Located near the center of Romania in the Transylvania region, Sibiu is as idyllic as they come. Already settled by German settlers as early as 1191, Sibiu historically had a mixture of Germans, Hungarians, and Romanians living within its borders, making it a very important city on the trade route in the area. While World War II changed the city’s ethnic makeup, there is still a small minority of ethnic Germans left in the area – including the current president of Romania, Klaus Johannis. Wander around the gorgeous old town, and then take a bus out to the ethnographic museum to see how Romanians in the different regions have lived for centuries.
Timisoara, as the historical capital of the richly diverse Banat region, also has a fascinating ethnic history. It has been in existence for about 800 years, and during that time it has been part of the Kingdom of Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, and finally Romania. The current population is mostly Romanian, but there are still a fair number of Hungarians, Germans, and Serbs living there as well. The diverse history shows itself in the architecture of the city, so when you’re walking around, you can see influences coming from all of the different groups who had their time ruling Timisoara.
You’ll probably come to Brasov to see Bran Castle, the castle that inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula, but you’ll stay for the city itself. Another important Transylvanian city, Brasov has been inhabited continuously since the Neolithic period, but was built up to its current state by German settlers in the first half of the last millennium. There are several beautiful churches to check out, in addition to the Peles and Bran Castles, which are both a short drive away. Between the uniformly red roofs, the mountains, and their thick cover of trees, there are few places that seamlessly blend into the landscape so well.
The sights that you’ll see in Suceava make it very clear that this was once a royal town. It was, in fact, the capital of the Principality of Moldavia for a period of about 200 years, so you can see the ruins of the Set Fortress of Suceava, the Princely Court of Suceava, and the Scheia Fortress. You can also check out the open air Bukovina Village Museum, where you can see traditional buildings from all over Bukovina, the region where the city is located. There are a number of other sites to check out, including several churches with architecture that is very particular to the region.
At over 300,000 people, Cluj Napoca, or Cluj as people often call it, still retains the feel of a small town in its historical center which distracts from the communist buildings on the outskirts. Cluj was originally founded by the Romans around the year 100, but then in the third century, it was vacated and left empty until the Hungarians conquered Transylvania in the early part of the last millennium. The architectural influence you’ll notice the most, however, is from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For a very cool experience, head a little bit out of the city to Salina Turda, an old salt mine that has been turned into an underground amusement park of sorts – complete with a haunting underground lake.
With a name that translates to ‘tree-logs’ in Romanian, it is no surprise that Busteni would have made this list for its natural beauty. Hidden away in the Prahova Valley and surrounded by the Bucegi mountains, Busteni offers outdoor opportunities for tourists year-round. Coming in the summer will set you up for great hiking with beautiful views, whereas you’ll want to bring your skis for a winter visit. The wood-roofed buildings give the town an Alpine feel, and the gorgeous mountains and forest surrounding them only complement their appearance. For some history, you can even check out the nearby Cantacuzino Castle.
Don’t be afraid – but Sighisoara is where the real life ruler Vlad the Impaler, whose life inspired the Dracula story, was born, and you can visit the actual place where it all happened at the House of Vlad. Otherwise, Sighisoara has an extremely well preserved medieval fortified center, with the surrounding walls still remaining – all of which has earned Sighisoara a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list. While you’re wandering around such a bright and charming town, it’s difficult to remember that its most famous son was brutal enough to inspire one of the most memorable evil characters in literature.
Originally founded by the Greeks, Constanta is over two and a half millennia old and was even mentioned in a Greek myth. Later, the Roman poet Ovid would spend the final years of his life here; when the Roman Empire began to fall apart, Constanta would switch hands until 1419, when the Ottomans took it over for over 400 years. The area fell back under Romanian control in 1878 and has been an important port on the Black Sea ever since. The city is full of buildings with fascinatingly diverse styles, and of course the Black Sea beach is another big draw. This is definitely a city where you’ll want to stay for a few extra days.
This once capital of the Principality of Moldavia and even capital of Romania for a brief period at the beginning of World War I, occupies an important space in the national consciousness of all Romanians and is therefore known as the Cultural Capital of Romania. Pronounced ‘Yash’, Iasi follows the Romanian pattern of a history full of various ethnic groups, all of whom left their mark on the city. Iasi in particular, had a very large Jewish population, until the horrors of World War II. The city possesses a fascinating collection of religious buildings from various different groups, including the oldest surviving synagogue in Romania, an Armenian Orthodox Church, and multiple monasteries.
Another regional capital, you will find lovely Oradea in the western Crisana region of Romania, very close to Hungary. It is therefore unsurprising that the Hungarians would have played an important role in developing the city. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for several centuries leading up to World War I, and it was during that time that the bulk of the city was built up in the beautiful Baroque and Art Nouveau styles. Oradea is still a truly bilingual city, as about a quarter of its inhabitants are Hungarian. Now, it is a very important cultural and educational center, and is worth a visit for many reasons, from the architecture, to the history, to the luxurious spas right outside the city.