Alba Iulia Citadel is one of Romania’s top attractions, a place where history goes back 2,000 years to the time when the Roman Empire conquered the Dacian Kingdom. A Roman castrum, a medieval fortification and a large citadel under the authority of the Habsburg Empire, Alba Iulia was also the scene of the first and brief Romanian union from 1600.
But, this impressive citadel is most famous for the day of December 1st, 1918 when Transylvania decided its union with Romania, celebrated today as the National Day of the country.
Immediately after the final war against the Dacian Kingdom (105-106 AD), the Romans began the construction of a castrum on the territory of today’s citadel. The headquarters of the Gemina Legion XIII that participated in both wars against the Dacians, the castrum, known as Apulum, occupied a surface of 21 hectares.
The location of this Roman military site was anything but random. It allowed the Romans to control the vast gold resources from the nearby Apuseni Mountains, and by the mid of the 3rd century the city of Apulum was known also as the ‘City of Gold’.
One thousand years later, Alba Iulia was the center of the Catholic Diocese of Transylvania and a royal fortress from 1177. From this point, its history overlapped with the faith of the entire region that became a principality of the Habsburg Empire at the end of the 17th century. For a brief moment, Alba Iulia was the symbolical capital of the first Romanian union realized by Michael the Brave in 1599.
One of the three cities in Transylvania where the empire stationed its garrisons, Alba Iulia increased its military importance once the Austrians decided to build here a large citadel that could resist Ottoman invasions.
The construction works started in 1715 and lasted until 1738, supervised by three different architects, using an impressive workforce of 10,000 serfs from the villages of Transylvania. Essentially a military fortress built in the Vauban style, the 140 hectares citadel had three fortifications layers, six gates, numerous bastions, its own sewage system, food deposits, wells and all the necessary to maintain a garrison of up to 10,000 soldiers.
Besides the new military techniques, the citadel was decorated with splendid sculptures and bas-relief scenes from the ancient times and the wars against the Ottomans.
Ironically, the citadel was used for its military purposes only once, but not against the Ottoman Empire. The Hungarian army attacked and bombed the citadel for four months in 1849 trying to conquer it, this being one of the two Transylvanian fortresses still controlled by the Habsburg Empire in the region.
Nevertheless, the citadel from Aba Iulia lived its greatest moments during the First World War, on December 1st, 1918 when over 100,000 Romanians gathered to celebrate the long-awaited union with Romania. Four years later, in 1922, in the newly built Orthodox Cathedral, King Ferdinand and Queen Maria were crowned, her diplomatic efforts being decisive for the international acceptance of the union.
Recently restored, the citadel is a must-see attraction if you’re traveling through Transylvania. You can choose from or combine the three thematic itineraries: the Gates’, the Bastions’ or the Fortifications’ itineraries.
The impressive Baroque gates connect most of the landmarks from the citadel: the Orthodox Cathedral built in 1921 for the royal coronation, the 12th century Roman-Catholic Cathedral, one of the most important in Transylvania, the Princely Palace, the Museum of the Union, the Union Hall and the Batthyaneum Library that has some of the rarest books in Europe.
Be sure to stop for a visit at the National Museum of Union, hosted in the 19th century Babylon building. More than 130,000 pieces are exhibited in over 100 rooms, starting from the prehistoric era, continuing to the Dacian-Roman and medieval periods up until the battles with the Ottoman Empire, World War I and of course the 1918 union.
Without a doubt, Alba Iulia Citadel is one of Romania’s top historical and cultural attractions. Take at least one full day to explore it, and be sure not to miss the guards’ parade that starts daily at 12 pm. It’s a unique experience in Romania, the perfect add-on for a destination with millenary history.
Read also our guide to the best things to do in Alba Iulia and around.