If you’re planning to visit Romania, check our tours on www.uncover-romania-tours.com
Welcome to our last part of 100 Top Places to See in Romania, a series of four materials we dedicate to Romania’s centenary. This time, our destination is Transylvania, the central region of Romania, the best-known and perhaps the most attractive for first-time visitors.
Transylvania is, in fact, a myriad of historical monuments, traditional villages, old cities, and terrific nature panoramas. There is a must-see landmark everywhere you are, and you will find it challenging to choose among the many great attractions you want to visit.
The must-visit cities of each region.
Alba Iulia is the symbolic capital of Romania. In 1600 and 1918, the union of Romanian historical provinces was decided and celebrated in this old city that still conserves traces of the ancient Roman occupation. One full day is enough to discover the citadel of Alba Iulia, wonderfully restored a few years back, but we do suggest you stay a second day to enjoy the scenic surroundings of Trascaului Mountains.
Nestled in the Eastern corner of the Carpathians, on a medieval commercial road that linked Orient and Occident, Brasov is innately connected to the heritage of the German colonists who defended this border in exchange for land, commercial, and civic privileges.
Black Church, Brasov
Just a three-hour drive from Bucharest, even less by train, Brasov deserves at least one full day of your vacation. Ruins of medieval fortifications, towers and bastions, old streets, and the imposing Black Church are just some of the attractions you can discover.
Cluj-Napoca is one of the most multi-cultural cities of Transylvania, influenced considerably by the heritage of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Occupying a privileged location since ancient times when it was known as Napoca, Cluj-Napoca is now a dynamic city, powered up by the immense energy of its locals.
Many events, including the world-scale festival Untold, transform it into a favored destination for young people. Plus, Cluj-Napoca has its own great collection of museums and historical monuments for travelers looking for another kind of fun.
The old capital of the Saxon colonists, Sibiu was for hundreds of years the most important center of their heritage. Its historical part is even today a colorful representation of the architecture, religion, and culture of the Saxons of Transylvania.
Modern Sibiu competes with Cluj-Napoca when it comes to the many events and festivals organized every time of the year. Major theatre, film and music festivals take place here, not to mention its Christmas fair, each year the most beautiful in Romania.
Medieval Sighisoara became a must for all travelers after its Upper Town was included in the World UNESCO Heritage Sites. Hundreds of old houses, surrounded by ruins of medieval fortification, walls, and towers, occupy the narrow streets where once the richest members of the community walked to their daily choirs.
Traditional and isolated villages that survive modern times.
Vineyards surrounded once what is now the small village of Alma Vii, located at the end of a bumpy road that seems to take you to the middle of nowhere. You can book a room for the night in one of the traditional guest houses and spend your time visiting the fortified church, walking around the village, visiting the local carpenter, the blacksmith, the sheepfold, or observing birds on the meadows around Alma Vii.
A hamlet like so many existed once in Apuseni Mountains, Casa de Piatra seems to have appeared from a fairytale. Located at over 1,000 meters altitude, this tiny village has only 20 families left, living from small-scale agriculture and cattle raising.
A paradise for nature photographers and speleologists given the many caves that exist close-by, Casa de Piatra is the place to visit for a true discovery of the old mountain villages of Apuseni. Plus, if you walk a few kilometers, you’ll reach one of the most isolated hamlets of the area, Patrahaitesti.
A rare and fortunate example of the rural Saxon world from Transylvania, Malancrav has the largest group of ethnic Germans from the region. While just a half an hour drive from Sighisoara, the village of Malancrav appears and feels much farther away from the real world.
Its isolation influenced its past and even its present, and you’ll soon discover after your arrival that you have no cell coverage. All for the best, you’ll have more time to meet the local artisans, to visit its 14th-century church that conserves unique pre-Reformation frescoes and walk or cycle around the village.
Threatened by modern and unsustainable development, the small villages of Pestera and Magura are the most panoramic gateway to Piatra Craiului Mountains. Hurry up, and visit them while the herds of cows, goats, and sheep still graze freely and the old wooden huts are still idyllically located everywhere you look.
Ramet is a mountain commune from Trascaului Mountains. Most people come here either to hike to Piatra Craivii, across Rametului Gorges, or to visit the monastery of Ramet, one of the oldest in Transylvania.
A place of an almost unreal beauty, of almost complete and sad tranquility, after the villages lost most of their inhabitants. Only a few families live in Cheia and Bradesti and less than 600 people in the 13 villages of the commune.
Rimetea, the village with white houses from the foothills of Piatra Secuiului cliff, was able to conserve its distinct identity, making it one of the most beautiful in Romania. A mining center for hundreds of years, Rimetea enjoys a panoramic location, in one of the valleys of Trascaului Mountains.
Rosia Montana is at the heart of the biggest environmental campaign from Romania. An ancient mining site since the time of the Romans, it is threatened by destruction after plans for cyanuric-based exploitation of its underground resources were approved years ago, in the mists of a major corruption scandal.
Mining galleries, Rosia Montana
Photo source: www.facebook.com/adoptaocasa
The legal status of these plans has been attacked in Court, and, at least for now, there is no green light for the exploitation of its mining resources. Several local projects for saving the patrimony of the village, 50 historical monuments, and beautiful natural surroundings, have been launched in the past years.
The best-known of all the Saxon villages of Transylvania, Viscri is the absolute star when it comes to heritage conservation, starting with its fortified church, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The best representation of how a typical Saxon village looked like before asphalt and modern construction materials replaced the authentic ones, Viscri is top of our list for places to see in Romania.
The fortified churches built to defend the Saxon villages from enemy invasions and the ancient sites of the Dacians from Orastie are the UNESCO Sites you can visit in Transylvania.
Spread across Orastie Mountains, the ruins of the ancient fortresses of the Dacian are in most cases hard to find. But it’s an experience that’s more than worth the effort considering the age of the ruins, more than two millenniums. The most famous and easiest to reach is Sarmizegetusa Regia. The other sites are Banita, Blidaru, Capalna, Costesti, Piatra Rosie.
Seven villages and their fortified churches were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Biertan, Calnic, Darjiu, Prejmer, Saschiz, Valea Viilor, Viscri. The core of the Saxon heritage, these monuments represent best the original architectural solutions used to protect the villagers against enemy invasions.
The most important and interesting historical and cultural attractions of Transylvania.
Corvin Castle is the most impressive Gothic-style construction from this corner of Europe. It’s also the symbol of the power achieved by Ioan of Hunedoara, a local nobleman and military leader from Transylvania that became regent of Hungary in the 15th century. The castle is today one of the most popular places to see in Romania, and an early morning visit is recommended to avoid the crowds.
For the visiting schedule, check www.castelulcorvinilor.ro
Famous for its false connections to the Dracula myth, Bran Castle is a 14th-century medieval fortress that guarded the commercial road that connected Transylvania and Southern Romania. Far from vampire horror stories, Bran Castle has a fascinating story of its own, one that involves Queen Maria saving it after the First World War. This is the most visited site on our list of top places to see in Romania.
For the visiting schedule, check www.bran-castle.com
We head back to the gorgeous Trascaului Mountains where a rich aristocratic family built a fortified residence back in the 13th century. Only the walls and partially the donjon tower survived the hundreds of years that passed since the last time it was used. Its dramatic look and mountainous backdrop make it a great destination to discover any time of the year.
A must-see monument close to Cluj-Napoca, Banffy Castle was known in the past as the Versailles of Transylvania. An overstatement when it comes to size, but nonetheless a beautiful place with over 600 years of history.
Almost destroyed during the Second World War and used as an agricultural cooperative by ignorant communist authorities, the castle is undergoing restoration. It hosts every year the Electric Castle Festival.
More fortified churches exist besides those included in the UNESCO Patrimony. Driving from Sibiu to Sighisoara and from Sighisoara to Brasov, you’ll see many times their tall towers rising above the old village houses. Don’t miss the fortified churches from Alma Vii, Cincsor, Cincu, Cisnadioara, Harman, Hosman, Mosna, or Copsa Mare.
Half-way between Brasov and Sibiu, the fortress of Fagaras was built and constantly modified between the 14th and the 17th centuries. One of the major fortifications of the region, also used as a princely residence, the monument was sadly a political prison in the early years of the communist regime.
Mysterious and authentic, the stone churches from the old Country of Hateg surprise with their unusual construction technique and shape. The best-known of all, Densus Church, was partially built with stone from the nearby ancient Roman capital Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa. Don’t miss a visit to the stone churches Sanpetru and Santamaria Orlea.
Dating from the early 13th century and built in the Gothic style that became the norm under the influence of the Cistercians, the Abbey of Carta is the only monument of this powerful medieval order that exists today in Romania.
Once the capital of the Roman province of Dacia, Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa exists today only in ruins. But between 20,000 and 30,000 people lived there in the 2nd century AD when the Romans built their city just shortly after conquering the region. Visit also the History Museum across the street.
For the visiting schedule, check www.sarmizegetusa.mcdr.ro
Transylvania wouldn’t be the same without its many medieval fortifications, built like Rupea, on cliffs or abrupt hills, surveying for many miles the territory surrounding them. Dating from the 14th century, but enlarged every century based on changing military necessities, the fortress of Rupea is one of the best examples of the complex evolution of the defensive architecture in Transylvania.
For the visiting schedule, check www.rupeaturistica.ro
In the nearby of Brasov and Bran Castle, the fortress of Rasnov was built on an ancient fortification site. Part of the network of fortresses that defended the southern border of Transylvania, it was inhabited even for months in a row, during long sieges.
One of the most important religious pilgrimage destinations in Romania, Sambata de Sus Monastery was centuries ago the last religious outpost of Orthodoxy in the historical Country of Fagaras. Dating from the mid-17th century, the monastery was built and sponsored by the family of Prince Constantin Brancoveanu, in the beautiful Brancovenesc style.
Built on a hilltop overlooking the town, a common practice in the medieval centuries, the fortress of Deva was first mentioned in the 13th century. It was built to resist Ottoman and Tatar attacks that were a constant in Transylvania of those centuries. Over time, it served as nobleman residence, prison, and garrison, being last used by the Austrian troops in the early 19th century.
Discover the must-see nature attractions of Transylvania.
Lower in altitude than most of the other Carpathian groups, Apuseni Mountains are, nonetheless, a lost world of traditional hamlets, impressive karst formation, and fascinating landscapes. This is maybe the best place in Romania if you want to discover the highest altitude villages in Romania – close to 1,600 meters – and imagine what daily life was like in the heart of nature.
The Bear Sanctuary from Zarnesti is the largest brown bear wildlife reserve in the world, hosting over 100 bears saved from horrible captivity conditions. Organized on 69 hectares of oak forest, close to Piatra Craiului Mountains, the sanctuary is a unique and bold wildlife conservation project in Romania, the country with the highest number of brown bears in Europe.
Photo source: www.facebook.com/Bear.Sanctuary
Enclosed by peaks over 2,200 meters high, these two glacial lakes (iezerele) from Cindrel Mountains are the perfect reward for the tired hiker. Located above 1,900 meters, between the peaks Cindrel and Frumoasa, Iezerul Mare and Iezerul Mic are the only glacial lakes of this mountain.
The highest group of the Carpathians, with hundreds of peaks over 2,000 meters, Fagaras Mountains are the top destination for many hikers in search of challenging experiences. But always double-check the weather forecast before planning a hike here. With an annual medium temperature of -2 Celsius on its ridge and a high risk of avalanches in wintertime, Fagaras can turn into a dangerous destination if you go unprepared.
Hasmas Mountain is one of the spectacular corners of the Eastern Carpathians, a perfect destination for hikes any time of the year as their lower altitude – under 2,000 meters – makes it easier to manage even in winter. You can take day trips from the small town of Balan to Piatra Singuratica or Hasmasu Mare, or you can embark on a longer hike until Bicaz Gorges and Red Lake.
Piatra Craiului National Park is a must for all hikers who wish to explore the Carpathian chain. Both challenging and accessible, with many trail options from the easiest to the most difficult, this protected area conserves 35 world unique species of invertebrates, over 200 species of butterflies, more than 100 bird species, and over 40% of the mammal species from Romania.
The oldest national park in Romania, this is the ultimate hiking destination if you’re ready for long and strenuous trails in gorgeous mountain scenery. With altitudes varying from 800 meters to 2,509 meters, Retezat National Park has 80 glacial lakes and tarns, half of the country’s bird species, almost 1,200 plant species, and 55 species of mammals. It’s biodiversity heaven.
Caves, gorges, karst formations, and many legends attract nature enthusiasts to this protected area that hides some of the most breathtaking landscapes in Romania. Over 400 caves, potholes, and mining galleries exist here, but only one – Bolii Cave – can be visited without special equipment. Sureanu Mountains are the main hiking destination of the park.
One of the most famous attractions in Romania, the Transfagarasan road remains one of the major infrastructure projects of the communist regime. Its initial military purpose was never fulfilled, but the road remained ever since its opening in the late 70s the most panoramic car itinerary across the Carpathians.
More off the beaten track than Fagaras and Retezat, Parang Mountains are the best alternative if you’re looking for a more solitary hiking experience. Glacial lakes, impressive gorges, and caves, peaks over 2,500 meters, isolated camping sites are all part of the experience.
The highest altitude mountain road in Romania (2,145 meters) crosses Parang Mountains, connecting Southern Romania and Transylvania after one of the most beautiful drives in the country. Inaugurated in 1938, during the time of King Carol the 2nd, Transalpina is open, like the Transfagarasan, from July to November.
The vast salt resources from Transylvania, formed 18 million years ago, were exploited since the time of the Roman Empire, Potaissa, ancient Turda, being one of the main salt mining centers. The mine is now an original underground salt history museum, open all year long, where you also play tennis, billiard, mini golf, and football.
Photo source: www.facebook.com/salinaturda
For the visiting schedule, check http://salinaturda.eu
This is Romania’s only volcanic lake, formed in the crater of a long-ago extinct volcano that last erupted tens of thousands of years ago. It’s located at 950 meters altitude, and its water is almost completely pure, with a concentration of only 0,0029 ml of minerals, being considered one of the cleanest lakes in the world.
Part 4 concludes our 100 Top Places To See in Romania, a detailed list of both popular and less-known attractions from all over the country, that we hope will inspire you to explore one of the most beautiful countries in Europe.
If you’re planning to visit Romania, check our tours on www.uncover-romania-tours.com