Romania beyond Dracula's Castle

Multi coloured houses and clock tower in Sighisoara old town, Transylvania, Romania

Think Romania and the first place that probably pops into your head is Dracula's Castle, or Bran Castle as it is officially known, which was made famous by Bram Stoker's classic novel, but this beautiful country offers plenty more for travellers in search of a European holiday with a difference.

SEE ALSO: City breaks that are better in winter than summer

SEE ALSO: Europe's secrets for holidays off the beaten path

A destination on the rise, with its rolling countryside, captivating castles and energetic cities, this Southeast European gem is ideal for going off the beaten path and experiencing an eye-opening holiday abroad.

Bran castle

We headed to Romania with adventure travel specialist Explore to uncover the wonders of the country beyond Bran Castle and were pleasantly surprised by the incredible beauty of Transylvania and Bucharest. While Bran Castle shouldn't be removed from your bucket list, there are many more impressive castles to visit in Romania. Vampire fan or not, you'll be enthralled by Bran Castle's imposing towers and turrets, dark and narrow stairways, and dramatic views. Perched high atop a 200-foot-high rock, the fictional home of Count Dracula was a real-life residence of Queen Marie and offers fascinating stories for those interested in Romania's royal history.

Bucharest at night

Bucharest, also known as Little Paris, is the best place to start and end your adventure, where you can take in the elegant architecture of the Belle Époque alongside many modern buildings. The Old Town is filled with cafes (we love historical Manuc's Inn and its delicious papanasi) and unusual places such as the 18th-century Stavropoleos Church, the Old Princely Court and Pasajul Macca-Vilacrosse. Visitors intrigued by Romania's communist past should head for Revolution Square as well as marvel at the sprawling Palace of the Parliament, the largest administrative building in the world. In the evening, the atmospheric Caru' cu Bere attracts locals and visitors to drink and dine in Bucharest's oldest beer house.

Brown bear in the forest of Maramures Mountains

Venturing out of the capital and into Transylvania offers a complete contrast, especially in the winter when you can visit the snowy Piatra Mare Mountains for wildlife tracking in the forest. Accompanied by an expert guide, you'll be taken through the beautiful woodland to spot the tracks of red deer, wolves, bear and wild boar. The excursion provides insight into Romania's extraordinary wildlife. We were lucky to discover the paw prints of bears while learning about the life and behaviour of brown bears in the region.

Council Square or Piata Sfatului in downtown of Brasov, Romania

Heading northwest into the city of Brasov at the foothill of the Carpathian Mountains takes you to one of the most charming locations, with its Gothic spires, Hollywood-style sign and lovely al-fresco café culture. Brasov is a great city to spend a day as you take in the Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture, along with its distinctive medieval ambience. Be sure to visit the towering Black Church, which was built by the German community, as well as the Council Square which was once where executions took place. A stroll through the cobbled streets of Brasov will take you to Strada Sforii, one of the narrowest streets in Europe, and Catherine's Gate, which looks straight out of a magical fairytale.

Romania, Southern Carpathians, Fagaras Mountains, room in ice hotel

Visiting in winter affords the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of sleeping in Romania's only ice hotel. Set beside the glacial Balea Lake in the Fagaras Mountains, this spectacular winter wonderland is reached by an old Coca Cola cable car through the dramatic scenery which passes pine forests and snow-covered mountains. Once there, you'll feel as though you've arrived in your own mini ski resort, where there are no pistes but terrific powder. Open from January until March, the Hotel of Ice features 12 rooms carved out of ice from the nearby lake, with a unique design each year. A serene Ice Church, the Ice Restaurant and Bar, plus winter activities including snowshoeing, tubing and walking through the Capra Tunnel (near the highest point of the Transfagarasan Highway, which was named the best road in the world by Top Gear) complete the glacial experience.

Multi coloured houses on cobbled street in Sighisoara, Transylvania, Romania

Back to town, Sighisoara is an ancient city characterised by pastel-hued buildings, cobbled lanes and medieval architecture. The UNESCO World Heritage city is an outstanding example of the work of Transylvanian Saxons from the 12th century and has a special history dating back thousands of years, with Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, Gypsies and other nationalities living here in a wonderful multicultural community. There's no better way to explore one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe than by strolling its picture-postcard streets, starting with the citadel and its defence towers, churches and houses. As you travel back in time, admire the striking 14th century Clock Tower, climb the 175 steps of the Scholars' Stairs to the Gothic-style Church of the Hill and make a stop at Vlad Dracul House, where Vlad the Impaler was born in 1431 and lived with his father Vlad Dracul until 1435.

Viscri, Romania

Less than an hour's drive from Sighisoara, you can go off the beaten track in one of the most charming Saxon villages in Transylvania, Viscri. This remote destination is frozen in time and allows curious visitors to discover the typical life of rural Transylvania. Start by checking into delightful guesthouse Viscri 125, where the rooms are furnished with traditional furniture and sächsisch beds, while the old barn-turned-restaurant creates the cosiest space to relax by the fire and enjoy delicious meals with vegetables from the garden. Your first stop in Viscri should be the white fortified church, which was built by the Szekler population around 1100 and taken over by Saxon colonists in 1185. The church features a small interior with paintings by local people and fantastic views of Viscri's surroundings from the top of the tower, as well as a museum displaying dowry chests, embroidered textiles and traditional clothing. Don't leave Viscri without enjoying the local activities, such as traditional bread making, a visit to the village blacksmith Istvan, who makes horseshoes, locks and nails, and a horse-drawn carriage ride through the village.

Peles Castle

While driving back to Bucharest, you must make a stop at the impressive Peles Castle in Sinaia, which shows you the truly remarkable work of Romania's castles. Its stunning Neo-Renaissance architecture makes it one of the most striking palaces in Europe and the elaborately decorated home served as the summer residence of the royal family until 1947. The less-visited and smaller Pelisor Castle beside Peles is just as appealing and reflects the personal style of Queen Maria, with its dazzling golden bedroom, King Ferdinand's solemn study and the oak-timber hall of honour.

Book it: Explore offers an eight-day Winter Adventure in Romania trip that costs from £920 per person, including return flights, four nights' hotel and three nights' guesthouse accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis, three other meals, transport and the services of an Explore Leader, driver and local guides.

Off-the-beaten-track holidays in Europe
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Off-the-beaten-track holidays in Europe

Charming, cheap, but little visited compared with most of Europe, Bulgaria straddles the border between Europe and the old Ottoman Empire. Although it’s gaining in popularity as a ski and beach destination, few people are aware of its many cultural attractions, its great food or magnificent scenery. A highlight is the monastery at Rila, a fortified complex with gorgeous frescoes and carvings. On a short trip with Native Eye, you’ll sample some of the country’s excellent wines at Melnik, head up to the Rhodope Mountains to explore the picturesque village of Leshten, visit old towns and fortresses, and visit the renowned Thracian Tomb at Kazaniak, a reminder of when Bulgaria was once the cradle of powerful civilisations. The nine-day Monasteries and Mountains tour costs from £899 per person, excluding flights.

While the crowds head to Copenhagen, you can head to Aarhus, Denmark's second city for an off-the-beaten-path city break in Europe. Diverse, modern and fun, Aarhus is one of the happiest cities on Earth. It also happens to be the European Capital of Culture 2017. A visit to Aarhus' art galleries, cosy Latin Quarter or the Old Town will show you just why Aarhus' residents and visitors are so happy. The dynamic city is located on the Jutland peninsula, where the beach, harbour and forest are all only a 15-minute bike ride away. Book a stylish apartment with Airbnb from just £36 per night.

Meet bison, elk and wolves in the winter as you travel through the snow-covered landscapes of the Biebrza Marshes and Bialowieza Forest in north-eastern Poland on a European wildlife holiday to remember. Enjoy encounters with large yet elusive mammals including elk, otter, European beaver, red deer, wild boar and even wolf or lynx, while also visiting one of the largest wintering bat sites in Eastern Europe. The Travelling Naturalist offers a five-day Bison, Elk & Wolves in Winter from £995 per person, including flights.

Those with a yen for the unusual will love the small, friendly, laid-back island of Rugen in Germany, with its timeless elegance. Mostly undiscovered by British holidaymakers, it boasts almost 600km of sandy shores and is one of Germany’s sunniest corners, much loved by the Germans. Visitors can cycle gently on country lanes and quiet paths, take in the views over towering chalk cliffs and quaint fishing villages, and hop onto the Rasender Roland narrow-gauge steam train to let it take some of the strain. Inntravel's Rugen - an Island Revealed holiday costs from £950 per person for one week, excluding flights.

Forget the Costas and Canaries. Intrepid travellers can walk from inn to inn through northern Spain’s Picos de Europa Mountains, the country's biggest and best-kept secret. Hike through valleys, villages, forests and high mountains, along ancient pathways and while staying at charming village inns as you take in all three provinces in the area (Leon, Asturias and Cantabria). With Responsible Travel's Picos Inn to Inn Walking Holiday you can enjoy well-paced days and relax as your bags are transported ahead of you each day to await your arrival. The eight-day trip costs from £980 per person, excluding flights.

Experience an unmissable trek to the island of Crete to explore the incredibly variable piece of mountainous land floating on the Mediterranean Sea, away from the cosmopolitan beaches and towns. On a 12-day Crete: Trekking into the Wild tour with Evaneos Travel, visitors have the chance to see the unexplored and unspoiled nature of the most impressive Cretan mountains; White and Lassithi. The trip takes in staggering paths, gorges, coastal trails, swimming in the sea, relaxing on pristine beaches and visiting traditional villages, while led by an expert local guide who knows the land better than anyone. The trip costs from £920 per person, excluding flights.

Head for the overlooked city of Bologna to enjoy an Italian city break away from the crowds of Rome or Florence. Bologna's series of atmospheric squares are linked by twisting alleys and tiny streets. On Riviera Travel's Bologna, Parma & Ravenna Tour, you will also visit Parma, with its sublime cathedral home to the famed Palazzo della Pilotta, a huge complex of brick buildings housing works by Correggio. And Ravenna is nothing short of a masterpiece. It has a host of religious buildings, wonderfully adorned with early Christian paintings and the world’s finest mosaics. The trip takes in culinary delights of the region, such as Parma ham, parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, wild boar and truffles. The five-day break costs from £619 per person, including flights.

History and geography conspired to make Transylvania, in central Romania, one of Europe’s most beautifully wild and fascinating regions. For centuries the locals have existed in harmony with a variety of wildlife, including Europe’s highest concentration of bears, wolves and lynx, and dense forests have remained largely untouched. Exodus Travels' Carpathian Walking & Bears trip takes you on walks through spectacular canyons, virgin forests and Saxon villages. You will go in search of brown bears and explore the medieval town of Brasov. The eight-day holiday costs from £1,099 per person, including flights.

Discover the paradise islands off Sicily’s north-eastern coast on a tour of the Aeolian Islands. This volcanic archipelago consists of seven beautiful and rugged islands, which were honoured with UNESCO World Heritage status in 2000. Wexas Travel’s Aeolian Islands Discovery holiday begins in Lipari, the largest of the seven islands. Here, you will become accustomed to island-hopping life, visiting the busy port and pastel-coloured seafront set against a typical Mediterranean landscape. The next stop, Stromboli, is sure to entertain nature lovers with dramatic volcanic silhouettes and black-sand beaches, before ending in Salina, home to lush landscapes and the famous Malvasia wines. The eight-day holidays costs from £1,075 per person.

The border lands of northern Albania and western Macedonia are truly one of the last hidden gems of Europe. Sweeping gorges are carved by crystal blue waters that flow into tranquil lakes, while rocky peaks and plateaux rise high above the lush green landscape. Ancient villages, rarely visited by tourists nestle themselves into the valleys, some of which retain a way of life that has been unchanged for centuries. Exodus Travels' Cycle Macedonia & Northern Albania holiday combines a carefully chosen route through some of the best scenery these fascinating countries have to offer, with exciting cycling that equally challenges and rewards. The eight-day trip costs from£1,069 per person, including flights.

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