Plans for my birthday trip away this year once again started with a Skyscanner search ‘UK’ to ‘Everywhere’.
I had less than a week to play with (because I’d already managed to wangle four weeks off work later on in the year for a long-awaited trip to Thailand and Myanmar) and – as always – a limited budget.
I wanted somewhere with a reliably warm climate (at least more so than the UK at that time of year), and somewhere that would offer me a good mix of buzzing city life and beautiful rural landscapes. I also needed to juggle flights in such a way that I used the least amount of annual leave possible for the maximum amount of time away.
I toyed with three nights in Lake Ohrid (Macedonia), five nights in my beloved Barcelona, four nights in Copenhagen, and five nights visiting Milan and Lake Como, but finally settled on six nights in Romania.
The fact that a number of travel bloggers had recently waxed lyrical about this beautiful part of Eastern Europe had made me curious to uncover its charms for myself.
Our adventure would begin and end in the country’s capital, Bucharest and incorporate visits to Sinaia (for Peles Castle), Brasov, Bran (for Bran Castle; otherwise known as Dracula’s Castle), and Sibiu.
Despite the fact that the weather wasn’t particularly co-operative throughout much of our stay (it didn’t stop raining for the entire time we spent in Sibiu, and I’ve never heard lightning strike so close to me EVER before!), we loved Romania.
It’s a country of fascinating contrasts, as well as being beautiful, affordable, and untouched by mass tourism.
Bucharest – 2 Nights
We caught an early morning flight from Birmingham airport, staying at the really handy Ibis Budget the night before. The hotel provides a substantial buffet breakfast from 4am for just £5.50, so we were able to fuel up on a selection of bread, croissants, cheese, meat, eggs, cereal, yoghurt, fruit, juice, and coffee before making the 30-second (literally) walk to the airport.
When you arrive into Bucharest catch bus number 783 to Universitate or Piața Unirii, depending on whereabouts you’re staying. Our bed for the next couple of nights was at Book-a-Rest Hostel (see what they did there?), which is located in a lovely neighbourhood around a 10-minute walk east of Universitate.
There’s a cute little bar (which also serves food) right next to the hostel. We grabbed a couple of coffees here and waited for the storm to pass before starting our exploration of Bucharest.
Don’t miss the following sights and activities.
Beautiful Decay Walking Tour with the Interesting Times Bureau
It was actually a fellow travel blogger who put me in touch with the Interesting Times Bureau, and I’m so glad he did. Their Beautiful Decay walking tour was one of the most fascinating tours I’ve ever taken.
I’ll be writing a separate post on my experience, but in a nutshell the tour explores the abandoned historical buildings and underground art culture of Bucharest, whilst at the same time sharing with you the history of the city and how its residents are coping with the aftermath of communism.
If you’re interested in history, architecture, or photography (or a combination of all three) then this tour is definitely one not to miss!
Palace of Parliament
Even if you don’t go inside (and I’ve been advised that you’ll need to book in advance in order to do this), you must make the short walk from Bucharest’s Old Town simply to appreciate the sheer size of this building. It’s the second largest in the world after The Pentagon and is former dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s most infamous creation.
It was only constructed as recently as 1984, has more than 3000 rooms and covers a whopping 330,000 square metres. There are 12 levels above ground and reportedly almost as many below ground – although the actual number remains undisclosed.
Fun Fact: The Top Gear crew actually filmed a race through the underground tunnels here in 2009.
Built in 1724, this is one of the oldest buildings in Bucharest. The city has expanded and developed around it, leaving it now looking rather out of place amidst a rather more grand and modern collection of architecture.
But the humble Stavropoleos Church is a beautiful, tranquil spot away from the bustle of the city that surrounds it.
There’s a lovely leafy courtyard filled with tombstones, but it’s the church itself that will make a lasting impression – with its carved wooden doors, ornate wooden interior, and colourful ceiling frescos.
If you visit one restaurant in Bucharest, make it this one. Aubergine serves up some of the best food I’ve tasted in a long time, including a wide variety of fish dishes (try their black tiger prawns ceviche with avocado, mango and chilli pepper) and – as the name suggests – a lot of aubergine-based creations as well.
Aubergine‘s quirky, theatrical interior is designed by architect Christian Corvin. Over 300 doors adorn the restaurant’s walls, all made from reclaimed wood brought from Transylvania, Austria and Hungary. And the floor tiles are pretty neat too. It’s one of those places where you’ll want to Instagram (can I use “Instagram” as a verb?) more than just the food.
Address: Smarden 33, Old Town Bucharest
Brasov – 2 Nights (via Sinaia)
It’s possible to use Bucharest’s efficient metro system to get from Piata Unirii (on the edge of the Old Town) to the city’s Gara de Nord in under half an hour (no changes). Direct trains run several times a day from Bucharest’s Gara de Nord to Brasov, but we decided to go via Sinaia in order to visit Castelul Peles (Peles Castle). Thanks to the staff at Book-a-Rest hostel, we left Bucharest with a printed train timetable in hand.
Peles Castle is considered to be one of the most beautiful castles in Europe and I can totally understand why. The Neo-Rennaisance beauty is grand – if a little pretentious – in every sense of the word, and boasts an equally impressive setting in the midst of the verdant forests that grow in the picturesque foothills of the Carpathian Mountain range.
Construction of the castle was commissioned by the beloved and well-respected King Carol the First in 1866 and completed in 1914, for a total cost of 120 million US dollars (in today’s money). The castle covers an area of 3200 square metres and was the first in Europe to be lit entirely by electricity.
The guided tours of the castle’s interior aren’t cheap (especially when you factor in the cost of taking photos – which is more than the price of the ticket itself) but I’d still recommend visiting, even if you don’t go inside.
Whilst in Brasov, I’d also recommend the following sights and activities.
Another castle that’s not actually in Brasov, but this one is significantly closer – just 29 kilometres away in the village of Bran. There are regular (if slightly decrepit) buses that run the route from Brasov’s bus station a few kilometres out of town. They generally leave Brasov on the odd hour, and Bran on the even hour for the return trip to Brasov.
Bran Castle is known as “Dracula’s Castle” because it was supposedly the home of the title character in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”. However, upon researching this fact I discovered that there’s actually no evidence to suggest that the author has even visited the castle!
Even so, it totally looks like somewhere Dracula would have lived – especially when rumbles of thunder echo all around you and storm clouds roll overhead.
Inside is much less grand than Peles Castle but certainly no less interesting. Just make sure you avoid visiting at weekends when the sheer number of people joining you will completely remove any sense of enjoyment from the experience.
Cable Car to Tampa Mountain
For the best views of Brasov catch the cable car up to Tâmpa Mountain and follow the red and yellow triangles uphill from the official viewpoint (which is located beside the Hollywood-style BRASOV lettering) until you reach a clearing with some wooden decking. There are far fewer people here and – in my opinion – much better views of the city.
Tampa Mountain is covered in well-marked hiking trails of varying lengths, including an hour-long hike that takes you back down to Brasov’s Old Town.
For a close-up view of the Old Town from above, take a short walk to the White Tower, located on Warthe Hill on the opposite side of the city to Tampa Mountain. The tower was constructed as early as 1494 as a defensive bastion, and stands some 18-20 metres high.
Whilst the White Tower is a more impressive structure and offers better views of the city as a whole, don’t miss the small diversion to the Black Tower (which isn’t actually black) in order to photograph the magnificent Black Church, the largest Gothic church between Vienna and Istanbul.
Strada Sforii (Rope Street)
Whilst much of Brasov’s appeal lies in aimlessly wandering its maze of streets, lined with colourful baroque architecture, make sure you make a point of hunting out Strada Sforii (also known as ‘Rope Street’), Europe’s Narrowest Street, measuring just 44 inches across at its narrowest point. Yep, I have a thing for superlatives!
Initially used as an access route for Firefighters in the seventeenth century, it now offers a fascinating peek into medieval life in the city.
Sibiu – 1 Night
Brasov’s train station is right next to its bus station, around three kilometres out of town. Whilst there are buses that run the route, we couldn’t find any timetables due to the Tourist Information Office being closed at weekends. So we played safe and caught a taxi.
Although the train we caught from Bucharest to Brasov had clearly transported a fair few passengers over the years, I really felt like we’d stepped back in time as we boarded the carriage bound for Sibiu. We were greeted by long, narrow corridors, wooden-pannelled interiors, and private six-person booths that, had they not been so tired and worn, would have made me feel like I should’ve dressed up for the occasion.
If you catch the early train from Brasov you should arrive into Sibiu around lunchtime, which will give you approximately 24 hours in the city. Considering how compact Sibiu’s Old Town is, all of its major sights can be visited within this time frame, but if you want to be able to explore Corvin Castle, The Astra Museum of Traditional Folk Civilisation, or any of the rural villages surrounding the city, you’ll need to tack on an extra day or two.
Even when it’s raining Sibiu is as pretty as a picture. Its Old Town is a charming tangle of narrow, cobbled streets and beautifully painted seventeenth century gabled houses that are reminiscent of a scene plucked straight from the pages of a fairytale. Even the tiny windows in the terracotta-tiled rooftops look like eyes watching you as you pass.
Sibiu was named the European Capital of Culture in 2007, and has since attracted a steady stream of tourists eager to discover its ancient beauty and charm.
Don’t leave without ticking the following sights off your list.
Viewing the city from its Evangelical Church and Council Tower
The Gothic Biserica Evanghelica was built somewhere between 1300 and 1520 on the grounds of an old Roman church dating from the 12th century. With a height of 73.34 metres, the tower is the tallest in Transylvania and therefore provides stunning views of the city from the top.
Opening hours: 09:00-17:00 Mon-Sat / 11:00-17:00 Sun
Photo by Dalene and Pete Heck via Hecktic Travels with their permission
Whilst the views from the The Council Tower are not quite as impressive, it’s still worth the climb and – due to its location – offers a different perspective of Sibiu’s Old Town.
Opening hours: 10:00-20:00 Mon-Sun
Piata Mare – The large square
Right at the centre of the old walled city, Piața Mare is the largest of Sibiu’s squares, and is a great place to start your explorations of the city.
It’s flanked by museums, shops, cafes, and restaurants – including the quirky Mustache Caffee where you will be greeted by this curious red gentleman.
Piata Mica – The long square
Piața Mică is, in my opinion, the most attractive of the three Old Town Squares, with the highest concentration of beautifully-painted 17th century houses, and an overwhelming choice of inviting cafes and restaurants with outdoor plaza-facing seating.
Photo by Torroloco via Flickr
Piata Huet – The small square
Piata Albert Huet was where Sibiu began; it was the first part of town to be fortified, in the 12th century. Although lacking the picture-perfect beauty of its neighbouring squares, Piata Huet is home to the enormous Evangelical Church and its imposing tower, as well as Pasajul Scarilor – the most photographed sight in Sibiu.
Photo by Kvitlauk via Flickr
Bucharest – 1 Night
Although Sibiu does have an airport, it would only have been possible to fly back to London Luton from there, so we caught the bus (apparently the train journey is an absolute nightmare) back to Bucharest the day before our flight was due to leave.
This also gave us a little bit of extra time to tick all the things off our itinerary that we didn’t get around to doing the first time around.
One of these things was visiting the city’s cat cafe – Miau. Being a little cat obsessed, Miau was actually one of the first items I’d added to our Bucharest itinerary. However due to it being almost two kilometres from Old Town (and not on a metro line), we hadn’t gotten around to making the walk there when we first arrived in Bucharest.
I wish I could report back on how amazing it was and show you lots of photographs of adorably cute cats in support of this fact, but unfortunately Miau was closed when we arrived. An internet search later that evening revealed that we’d rocked up on the only day of the week that it doesn’t open – a Monday.
Helpful tip: Do your research before visiting!
Address: Maximilian Popper nr 41, Bucharest, Romania
Opening times: 14:00-23:00 Tues-Sun
Six Nights in Romania: Total Costs
In order to help you organise your own trip, I’ve included a break down of the costs of this trip below. I’ve included all flight, accommodation and transport (between destinations) costs, but have excluded entry fees to sights and attractions and the price of any tours I’ve mentioned. All costs are per person (but there were two of us to split the accommodation costs between).
Return flights Birmingham to Bucharest = £70
2 Nights at Book-a-Rest Hostel, Bucharest (private room and bathroom) = £18.55
Train fare between Bucharest and Brasov (via Sinaia) = £23
2 Nights at Versus Art Studio, Brasov (apartment) = £41.83
Train fare between Brasov and Sibiu = £19
1 Night at Hader Studios, Sibiu (apartment) = £15.39
Bus fare between Sibiu and Bucharest = £9.76
1 Night at Antique Hostel, Bucharest (private room, shared bathroom) = £13.19
Total Cost = £210.72
So what do you reckon, is Romania somewhere you’d like to explore?
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