Transylvania’s forested valleys and Gothic castles are forever embedded in the popular imagination. Even before arriving, most visitors can picture this land of dark fairy-tales, where fog drapes like cobwebs over the Carpathian Mountains.
Explore these stirring landscapes on hikes through Piatra Craiului National Park, or the Bucegi (and tougher Apuseni) Mountains; or see them frozen over at winter sports centres Poiana Braşov and Predeal. Next, indulge your medieval fantasies among the watchtowers and cobbled lanes of Braşov and Sighişoara or venture to Transylvania’s castles: world-famous Bran, ornate Peleş, and Hunedoara’s Gothic apparition.
Deeper in the countryside, rural Transylvania's tapestry of cultures awaits: vibrant, secretive Roma communities, Székely Land hamlets where only Hungarian is spoken, and Saxon villages with crumbling citadels. Here, standstill traffic means horses and carts waiting patiently for herds of goats to scatter.
And yes, Transylvania will satisfy vampire tourists – and enthral all with its jumble of edgy cities and villages that time forgot.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Transylvania.
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).
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.
Alba Carolina Citadel is the crowning attraction of Alba Iulia. Within this star-shaped citadel are museums, churches and the Unification Hall that sealed the union of Transylvania with Romania in 1918. Originally constructed in the 13th century, the present fortification dates mostly to the 18th century. If you're short on time, focus on the dazzling Coronation Cathedral and National Union Museum. Ideally, spend a full day strolling museums, posing at grand gateways, and idling in cafes. The citadel is free, but the museums carry entry charges.
Rising above the town on a rocky promontory, Bran Castle holds visitors in thrall. An entire industry has sprouted around describing it as ‘Dracula’s Castle’, though connections to either the historical Vlad Ţepeş or Bram Stoker’s fictional vampire are thin. The liberties taken with Bran’s reputation are quickly forgotten on a visit: you’ll climb up its conical towers, admiring views over thick forest, and stroll through creaky-floored rooms furnished with bearskin rugs and 19th-century antiques.
Sighişoara's delightful medieval buildings are enclosed within its citadel, a Unesco-listed complex of protective walls and watchtowers. Walking in the citadel is today a tranquil, fairy-tale-like experience, but these towers were once packed with weapons and emergency supplies, guarding Sighişoara from Turkish attacks (note the upper windows from which arrows could be fired).
Five kilometres from central Sibiu, this is Europe's largest open-air ethnographic museum, where churches, mills and traditional homes number among 400 folk-architecture monuments on-site. In summer, ASTRA hosts numerous fairs, dance workshops and musical performances, so it's worthwhile checking the website for events. There’s also a nice gift shop and restaurant with creek-side bench seats.
One of the high points of any vampire-themed trip to Transylvania is kitsch Hotel Castel Dracula. Its blood-curdling decorations, and location on a promontory roughly where Bram Stoker’s Count would have lived, draw as many day-trippers as overnight guests. Snap a selfie with the bust of Bram Stoker outside, peep inside to shiver at taxidermied hawks and wolves (and some racy artwork depicting Dracula) and – if you don’t have a heart condition – visit ‘Dracula’s tomb’ (3 lei).
Brukenthal Palace is worth visiting as much for its resplendent period furnishings as for the European art within. Duck beneath the Music Room’s chandeliers to admire colourful friezes and 18th-century musical instruments, before sidling among chambers exhibiting 17th-century portraits amid satin chaise longues and cases packed with antique jewellery. Sumptuously curated.
Not enough time to join a bear hide excursion to see these impressive carnivores lumbering through their natural habitat? Libearty Sanctuary is the next best thing. This 69-hectare enclosure is the leafy retirement home of former captive bears, most of whom endured horrific confinement (and sometimes torture) at the hands of circuses, zoos and private owners. Visits are by guided tour, at times when bears approach the fences for some of the tasty entrails thrown their way by staff. It's 7km east of Zărnesţi.