Last Updated on October 12, 2021 by

From fairy tale castles to magic mountains, Transylvania is a mystical part of Romania that’s often overlooked by travelers.  Here are some tips from my trip to Transylvania for those who plan to visit.

It all began when I was a little girl. As a child, my favourite book was Bram Stoker’s Dracula; I must have been read it at least a dozen times. In my imagination, Dracula’s home, Transylvania, was a land full of witches, vampires and haunted castles — the stuff of nightmares. And as a (weird) kid, I dreamt of seeing it. My latest trip is, therefore, a dream trip to Transylvania!

Transylvania turned out to be everything I’d dreamt of — and more. It was like stepping into a kid’s fairy tale. Forbidding castles coated in snow and backdropped by majestic mountains; whimsical villages clustered with small pastel-colored huts, their gingerbread roofs and medieval spires tumbling down to pretty cafes; cobbled streets flanked by antique shops and medieval clock towers.

Transylvanian Alps - trip to translyvania

A Personal Dream Trip to Transylvania

This trip was a dream come true in every sense of the word. It not only fulfilled my childhood dreams of visiting Dracula’s home, it also made my dream of working for Lonely Planet come true.

For my first assignment, Lonely Planet had asked me to go anywhere – seriously anywhere in the world – using Skyscanner’s “everywhere” feature.

I did a quick search to find the cheapest places to fly to from my nearest airport (Malaga, Spain) and Bucharest came up high on the list. Romania’s capital city, just a two-hour drive away from Transylvania, made for a great launching pad. I packed my bags (and some garlic) and made my way to the Dracula’s mythic homeland.

View from Bran Castle - trip to translyvania

An Introduction to Transylvania

Lodged in the far corner of eastern Europe, Romania is a long-misunderstood country that suffers from a poor image. Those who have visited know the truth: this is one of Europe’s most unspoiled lands – a time-capsule only now opening up to the outside world.

Recently named “Best Region to Travel in 2016” by Lonely Planet, the central region of Transylvania makes a great introduction to the country. It offers a plethora of medieval cities, Saxon villages, and fortified churches. It’s home to more than 100 castles (several of which are associated with the famous Dracula) and some of the highest peaks in the country. Several rural communities still hang on to lifestyles long-lost elsewhere in Europe.

Known as Romania’s green heart, Transylvania is ringed by the Carpathian mountains and crisscrossed by a network of hiking trails and mountain huts. This is also where you’ll find Europe’s biggest brown bear population (with over 6,000 brown bears in the country). Also look out for wolves, lynx and bisons.

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Medieval towns - trip to translyvania

Dreamy landscapes - trip to translyvania

Braşov: A Fairy-Tale Town

My first stop in Transylvania was Braşov, a small-ish and vibrant city sprinkled with multi-colored, baroque buildings that adorn medieval spires and terracotta tiled roofs. Its maze of streets is fringed by bohemian cafes, art galleries and handicraft shops. The city’s palpitating heart is Piaţa Sfatului, a spacious square lined with alfreso diners and dramatically backdropped by Mt Tâmpa.

Home to just over 250,000 people, Braşov is neither small nor big, perfect to explore on foot and get lost amidst the cobbled walkways. There are quite a few things to do in Brasov, despite its small town feel. I spent a day wandering around the city’s Old Town, finding surprises at every other corner in the historical quarters. The most interesting spot I found was the Strada Sforii, translated to mean ‘Rope Street’, tucked between rows of time-warped shophouses. Measuring just 1.3m in width, the street is one of the narrowest in Europe.

No matter where I went in Braşov, I saw Mount Tampa in the distance. I knew I had to find a way to get up there somehow. So I hopped on the funicular just outside the Old Town and skedaddled my way around the muddy trails on the hilltop before reaching the lookout point at the ‘Braşov’ Hollywood-style sign. I stood, all alone on the ledge, drinking in the view and feeling as though I was on top of the world.

Brasov - dream trip to translyvania

Brasov - dream trip to translyvania

On the Trail of Dracula

The next day, I left Braşov on a mission to follow the trail of Dracula. Just a few kilometers outside Braşov stands the regal 14th-century Bran Castle, perched on a massive rock overlooking the winding river and gorge that divides the regions of Transylvania and Wallachia.

It had snowed the night before, Bran Castle was now coated in shimmering white powder and looking extremely dramatic. With turrets and towers poking high into the sky, Bran Castle looked straight off the pages of my favorite vampire novel. It was exactly how Bram Stoker described Dracula’s home: forbidding and haunting.

My Trip to Transylvania with Lonely Planet

Vlad the Impaler

As I learned at the castle, Dracula was a lavishly mustachioed Wallachian prince by the name of Vlad the Impaler (1431–76). He famously earned the nickname ‘Ţepeş’ (Impaler) after his preferred form of execution: impaling the victim with a wooden stick through his buttocks.

Sadly, I also found out that even though Bran Castle was home to the protagonist of the novel Dracula, the real Vlad Dracula never lived here and – and he may not have ever set foot on the premises. His real home was at Poienari Citadel in Wallachia, which is now a ruin.

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Today, Bran Castle is a museum open to tourists, displaying art and furniture collected by Queen Marie who used to spend her summers here with family. It’s still well worth a visit, especially for the Dracula fans out there.

Inside the castle - dream trip to translyvania

Walking with Bears

My next stop was the nearby Zarnesti (Libearty) Bear Sanctuary, another place that has helped put Transylvania on the map.

For years, bears in Romania were trophy-hunted, forced to dance in the streets and trapped in cages outside restaurants. Kept in cruelly cramped conditions and regularly abused by their owners, these native animals lived in a nightmare. They needed help urgently.

In 2005, captivity of bears was finally made illegal in Romania. In the same year, NGO World Animal Protection joined Millions of Friends in the largest project to rescue and care for brown bears in Romania. The City Hall of Zarnesti donated 70 hectares of oak and hazel forest to this good cause. Thus the Zarnesti Bear Sanctuary was born.

Libearty bear sanctuary - dream trip to translyvania

Largest Bear Sanctuary in the World

Over 80 bears have been rescued to date and this is now the largest sanctuary of brown bears in the world. Here, the bears get to roam freely over a large area, forage in vegetation and eat a healthy diet. For many of them, this is a new and stimulating experience. Sadly these bears can’t be released back into the wild as most have lost their foraging skills during captivity and they wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild. But thanks to the sanctuary, they now get to enjoy a comfortable life in a natural environment.

It was really heartwarming to see how the sanctuary has given new life to once-captive bears. Most importantly, it’s raised the awareness in Romania on the importance of protecting the country’s rich natural environment.

Bears rescued from abusive environments - dream trip to translyvania

Up to the Ice Mountains

Beyond the towns and castles, Transylvania puts on quite a show with its sweeping landscapes of ice mountains and jagged peaks. And it was this natural landscape that I was eager to explore.

With my guide Marius Ghisoiu from Untravelled Paths behind the wheel, we headed towards the Făgăraș Mountain Range. This place is home to the highest peaks in Romania. The mountains reach an altitude of around 2,500m and form a part of the Transylvanian Alps.

To get up and across the mountains, we traversed the famous Transfăgărăşan Road. Romania’s highest asphalted road, it was voted by the TV show, Top Gear, as the world’s best road. The two-lane road boldly zigzagged its way up the steep slope, revealing breathtaking scenery around every one of its hairpin bends.

Road to Fagaras - dream trip to translyvania

Transfagarasan Road - dream trip to translyvania

Modern World Narnia

Even this road has an interesting story behind it: Romania’s dictator, Ceauşescu, had ordered this road to be built during the 1970s as an escape route in case of any foreign invasion. The construction had taken 4.5 short years, killing 38 overworked soldiers during its hasty process. Of course, no invasion ever took place, and it has now become a tourist attraction on its own, drawing in motorbike and car enthusiasts especially in summer.

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Come winter, the upper section of the highway is actually closed to traffic as it gets swallowed up by snow. To continue our journey further, we caught the cable car up to Bâlea Lake. This is a glacier lake standing at 2,035m above sea level. It was like Narnia out here: frozen icicles hung from granite rock cliffs. The light that bounced off the snow was blinding me, and there was silence except for the sounds of ravens flying above.

Cable car up to Balea Lake - dream trip to translyvania

Balea Lake - dream trip to translyvania

Sleeping on Ice

Each November, Bâlea Lake freezes completely and the area becomes a winter park.  Kids and adults alike take advantage and can have fun in the snow. I spent the afternoon racing around the lake on a snowmobile, swishing down the slopes in a tube, and getting pulled along the lake on a raft (think banana boat but on ice). I truly felt like a kid again.

Next to the Balea Lake stands the Hotel of Ice, one of the most unique creations in Romania. Blocks of ice are taken from the glacier lake and then hand carved by local craftsmen using traditional techniques, and transformed into the beautiful igloos. Everything in the hotel is made of ice: from the tables to the chairs, the bed to the bar counter and even the piano at the entrance. The hotel even has an ice church that features an intricately carved sculpture of Jesus Christ and the Last Supper.

The Hotel of Ice - dream trip to transylvania

ice church - dream trip to transylvania

Falling Asleep on Ice

Every winter season, it’s rebuilt from scratch and a new theme is given to the Hotel of Ice. This year, the rooms were designed based on countries. The Spain room sported sculptures of a bull and bullfighter, the Holland room adorning a windmill and tulips all carved out of ice. My room, France, had a spectacular Eiffel Tower by the entrance and carvings of flowers on the walls.

That night, I enjoyed a shot (more like three shots) from an ice glass. Then I ate delicious salmon tartare from an ice plate, before tucking into bed. After covering myself with layers of reindeer fur, blankets and beddings, I tucked into my sleeping bag and slipped into deep slumber.

I couldn’t help smiling in my dreams — after all, I was in Transylvania, a place where dreams do come true.

Staying at the Hotel of Ice in Romania


Disclaimer: This trip was made possible by Lonely Planet and Skyscanner, but all opinions expressed above are based on my own.

 

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