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.
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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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.