Few places in Europe manage to be as famously mysterious and yet mostly unknown quite like Transylvania does. Today, people seem to know it as a spooky fictional place full of Gothic horror, not realizing that Transylvania is a real place with real people, and zero vampires. A central region in the eastern European country of Romania, it’s possible to not only visit Transylvania, but also to fall in love with it. If we’ve piqued your curiosity, these Transylvania travel tips will help make a visit there a reality.
1. It’s Hard to Pin Transylvania on a Map
Before we get into our travel tips for visiting Transylvania, it’d probably help for you to know a bit more about Transylvania itself. For instance, you’d have a hard time finding Transylvania on a map, even a map of Romania. That’s because Transylvania is a historical region of Romania and is not actually an official region of Romania today.
Then there’s the issue that the borders of Transylvania aren’t exactly clear cut. While there are parts that have always been considered Transylvanian from times when the region had a governor or prince, there are other parts of Romania to the north and west that only sometimes get included. So depending on who you’re talking to and what you’re talking about, places like Oradea and Timisoara can also be part of Transylvania.
2. Don’t Expect Vampires
Thanks to movies and pop culture, most people immediately associate Transylvania with vampires. The thing is, there was very little real connection between the region and vampires prior to 1897. Of course, all of that changed with the novel Dracula written by an Irishmen, Bram Stoker. In the book Dracula is a vampire from Transylvania, and as the story grew in popularity and was retold over and over, vampires and Transylvania became forever linked.
The other connection to Transylvania with this story is the character’s name, which was borrowed from a real life person, Vlad Dracula. Better known as Vlad the Impaler, he was a prince of nearby Wallachia, with quite a brutal reputation. Now, while you can’t visit any sights in Romania that are linked to the fictional Dracula, there are many related to Vlad the Impaler. The city of Sighisoara is where Vlad was born, Corvin Castle is where he was allegedly held prisoner, and Poienari Castle is where he lived. But the most famous place linked to the Dracula legend is Bran Castle. Even though it’s often called “Dracula’s Castle”, Bran Castle has almost nothing to do with the man or the legend, instead, is is just a very picturesque castle.
3. Best Time to Visit
Much like any destination, one of the important things to figure out is when and when not to visit. Naturally, the answer depends on what you plan to do there. Since Romania isn’t overburdened with tourists yet, summer is still a good time to visit as it also doesn’t get too incredibly hot there.
For more balanced sightseeing and hiking weather, consider autumn or late spring instead. Plus, if you like fall foliage, the endless forests of Transylvania are sure to delight. In winter, it can get quite cold up near the mountains, so it’s not ideal weather for sightseeing but it can be great if you plan on skiing or are curious about the local Christmas markets.
4. Visit Some Genuinely Pretty Cities
Among the many things to see and do in Transylvania, visiting the region’s cities is a must. So much of the region is made up of mountains and countryside, and yet, the simplest way to get to know Transylvania is through its cities.
The most obvious candidate to start with is the city of Cluj Napoca, which is the largest city in the region and the unofficial capital. While it has historical sites, like the St. Michael’s Church and sections of old medieval wall, Cluj is very much a fun and modern city. Then there’s the city in the mountains, Brasov, one of the best places to visit in Europe. This historic city has a terrific atmosphere, and attracts a lot of visitors who are looking to ski and snowboard nearby.
Other smaller cities include Sibiu, Alba Iulia, Sighisoara, and Targu Mures, which each have their own attractions and charms. Most are well worth spending a day or two exploring, especially when you take into account surrounding attractions.
5. Go Castle Hunting
Certainly one of the biggest selling points about travel to Transylvania is all the incredible castles you can visit there. In this part of Romania you’ll find castles that easily compete with castles in Germany or France, in terms of both beauty as well as history. What’s more, you’ll find that they’re far less overrun with tourists than their western European counterparts. If it is your first trip to Transylvania, these are sights you don’t want to miss.
We’ve already mentioned a couple connections to Vlad the Impaler, namely Bran Castle and Corvin Castle. Sitting atop a forested hill on the edge of the Carpathian Mountains, Bran Castle is quite an atmospheric, medieval castle. Be sure to take all the hidden staircases that run through the castle, even though they can be a bit disorienting.
Corvin Castle, on the other hand, is just plain magnificent. Also known as Hunyadi Castle, this beautiful Gothic castle looks like it belongs in Disneyland rather than outside the small city of Hunedoara. While it’s classic view is from across the elevated bridge, make sure to also go inside and see its stone hallways.
One other castle that can’t be forgotten is the glamorous royal summer retreat, Peles Castle. This Neo-Renaissance castle wouldn’t look out of place in the Bavarian Alps and is probably the last thing you’d expect to find here in Transylvania. As impressive as it is on the outside, the woodwork interior and furnishings are even more opulent, making it a castle you can’t miss.
6. Bears, Hikers Beware!
One of the more popular activities in Transylvania is to go hiking in and around the Carpathian Mountains. Through the thick forests that covers these mountains you can find plenty of hiking trails. Some outdoorsy types will actually come here solely to hike and with landmarks like the Sphinx rock in Bucegi Natural Park, it’s easy to understand why.
But when hiking in Transylvania, it’s important to be extremely careful. Not because of vampires, werewolves, or other legendary monsters, but because of very real brown bears. Romania is said to have around 6,000 brown bears in the hills and mountain areas of the country, quite a bit of which covers Transylvania. That’s roughly half of Europe’s brown bear population!
So, before hiking, it’s in your interest to find out whether there are likely to be bears in the area and what to do if you encounter one. This is probably the most crucial safety tip for traveling to Transylvania, because bear attacks do happen. You don’t even need to be that remote, as even just up above Brasov, on Mount Tampa, it’s possible to find bears. That being said, the Piatra Craiului Mountains are better known for wild bear-watching, which is becoming an increasingly popular activity.
7. Different Ways to Get Around
When visiting a new region, a common concern is working out how to get around. In Transylvania, you have a number of options open to you, most of which have their limits. For public transportation there are buses and trains, depending on what route you want to take.
Trains in Romania are generally ok, but with the country’s work over the last few years to upgrade the rail infrastructure, you should expect some delays. Buses, whether they’re coaches or minibuses, tend to be more reliable with about the same cost and journey time. Again, it all depends on the route, if there is one. As for flying, while there are cheap flights between major cities in Romania, Transylvania isn’t large enough to have affordable flights between cities.
The best way to get around Transylvania is by driving. Unfortunately, because of the terrain and how small some of the destinations in Transylvania are, driving yourself is often the best option. For instance, to access more remote places like Biertan and it’s immense fortified church, driving is really the only way. This might be one of the most important travel tips for Transylvania!
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Plus, driving also allows you to experience what Top Gear once dubbed the “best road in the world”, the Transfăgărășan Highway. This long, curvy roads stretches up into the Carpathian Mountains with plenty of switchbacks. Once you reach the top, you are rewarded with superb views. Do take note that this road is only open a few months of the year, during summer, when it’s clear of snow.
8. Base Yourself Somewhere
When planning a trip to Transylvania, you can easily come up with a great long list of places you’ll want to visit. The thing is, a whole lot of them are smaller destinations that you can see fully in just a day. Also, as smaller or newer tourist destinations, they may not be particularly well suited to the needs of tourists. That’s why it’s a good idea to find one or two places to base yourself.
With so many smaller destinations to visit in Transylvania, it helps to base yourself somewhere and then head out to other places on day trips. Staying somewhere like Brasov or Sibiu, you can then venture off to all the small surrounding places and even cover several destinations in one day. For example, Rasnov Fortress and Bran Castle can be visited together quite easily from Brasov and don’t really require an overnight stay in each.
9. Remember You’re Not in Germany
While sightseeing in Transylvania you may start to get this strange feeling like you’re actually somewhere else. Don’t worry, you’re not going crazy. What you’re picking up on is the heavy influence that German settlers had on this region for centuries.
From the 12th century onwards, people from areas around modern west Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands traveled all the way to Transylvania to help defend against various foreign invaders and also to work the land. These settlers were known as Transylvanian Saxons. It was these Saxons that founded the Siebenbürgen, which are seven fortified towns through Transylvania and include Brasov and Sibiu.
So when you see rather Germanic burgher houses in Sibiu, or fortified churches at Biertan and Prejmer, what you’re seeing is that Saxon influence. While the majority of Transylvanian Saxons have since left the region, all the cities still have German names, like Brasov is Kronstadt, Sibiu is Hermannstadt, and Sibiu even has a German-language school.
10. Spread the Word
Both Romania and Transylvania are gaining popularity with tourists, but they still receive far fewer visitors than so many other countries in Europe. It’s not because there’s nothing to see and do there but rather because people don’t know just how fantastic this corner of the globe is. If you do get the chance to travel to Transylvania, be sure to spread the word, and tell people what it’s really like!