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Transylvania Travel Guide – Tourism in Romania

I was in high school when I learned that Transylvania was a real place- not simply a fictional land existing only in vampire literature. As soon as I found out that Transylvania was a real place I knew that I wanted to go. Why? I love exploring parts of the world that are a little bit obscure and a little bit off the beaten path so Transylvania was a perfect destination for my travel style.

And let’s be honest, I loved the reaction when I announced to friends and family that I was “going to spend a month in Transylvania.” (More than one friend admitted after the fact that they’d later googled whether it was an actual place!)

In 2019, I spent late August through Early October wandering Transylvania as a slow-traveling digital nomad, and here’s my guide based on my own research and extensive travel around the region.

Views from the square in  sibiu, romania
Views from the square in Sibiu, Romania

Is Transylvania real?

Yes! Transylvania is a real place. Transylvania is a region located in the interior of Romania, in Eastern Europe. It’s home to several large cities, farmland, and a diverse variety of landscapes. Don’t be embarrassed if you weren’t sure that Transylvania is a real place. In researching google trends as I wrote this article about my time traveling in Transylvania, I was only a little surprised to find that in a given month, about 10 times as many people ask the internet “is Transylvania real?” compared to people who ask for Transylvania tourism information!

What is Transylvania Really Like?

Romanian is a fascinating region to travel- with many of the perks of traveling within the European Union- while still exploring a part of the world that is exotic to the typical American experience.

Transylvania is a part of the world full of contrasts. It contains both thriving cities and remote rural areas. It’s home to blazing fast internet and tech startups, and also has a high population (relative to the rest of Europe) of individuals still using horses and carts for transportation. In a region associated globally with vampirism, werewolves, and the occult, 81% of Romanian citizens identify as Orthodox Christian-and on a typical Sunday, a higher percent of Romanians attend church than citizens of any other European Country. In Transylvania, youth culture, street art, and live music scenes flourish, while traditional folklore, clothing, and art continue to be celebrated.

Where is Transylvania?

Transylvania is a region within Romania – essentially, it’s central Romania. Transylvania was once a country, but in 1867 it became a part of Hungary (only to split from Hungary and merge with Romania in 1947, after World War I). Transylvania is a massive 39,704 square mile area within the interior of Romania.

Transylvania is in Romania, which is in eastern Europe, south of Ukraine, and north of Bulgaria.  No longer defined by concrete legal borders, Transylvania is a region in Romania with semi-defined borders, according to Wikipedia. Like “the Ozarks” or “the south” in the USA, this region has a history, culture, and identity that is linked with but not quite the same as the rest of the country.

Can you visit Transylvania?

You can, and it’s amazing! Transylvania is a beautiful part of the world, characterized by diverse landscapes that include rolling hills, vibrant cities, fertile farmland, medieval towns, castles, fortified churches, multiple UNESCO world heritage sites, and mountains. This large geographic region is far more than its folklore reputation for spookiness and vampires- although there are a few places where the folklore seems to be at least partially based on reality (more on that later!)

Transylvanian countryside.

How to get to Transylvania?

Transylvania is easily accessed via Budapest, Hungary or Bucharest Romania- both major cities with easily accessed airports and train stations.

To get to any of the cities within Transylvania (including Timosoara, Cluj Napoca, Alba Iulia, Sibiu, etc) from Bucharest or Budapest, you can take a train, taxi, or rental car. There are pros and cons to each method of travel in Transylvania, but I’m an outlier in that I prefer trains- even in Eastern Europe. You can read more about tips on riding trains in Eastern Europe. But here’s a simple rundown:

Getting to Transylvania by Train

Romanian trains are notoriously slow but traveling in Romania by train is by far the most inexpensive option. Even though rail travel in Romania is slow, it will generally get you to your destination with some great views along the way. Train travel on these slow-moving trains is, to me, an invitation to be present to the journey in a different way- it offers an opportunity to notice the world pass slowly by instead of focusing on the next destination and missing the present moment.

Getting to Transylvania by Taxi

Not advisable from Budapest, getting to Transylvania by taxi from Bucharest, Romania is surprisingly affordable. In Romania, an hour taxi ride in Romania can cost as little as $35, although rates vary by region, passengers, car type, and service.

Renting a Car in Transylvania

Renting a car in Romania may be worth it depending on your travel style. Like most things in Transylvania, the cost of renting a car is affordable relative to US exchange rates. However, many of the cities that you’ll want to visit in Transylvania are medieval cities with narrow roads, and having a car to park may prove more of a hassle than a help.

You should, however, rent a car if you plan on driving the Transfagarasan highway in the Carpathian mountains- a popular tourist spot in Transylvania not far from Bran Castle and Fagaras Castle.

Travel Safety in Transylvania

Crime rates in Transylvania are in line with other regions of Eastern Europe – and in some cities much safer. According to stats available through the UN at the time of this publication, the murder rate in Romania was half, per capita, than the USA;  and violent crimes were as much as 6x less common. Like traveling anywhere in the world, you should use common sense and exercise basic solo-travel safety when traveling in Transylvania.

Because of the ease of transportation, and general safety, Romania is an excellent destination for solo travel. When I visited Transylvania as a solo traveler in 2019, I traveled throughout the Transylvania region of Romania for over a month. Visiting over a dozen cities, I never found myself in an area where I felt unsafe to be a female solo traveler.

How much does it cost to visit Romania?

When I spent a month in Romania in 2019, I spent most of my time in Transylvania. I’ve done a full report in another post on what it cost to visit Transylvania, but the short version is that traveling with mid-range expenditures, I spent an average of about $35 USD a day on food, transportation, and incidentals (not including the cost of hotels and lodging). Romania is a much more adorable destination than many popular European spots.

Reasons to visit transylvania.

Folklore in Transylvania

One reason that I love visiting parts of the world that are a little bit obscure but not entirely outside of common knowledge is the opportunity to rewrite the narratives that I have about those places. For example, when I chose to visit Bosnia in 2017 the trip was very much motivated by wanting to know a different Bosnia than the Bosnia that had dominated new cycles when I was a teenager during the Bosnian war.

Visiting the country gave me an opportunity to experience the culture, the people, and the hospitality which shaped a different- and more nuanced- understanding of the nation. I approached visiting Transylvania with the same attitude, confident that I would not, in fact, encounter vampires. As I left for Translyvania, I set out to discover what else in the legends and folklore around this region might also be different than what I expected.

Look closely and you'll see the name vlad scratched into this old beam.
Look closely above this horseshoe hanging in the Romanian National Horse Farm’s barn and see the name “Vlad” scraped into the old wooden beam.

I expected Transylvania to be nothing like the Transylvania depicted in movies like Hotel Transylvania and Count Dracula or books like Bram Stroker’s Dracula that launched the region to infamy around the turn of the 20th century. What I found was, to my delight, that a few of the bits and pieces of the folklore stories about Transylvania that the western world holds are actually based in reality! Some of my favorite parts as outlined below.

4 things Vampire Movies get Right about Transylvania

BATS – Transylvania, the central region of Romania, is actually an important habitat for European bats. Romania is home to 32 species of bats and the bats that call Romania home are actually critical to the European population of bats, according to researchers.  I squealed with delight when, my first night in Transylvania staying in an Airbnb apartment overlooking a town square and cathedral in Timisoara, bats began swarming the cathedral just after dark.

ARCHETYPAL ARCHITECTURE – Transylvania is full of iconic “haunted” houses. It turns out, that iconic silhouette of a haunted house that comes to mind when Americans think about Halloween decorations and scary movies actually exists in Transylvania. The archetypal haunted house is actually an ornate version of a Victorian-style home, with towers, wrought iron trim on the roofline, and turrets- a style that just happens to have been very popular in Romania in the late 19th century. Gabled Victorian houses with wrought iron fences, towers, and walkways along the roofline aren’t unusual in Transylvania- there’s usually one or two on every block of older neighborhoods!

WILD GARDENS – You know how English gardens have a reputation for being a bit more wild and unruly than their closely manicured European equivalents? Well, Romanian Gardens take that license even further. Even the University botanical gardens in Transylvania are wild, tangled, and seem to offer the invitation to visitors to be swallowed whole by the vines and tendrils creeping into paths and over fences. This delightfully naturally wild but subtly-creepy garden aesthetic reminded me of the archetypal images of Transylvania and “haunted” forests.

Hawk hill transylvania cluj botanical
An exhibition greenhouse in a botanical garden in Cluj Napoca, Romania.

NOCTURNAL LIFE – To this traveler, Transylvania seemed to come alive after dark. My first destination in Romania after crossing the border from Hungary was the city of Timisoara. I arrived about 10:30 PM on a warm Friday night in July and walked the half-mile from the train station to my apartment on the square. To my surprise, the city square, large forested park, and commercial area I passed through on the way were all filled with people – couples, families, even parents with young children were out enjoying the city, park, and playgrounds by the light of streetlights.

The next morning, I emerged from my Airbnb to find the streets utterly empty. Exploring the city that day, I saw almost no one as I wandered square in the old town almost entirely solo. As soon as the sun went down that evening, the city came alive again – that night featuring a free opera performance on the square. Whether it was because I visited during a rare heatwave in Romania or just Transylvania culture, I found it interesting that people seemed to be most social there after dark.

How to visit Transylvania

Transylvania is best traveled slowly, with lots of good meals and an open-handed approach to your travel itinerary. Trains run slow, restaurants are open late, and co-working and coffee spaces abound. Transylvania is an excellent destination for slow travel.

In a similar way to the United States, tourist destinations in Romania are a little more spread out – making it a hard region to visit and thoroughly enjoy if you only have a few days or a week. Instead, dedicating a larger chunk of time to traveling slowly through Romania, and enjoying the culture while, for example, remote working is an excellent way to enjoy the region at a pace that feels more sustainable.

Unique and amazing foods to try when traveling in transylvania in romania.

6 Must-Try Foods For Travelers in Transylvania

Romanian cuisine is some of my favorite in the whole world. Even now, 18 months after my visit to Transylvania, I regularly make meals using recipes and spice packets gathered in Transylvania. In fact, Romania was the destination that made me start adding packaged spice mixes for local foods to my Top 5 Travel Souvenirs. Here are some of my favorite food and drink in Romania:

Sour Soup

while the flavor doesn’t appeal to everyone, sampling the sour soups in Romania- versions of what’s called Ciorba – is essential. While exchange rates are low, a soup appetizer in Romania costs about 2-4 USD, making it hard to justify NOT trying this popular style of soup. Most have a base of a slightly fermented or acidic flavor, unique to soups from this region. There’s even a lettuce soup!

Romanian polenta

Polenta in romania.

100 years ago, plain polenta corn grits topped with crisped pork fat was the Romanian version of a package of Ramen noodles – accessible and filling food for people on an extreme budget. Today, modern Romanian chefs have adopted and adapted this dish for modern pallets, and many restaurants in Transylvania include some variation of a pork and polenta dish. add to the polenta section: Unlike Italian polenta, Romanian polenta does not include cheese or dairy, the simple preparation of corn grits is flavored instead with pork and pork fat.

One of my Transylvanian Airbnb hosts shared with me a common Romanian saying about this dish, “if you have polenta for dinner you must tiptoe to bed” and as this adage predicts, it’s not a meal that provides sustenance for a full day of tourist exploring, but for a cultural experience, it’s a can’t-miss food experience on your Transylvanian food itinerary.

Romanian cabbage rolls – Sarmale

A transylvanian version of sarmale served in cluj napoca, romania.
A Transylvanian version of Sarmale served in Cluj Napoca, Romania.

In Transylvania, cabbage rolls are everywhere- but these cabbage rolls may be different from cabbage rolls you’ve had as part of other cuisines – Romanian cabbage rolls are relatively dry on the outside (basted but not smothered in tomato sauce) and contain a mixture of smoked meats, spices, rice, and more cabbage on the inside. These cabbage rolls, called Sarmale, can be found everywhere from street markets to religious festivals, and from greasy food-counters to high-end restaurants. Romanian cabbage rolls have a unique flavor that is easy to replicate at home if you combine a souvenir packet of seasoning with good smoked meat.

Street Bread – Kürtöskalács or “Chimney Cake”

Common to both Hungary and Romania, this treat- also called Kurtosh- is yeast bread twisted around a wood dowel and cooked over an open flame, where the sugar on the outside caramelizes to a crisp nutty caramel.  Often sold at street fairs and markets and commonly eaten from a bag on the go, this treat is worth looking out for during your time in Transylvania.

Juices

Apple juice in translyvania.
an Apple juice in Translyvania.

If you like weird combinations of juices, mocktails, or smoothies, you’ll be in heaven in the cafes and bistros of Romania. Fresh pressed juice is popular and many restaurants have a menu of housemade juice blends in creative combinations.

Barbecued Ribs

Ribs in romania.

Although barbecue isn’t typically associated with Eastern Europe, Romanian Barbecue is among the best I’ve had outside of the USA. You’ll find a slab of ribs on many menus in Transylvania.

9 Reasons Why Transylvania is worth visiting.

1. Romanian food

Transylvanian food is amazing. Like many nations that have known long periods of poverty, Romanian chefs know how to work with basic ingredients to create amazing flavors. The rich, savory dishes of Romania almost singularly would make this region worth visiting.

2. Transylvania offerors a unique cultural experience

Previously under the rule of the Ottoman Empire but also heavily influenced by medieval Europe, Transylvania has a fascinating history that’s visible in its food, architecture, culture, and places of worship.

3. Natural beauty.

Transylvania is an enormous region that consists of almost any landscape you can imagine. From plains in the West to mountains and the Hungarian-speaking city of Miercurea Ciuc in the east, and green rolling fields in the North, this region offers a dramatic breadth of landscapes and climates.

4. Transylvanian hospitality

Like many nations just slightly off the most beaten path for the average tourist’s hotels, restaurants, and other tourist-focused businesses in Transylvania are often extravagantly hospitable, taking steps to make sure that guests feel welcome, enjoy their trip, and speak well of their travel experience there.

5. Transylvanian culture and folklore

One of my favorite parts about Transylvania is the way in which it is poised on the brink between old and new. In a region filled with ancient buildings, culture, and traditions- and stories that are even older than the buildings, central Romania is also home to vibrant youth culture, blazing-fast Internet, more tech startups than anywhere else in Eastern Europe, and stunning modern art exhibits. The unique blend of old and new in Transylvania inspired and invigorated my own work as a creative.

6. Being able to say “I recently vacationed in Transylvania”

When making small talk or meeting new friends, people don’t really want to hear about a ski vacation to Vail, Colorado, or a trip to the Louvre, but if you mentioned a recent trip to Transylvania, ears perk and people lean in. It’s not just a fun place to visit, trips to Translyvania make stories worth telling and hearing because they’re unique.  (Plus, never underestimate the value of a great card to play in games of “2 Truths and a Lie!”)

7. It’s Affordable

Transylvania offers US travelers one of the best exchange rates in Europe for the US dollar. Meaning that in this region of Romania you can travel, dine, and stay much more luxuriously than if you visited other European countries on the same budget.

8. Transylvania is family-friendly.

While not known as a child-friendly destination, Transylvania is a family-friendly, affordable, and laid-back destination. Because of that, it’s great for digital nomads, slow travelers, and families who have time for a longer visit. Transylvania offers many of the cultural, architectural, and natural experiences of Western European nations, with a little more bang for your buck, a bit smaller crowd, and a replaced pace to enjoy your travel. Even the large cities feel like small to medium-sized towns, making them less overwhelming to visit while still having plenty of tourist services to help make your trip or your family’s trip goes smoothly.

9. The Castles!

Transylvania doesn’t just have castles- it has a dizzying array of castles, castle-like fortified churches, and ruins. The high elegance of the shining castle on a hill, Peles Castle (a castle so iconic in its castle-ness that the Hallmark channel seems to have it on speed dial as a filming location) and the rustic and the darkly rumored Bran Castle (the legendary home of Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula character), are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to castles in Transyvania.

Fagaras castle– with its still in-tact moat and Gothic-Renaissance Corvin Castle also welcome visitors year-round, as do to the UNESCO world heritage sites: the Fortified Churches of Transylvania (Which technically are not castles, but close enough that most of us Americans won’t notice!)

How to Visit Transylvania

The view from ruins of a castle outside bran, romania, in the transylvanian region.

How to Visit Transylvania

Acquire a Passport and Confirm Eligibility for a Romanian Visa

Since Transylvania is a part of Romania, you’ll need to check with Romanian Travel authorities and ensure you have the appropriate documents. For Americans, the US Embassy in Romania’s website is a good place to track COVID-19 related travel requirements, while the US State Department has valuable information about circumstances in which you may need to apply in advance for a visa.

Book a Flight to Bucharest

Bucharest’s International Airport (OTP) provides the easiest access to the Transylvanian region. Once you arrive in Bucharest, spend a few days visiting this city and then travel by train or taxi to Brasov, a popular destination in the region. You can travel by train for as little as $4 (Although Romanian train travel has some drawbacks) or take a bus for about $15.

See more Bucharest to Brasov travel options on Rome2Rio. Note that Brasov is a heavily touristed city, so to experience the real Transylvania be sure to explore beyond this gateway city!

Be Adventurous

Transylvania has popular tourist spots and less-popular tourist spots and the best way to really experience the region is through exploring all types of points-of-interest. Click here for tips on things to do while you’re there.

The Best time to visit Transylvania

Like much of Europe, the Transylvanian climate, at lower elevations, doesn’t generally have dramatic or harsh seasonal weather. This means that almost any time of year is a good time to visit. With summer heatwaves becoming more pronounced, however, the best time to visit Transylvania may be in the spring or early fall.

My visit in 2019 was in July, August, and September. Watching the landscape turn from green to gold, and journeying through rural Transylvania during harvest was a part of my trip that feels particularly memorable.

If you’d like to learn more about specific destinations within Transylvania and in the surrounding regions within Romania, check out my list of things to do in Romania. This list includes tourist destinations just outside of the Transylvanian region – including the Steam Trains in the Maramures Forest in the north and the Danube Delta in Northeast Romania, on the coast of the Black Sea.

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