Romania is a fantastic place to visit - home to fairytale fortresses, dramatic landscapes, small Saxon towns, vibrant cities and the jaw-dropping Transfarasan pass. It's difficult to fathom why it is so often overlooked by tourists and travellers alike.
I visited Romania in March 2017 for one week with my boyfriend, Paul. We flew into in Bucharest and rented a car to take me through Sanaia, Brasov, Balea Waterfall, Sibiu, Curtea de Arges, and back to Bucharest.
Currency: Leu / Lei (RON)
Language(s): Romanian, English widely spoken
Plug Sockets: Type F, C and E.
Ease of travel: 4/5 with car 3/5 without
Ease of communication: 5/5
Ease of meeting others: 3/5
General costs: £
Grimy, garish and dull- this is how I imagined Bucharest to present itself based on articles, blogs and recommendations from friends. This is not what I found at all. Instead, I found Bucharest charming, vibrant and grand (albeit a little rugged at the edges). Whatever your opinion, it's worth a visit.
We spent two days here, and mostly concentrated ourselves in the old town and surrounding areas.
Things to do:
1. Take a free walking tour
I am a huge fan of free walking tours; they're great fun, happen despite rain or shine and you learn so much more about the city than you would if you just walked around yourself.
Walkabout walking tours (website https://bucharest.walkaboutfreetours.com/) are the main (if not, only?) company running walking tours - and they run every day at 3pm starting by the clock face in Unirii Square Park - look out for the distinctive orange umbrellas.
The tour took us around some of the main sights including Stavropoleos Convent, the ruins of Vlad’s Citadel, Manuc’s Inn, famed revolution spots and Victory Blvd.
2. Palace of Parliament
The Palace of Parliament is a must see - this enormous structure was one of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s creations, built in 1984 (although never completely finished) and remains a controversial topic in Bucharest; costing around €3.3 billion to build and boasting 12 storeys and 31,000 rooms, to be used as a palace during a time where the majority of Romanians were incredibly poor - for this reason it is, understandably, not very liked by locals. However, many will say nowadays that the although the negative connotations still remain, it is quite an incredible structure and the fact that it was constructed solely by Romanian workers and Romanian materials makes it in some ways, a building to be proud of.
Whatever your opinion, it's worth a visit - even if just to gawk at the excessive size of the place - and incredibly the underground section is larger than the overground part.
I was eager to see inside and had read online that it is possible to pay for a guided tour, however it turns out that they have stopped all tours and visits to the palace earlier this year. I couldn't see any reason why, although there is speculation that this was due to a disagreement of tour guide contracts for the building - if this is the case then hopefully the palace will re-open again to visitors.
Bucharest has an impressive hospital building!
Statue of Trajan and the She-wolf, National Museum of Romanian History
Stravropoleos Monastery, Bucharest
3. Old Town
The old town is a dainty area of cobblestone streets which really comes alive at night with it's abundance of urban cafes, bars and restaurants.
Stroll around the area during the day and you'll find pristine churches tucked between grandesque buildings overlooking the contrasting concrete blocks from communist time.
Beware that many of the older buildings have been marked 'unsafe' - these can be identified by the red circle marked on the exterior of the buildings. Throughout the old town you’ll find an abundance of beautiful churches; my favourite was Stravropoleos church which had fascinating mosaics, stone and wood carvings.
4. Curtea Veche
The remains of the old palace and residence of Vlad the Impaler! You’ll find an eerie statue of Vlad outside.
5. Revolution Square on Victory Avenue
One of the most iconic parts of Bucharest and where Ceausescu spent his final moments in power before the crowds revolted and he fled.
Vlad the Impaler
Bucharest Old Town
Waking up to this was interesting
Sinaia is a small town tucked away in between branches of dense greenery of Bucegi Natural Park. It is a handy place to stop between Bucharest and Brasov and home to the enchanting fortress, Peles Castle, and a large monastery.
Apart from these attractions there isn’t a great deal to do in Spring - although it seemed to be somewhere more thriving in summer or the ski season.
Enchanting Peles Castle with its stunning wintery backdrop, Sinaia
I loved Brasov. Brightly coloured buildings edge delicate cobblestoned streets, bustling bars and restaurants and fairytale turrets peeking behind soviet tower blocks.
It’s a city displaying its contrasting and textured history on every corner.
It’s fairly small, and you can easily walk it in a day or two.
Even in the rain Brasov main square stands brightly gleaming
Things to do:
1. Again, take a walking tour!
In addition to the walking tour in Bucharest, Walkabout walking tours also offer this in Brasov. It starts (correct at the time of writing) every day at 3pm in the main square - look out for the orange umbrella. The tour takes you through the old town, up one of the smallest streets in Europe, rope street, and through the medieval gate into the old Romanian area. We also walked up to the Orthodox church near union square.
2. The Black Church
Originally built in 1835, it was nicknamed 'The Black Church' after a huge fire in Brasov painted the building black with smoke. It's more of a grey colour now but the name has stuck ever since.
3. Main Square - Piața Sfatului
The main square is a typical European main square with beautiful bright cafes and shops dotted around. Although it looks fairly old - the majority of the buildings are actually pretty new as the old ones were destroyed during the world War; and afterwards the square was turned into a car park during communist times.
4. Union Square
Situated in the old Romanian area is Union Square. You'll find that all Romanian cities have a 'union square' - these were named so for the union of Transylvania, Moldavia and Wallachia to form Romania as we now know it, in 1918. If you visit Romania in 2018, expect huge street parties galore celebrating 100 years of the country,
5. Bran Castle
Technically not actually in Brasov, but it is from here that you'll likely make your way to the famous 'Dracula Castle'. Although many link this castle to Dracula, and therefore to Vlad - it actually has no real link at all. It is an impressive castle, though, and was most notably used as the Royal Residence of Queen Marie - a large amount of the original furniture is still there.
I was pretty excited to visit, and despite the fact that it has been heavily commercialised (and is a bit overpriced), you can’t deny the excitement and mystery that absorbs you when you first gaze upon Bran perched up high on rock-clad mountains.
Places to eat/drink in Brasov:
Brasov is home to some great restaurants and bars.
We loved the following:
1. La Ceaun
This was a really cosy Romanian restaurant! The 'cauldrons', plum dumplings and Romanian wine went down a treat. The restaurant is always busy so either book in advance or go early!
Simone is a vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurant with a quirky atmosphere. The food was delicious and they had loads of nice cocktails.
3. Terroirs boutique du vin
This restaurant come wine bar is a great way to finish the evening with a little elegance - boasting hundreds of wines mainly from Eastern Europe and for a very reasonable price. We also bought a couple of bottles to take away.
This is a charming cocktail bar with (unsurprisingly) a homey feel to it. I loved their slogan 'staying in is the new going out'. They have an impressive cocktail menu including warm winter cocktails (In case you hadn't noticed from the photos, March is a very cold time of year in Romania!
Delicious traditional food at La Ceaun, Brasov
Warming winter cocktails at 'Home', Brasov
We decided to stop off here en-route from Brasov to Sibiu, and it was one of my favourite days of the holiday!
The drive itself is pretty and offers a glimpse into rural Romanian life; you’ll see sleepy towns, rolling hills, farmhouses and local cheese and meat sellers along the main roads. You might even get stuck behind a traditional horse-and-cart (less of a novelty and more of an annoyance when you're still stuck behind it, 30 minutes later).
As we got closer to the waterfall, the drive became twistier, and the views more dramatic by the minute. The change in scenery (and temperature) was impressive.
The changing scenery along the drive
In March, the waterfall marks the end of the Transfăgărășan that is open during the Winter months.
From here on the road and mountains are coated in snow and the only way up the mountains is by cable car.
The cable car runs frequently and costs 30 Lei each way.
The view from the cable car
No photo can truly convey the incredible beauty of Balea in winter, but here are my attempts anyway.
At the top you can ski, go tubing, banana boat riding or have a drink in the Ice Hotel. There is even an ice church with an ice scultpur of the last supper inside! It’s a beautiful winter wonderland to explore.
Before 5pm you can go into all the bedrooms of the Ice Hotel - each year there is a new theme (2017's was films) and so each room is decorated with a different film theme - although some of the sculptures are of questionable resemblance to the characters. You can get into the Ice Hotel for 10 lei.
The views from the cable car were incredible - rows and rows of snow-topped pine trees and skiers swooping below.
Ice sculptur of Marilyn Monroe!
Sibiu was our next stop and was somewhere that really surprised me as I was instantly drawn to its charm. We had only booked one night here as we didn't think there would be a great deal to do - in hindsight I think two nights would have been better.
The town square was enormous - much bigger than Brasov and surrounded by cute shops, churches, cafes, bars and restaurants.
There was sadly no walking tour here, so we created our own!
Things to do:
Sibiu old town really is a maze of cobbled streets, alternative bars and restaurants, and crumbling houses with thatched roofs and wooden shutters. I actually felt that had it not been for the cold weather and rain, I could have easily been fooled that I was in a colonial city in South America.
Whilst wandering around, I was fascinated by the building roofs - am I the only one who felt as if I was being watched?
2. The Evangelical Cathedral
Confusingly, there is more than one cathedral in Sibiu - and both are worth a visit!
The Evangelical cathedral is built in a gothic style - beautiful to wander around, and even better - incredible panoramas of Sibiu from the tower.
3. Holy Trinity Cathedral
A beautiful cathedral with spectacular brightly covered artwork coating the entire interior.
Incredible views from the Evangelical Cathedral, Sibiu
Brightly coloured buildings, Sibiu
Places to eat / drink:
Crama Sibiul Vechi
This was an incredible Romanian restaurant located in an old wine cellar tucked away from the main streets. The food was delicious - definitely a great place to try some traditional Romanian delights.
Arhiva de Cafea si Ceai
Coming from Glasgow, a city well-known for its artisan coffee culture, I was keen to find somewhere in Romania that could rival my favourites back home. This eclectic little coffee shop was just off the main square and did not disappoint; a huge array of fragrant teas, quality coffee and delicious cakes - I couldn’t fault it.
Food to try - papanasi - donut heaven, and gogosi - a delicious (and slightly oily) bready-donut - and they come filled with cheese, chocolate, cream - you name it!
In Sibiu there are tonnes of little pastry shops open throughout the old town - all incredibly cheap.
Delicious traditional food, Crama Sibiul Vechi, Sibiu
Curtea de Arges
This was our next stop in Romania. Curtea de Arges is a relatively small city - we stayed here for one night, mostly to use as a base to drive along the Southern part of the Transfăgărășan and through the Fagaras mountains.
Although quite a cute city to stop at, there wasn’t a great deal to do. The main attractions are the cathedral and monastery. It’s also pretty close to Poenari Castle -dubbed the ‘real’ Dracula castle as it was one of Vlad’s favoured fortresses.
Nowadays it’s pretty much a ruin and there’s not much to see of the castle itself, however the panoramic views you’ll be rewarded with after the steep climb to the top are pretty spectacular.
From Curtea de Arges, it is easy to drive along the Transfăgărășan.
The Transfăgărășan is a famous mountain pass, dubbed ‘the world’s best road trip’ by Top Gear with hairpin turns flanked by sweeping mountains, luscious landscapes and bewitching lakes.
Lake Vidraru - an artifical lake seen from the Transfagarasan
Bare trees in Spring along the Transfagarasan
It’s vital to check the weather in advance - and important to note that, as mentioned before, not all of the Transfăgărășan is open year-round - and I think it’s actually only open the whole-way for about two months of the year! However, it’s still 100% worth driving what you can - you will find that you can drive for longer from the Southern part than the Northern part in the winter months
The easiest way of getting around by far is by car, and pretty much everyone in the hostels were doing the same. In addition to beautiful driving routes, it's a great way to see some traditional Romanian villages en-route - just watch out for the farm traffic! And perhaps rent a 4x4!
Bucharest - Sinaia = 1 hr 45 mins
Sinaia - Brasov = 1 hr
Brasov - Bran Castle = 30 mins
Brasov - Balea = 2 hr 30 mins
Brasov - Sibiu = 2 hr 15 mins
Sibiu - Curtea de Arges = 2 hr 20 mins
Curtea de Arges - Bucharest = 2 hr
Top tips for Romania:
Hire a car. Although there is public transport available, car hire gave us so much flexibility, beautiful landscapes to sweep through and incredibly cheap (we paid £13.73 for the car for the week! And no, I didn’t put the decimal point in the wrong place - it really was that cheap!).
Try as much Romanian food as you can - sarmale, polenta, papanasi, eggplant salad, gogosi and many more!
If you’re heading in Winter, Spring or Autumn - bring a jumper! It can get very, very cold.
Read up on the history before you go - it’s very poignant and important to be aware of, especially considering how recent many of the events were.
Don’t confuse ‘Bucharest’ with ‘Budapest’ !
If you do choose to hire a car, be careful when driving - Romanian roads are considered some of the most dangerous and accident-prone in the EU!
There are a lot of stray dogs. It’s a huge problem in Romania and a topic of much debate is how to handle this situation.
Be careful when getting a taxi from Bucharest Airport - although much safer and controlled than they used to be, you should still be cautious. One of my family members was involved in an incident here where a taxi driver drove him and a friend to the middle of nowhere, pulled out a weapon and demanded all their money. Although many would say this could happen anywhere, it used to be considered a well-known scam that taxi drivers would change the cost of a journey half-way, demand more money - usually not associated with violence, but often would. When I arrived in March I was pleased to see that steps have been taken to make the journey to the centre safer and fairer. Now when you arrive in the arrivals hall, you will find numerous taxi machines. Simply select a taxi company (their rate is displayed on the screen), type in where you want to go - you will receive a price and a receipt detailing the name of the driver, registration plate, company, price and contact number for complaints. You then make your way to the taxi pick up, and show your receipt to the correct driver.