Lonely Planet named Transylvania the top destination of 2016 and they did this for a good reason! Prince Charles declared many times that Transylvania conquered his heart for good and that this region is a piece of true Heaven. Dracula was born here and vampire legends are still being part of the life of the locals. The food is delicious and the strong palinka (the traditional tipple) will cheer up all of your senses, especially in the morning, as locals consider it better than the usual morning coffee. UNESCO listed here many amazing places and monuments and tourists all over the world are impressed by the wild beauty of the Carpathians.
So, what’s not to like about Transylvania?
It’s vibrant and colorful and so diverse in terms of culture and history that there is only one question to ask: when are YOU planning to visit Transylvania?
Transylvania – home of the vampires?
Let’s face it! When hearing about Transylvania people automatically tend to think only to the mysterious count Dracula. Though it’s a fictional character born out of the rich imagination of Bram Stoker, Dracula has strong Romanian roots, being inspired by the real life of Vlad Tepes, a medieval ruler of Wallachia born in Transylvania. Known for his cruel bloody methods of punishing the invaders (especially the Ottomans), Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler is a controversial historical figure. Loved by his people but feared by his enemies who always tried to destroy his reputation with exaggerations of all kinds, Vlad is nowadays one of the iconic symbols of Transylvania. And did you know that Prince Charles himself carries on some of Dracula’s DNA? According to genealogists, he’s a great-grandson 16 times removed of Vlad the Impaler so when the Prince of Wales visits Transylvania we can actually say that he is returning to his roots.
Vampire legends are numerous and captivating, and, in remote villages, people still believe in all sorts of mysterious creatures of the night. If you are a believer as well, don’t forget to pack some garlic, just in case, and then go ahead exploring the fascinating places with draculesque flavor. Among these, there is the famous Bran, a medieval fortress transformed into a castle by the Romanian royal family in 1920. Also known as Dracula’s castle, Bran is a must see, so mysterious and imposing that you will immediately understand why Bram Stoker chose it for his novel.
Don’t miss Sighisoara, the birthplace of Dracula and an incredible UNESCO medieval town. Sighisoara is ridiculously photogenic so make sure your camera card is empty and prepare yourself for an amazing photo shooting. Charming and intriguing is also the Hunyadi Castle, a medieval gothic fortress where it is said that Vlad Tepes himself was imprisoned.
But even if you will not find bloodthirsty vampires and howling werewolves in Transylvania, be sure you will see lots of places that will exceed your expectations.
Nature, sports, and SPA
One of the best things in Transylvania is the landscape. The Carpathian Mountains are surrounding this region like a huge green fence, so, there are plenty of trails for hiking and other outdoor activities, extreme or not. But nothing compares to the joy of seeing the unspoiled nature with its thick hardwood forests, lush pastures, and wildflower meadows. And on top of that, there is the rich wildlife, so the mountains of Transylvania are the perfect place for spotting bears, lynxes, wild cats or for birdwatching. The Carpathians are also home to some of the most amazing caves in Europe like the Bear’s Cave in Bihor County or Scarisoara Ice Cave which hosts the biggest underground glacier in Romania. Truly famous is the Turda Salt mine, ranked by Business Insider as the most beautiful underground place in the world. The peaks of the Carpathians are incredible as well. The most well-known and admired monument of nature is the Sphinx of Bucegi which is mysteriously watching over the entire Transylvania for thousands of years. And if you like exploring the mountains, camping near glacial valleys or being awakened by the morning alarm of funny marmots’ shouts, then you should definitely choose the Retezat Mountains.
For those who prefer a more relaxed vacation, Transylvania has a number of great resort towns, famous for their hot springs and mineral therapeutic waters. Sovata resort offers tourists great treatments for many illnesses based on the salty water of Lake Ursu. Also, the mineral mud collected from the bottom of the lake is successfully used to cure infertility. Ocna Sibiului is the Romanian version of the Dead Sea, and very hot springs filling the open air pools are expecting you in Felix resort. In short, when you will decide to visit Transylvania, just make sure to put in the luggage your swimming suit because you never know when you will feel like wallowing in the amazing thermal springs while enjoying the mighty mountains.
Life in the city
Large or small, the cities of Transylvania are truly charming. For hundreds of years, this region was under the strong influence of the Habsburg Empire and later, of the Austro-Hungarians so, everywhere you go, you can see this amazing mix of cultures. Hungarians make up nowadays around 19% of the population and cities like Targu Mures, Miercurea-Ciuc or Covasna have strong Hungarian communities. Also, descendants of the German colonists that came here starting with the 12th century to help the Empire to fight against the Tatars and the Ottomans are still present, but in a much smaller number. Nevertheless, they have left their strong mark in architecture, culture, cuisine and crafts.
Among the cities that really worth visiting are Sibiu, Brasov, Alba Iulia, Cluj-Napoca, Targu Mures and, of course, the above mentioned Sighisoara.
The city of Sibiu has German origins, and in 2007 received the title of the European Capital of Culture. Sibiu is that kind of city that makes you forget about yourself while wandering along the secluded streets of the Old Town. It’s romantic, eye-catching, super photogenic and full of noisy young people.
Brasov shares the same architectural style as Sibiu but is a much larger city, being surrounded by mountains which make it perfect for winter sports and outdoor activities. In Alba-Iulia you will have the chance to admire the largest Romanian citadel, with its Roman and medieval ruins. The citadel offers you plenty of interesting tourist attractions so allow yourself at least half-a-day to properly enjoy this charming place.
Cluj-Napoca is considered to be one of the strongest cultural and educational hubs in the country and has the largest percentage of the student population in Romania. So, the city is young and vibrant and the mix of Gothic and Baroque architecture makes it a lovely place to sit and relax a good coffee. Finally, Targu Mures is worth visiting for its elegant palaces and for the Hungarian spicy cuisine.
Described by many as ‘the last truly medieval landscape in Europe’, rural Transylvania is more than fascinating. Time seems to have stopped running here for the last 100 years and horse-drawn carts, manmade hay stacks and shepherds tending their flocks are still part of everyday life. There is something profoundly soothing seeing this calm detached way of life, almost spiritual. But the hidden gems of rural Transylvania are, undoubtedly, the amazing Saxon villages of Biertan, Viscri or Saschiz, all part of UNESCO, incredibly beautiful in their remoteness. Mornings are misty but the nights are clear and a myriad of stars are sparkling in the song of crickets. It’s the best time for stories, for truly connecting with this patriarchal, mysterious land and its people.
In short, you should definitely make some time to visit Transylvania. The kindness of the people, the fresh tasty food, the multitude of mind-blowing sceneries frames Transylvania among the most regions of Europe, an amazing harmonious cluster of culture, history, and architecture.