We visited Romania after spending nine days in nearby Bulgaria. Though we consider ourselves worldly, we honestly didn’t anticipate how different these two countries would be despite being so close to each other. For example, unlike it’s Slavic neighbors, Romania actually speaks a romance language, a remnant of early Roman (AKA Latin) settlers. The Romanian language is actually incredibly similar to Italian!
Additionally, the Romania as it stands today was historically four different regions, only fully united after the end of World War I in 1918. They are actually celebrating a huge centennial this year! Pro Tip: go next year after the country has finished the massive renovations…
We spent two days in Bucharest, the capital, and the rest of our time in various Transylvania cities: Cluj, Alba Iulia, Sibiu, and Brasov.
On our first day, we started with a so-so, overpriced breakfast at our fairly run-down hotel near the Bucharest train station – really our only disappointing stay in Romania. The only plus was that unlike Bulgaria where breakfast starts at 8:30, this breakfast began at 7:00am, allowing us to get started early!
After fueling up, we walked south to explore the beautiful Cismigiu Gardens, a lovely green space developed during the interwar period of renewal in the city.
Next, we continued south for views of the Palace of Parliament, the second largest government administration building in the world after the Pentagon. Though the building is quite astounding, it also serves as a giant painful reminder of it’s not too distant mastermind, Nicolae Ceausescu, the much hated communist dictator ousted and executed in 1989. We did not do a formal tour, though it is recommended by many. The timing of the English tours just didn’t line up for our schedule.
One of our first goals when visiting a new country is to first gather historical context, so we next made a beeline for the National History Museum of Romania. This visit unfortunately kick started a theme for our trip: renovations and closures. The entire country is preparing for a centennial celebration and this was our first taste of the disappointment. The museum did have two exhibits open, but not in English and not very enlightening: a replica of Trajan’s column (now in Rome) and the Treasury.
Despite our disappointment in the museum, we did enjoy a visit to the nearby, still active Stavropoleos Monastery.
We were also pleased to stumble upon the 130 year old Caru’ cu Bere restaurant, which had been recommended to us by multiple sources!
After a delightful (but long) lunch, we decided to explore “old town.” Being Romanian history novices, we expected the old town to be medieval. However, we quickly learned that Bucharest is really a relatively young European capital with it’s oldest buildings only dating about 200-300 years. There are two factors for this: 1) much development here occurred after unification in the interwar period and 2) many of the older buildings were destroyed by earthquakes in 1945 and 1977, but also by Ceausescu, who wished to remodel the city to more efficient communist block buildings.
After a quick stroll through the fairly small (and incredibly touristy) old town, we decided to give the Bucharest City Museum a try. This museum gives a VERY clear and interesting history with good English descriptions. No pictures allowed inside, but it’s a MUST VISIT.
After finally getting a good grasp on Romanian culture and history, we continued our walk through University Square with views of the National Theater prior to meeting up with a Wine and Cheese Tasting Tour.
The recommended Wine and Cheese tour was led by Vlad, who asked us where we’d already visited and took us on a tour to other important areas, such as the Opera House, his favorite building, and Revolution Square, where the people took to the streets in 1989 to overthrow Ceausescu, many being gunned down in the process as the dictator and his wife temporarily escaped in a helicopter.
On our second day, we decided to head north to explore a few museums and green spaces, starting with a visit to the notorious Ceausescu secret mansion. Apparently, we led his people to believe that he lived in a simple communist home with only Romanian goods, but in actuality lived in a lavish home tackily decorated (think Graceland) with extravagant foreign products. The people still feel deeply betrayed by this discovery after his overthrow.
We were the MOST excited about visiting the Museum of the Romanian Peasant and then MOST disappointed because it was closed for renovations. However, we made the most of it with some traditional Romanian food in the still open cafe!
After lunch, we used our extra time to visit the next door Grigore Antipa Natural History Museum, which was actually quite pleasant (no photos allowed though).
Next, we collected our luggage from the hotel and headed out on a series of transportation methods en route to Cluj-Napoca to begin a southward traverse of Transylvania.
On our third day, we set out to explore Cluj-Napoca (mostly just referred to as Cluj). We began with a climb up Fortress Hill in Cetatuia Park for views of the city with the morning light.
We next attempted a visit to the National Museum of Transylvanian History, but were again disappointed because all except a temporary exhibit were closed for renovations. But mom had fun playing with the technology!
We next headed to the Ethnographic Museum of Transylvania, which looked like it might be closed but it was OPEN! Mom always loves getting to see the old costumes at these museums, which provide interesting insights into the development of culture.
For the majority of the afternoon, we wandered through old town, this time much more medieval, including visits to St. Michael’s Church (closed for renovations), Unirii Square, the Ascension Cathedral, and Tailor’s Bastion, a part of the old city walls turned into an art gallery.
We also took a little time to walk up and through the Hungarian Cemetery. Transylvania actually belonged to Hungary for much of written history and its ownership is still fairly controversial today depending on who you ask!
On our fourth day, we set out on a tour we had arranged for the day to visit Alba Iulia and Sibiu, two important Transylvanian cities. We chose to do this as a tour instead of visiting on our own because it seemed more convenient to have a private tour. While we absolutely recommend visiting these two places, we cannot recommend the tour we took. It was quite expensive, but we were told that included entrance fees, etc. However, we really only visited free places on the tour, many things were closed, our guide ended the day early, and she was actually quite lackluster about the sites we visited. In her defense, she was getting over a cold.
Regardless, Alba Iulia is notable because of it’s development as a military outpost by Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa and then as the site of the crowning of King Ferdinand and Queen Marie after unification in 1922.
Though our guide lacked spirit, she did bring spirits, blueberry palinka that her friend makes!
Next, we drove on to Sibiu, a recently renovated town that was next on Ceausescu’s list of places to tear down just before his overthrow! The current president is the former major of this town and completed many projects to improve the city, such as adding pedestrian streets.
In Sibiu, many things were closed, but we were able to visit a small Pharmacy Museum on the site of the country’s oldest pharmacy (no photos allowed).
Without much else to do, we ate lunch at our guide’s favorite place in the old wine cellars of the medieval city walls.
Really, the highlight of our day was a dark horse: a ride on a rather ancient looking train to Brasov with gorgeous sunset views over the countryside! Pro Tip: We actually ordered our train tickets in advance online, but when the tour ended early we couldn’t change our tickets. We ended up just buying additional tickets because they aren’t expensive. Better to just buy tickets at the station!
Upon arrival in Brasov, we encountered our very first taxi scammers! We’d read about them our entire time in Romania and Bulgaria but only ever met nice taxi drivers. However, there were about 30 taxi scammers at the Brasov train station in a pretty intimidating huddle charging exorbitant prices to go 1 mile into town. Just take the bus!
On our fifth day, we headed out for another day tour of Transylvania castles. We were honestly a little bummed about it after our suboptimal experience the day before, but couldn’t have been more pleased with our tour!!! Pro Tip: We bought the tour tickets through Viator, but realized that they charge A LOT more than Flip Flop Tours if you just buy direct using the link above.
We were the only ones on the tour that day, so ended up with a private tour with the company’s owner, Florin. Throughout the day, we drove through the beautiful countryside of Transylvania engaged in delightful intellectual conversations. Florin is well traveled and was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide!
Our first stop was Peles Castle, built by King Carol I when he was first invited to come and serve as Romania’s first king in 1866 (this is a complex situation). I regret not paying the extra fee to take pictures inside because it is absolutely exquisite! The king was very modern and installed electricity, telegraph machines, and even had a sunroof on the castle!
Our next stop was the Rasnov Peasant Fortress, a 13th to 16th century citadel primarily used as a protective defense center between Transylvania and Wallachia at the foot of the Carpathian mountains, the historic boundary between western and eastern Europe prior to the unification of Romania.
Our final visit of the day was to the touristy and romanticized Bran Castle, the legendary (if not actual) home of Dracula, a fictional character based on the real life Vlad Tepes (AKA Vlad the Impaler). The castle was very beautiful and interesting for it’s history as a fortress and then renovated palace of Queen Marie. The place was cheesily decorated for Halloween, but that also had a certain charm.
After our tour ended, we returned to Brasov and ate dinner at Sergiana’s, recommended to us by Romanian friends we met in Japan last year!
On our sixth and final day, we had the day to explore Brasov before heading back to Bucharest by train the evening. Unfortunately, we couldn’t help our timing, but we were there on a Monday – the day EVERYTHING is closed. However, we enjoyed walking around the medieval city walls, as well as stopping for a few souvenirs before taking a train back to Bucharest.
Pro Tip: The train company seemed to sell the same seats to multiple people. Thankfully we sat with some nice people who spoke enough English to tell us to stand our ground and not give up our seats. Apparently it is expected that someone will have to stand!
Upon arrival back in Bucharest, we got a taxi to our airport hotel to rest up for an early flight home the next day. The taxi driver was not a scammer, but did decide to drop us off on the side of the interstate because it was easier for him…regardless, we got their safely and enjoyed the hotel very much!
If you’ve gotten this far, we hope you enjoyed the journey!! Stay tuned for our YouTube episode featuring this trip to Romania for even more insights!