Rugged stone churches and dazzling monasteries dot a pristine landscape of rocky mountains and rolling hills. Transylvanian towns have stepped out of time, while vibrant Bucharest is all energy.
Nature & Wildlife
The Carpathian Mountains draw a wide arc through the centre of the country, leaving a swath of exposed rocky peaks surrounded by groves of pine and deciduous trees, and stretches of bright green meadow below. The harsh geography has limited human habitation, and the woods are filled with deer, elk and bear. Europe's second-longest river, the Danube, marks Romania's southern border with Bulgaria before turning suddenly northward and emptying into the Black Sea. The delta provides sanctuary for 300 species of bird and 160 species of fish. The sprawling marshes account for the largest expanse of reed beds in the world.
Castles & Medieval Towns
Transylvania, the land that gave us Dracula, has no shortage of jaw-dropping castles pitched precariously on rocky hilltops. There's spooky Bran Castle, of course, with its spurious connection to Bram Stoker’s fictional count, but don’t overlook beauties such as Hunedoara’s 14th-century Corvin Castle or King Carol I’s sumptuous 19th-century pile, Peleş Castle. In medieval towns like Braşov, Sighişoara and Sibiu, cobbled walkways support chic streetside cafes, while a cacophony of sounds emanating from student bars and clubs echo off the Gothic and baroque facades in lively Cluj-Napoca. Transylvania’s Saxon villages boast fortified churches that date back half a millennium.
For centuries, a highly productive peasant culture thrived in much of Romania. The hilly geography and lack of passable roads necessitated the emergence of hundreds of self-sufficient villages, where old-school crafts such as bread-making, pottery, tanning and weaving were honed to an art. Folk museums, particularly the open-air skansens and village museums, are a must. Many isolated hamlets, where the old folkways are still practised, are museums in themselves. This is most evident in Maramureş, where oversized hay racks, horse carts and stately wooden churches dominate, and towns and villages have seemingly stepped out of the Middle Ages.
The rocky peaks of Transylvania and Moldavia, snow-capped from mid-October in some years, call out for conquering, and well-marked trails lead to summits from all directions. There are less adventurous but no less rewarding walks through woods, meadows and villages in other parts of the country. The Danube Delta is a vast and unique protected wetland and makes a perfect backdrop for fishing, boating and, especially, birdwatching in spring. In summer, from mid-June to early September, the action moves to the Black Sea coast. Beach resorts fill up with swimmers, divers, sunbathers and partiers, who come for the all-night, open-air clubbing marathons.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Romania.
Some castles perch on mountains, others skulk in mist-shrouded hills, but Hunedoara’s juts out from an industrial jungle. Despite being surrounded by steel mills, Corvin Castle is Transylvania's most spellbinding fortress. You’ll be thunderstruck the moment you walk over the drawbridge, with pointed turrets rising above, into the stone courtyard. Visitors aren’t shackled to guided tours, so you can stroll freely and let your imagination run wild. Alternatively, download the app for a self-guided walk (8 lei; buy the code with your ticket).
Built in just three months and three weeks by Ştefan cel Mare following a key 1488 victory over the Turks, Voroneţ Monastery is the only painted monastery that has had an internationally recognised colour associated with it. 'Voroneţ Blue', a vibrant cerulean hue created from lapis lazuli and other ingredients, is prominent in its frescoes. A 2011 restoration of frescoes in the entryway revealed the incredible quality of these paintings even more clearly.
Over 40 years, dozens of builders, artists and wood-carvers brought Peleş Castle into existence. The neo-Renaissance masterpiece was commissioned by Romania’s first king, Carol I, and its first stone laid in 1875. Today this former royal summer residence is a wildly popular tourist attraction. Visits are by compulsory 40-minute guided tour; photographing inside costs a steep additional 32 lei. Inside, not a single corner is empty of silk rugs, Murano glass, carved walnut or polished marble.
The Palace of Parliament is the world’s second-largest administrative building (after the Pentagon) and former dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s most infamous creation. Started in 1984 (and still unfinished), the 330,000-sq-metre building has more than 3000 rooms. Entry is by guided tour only (book ahead). Entry to the palace is from B-dul Naţiunile Unite on the building's northern side (to find it, face the front of the palace from B-dul Unirii and walk around the building to the right). Bring your passport.
Iaşi's premier attraction and symbol of the city is the grandiose Gothic-revival Palace of Culture that dominates the horizon at the southern end of B-dul Ştefan cel Mare şi Sfânt. Though it looks as if it stepped out of a medieval fairy tale, the building is only around 100 years old (built from 1906 to 1925). The palace stands over Prince Alexandru cel Bun's ruined 15th-century princely court. Visitors can tour the palace, climb the tower and explore four major museums.
Săpânţa village boasts the unique 'Merry Cemetery', famous for the colourfully painted wooden crosses that adorn the tombstones in the village's graveyard. Shown in art exhibitions across Europe, the crosses attract coachloads of visitors who marvel at the gentle humour of the epitaphs and the human warmth that created them.
This Unesco-protected church in the village of Arbore receives a fraction of the visitors of the other painted monasteries and hence feels more private and special. The small scale allows you to study the paintings up close, to appreciate the skills and techniques. The monastery dates from 1503 and was the brainchild of local nobleman Luca Arbore. It took about five months to build and four decades to paint.
The Endless Column, one of Constantin Brâncuşi's best-known and most celebrated works, sits at the eastern end of Calea Eroilor (20 minutes on foot from the other pieces in the central park). The 29.35m-tall structure, threaded with 15 steel beads, is meant to symbolise the synthesis of heaven and physical reality. It's a must-see and a tremendous photo-op.
This is an ideal venue to brush up on the December 1989 anticommunist revolution that began here in Timişoara. Displays include documentation, posters and photography from those fateful days, capped by a graphic 20-minute video (not suitable for young children) with English subtitles. Enter from Str Oituz 2.