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Bran Castle in Romania
We must admit, Romania is not the first option for tourists visiting Europe. But now, under the effects of the COVID 19 pandemic, it may be a good idea to choose less crowded destinations. And, if we look better, we will see that Romania is a country with a generous tourist offer, the only problem being the difficulty to choose, especially if you have limited time.
From a cultural point of view, Romania is a unique country: it’s an island of Latinity surrounded by Slavic sea. Also, the influence of the Balkans is visible, especially in the extra-Carpathian parts of the country, both in the atmosphere, but especially in food. If we cross the Carpathian Mountains, in Transylvania, the atmosphere changes visibly. The spirit of the Balkans dissipates and space shrinks. The approximately 50 kilometres needed to cross the Carpathians take us quickly to the heart of Europe. Here we find former medieval cities not much different from those in Central or Western Europe. The only element that reminds us of Eastern Europe is the wide domes of the Orthodox churches.
Therefore, whether it is a city break or an extended vacation, which would be the best 5 cities to visit in Romania?
Let's discover our top 5 cities in Romania:
Sibiu: view of the Council Tower (left) and the Catholic Church Tower (right), from the Lutheran Cathedral Tower
We start with Sibiu, the smallest city on our list. But its size does not devalue its charm, being a city large enough to offer plenty of opportunities to visit, but at the same time, it is freed from the inconveniences of a large city.
Just a few days ago, Forbes put Sibiu on the list of the safest places for travel and tourism post-Coronavirus.
Sibiu has a history that stretches over 800 years, being founded in the 12th century by Saxon settlers, invited to Transylvania help at the development of the area. After World War II, the Saxons returned to Germany, but their influence lingers today, especially in architecture, but also in everyday life, the German language being spoken more often than English in the old Hermannstadt (the German name of the city).
The main point of attraction of Sibiu is the old town, with 3 adjacent squares (The Large Square, The Small Square and the Huet Square), which overlap the old belts of fortifications from the medieval period. The skyline is dominated by the towers of the churches of the city's religious communities: the Orthodox church, built in Byzantine style, the Gothic Lutheran church, and the Catholic one in Baroque style and the last, from west to east, is the Council Tower, former defence tower, which currently delimits The Large Square from the de Small Square.
2007, the year when Romania joined the European Union, was also the year in which Sibiu was the European cultural capital and consecrated the city as a tourist destination with a rich cultural program. Sibiu is proud to host one of the most important theatre festivals in Europe, the cultural agenda being completed by a plethora of music festivals (rock, jazz, classical, opera), film or dance.
In summer, the bohemian atmosphere is best felt in the Small Square, where tourists and locals enjoy the background of live piano music while having dinner or a drink. Starting the fall, the jollity atmosphere moves to the Large Square, where the Oktoberfest takes place, which is at least as good as those in Germany, but here, beer is at a third of the price. Immediately after October (which takes place in September) the Christmas Fair opens (in November), the people of Sibiu striving to always be the first. :)
The Christmas Fair couldn't find a better location than The Large Square, being equipped with everything it needs: a huge Christmas tree, a dome of lights that stretches over the entire market, countless stands selling delicacies specific to the season, a ferris wheel, a skating rink or a Santa Claus taking pictures of children.
Timisoara - Union Square
If Sibiu was the European Cultural Capital in 2007, Timisoara will be the Cultural Capital in 2021.
Located in the extreme west of the country, very close to the border with Serbia and Hungary, Timisoara has a very rich history. It is the only large city in Romania that was part of the Ottoman Empire, although the traces of the Turkish living are hard to find. Before the Turks, Timisoara was the residence of the Hungarian king for a period, who appreciated the strategic position of Timisoara, in a swampy area hard to reach by the invaders.
Most of the old traces of habitation have been erased starting the 18th century when the Austrian Army conquered the city from the Turks and they rebuilt the city on modern foundations.
It is the moment when Timisoara begun to acquire the current aspect, with a strong influence of the Austrian architecture, Timisoara being called the "Little Vienna of Romania". It is also the moment when an important population of German origin is colonized in the area by the Austrian administration. As in Sibiu, a few hundred years before, the Germans, called "Swabians", were brought to develop the area, ravaged by the war.
The most attractive part for tourists is undoubtedly the area of the former Austrian fortress, of which only one bastion remains. Inside the citadel, still following the original street architecture, visitors can admire buildings built in refined styles of the 18th and 19th centuries.
A virtual visit of Timișoara can start în Unirii (Union) Square. Perhaps the largest square among all cities in Romania, Unirii Square is flanked by buildings built in the Viennese Baroque, where the Catholic Dome or the Baroque Palace, the current art museum, stands out. A splash of colour is the Bruck House, built in the Secession style or the palace of the Serbian bishop, built in an original eclectic style. In the middle of the square, there is another Viennese-inspired monument, a set of baroque statues, erected after the city was ravaged by the plague epidemic in the 18th century.
Timisoara is also the city where the anti-communist revolution began in December 1989 and then spread throughout the country. The Opera Square, the place of the large anti-communist protests since 1989, has since become the traditional place of manifestation of the population's dissatisfaction. But Opera Square is more than that. Conceived as a wide promenade square, the area is embellished with elegant buildings erected at the beginning of the 20th century, on the ground floor of which tourists can enjoy a coffee or dine. At the opposite end of the square is the impressive Orthodox Cathedral, with its brightly coloured roof, inspired by Moldovan churches.
Timisoara is the only city in Romania where tourists have dedicated public transport lines. Timisoara can be discovered both from vaporetos, small boats that slide on the Bega Channel or from the tourist tram, arranged in a vintage wagon, from where tourists can discover the history of the city through a ride on rails.
Cluj-Napoca is the largest city in Transylvania, an important university centre and a kind of Romanian "Silicon Valley", due to the high density of IT engineers in the city. Located in the north of the region, on the border with Maramures, Cluj-Napoca is the best starting point for excursions in the picturesque mountainous area of northern Romania.
Of all the cities presented, it is the oldest, the city being built on the remains of a Roman settlement, which was called Napoca. Since then, the small settlement has evolved, slowly, becoming the modern city of today. It is a multiethnic city, the majority of the Romanian population living peacefully with the Hungarian minority, which represents approximately 16% of the population.
Cluj-Napoca, or simply, Cluj, is the probably most vibrant and cosmopolitan city in Romania. It impresses its visitors with superb architecture, a heritage from the years of when Cluj was an important town in the Austrian-Hungarian empire.
Union Square is the most important symbol of the city, a central attraction and a meeting place for locals and tourists alike. The impressive Catholic Church and the statue of the Hungarian King, Mathias Corvinus, who was born in Cluj, are dominating the view. On one side of the square, one can find the beautiful Banffy Palace, a fine example of Transylvanian baroque, nowadays the host of the local art museum.
Cluj can be defined by 2 important festivals: one of dance music, UNTOLD, and the other, dedicated to the film, TIFF, both becoming a reference in their field. UNTOLD takes place in the stadium and in the central park of Cluj, usually in August. During the festival, the city is flooded by dance music lovers, of all ages, and fun and joy are reaching maximum levels. Be careful, however, if you want to visit the city during the festival, to book your accommodation many months in advance, or you risk not having a place to sleep.
Brasov - aerial view of Council Square
Brasov is located in the southeastern corner of Transylvania, at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. The proximity to the mountains makes it a favourite destination for winter sports lovers, the most important ski resort, Poiana Brasov, being only 20 minutes away.
Just as Sibiu, Brasov was founded by Saxon settlers, and for this reason, it has much in common with Sibiu: the splendid old centre, with German-style buildings, painted in pastel colours. The historical district, like in Sibiu, overlaps the former medieval fortress, parts of the old walls surviving to this day. The main square, called The Council Square, is the main promenade destination for visitors, being also the stage of the main events that take place in the city. Council Square is dominated by the Council Tower, a former fire observation tower and the city hall at ground floor, transformed into a museum today. One of the emblematic buildings of Brasov is the Black Church, the largest Gothic church east of Vienna. Built at the end of the 14th century, it received its name in the 17th century, when, after a fire, the walls were blackened by smoke.
Surrounded by mountains, Brasov offers tourists countless hiking opportunities and several excellent viewpoints over the city. For the laziest or those who do not have enough time for hiking, but want to admire the city from above, there is the possibility of having a cable car ride to Mount Tampa, which dominates the city from the south. Also, some of the most important tourist attractions of Romania are located in the area, Bran Castle being 30 minutes away, and Peles Castle, one hour away.
Among the best cities to visit in Romania, Brasov is the closest to the capital Bucharest, at 2 hours in normal driving condition.
Bucharest - the Athenaeum Concert Hall
Last, but not least on our list of the best cities to visit in Romania is the capital, Bucharest.
We could say that Bucharest is a city of contrasts: on the one hand, a lively old town, rich in architectural elements built in the glory days of the city, the 19th century, when the city was called little Paris. On the other hand, elements of architecture and urban organization typical of communism, unequivocally dominated by the huge People's House, now renamed the Palace of Parliament.
A mastodon structure, the Palace of the Parliament, the largest civil building in the world, was the result of the megalomaniacal dream of the former communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu. Unfortunately for him, he did not live to see it finished, Ceusescu being executed during the anti-communist revolution of 1989, when the Palace was completed only 80%.
A few hundred meters further begins the old town (what is left of it, because a significant part of it was torn down, to make way for the new communist civic centre and the above-mentioned Palace). The old town, in turn, it is also full of contrasts, being, in fact, the essence of Romania: an original mixture of Latinity, Balkan spirit and Western culture, and all these elements being represented there:
The old town has a vibrant nightlife, with a multitude of pubs, restaurants or nightclubs. From this point of view, the city can rival major European tourist destinations (except for the prices, which are much more favourable here for tourists).
Umbrella Street in Romania
All these cities can be easily reached by plane, every city, except Brasov, having international airports with multiple connections to Europe, or the rest of the world, if we refer to Bucharest. For a road trip, the order in which we presented the cities can be an optimal itinerary, a road trip to Romania can start in Sibiu, continuing through Timisoara, Cluj, Brasov and ending in Bucharest.
About the Author:
Florin Ionescu is a tour guide and a travel writer for Romana Guided Tours, a travel agency organising custom private tours in Romania for small groups.
We are Jacob and Taylor. Travel is our passion and we love sharing our experiences here at The Travelling Souk. Our hope is that you would be inspired by this little blog to try something new, embrace an adventure, and live life to the fullest.