It comes as a surprise to some, but Transylvania is not just a fictional setting from Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel — it is, in fact, an actual place. While its connection to the famous vampire might pique your interest initially, I quickly discovered that this region of Romania is full of surprises. (See also my reasons why I loved traveling in Romania.)
The Dracula thing expectedly does get played up a little bit. Tourist restaurants in Sighisoara, the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler who served as his inspiration, serve things like Dracula’s bloody steak or his ‘favorite wine’. But for the most part, the region is pretty low-key and seems mostly off the tourist radar.
If Romania is not on your list, it should be. Thanks to its beautifully preserved Medieval towns, stunning landscapes, and a wonderfully traditional culture, I think Transylvania might well be one of the most underrated regions of Europe. I recently went on a road trip through Transylvania, and the following places were among my highlights.
Small quiet city with a charming old town
Sibiu was the first place we visited in Romania, quite simply because it was easy to fly there via Munich. It turned out to be a great place to start, not only because it sits right at the heart of Transylvania, but also thanks to being a thoroughly charming Medieval town.
It’s worth heading straight to the Sibiu Lutheran Cathedral and climbing up its 73m high steeple via stone stairs, through what seems to be a choir practice room, and then up several floors of vertigo-inducing wooden stairs covered in pigeon poop — until you finally reach the church bell tower. Up here you can embrace your inner Quasimodo while enjoying some great panoramic views of Sibiu. Distant snowy mountains form the backdrop behind the town’s orange-roofed houses and its church towers and domes.
The old town of Sibiu is in wonderful condition and is pleasantly walkable, with its cobbled squares and leafy parks where granddads gather to play chess in the afternoon. The town has some fun and peculiar details, such as the Medieval part featuring a lower and upper section, as well as having a square with baroque buildings with an almost Viennese grandeur.
It was here in Sibiu that I was also introduced to the region’s hilariously dopey looking houses, owing to the Saxons who built them here. Their tall pointy roofs and narrow attic windows make you very easily see faces in them… and the squintiness of their eyes make these houses look, well, as high as a kite. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
We took our first dive into the Romanian cuisine at Crama Sibiul Vechi, a former wine-cellar-turned-restaurant specializing in local dishes. The food was mostly of the grandmothers-kitchen style, and the sarmale (Romanian cabbage rolls) was the best I’ve had on the trip.
Outside Sibiu are a couple of villages that are decently interesting to visit if you have your own transportation. In Rășinari, many of the houses lack a person-sized front door and instead have a huge horse carriage-sized one — while in the village of Christian, you can find a nice example of the region’s famed fortified churches.
Spectacular mountain pass (but usually closed)
At first glance, the Transfăgărășan road seemed about as unpronounceable to me as Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano. But ignore all the squigglies — just read it as Transfagarasan — and things get a lot easier.
This winding mountain pass over the Carpathian range gets touted by many a listicle as one of the top places to see in Romania, so I dutifully went there… only to discover that snow keeps it closed for up to 9 months of the year. This seems like, umm, maybe pertinent information to share, but all travel sites I’d consulted were entirely silent on this crucial detail. GRRR.
So to be clear: the Transfăgărășan is usually only open from July until September!
It was a little frustrating to drive all the way to the mountains only to be thwarted by concrete roadblocks half-way up. In May, we could only get as far as the starting point of the cable car, which can take you to Bâlea Lake if the schedule permits (but we were already too late). Some tantalizing glimpses of distant snowy peaks did convince me it would be an amazing place to go in season. As a consolation prize, we had a little picnic with a view of the Făgăraș Mountains.
Tip: if the Transfăgărășan road isn’t open, try driving the Transalpina instead. I wish I’d known this beforehand!