Upon first setting out for a 5-day road trip through southern Transylvania, your first thoughts will probably be focused on the country's best-known cultural export, Dracula-ah, ah, ah. And, well, who can blame you? After countless movies, TV shows, and even a Marvel comic book series, the word "Transylvania" has been iron-branded onto our collective consciousness as the grim, blustery, far-far-away native land of the original Vampire.
But that is precisely why a 5-day road trip through central Romania is so necessary: it helps show that the mythical, Hollywood-ized land is a real, live place, with people (not vampires) and cars (not horse-drawn carriages, though you'll see a few of those, too) and bustling city centers (as opposed to whatever Bram Stoker would have us believe). Which isn't to say we base our opinion of a place by how many bright-lit shops and cafes line its streets; in the case of Transylvania, however, those modern establishments throw the country's exceptional history, not to mention its stunning, centuries-old architecture, into sharp relief.
Below, an itinerary for your 5-day trek through Transylvania, including where to sleep, eat, church-hop, and plenty of off-road sightseeing stops along the way!
From Bucharest, most travelers' starting point, this small town in the foothills of the Carpathians is an easy 1.5-hour drive, making it a good rest stop for those who depart the capital in late morning. Steep hills frame the edges of this ski resort town, which has two things going for it: inexpensive, chalet-style hotels, and close proximity to Peles Castle, an impressive turreted manor that looms over the city on a sprawling estate surrounded by forest.
Stay here for the night, as Brasov is full of cheap pensiuni, or guest houses, like the Kolping (in fact, pretty much everywhere you stay in Transylvania will be cheap, and you should never count on spending more than $60 USD a night for a mid-range accommodation).
Indeed, Brasov is a proper city, with pubs (we liked one called Publick), shops (the recently-opened Libraria Humanitas boasts over 15,000 titles, and a decent selection in English), not to mention quite an interesting history: Germans settled here in the late 1200s, and they proceeded to build a wall, which effectively kept the Romanians out of their own city for four centuries.
No train station will stop at this Saxon village buried deep in the countryside, so it's a good thing you're traveling by car. Located about an hour north of Brasov, and 15 minutes off the main highway, this teensy UNESCO heritage site has one big draw, namely, a fortified church (one of several similar historic structures in this region) whose foundations date back to the 1100s. Visitors can poke around the church itself, which is located at the end of a sleepy, but attractive, farmer's village.
Take note of a small stone doorway in the rear of the church, which leads to an impossibly narrow staircase up to the church's clocktower. From here, all of Buneşti – the county which encompasses Viscri, Criţ, and three other villages – is visible in all its verdant, sheep-flock-flecked glory. What a view – in particular, gazing down on the church's red tiled, precipitous V-shaped roof will make you think you're looking out from the balcony of a medieval gingerbread house.
Here, it's possible to rent out rooms inside local villagers' houses for the night. Pay just $69 to stay at Viscri 125, a charming guesthouse right in the center of the village, with spare, traditionally furnished rooms, a garden for lounging in the summer (as well as a DVD library, and free Wifi for the colder months), and free breakfasts of homemade granola, farm-fresh yogurt and cheese, eggs, and traditional jams and preserves.
At the northernmost point of your trek, you'll reach Sighisoara, the jewel of Transylvania. The town itself is split into two sections: lower Sighisoara, and the citadel of Sighisoara. By all means, skip the lower half and head straight for the scenic citadel, where you can gaze out over the quaint cobblestone streets and brightly-colored houses from the window of your cozy wood-accented room at the Hotel Sighisoara (from $59) or the more luxe Fronius (from $99).
At the top of a 184-step covered staircase, you'll reach the Church on the Hill, with its 500-year-old frescoes and small adjoining cemetery. Spend a few hours exploring the winding streets of the citadel, before tucking into a hearty Romanian meal inside your hotel (a perfectly grilled, and very garlicky, eggplant dish at the Hotel Sighisoara did the trick for us).
Finally, wind up in Sibiu, whose historic quarter was named by Forbes as Europe's eighth most idyllic place to live (that, in addition to being named a European Capital of Culture in 2007). The sprawling town square, as charming and scenic as any you'll find in Eastern Europe, is a great place to sit and watch the world go by (though if the weather's too harsh, Mojo is a great cafe around the corner).
Alternatively, walk a few steps to the northwestern corner of the square to Brukenthal National Museum (admission $6.25), whose galleries are full of works by European masters like van Eyck, de Koninck, and Pietro Liberi, and an impressive collection of Transylvanian stone sculptures dating back to the 13th century.
One street over is the Romanian Orthodox Cathedral – we know what you're thinking ('another church?'), but trust us, once inside the cathedral's red-and-yellow brick exterior, with its domed roof and gilt wooden carvings, you'll want to spend a few minutes just soaking up all the hushed beauty.