a really strong spirit, but definitely not the first.) And try not to show any signs of disgust or discomfort when drinking it—be strong.
Thieves often pose as police officers who ask to see your ID and wallet. Legitimate Romanian police won't do this. If you suspect someone is posing as a police officer, ask to see their ID.
If you’re thinking of partying in Transylvania, don’t arrive too early! Most people don’t start heading to the club until around midnight and parties tend to go on until around 5-6am.
Romania is still quite a socially conservative country and, although the gay scene is growing, and homosexuality is not illegal, discrimination is still a problem despite anti-discrimination laws being in place, so we’d recommend keeping PDA to a minimum.
A distinct allure
Whether you’re a nature-loving traveller, or a vampire-hunter-in-training, one thing is true for everyone who visits: they fall in love with the place. Transylvania’s amazing sights, picturesque scenery and incredibly rich history and architecture have a distinct allure to them that is unrivalled.