Where to go and what to do.
Romania is one of the hidden gems of Europe, home to the Carpathian Mountains, dense forests providing shelter for impressive wildlife, many mediaeval castles, painted monasteries, fortified churches and wild landscapes.
Romania is so much more than ‘The Land of Vampires’ as it’s often called by people who don’t know anything else about the country. Bran Castle aka Dracula’s Castle is indeed a famous and a tourist hotspot for those Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula fans, but Romania boasts many other iconic landmarks, sights and things to do perfect for both culture vultures and wanderers.
Romania is also the place where traditional villages stuck in a nostalgic time still exist in the regions of Transylvania, Maramures and Bucovina. An overview of everything would take too long so we’re just going to focus on some of the most interesting.
The impressive Corvin Castle
This Gothic-Renaissance masterpiece is one of the best-preserved castles in Europe, which is impressive since it is no less than 600 years old. Initially built in the 14th century, with its fourth and final phase of construction being done only in the 19th century, the Corvin Castle has proudly stood the test of time.
You will feel like traveling back in time the moment you walk the thin wooden bridge connecting this fairytale castle with the rest of the world. This architectural jewel boasts high-fortified stone walls, dreamy windows, balconies, bastions with sharp red-tile rooftops, and towers that look exactly how we used to imagine mediaeval castles as children.
The catch is that this fortress is not home to dragon-slaying knights and princesses. It was the home to the Corvin dynasty that ruled parts of Transylvania and Hungary, and then it became the residence of feudal lords.
Like all the other castles in Romania, there are some very interesting legends surrounding Corvin Castle that delight visiting tourists. The most popular one is about the raven holding a golden ring in its beak which you’ll see depicted in the castle and was also the seal for Corvin family. There are at least 3 variations of it, all of which are rooted in Romanian folk culture and myths.
The ruins at Sarmizegetusa Regia
Often described as the Machu Picchu of Europe, Sarmizegetusa Regia is an interesting archeological tourist attraction in Romania that will unravel many secrets surrounding the ancient Dacian civilisation.
This hilltop fortress was once the centre of the Dacian people’s most important political, military, and religious locations before the 2nd century AD when the Roman Empire conquered these lands.
Today, Sarmizegetusa is one of the most enigmatic sites of ancient history, concealed in the impassable Carpathian forests and part of Romania’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
One of the top interest points is a sanctuary reminiscent of Stonehenge in England, so if you’ve always been fascinated by the world-renowned ruins but haven’t had the chance to visit them yet, you can meanwhile adventure into this enigmatic Romanian site. Nonetheless, its location remains a bit daunting to access, which, even if annoying for some tourists, explains how its remains have lasted so well even after 2,000 years.
Sarmizegetusa Regia is undoubtedly an interesting location for an ancient culture from the late European Iron Age. So, make sure you don’t miss this archeological site when you visit Romania. If your schedule allows, you may also want to spend a day or two hiking nearby in Gradistea Muncelului-Cioclovina Nature Park, which is home to various other Dacian remains and mind-blowing vistas.
The underground amusement park in Turda Salt Mine
Located in Cluj County and with a history of over 2,000 years, Turda Salt Mine was everything from a salt mine from Roman times to a cheese storage centre and a bomb shelter in the Second World War.
But today this underground labyrinth with huge grottos has been turned into an impressive futuristic theme park. As you go down 120 metres you’ll instantly feel the salty humid air. In case you didn’t know, breathing salty air is good for your lungs and is prescribed for people with asthma or other respiratory diseases. Turda Salt mine is one of the best ‘treatment centers’ in the country and a day trip here is one of the best things to do in Cluj which is Romania’s second largest city and Transylvania’s unofficial capital.
That’s why inside the mine you’ll find a bowling alley, numerous spa treatment rooms, an underground lake with row boats, a huge amphitheatre, ping-pong tables, and even a Ferris wheel. Things to keep you busy!
And the best part? You can enjoy your treatment while touring the place and learning about its salt exploitation history thanks to a small museum.
Biertan Fortified Church: a couples’ retreat
Biertan is one of Transylvania’s seven villages where you can find the fortified churches part of UNESCO heritage. As you drive into the village you’ll start feeling nostalgic of old, simpler times. And the sight of the looming fortified church that stands head and shoulders above all other buildings in the area is impressive.
Built in late Gothic style, this church was once a fortress meant to defend Biertan’s villagers against invaders. And it really did that: this village was never occupied in mediaeval times. Boasting a complicated system of gates and towers and three tiers of about 10-metre-high defensive walls, Biertan Fortified Church remains one of the most imposing fortresses of its time and also one of the most interesting places to visit in Transylvania.
Firstly a Catholic church and then a Lutheran church, this building impresses not only with its majestic features but also with its history. There is one thing that not many know about Biertan: there was only one divorce among villagers for hundreds of years. This is due to the church’s ‘marital prison’ where couples who wanted to divorce were first locked up for at least a week to try and solve their problems. Harsh but efficient!
The Painted Monasteries of Bukovina
The Bukovina region in North-Eastern Romania has something rarely seen in other parts of the world: a set of eight churches built in the late 15th and 16th centuries with impressive, well-preserved fresco paintings depicting biblical scenes and figures.
Their exterior walls show the creativity, imagination and skill local artists had so it’s no wonder they are protected by UNESCO. And to much surprise, these frescoes painted in Byzantine style withstood the test of time and harsh weather and are unexpectedly well preserved. That’s why they’re revered sights for devout Orthodox Christians all over the world.
By far one of the most interesting paintings is the Battle of Constantinople on Probota Monastery which is almost 500 years old. Sucevita Monastery boasts impressive mural paintings from the early 1600s which tell the story of the place’s culture but also tormented history. And Voronet Monastery is famous for its blue hue used to depict Judgement Day.
Unique for these churches is the arrangement of colours and the balance of characters. These churches have more in common with the simple yet gorgeous churches concealed in the mountains of Armenia and Georgia. If you’re one of those ‘church’d out’ travellers or just someone interested in the history of religions, you will love visiting them.
So, you see, Romania is an incredible destination that is often underestimated or overlooked. And there’s much more to discover in the country besides these places. And ready for the best part? Locals are friendly, food is home-grown in the countryside and prices are much more affordable than in other countries in Eastern Europe.
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