When you hear the word Transylvania you envision a dark palace perched atop a hill, age-old tree trunks wrapped tightly around tall iron gates, lightning striking against windows on a cold wintery night. In reality, Transylvania, a region in central Romania, is a land of unique historical and cultural experiences. The Culture Trip brings you an all-you-need-to-know guide.
Transylvania is a lot more welcoming than the Dracula stories would have you believe. So welcoming in fact, you may not want to leave. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself in baggy pants, sweaty but deliriously happy, volunteering to plough the fields with traditional farmers. The experience that awaits will remind you that Transylvania is more than home to a legend; it is a legend.
Dubbed the ‘land beyond the forest’, Transylvania is one of Europe’s best preserved medieval landscapes, with historic towns left untouched. The views are reminiscent of Grimm’s pop-up fairy tale books: you’ll find Old Saxon architecture, cobblestone streets, pastel coloured houses, secret passages, clock towers, delicious Saxon cuisine and unusual encounters in the woods. Splendid, fortified Saxon churches stand proud across the region, all designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. Locals still earn their living as shepherds, weavers, blacksmiths and skilled carpenters.
Depending on time available and the journey in mind, an ideal trip here is five to seven days. There’s something for every traveller, from photography classes and fly fishing to rock climbing and horseback riding through the medieval forest. Follow the must-sees, must-tastes and more.
Just two and a half hours from Bucharest and you’re in the historic Transylvanian capital. The introduction to the countryside is a mix of hitch-hikers, chickens on the roadside, horse & cart, donkeys and endless views stretching beyond the horizon. From the Turks to the Saxons, everyone left their mark; it is a city full of culture, customs and flavours.
The Black Church is Brasov’s main landmark, one of the most important Lutheran churches built by the German community. During the months of July and August, organ recitals are held in the church on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, a tradition observed since 1891.Brasov is also home to the famous Gothic masterpiece, Bran castle. Built in 1377, this wonderland was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a character who is often associated with the eerie 15th century Prince Vlad Tepes, who ruled the region of Wallachia from 1456-1472. Brasov’s cultural landmarks include both Brasov’s Art and History Museum. For entertainment, head to the Weavers’ Bastion Museum, the Puppet Theatre or tear to local drama at the Sica Alexandrescu Theatre.
One of the most important cities in Romania, Cluj-Napoca has been continuously inhabited since 200 BC. The first fortified walls around Cluj were built in the 13th century – complete with watch towers, covering 17 acres of land. The National Theatre is the most important theatrical institute in all of Transylvania and among the most prestigious in the country. If you have an ear for classical music, don’t miss a chance to hear the Transylvanian Philharmonic Orchestra.The churches around Cluj respectfully nod to their Latin heritage, the most impressive of which is the St. Michael Roman Catholic church, completed in 1480 and the first hall church from Transylvania. The north façade of the church was built in the mid-19th century in neo Gothic style rising up 80 metres in height. The interiors capture the stylistic elegance of northern Italy and motifs from the Italian Renaissance. Cluj has the vibe of a cultural metropolis with monuments, art, and entertainment venues worth exploring by day or night. The Hungarian influence is hard to miss with the Hungarian Opera and the National Opera, two institutions that make Cluj one of the only cities in the world to house two such lyrical scenes; keeping to authenticity, all performances are in their original language. The city also has more than its fair share of galleries and museums. Make sure to visit the Ethnographic Museum of Transylvania, a grand showcase of more than 50,000 objects on the life, habits and culture of Transylvania. The National History Museum of Transylvania is an interesting presentation of the history and civilisation from prehistoric times to the 20th century with excavations, weapons, ceramics, photos and books. The National Art Museum has an extremely valuable collection of old Romanian and European art works.
Sibiu is a beautiful medieval village in the heart of Transylvania, an official European Capital of Culture in 2007 and one of the most important cultural centres of Romania. In the 14th century, Sibiu was a key trade centre with vibrant markets and became the cradle of Transylvania’s Romanian indigenous peoples in the 19th century. Located at the opposite end of the winding Transfagarasan highway, Sibiu is a traveller’s dream and a time capsule playground, waiting for you to explore history, arts and culture. It’s here that you will find Transylvania’s finest art museum, at Brukenthal Palace. The ASTRA Museum of Traditions and Folk Art houses the biggest village exhibit in Romania. Sign off the day at Camara Boierului, one of the best local restaurants with traditional dance performances, or opt for Sibiul Vechi’s delicious cuisine and live traditional music. A must-visit is West of Sibiu is 15th century Corvinesti Castle, hailed as the most beautiful in Transylvania.
This is a picture-perfect snapshot of life in Transylvania and the place to enjoy Romania’s culinary delights. Recommended eats are Joseph T. Restaurant & Wine Bar and Casa Georgius Krauss. A climb up the Clock Tower opens up to great views of the village and its natural surroundings. Built in 1281, the Clock Tower is a splendid work of art, adorned in traditional Romanian tiles and a clock whose dials each represent a character from the Greek-Roman pantheon. The churches of Sighisoara reveal 500 year old frescoes, renaissance paintings, and Oriental carpets.
You’ll find Vlad Dracul’s house in the Citadel Square on Strad. Cositorarilor 5. This is the house of Vlad Tepes who was born here in 1431, the character who inspired Bram Stoker’s famous Dracula. What you’ll find today: authentic river stone floors and a medieval-inspired restaurant.
Known as the city of roses, Targu Mures is picturesque and a welcoming display of Romanian and Hungarian cultures, demonstrated in the arts, historic architecture and of course, cuisine. Numerous archaeological digs have uncovered Roman treasures and even Neolithic culture from the Bronze age present itself. In the 16th century, Targu Mures was pegged as a cultural and education hub and The Telek Library is one of the village’s key landmarks. Founded in 1802 by Count Samuel Teleki, the library was the first of its kind and today contains a rich archive of 250,000 mathematical and scientific works – 40,000 of which were the Count’s private collection.
Stroll through the city and spot the Apollo Palace, a Baroque style landmark which served as the official venue for aristocratic balls, an apartment residence and today, an art school. The Palffy House built in 1640 is the Music School of the University of Theatrical Arts, an acclaimed institution in Romania. The architects who designed City Hall (The Prefecture) sought to redesign the appearance of the historic city center and what you see is a grand presentation of the rise of Art Nouveau in Transylvania.
Locksmiths and goldsmiths of the 17th century set up their headquarters at Targu Mures Fortress, initially ordered by Prince Stefan Bathory in 1492 to enclose the Franciscan monastery and church. During the Habsburg Empire, the fortress underwent an architectural makeover; houses inside the fortress were demolished to make way for military headquarters – and even a new bakery. Speaking of which, after a traditional Hungarian style dinner at Restaurant Tempo, you can catch the Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hall of Mirrors.
Wine lovers head the villages of Blaj, Jidvei, or Tarnaveni, where wine harvests are carried out according to tradition, handed down for generations. Visit Bethlen Castle in Cetatea de Balta for a wine-tasting.