Too often overlooked by the masses, Romania will open your eyes to its incredible natural beauty and deep-rooted traditional culture.
In this guide, I will offer an honest view of what the country is like and, with any luck, get you very excited to plan your trip to Romania!
Plan your Romania trip
Why visit Romania
When I told people I was planning a trip to Romania, the most frequent reply was “why Romania?”
Of course, curiosity can be as good a reason as any to travel somewhere. Still, a bit more convincing is sometimes needed for Romania. Everyone already agrees that, say, Italy or Croatia are lovely, but I found that what Romania offers is simply less well-known than other more popular destinations.
I can say that Romania far exceeded my expectations, and I now consider it a seriously underrated travel destination. So, let me make the pitch.
Firstly, Romania’s medieval towns are far more colourful, lively, and romantic than you may have imagined, especially in the northwestern region of Transylvania — yes, the land associated with the fictional Dracula.
Romania’s architecture is simply delightful. As the country’s history goes back much further than the communist period, forget about any associations you may have with former Eastern Bloc countries. While you can find a few grey socialist-era buildings, these do not at all define the character of many of Romania’s towns and cities.
The blend of different styles — and the historical German, Hungarian, and Byzantine influences — left me totally charmed.
You can see the Saxon influences in many buildings and churches with tall, pointy roofs — a kind of derpy architecture I quickly grew very fond of. Signs are often written in Gothic blackletter typeset. In contrast, many wood panels, furniture, and even gravestones are colourfully decorated with intricate hand-painted detail. Heading into the mountains may involve a ride in a bright red retro 1970s cable car, adding a feel of the Swiss Alps.
It may not be quite Wes Anderson-style, but I have an idea that this film director would have a great time exploring Romania.
If that’s not reason enough, some of Europe’s last unspoiled wilderness can also be found in Romania.
The mighty Carpathian mountain range, which splits the country in two, serves as a refuge for numerous threatened species, including Europe’s largest remaining population of brown bears. From April to August, storks can be seen nesting on top of seemingly any available telephone- or electricity pole.
Lastly, Romania has preserved the traditional way of life very well. Despite an economic boom since joining the EU, a simpler life is still more dominant in the countryside. Horse-drawn carriages are commonplace, and many things are still produced in highly manual and artisanal ways.
Due to the relative poverty outside the larger cities, I found that sometimes there can be a melancholic quality to Romania; however, this wasn’t the overriding impression. Regardless, it’s interesting to see how people live in different parts of this country.
Oh, did I mention that Romania is super cheap?
My travel in Romania is easily among the least expensive I have experienced in Europe. With so many reasons to visit Romania, undoubtedly the low cost should surely seal the deal.
How cheap is Romania?
Travelling as a couple, we spent about 45 Euro a day ($55 USD) per person while staying in simple but nice Airbnb’s and including car rental. If you’re backpacking Romania on a budget, I think about 30 Euro ($35 USD) per day can be enough.
Is Romania safe?
Without hesitation, I can say, “YES, Romania is perfectly safe!”
I’m aware that questions about safety in Romania are quite common. Sadly, though fair, it often stems from outdated perceptions or — to be a little blunt — some prejudiced ideas about Romania.
Hopefully, I can help correct this and dispel any doubt about visiting this destination.
For a long time, I’ve noticed certain preconceptions about Romania. When living in the UK, I found that some Brits may have some specific ideas about Romanians, who often take temporary work in the UK. Many confuse Romanians with Romani people (gypsies) — to be clear, these are two entirely unrelated cultures, so whatever your opinion, one has to separate the two.
Crime statistics for Romania are relatively unremarkable. Sometimes, they’re even surprising in a positive sense. For instance, did you know that Belgium has 9.6 times more recorded robberies than Romania? Of course, safety in Belgium is rarely in question — such is perception versus reality.
Rest assured, Romania is a very warm and welcoming tourist destination, where safety should not be an overriding concern.
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Having said that, during your trip to Romania, it’s worth maintaining everyday security awareness and always consider the possibility of petty theft. I’ve heard that the capital city, Bucharest, is the most likely place for this, especially in crowded areas. As always, it’s also worth getting travel insurance in case you face any challenges during your trip.
One caution regarding safety: I found the Romanian’s driving to be pretty crazy at times! You may experience some audacious overtaking on small two-lane provincial roads, or encounter horses or other animals on the road. Take care if you’re driving in Romania, as road safety is a more realistic concern.
Road trip in Romania
I opted to travel through Romania using a rental car; renting a basic sedan costs about €20 a day. You can compare prices from multiple rental companies by checking Discovercars.com.
While being mindful of the hazards you may encounter on Romanian roads, self-driving proved to be an efficient way to see many places in one trip, including some areas in nature that are otherwise hard or impossible to reach.
Backpacking in Romania using public transport is also possible for sure. While I did not use public transport to travel in Romania, I heard a few stories from frustrated travellers using the train services, which they found quite slow or unreliable. Then again, it is a cheaper way to travel.
A road trip will allow you to drive some stunning roads through the Carpathian Mountains. The Transfăgărășan pass is one of the most famous drives in Europe. Be sure to carefully check if the road is open, as it typically only is during summer. If the Transfăgărășan pass is closed, you may have better luck with the Transalpina road, though it too is not always open year-round. Another blog offers a good comparison between these mountain roads.
The Bicaz Gorge, cutting through some spectacular 300m-high limestone rocks, is another epic drive that is worth adding to your route.
This small historical city is an ideal starting point for a trip in Romania, as it’s centrally located and has lots to see and do.
Brașov immediately draws you in with its Medieval charm. Its old town rests between two forest-clad mountains, forming a wonderful green backdrop as you peek through its cobbled streets and alleys. Atop one of these mountains sits a Hollywood-like ‘BRASOV’ sign just so there’s no mistake about where you are.
The centre is mainly pedestrianised, and its lively streets are filled with trendy cafes and cute shops. I had pencilled in two nights for Brașov, but I extended my stay to three nights after seeing its charms.
About 15km west is another wonderful town, Râşnov, which, not to be outdone, also has a Hollywood-esque sign — not to mention an impressive hilltop fortress.
Things to do in and around Braşov:
- Tour the Black Church, a Gothic church named “the Black Church” since being scorched in a great fire in the 17th century.
- Take the cable car or hike up the Tâmpa mountain for a great view of the city.
- Clamber around the Braşov Citadel.
- Take a day trip to Bran Castle and Peles Castle.
- Take a hike to the seven ladders canyon.
- Try some Kurtos Kalacs, a sweet cylinder cake roasted on a spit, sold from many street carts.
Bran Castle (a.k.a. Dracula’s Castle)
The town of Bran is located about 10km west of Braşov. Here you can find Bran Castle, which has a bit of a tenuous link with the Dracula novel. However, in real life, it once served to guard the border between Transylvania and Wallachia.
The Dracula angle clearly serves as a good marketing hook for tourism in Romania, and it’s admittedly quite fun. I had to chuckle when I saw restaurant menus offering ‘Dracula’s blood wine’ or ‘Dracula’s favourite cutlet’. Some shops, of course, sold Dracula-inspired souvenirs. This kind of branding might be a bit tacky, but if it gets more people to sink their teeth into wonderful Romania, I’m all for it.
Bran Castle is quite small with many tight corridors; I’m told it gets awfully clogged up with visitors in the August high season, though I found exploring the castle quite enjoyable in the offseason.
Peleș Castle, a Neo-Renaissance palace built in the early 19th century, is easily combined in the same day trip. Contrary to some of the older stone castles in Romania, it feels more like an alpine retreat for wealthy nobility. I found it interesting for its bold architecture and the extensive gardens around it.
With its multicoloured houses, Sighișoara may be the most photogenic town I visited in Romania. This UNESCO-protected town has the distinction of being Europe’s last remaining inhabited medieval citadel.
As I walked past the many pastel-coloured facades, I could have squinted my eyes and fooled myself that I was in a colonial town in Guatemala. Of course, the Saxony and Gothic architecture poking out from behind the roofs reminded me that I was, in fact, in Romania.
In this fairytale-esque town, part of the fun is just getting lost in its alleyways and seeing what is there — perhaps you find a cute antique store, or maybe a cafe with a hidden courtyard. It’s the sort of town where you can just happily enjoy a drink and watch the world go by.
A unique Medieval wood-covered stairway leads to a central hilltop on which rests a 13th century fortified church, as well as a gorgeous old graveyard partly overgrown with wildflowers.
A unique aspect of Romania is its numerous fortified churches, of which Biertan (about 30 minutes from Sighisoara) is a wonderful example.
Transylvania once formed a frontier with the Ottoman Empire, which led to numerous fortresses being constructed along the Carpathian mountain range to defend against any possible invasion.
It also led to the fortification of existing churches in some smaller towns, turning them into mini-castles by adding walls and towers.
The UNESCO World Heritage-listed walled church of Biertan sits atop a small hill, peering over the village as you approach. It’s often said to be among the largest and most impressive walled churches in Transylvania.
Sibiu is another delightful historical town to add to your Romania itinerary. Its centre is pleasantly walkable, with cobbled squares and leafy parks where granddads gather to play chess in the afternoon.
The town has some peculiar details, such as the Medieval core featuring a lower and upper section, as well as a square surrounded by baroque buildings with almost Viennese grandeur.
In Sibiu, I was introduced to the region’s hilariously dopey looking Saxon built houses. Their tall pointy roofs and narrow attic windows make you very easily see faces in them. The squintiness of those attic eyes make the houses look, well, as high as a kite.
Once you see it, you can’t unsee it!
The Sibiu Lutheran Cathedral is well worth visiting. After climbing its 73m high steeple via stone stairs, through a choir practice room, and several vertigo-inducing wooden stairs covered in a fair bit of pigeon poop — you finally reach the church bell tower. Up here, you can embrace your inner Quasimodo while enjoying some great panoramic views of Sibiu against a backdrop of distant snowy mountains.
For a great introduction to Romanian cuisine in Sibiu, book a table at Crama Sibiul Vechi, a former wine-cellar-turned-restaurant specialising in local dishes.
The road through the Bicaz Gorge is known as one of Romania’s most scenic drives — and it certainly did not disappoint! It slices through the impressive mountains in the Cheile Bicazului-Hășmaș National Park, twisting and turning between monumental walls of rock.
Because the Bicaz gorge is in the northeast of the country, I debated the detour from my circular route through the heart of Romania. Despite the added miles, it proved to be a great addition to my itinerary; the drive is spectacular with so many photo opportunities.
Along the way, you will pass a large hydroelectric dam and the Lacul Roșu (red lake), named after the colour that it’s sometimes given by reddish alluvia deposits.
Honestly, it was more of a green lake when I visited, but it was worth a stop anyway. The area was abuzz with families having BBQs and partaking in festivities as it was a local holiday. I loved snacking on Kürtőskalács, a sort of coiled snake-like sugar bread, and watching the many paddle boats on the lake.
I spent the night at Red Lake Inn, a cabin-in-the-woods style B&B beside a gently babbling brook where the air was filled with the scent of pine trees.
The Transfăgărășan is a mountain road stretching for 90 kilometres through the Carpathian mountains. With numerous hairpin turns and spectacular views, it’s been called one of the best drives in Europe and once featured prominently on Top Gear.
At first glance, the name Transfăgărășan seemed about as unpronounceable as Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano. But ignore all the squigglies — just read it as Trans-faga-rasan — and things get much easier.
I must admit that my experience with the Transfăgărășan was limited, as I drove the first section, only to discover that snow keeps the rest of it closed for up to 9 months of each year. One would think that this should be a piece of pertinent information, but the many travel sites I’d consulted before my trip were entirely silent on this crucial detail! GRRRrrrr.
So, to be clear: the Transfăgărășan is usually only open from July until September. I had to turn around and go back the way I came, but I hope to drive the entire route one day.
The Turda Mines
My final destination in Romania was the town of Turda. It’s a fairly unremarkable town that could easily be passed by were it not for the spectacular Turda Mines.
I have seen a few mines in my travels, but nothing quite like the enormous caverns of Salina Turda. When I first stepped onto the walkway at the top of its 112-meter deep main hall, I literally gasped.
Unlike some of the tight mine shafts I have traversed before, the Turda Mines encompass several truly enormous open spaces. It is so big because mining has been going on here for nearly a thousand years (yes, a thousand!). If I could put it in very geeky terms, these epic caverns seemed like a secret underground creation in Minecraft, so unlikely in its sheer size yet hidden from the world above.
Don’t expect to learn too much about salt mining or the history as there is only a small museum inside. However, the space has been creatively repurposed into a small theme park. It features a range of funfair attractions, including a ferris wheel, with squeals of laughter and merriment echoing through the massive chambers.
I read some travellers lamenting a lack of ‘authenticity’, but I thought it was pretty interesting how the mine had been given a second life — and I totally recommend the trip.
Romania travel tips
Unlike many other Balkan or East European languages, Romanian is not Slavic but Latin, so if you know some Italian or Spanish (for instance) you may be able to parse it a little. Fun fact: Romania is actually named after the Romans, who they once saw as their forebearers.
Younger Romanians tend to speak English quite well, as do those in the tourist industry, so communication is rarely a problem.
While not a safety issue, you may encounter beggars from time to time in areas frequented by tourists. While I did not experience this personally, I’ve heard a couple of stories of some beggars being annoyingly persistent.
It’s worth knowing that some Roma beggars may not be in need but are merely hustling, so honestly don’t feel too pressured to give. Be sure never to give anything to children, as this can create wrong incentives.
There are cheap flights from all over Europe to Romania. Be sure to check airlines such as Ryanair and Wizzair.
The capital, Bucharest, is where most of them connect to, though I found good flights to other airports as well. I flew into Sibiu on this trip, and I saw cheap flights to Cluj-Napoca as well. All of these make for good launching pads into the rest of Romania.
Romania is very cheap by most Western- or Northern European standards. To illustrate, you can find a comfortable Airbnb from about 25 Euro a night or, if you’re backpacking, a dorm bed from 8 Euro per night.
Even a proper multi-course dinner in a good restaurant set me back no more than 20 Euro per person, with 5 Euro often sufficing for a simpler hearty Romanian meal in a local place.
It’s worth paying attention to the history of Romania — it’s quite fascinating! Pull a thread and you’ll discover numerous connections with other parts of Europe, with influences from the Saxons, Hungarians, and even Teutonic Knights who arrived from the Baltics.
The cuisine is also an interesting melting pot Hungarian, Austrian, German and even some Greek and Turkish influences.
Romanian food tends to be quite hearty. It really won’t be a challenge to find enough calories to burn for your travel activities! Expect lots of stews, soups, and heavy meat-based dishes (especially pork).
My favorite is sarmale, a cabbage roll stuffed with minced pork, sauerkraut, and dill.
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