There’s more to Transylvania than castles and vampire legends. Romania’s central region draws nature lovers with its spectacular alpine peaks and the largest brown bear population in Europe, while adrenaline junkies can swap the cobblestone alleys and fairy-tale towers for snowmobiling on frozen lakes and cycling the hairpin mountain roads.  

Braşov is one of Transylvania’s most visited towns thanks to an overload of baroque architecture and a bohemian atmosphere. It also makes an excellent base for exploring the great outdoors, so gear up and get active with these five exciting excursions.

View over Braşov from the cable car at Poiana Braşov ski resort © Emi Cristea / Shutterstock

Ski the slopes of Poiana Braşov

Ringed by the Carpathian Mountains (Europe’s second-longest mountain range), Transylvania is quickly earning a reputation as a budget skier’s paradise for its cut-rate prices. One of Romania’s biggest resorts, Poiana Braşov, is entrenched at the base of the Postăvarul Massif, just 12km from Braşov. The 14km ski area may be small in comparison with other European alpine resorts, but its pistes are the perfect learning ground for beginner and intermediate skiers.

Powder hounds will also appreciate the gondola and two cable cars that bring you up all the way to 1775m, where you can swoosh down the long run from top to bottom in 45 minutes without taking another lift. It’s the perfect combination: attractive and uncrowded alpine settings, at a fraction of the average European price.

How to: A ski pass at Poiana Braşov ranges from 140 lei for a day to 390 lei for four days; check the lift status and timetable online (discoverpoiana.ro).

Hikers in Transylvania’s Piatra Craiului National Park © Porojnicu Stelian / Shutterstock

Trek in Piatra Craiului National Park

Lauded as Romania’s green heart, Transylvania has no shortage of mountains, hiking trails and strategically placed huts. The 148-sq-km Piatra Craiului National Park is a favourite among active travellers with its dense spruce forests, steep rock faces and deep caves – all just 17km from Braşov.

The Piatra Craiului or ‘Prince’s Stone’ is characterised by the longest and highest ridge in Romania (more than 24km long, with the highest peak at 2238m), one of the most spectacular sights in the Carpathians. Hardcore hikers can challenge themselves on the two-day north–south trail that leads you up the ridge along the narrow spine of the range, into karst gorges, pitted slopes and water-filled caves. It’s easy to see why this was chosen as the backdrop for the movie Cold Mountain, starring Nicole Kidman.

How to: Sign up for a day trip or a seven-day trekking tour with Active Travel Romania (adventure-tours.ro). To hike independently, you need to purchase an entrance ticket (5 lei) for the national park at the visitors centre in Zărnesti.

Bears rescued from captivity at Libearty Bear Sanctuary, Zărnesti © Nellie Huang / Lonely Planet

Spot bears in Stramba Valley

Calling all wildlife lovers! The Carpathian Mountains are where you’ll find Europe’s largest brown bear population as well as wolves, lynx and bison. The number of brown bears reached its peak during the communist period, when dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was the only person allowed to hunt. Due to overpopulation, the bears started foraging in the cities and this became such a major issue that the authorities had to relocate part of the population deeper into the mountains.

Today, around 5500 brown bears still roam the thick oak and beech forests surrounding Braşov. You can observe them in a number of hides managed by the Romanian Forestry Commission; the most popular is the Stramba Valley hide, 50km from Braşov.

How to: The best way to see brown bears in the wild is through a tour operator, such as Transylvanian Wolf (transylvanianwolf.ro). You’ll be guided by a ranger or wildlife expert to ensure your safety and minimal interference with their habitat.

Part of the Transfăgărăşan Road is closed in winter © Nellie Huang / Lonely Planet

Cycle the Transfăgărăşan Road

For a heart-pumping experience, pedal down the famous Transfăgărăşan Road, Romania’s highest asphalted route. British TV show Top Gear put it on the tourist map by naming it the world’s best road. Reaching an altitude of 2042m, the 90km-long highway climbs steeply up the Făgăraș Mountains (the highest in Romania) in a zigzag manner, slicing through thick pine forests with hairpin bends.

Legend has it that during the 1970s Ceauşescu ordered the Transfăgărăşan Road to be built as an escape route in case of a foreign invasion; the construction took four and a half years. No invasion ever took place, but the road has become a tourist attraction, drawing in motor and bicycle enthusiasts especially in summer. Navigating this highway on two wheels is no mean feat and suitable for advanced cyclists only.

How to: If you’re seeking extreme adventure on two wheels, Adventure Transylvania (adventuretransylvania.com) runs a seven-day bicycle tour that gets you pedalling between 45km and 75km a day. The Transfăgărăşan Road is approximately 180km from Braşov and it’s only accessible by car.

Church at the Hotel of Ice, Bâlea Lake © Nellie Huang / Lonely Planet

Go snowmobiling at Bâlea Lake and stay in an ice hotel

Every winter, Bâlea Lake in the Făgăraș Mountains freezes over and transforms into a true winter wonderland. Go full throttle on a snowmobile, swish down the icy slopes on a rubber tube or glide over the frozen lake in a raft. More traditional snow bums can opt for mainstream activities like ice skating, snowboarding and skiing.

Next to the Bâlea Lake stands the Hotel of Ice (hotelofice.ro), the only hotel of its kind in Eastern Europe. Each November, the hotel is built from scratch using blocks of ice from the glacier lake and designed with a new theme. Everything in the hotel is made of ice: from the ice bed to the piano and even the Jesus Christ sculpture in the ice church. But rest assured you’ll have a warm night’s sleep with a special sleeping bag, layers of reindeer fur and blankets provided by the hotel.

How to: Untravelled Paths (untravelledpaths.com) run winter trips to Bâlea Lake that include a night’s stay at the Hotel of Ice. Getting to Bâlea Lake by public transport isn’t easy; you’ll need to traverse the Transfăgărăşan Road up to the Cascada-Bâlea Lac before catching the cable car up to the lake.

The medieval centre of Braşov seen from Mt Tâmpa © Nellie Huang / Lonely Planet

Make it happen

Braşov is easily reached by train from Romania’s capital Bucharest.  The intercity express service departs regularly and the journey takes just over two and a half hours.

For a classic old-world setting, check into the atmospheric Bella Muzica Hotel. Featuring neoclassical style and 16th-century foundations, the hotel overlooks Brașov’s town square and has one of the best restaurants in town.

After active days spent exploring the outdoors, tuck into a hefty Saxon feast at the locals’ favourite haunt, Sergiana. This underground tavern serves up generous portions of fresh-off-the-grill pork ribs, venison, stag and boar meat, with homemade palincă fruit brandy (the region’s famous firewater).

Nellie Huang travelled to Transylvania with support from Skyscanner (skyscanner.net). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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