Finding More than Dracula in Romania

By Nomadic Matt | Published August 23rd, 2011

vlad the impaler statue in bucharestAs I wandered around Sighisoara, searching for coffins, bats, vampires and human blood, I realized Romania wasn’t going to give me what I wanted – lots of cheesy Dracula tourism. I had been to Bran, Transylvania, and Bucharest and so far had encountered nothing about vampires. It was odd. The Romanians just haven’t decided to get in on the vampire trend that’s spreading throughout the world. I admitted defeat. I simply wasn’t going to get what I had hoped for.

I would simply have to settle for the fact Romania had turned out to be an incredibly amazing place that far exceeded all my expectations. It was as good a consolation prize as any traveler could get. There may not have been vampire teeth in every shop but the country had a lot to offer.

After Bulgaria, I had mixed feelings about going to Romania. Bulgaria was kind of mediocre. It was better than I’d expected, but I didn’t really love it. In my head, I viewed Romania to be a bit like Bulgaria – a former communist, agrarian country, with crumbling and bland Soviet-era buildings. There would be some nice medieval towns in the countryside, but, overall, I didn’t have high expectations for Romania.

Yet for the three weeks I was in Romania, I was constantly shocked, awed, and blown away by the country. It was marvelous. It was way more developed than I thought, the towns were historic and beautiful, the people were friendly, the food, though heavy on meat, was delicious, and the country exhibited a frenzied, “we are on our way up” energy.

the old city in bucharest, romania

I started in Bucharest, which was a far more Westernized city than I thought it would be. Instead of an old Soviet-era city, I found a city flush with energy, cafes, nice cars, beautiful parks, delicious international food, and a lively nightlife. I also enjoyed a wide range of architecture, from art deco, to late 19th century Paris, to, yes, those big dull grey communist buildings. The historic center had tons of great restaurants and cafes, too (though they were a bit expensive). There’s a certain sophistication and energy to Bucharest that I enjoyed. This place used to be called the Paris of the East, and it’s easy to see why. (The Romanians have this weird admiration for the French that I never expected. They seemed to try to copy a lot from France.)

Heading out of Bucharest, I hopped through Transylvania in search of Dracula. Sadly, there wasn’t much about him to be found. You would think Romanians might have tried to capitalize on the whole Dracula thing, but there is hardly any vampire kitsch around. I was hoping for a lot of cheesy and tacky tourist traps that I could humor myself with. But there were none. I was so disappointed. I would have loved a “I survived Dracula’s castle and all I got was this t-shirt” t-shirt! I would think that with True Blood, Twilight, “Vampires are amazing” fad sweeping the world, Romanians might try to play up their Dracula inspired past and draw in some tourists. (Bucharest did have a Dracula restaurant, but it was closed for renovations.) Sure, it would be totally cheesy, but it would be fun – and sometimes travel doesn’t always have to be serious. Sometimes it can just be tacky and fun. (For example, Disney World.)

the old town of brasov, romania

The main center of tourism in Transylvania (and what seemed to be all of Romania) was the city of Brasov. It was there that there were the most people, sites, day trips, and tours. Brasov is an ancient city that used to be an important trading route between the East and the West. This was my favorite spot in Romania. (You can read a detailed post here on why.)

bran castle

The biggest day trip from Brasov is to Bran, where people head to the “fake Dracula castle.” The castle in Bran is this beautiful medieval residence that was used over the years as a fort, then an administrative center, then a palace for the queen before the communists took over. At best, it might have been a place Dracula stopped while fighting the Turks. I don’t know why it is associated with him (they do have one room dedicated to his legend), but it is a castle worth seeing regardless. It is beautifully preserved and there are a lot of good descriptions about its history on the walls.

the old city in bucharest, romania

Getting out of Brasov, I fell the most in love with Sibiu and Sighisoara, tiny medieval towns filled with cobblestone streets, medieval buildings, and small little alleys to get lost in. These were the only two places where I felt overwhelmed by tourists, and I think it has more to do with the large number of people squeezed into a tiny area than the fact that the cities are “on the map.” Compared to other places in Romania, these towns were a lot smaller. Both reminded me of Bruges a lot in the way they looked, the number of older tourists there, and the lack of things to do after 10 p.m., which was sort of typical of the medieval towns I visited in Romania.

sighaosara romania

I was also surprised at how few tourists I saw in Romania. The hostels were mostly empty, even in busy Brasov and Bucharest. Busy Bran castle seemed to have more Romanians than tourists. I hardly saw any tour groups, and, if I did, they were mostly Russian. I saw a few German youth groups on their way to go camping, but for the most part, Romania doesn’t seem to take part in the great European summer tourist season.

Which is great.

tour group in cluj, romania

Though EU membership has made this country more expensive than I realized, it is a still a great bargain. You can spend around $35 USD a day there if you want to travel on a budget. The country is about half the price of Western European destinations. (I got a fancy sushi meal with drinks for $25 dollars.) And you basically get the country all to yourself. Romania doesn’t probably jump into the minds of most people when they think “European vacation” and thus I think it is why it has avoided the crowds. People probably go “Romania? What the heck is in Romania? Let’s go to Italy.” (This most likely happens because you hear more about Italy than Romania.)

To me, Romania was one of the best and most beautiful countries I’ve visited in years. It defied my expectations. The food was delicious, I enjoyed the medieval towns, beautiful countryside, and most people were very friendly. I think Romania is one of the best countries no one seems to visit. I suggest you head there on your next trip to Europe. It will be worth it.

comments 50 Comments

Hi Matt,

I am glad you liked Romania. I left there when I was 17 years old….next time I go back I will invite you to come with me, who knows? Take care.

Alecs

Betti

I’m trying not to be too harsh on you, because actually you have written a great article here. but come on, communism was out 22 years ago. a lot lingers on, especially the poverty, middle classes slipping down with the current world crisis (Romanian teachers’ and public servants’ miserable salaries were cut by 25% last year for example). it is really time for westerners to do something with these annoying “grey socialist era” stereotypes…. really need more travel blogs like yours :-)
(I am not even Romanian just another “easterner”.)

NomadicMatt

I know it’s a silly view. I’ve been thinking lately about writing a post on how when and where we grow up influences our perspective on places. My parents still view Latin America as a place filled with guerilla soldiers who will kidnap you at any moment. As much as we often hate to admit, these biases linger in our minds even as we know them to be BS. I had an amazing time in all the eastern countries I visited. And I always reflected on how even though I know Romania is developed, I still had this false image in my mind.

Mihai

Dude, your pen is pretty good. Draculesque and vampire expectations exist only in Northern America. There was a plan for a Dracula Park near Bucharest but they screw everything up. People around here really believe that Vlad ?epe? was a great/good historical figure, they cherish history too much, like an icon. People need strong hand rule, so they will say .. Oh, ?epe? was great, Hitler was.. not so bad, etc. So it-s hard to convince people around that Dracula tourism industry can bring money. It-s a silly business but still a business. I appreciate you changed your expectations to ”let-s see what happens around” and you-ve found out that Romanian people is probably the greatest tourist attraction. Yes, they do not realize, but people here are friendly, nice, respectful (with French, a bit too much haha), very similar with Polish people. Nice reading you!

Mihai

?epe?… I meant TEPES VLAD

Cristina

I absolutely loved your article. Yes, you did have low expectations but that’s not that bad. I am so glad we are not part of the vampire “boom”. In Sighisoara there’s Vlad Dracul’s birth house (now a restaurant). And you can visit Poienari Citadel, which WAS where Vlad Dracul actually stayed.

Cristina, Vlad Dracul was the father of Vlad Tepes who is considered to be Dracula:) And in Poenari Fortress, the latter one did not live, he built it as a fort for defence:)

Cristina

:) Thanks for the history 101 :) Vlad Dracul lived in Sighisoara and Vlad Tepes (The Impaler) was BORN In Sighisoara . As for Poienari Castle (Fortress, Citadel) , Vlad Tepes rebuilt it so he could monitor the movements of the Hungarians coming through Transylvania and the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. So, yes, he sort of “stayed” there or in other words, the Castle is directly linked to Vlad Tepes. PS: I’m Romanian

doru

ciao BETTY
I HOPE you had a good time there(in romania) but i do not must say this thinks about. real life is so hard but i must see just the beautiful thinks….ok?
thanks

Matt, did you get to and from Romania by rail, or did you fly? I’ve ended up skipping Romania in the past because of the long rail journey from, say, Budapest.

NomadicMatt

I flew in from Bulgaria because the train ride was very long and I don’t really enjoy long, long, long train rides. I get very bored.

Cristina

ouch :( yeah, from Budapest it’s 5 hrs to Arad (thanks to +1 h to get into our time zone) and another 10 to 12 hrs to Bucharest. Horrible. I’ve done the Arad to Bucharest train ride 9 yrs in a row and it’s not nice at all (unless you get a sleeper and snooze all the way there)

I am glad you enjoyed Romania. Regarding Dracula them – we usually – Romanians do not what to be associated with this brand. We have other beautiful things – like the monasteries or Danube Delta which are real – not Dracula – a Bran Stocker invented myth.

20 years ago, I was in Budapest around Halloween. Due to misadventure in Paris, I had very little money, but I did have a Eurail pass. I decided that it would be cool to travel by train to Romania. I would then call my young siblings in Chicago and tell them that I was in Transylvania in my best vampire voice.

I talked this over with a couple of native Hungarians I met in a bar. They both looked stricken. “No, my friend”, one said. “You must not go there. They are a desperate people.”

This was only a couple of years after Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife had been put up against a wall and shot. The country was in tatters. I was young. I hadn’t even thought about it.

doru

ciao
where are you cris now?

Matt, I am happy you enjoyed Romania… Sorry we did not have a beer together, but I hope you will come back soon… and thank you for the posts, I think it does for the Romanian tourism more than lots of TV commercials…

Oana Culache

you should have visited Iasi and Cluj-Napoca too: educated people, history, amazing old buildings :) anyways, Brasov and Sighisoara are very good choices :)

NomadicMatt

I did! I liked the city a lot. One of the pictures from this post is from there.

Cristina

I saw the photo from Cluj Napoca. It’s one of my fav cities in the country. :)

NomadicMatt

Bucharest is real good. If you go to the cheesy Dracula restaurant, let me know how it is.

Romania made my list of ten places I want to go before I’m old and grey on the merits of being so beautiful and maintaining so much of its historic charm. I think I’d have been disappointed to see posters of Bella & Edward or Bill Compton around. I’m glad they’re distancing themselves from it, haha.

To me, a foggy night and a quiet street would be horror novel enough.

I too would be looking for the cheesy dracula tourist attractions. I basically wanted to go to Loch Ness strictly to buy chocolate candies being sold as Loch Ness Monsteer Poop.

doru

ciao
Alex
where are you now?

Mihai

I’m really honored too see that someone who has been to so many countries like you, has enjoyed my birth country so much. It’s a great advertisement for Romania!

NomadicMatt

You are from a wonderful place. I look forward to going back.

Andrei

Great to hear you enjoyed your visit, there is a lot to explore in Romania, like posts above said Maramures, Danube Delta, Bucovina are great place to visit, also Timisoara is one of my favourite cities in Romania, it has the biggest historical center that survived the comunist era ( tons of old squares, churches and cathedrals, old buildings) and also a lot of modern buildings, in the past it was called Little Viena, each zone with its influences I supose:).

NomadicMatt

The country was too big for one quick visit but these places give me a reason to go back. (Not like I needed any more reasons.)

I’m really kinda jonesin’ to do the whole eastern Europe thing and hit Romania. Yes, I want to do the cheesey Dracula tourist thing too. Nice photos…

Me and the wife are planing a trip to the Czech Republic and Hungary next year. I think we might have add a jaunt to Romania as well.

NomadicMatt

You should. It was amazing – good food, cheap, beautiful towns, wonderful countryside, nice locals.

I love it when you don’t expect much and then you are nicely surprised… always better than to be disappointed like with that Dracula thing.

NomadicMatt

Next time, I want to get out towards Moldova and the Black Sea.

Florin

Don’t forget Danube Delta (maybe in a small kayak trip)

Corey

Matt, I stumbled upon your blog via another travel blog. I must say that it’s ironic that you are visiting Romania the week that I just moved here (I’m an American). I hope you enjoyed Bucharest! It seems to be a fun city! Take care.

mihai

Brasov is nice, but Rasnov castle near Brasov is awesome. I love it. You get like lord of the rings landscape.

I want to visit in December, I’m hoping that restaurant will be open by then!

Matthew

Hey man,
Loved reading your article! I have several Romanian friends, and am working with Romanian soldiers here in Afghanistan and have heard so much about Romania from them. I decided to take a trip there when I return to the States, and am so excited about it! I’m planning on the end of May-early June. Is there anything in particular you would suggest to bring along on the trip? Did you know any of the language before you visited, or just get by with English?

Matthew, all you need to know is English. Anyway, take care if you are a beer lover, because in Romania beer is good and cheap :)

Jen

I would love to go to Romania! Even before I read this post, I have wanted to go to Romania and am planning it as part of my round the world trip I will be taking this year! It is great to hear that is it such a beautiful country with lots of history and beauty to see. I have always thought of it as a romantic place I could fall in love with.

Romanians are not very keen on Dracula-related matters.

One good reason is that they are a very religious people, and “Dracul” literally means “the devil”.

Besides, many of them find it irritating that their country is mostly known abroad for that. They think there is much more in Romania than Dracula. They’re right.

Good to know that you preferred Romania over Bulgaria. Of course different people’s tastes vary, but that info is useful to know.

vlad

I think the most beautiful place in Romania is the Peles Castle (one of the most beautiful castles in the world)

Chris

I have to agree with this article 100%. I volunteered in Romania for two weeks two years ago, and though I followed it up with visiting Slovenia and taking a boat down the coast of Croatia, my time in Romania was my favorite part of the trip. And Vlad is absolutely correct, Peles castle was gorgeous, it absolutely blew my mind, especially with the Carpathians as a backdrop. A must-see, for my money.

Lawrence

,,I think the most beautiful place in Romania is the Peles Castle (one of the most beautiful castles in the world)”
Well… what can I say about this? For sure I will displease Dracula ‘s fans telling that Bran’s Castle is not the true Dracula Castle. The true ONE & ONLY ONE is situated in Poienari near Curtea de Arges, Vidraru Dam on the Arge? River and Lake Vidraru in Fagaras Mountains. It is a beautiful place that I visited when I traveled there. We also visited Bucharest where we were accommodated in Trianon Hotel.Very nice hotel close to city center and Cismigiu park.

I’ve always been charmed by the idea of Eastern Europe, and I’m going to Romania next week for 5 days (my visa doesn’t allow me any more than that). Flying into Timisoara, but plans are completely flexible for now. All I know is I need to be out by the evening of my 5th day there if I don’t want to be deported or something :P
The post and the comments are SO full of wonderful suggestions, I’m overwhelmed and confused!! But in a good way :D So excited!!

Diana

Transfagarasanul is a destination that you did not want to miss!

Christine

Hi Matt and anyone else who have travelled in Romania, my husband and I would like to travel in Romania in April this year. We are thinking of doing an organised walking tour in the Maramures and Bucovina areas.
Then we would like to independently travel around. Is it better to hire a car as the trains and buses seem very slow? Any tips on the types of accommodation to be found would be appreciated? Not too many hostels, but 2 or 3 star( western standard).
Thanks

NomadicMatt

I found the trains to be great but it’s pretty easy to rent a car too.

One of the most optimistic and realistic articles about Romania I have read. Many travelers only get to see the bad points and this probably damages the image of the country internationally. Sure, there are still an overwhelming amount of things to change and improve, but there are also as many, if not more positive facts, including the ones you mentioned. If you ever feel like continuing your Romanian experience, I would also recommend the Danube Delta, the Transalpina and Transfagarasan mountain roads (driving), the monasteries of Moldova, the traditions of Maramures and many more…
Anyway, thank you for such a good review of Romania!

it’s nice to hear such good things about your staying in Romania and about our beautiful Bucharest :)

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