Growing up, I was always one who sought out a good scare, whether it was visiting a Haunted House at an amusement park, watching horror flicks with one eye open, or sharing ghost stories around a campfire. So, when an opportunity to visit Transylvania arose, I finally had my chance to see if there truly was a land where the undead roamed, werewolves lurked in thick forests, and men could transform into blood-thirsty bats. With bags packed (garlic included, left the wooden stake at home), I was ready to embark on my trek into the Carpathian Mountains to visit the mysterious land of Transylvania.
Transylvania does not disappoint when it comes to setting the perfect stage for a search for Dracula among other legendary semi-human creatures. With its majestic mountains draped in a thick fog, its gothic castles set against overcast skies, and its small medieval villages that look as if time has not touched them, it is the perfect environment to put anyone in the mood for a good ole vampire hunt. Transylvania gives you a good dose of both the myth and the reality when it comes to Dracula. From your base camp in Brasov to a trek through the Carpathian Mountains, you will be able to explore the must-see sites of Dracula encompassing fiction, reality and a whole lot of kitsch. But there is more to Transylvania than just creepy crawlers and things that go bump in the night. Here are my top recommendations for your journey to Transylvania.
Brasov, a city surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains, is located about 2 ½ hours north of Bucharest. It makes a great base for exploring the must-see sights of Transylvania. What you’ll find in Brasov is amazing scenery as well as a nice pedestrian zone offering old world charm.
Town Hall Square is a very picturesque town square at the top of the pedestrian zone. It is here where you’ll find Brasov’s most famous landmark, the Black Church, and the Old Town Hall which houses Brasov’s History Museum.
In the pedestrian zone, you’ll find many shops and restaurants catering to both tourists and residents. In nicer weather, you can opt to sit out on the main walkway to enjoy your meal. I’ve been told that on summer weekends, this area gets very crowded. Apparently, that is not the case on chilly weekdays in mid-May like the time I was visiting; it was more like a ghost town.
While visiting Brasov, try to work in a hike to the top of Tampa Mountain. Tampa Mountain is where the large Brasov sign stands above the town, and it is also where the original defensive fortress was built. It was at this fortress where Vlad Tepes attacked the city in 1458-60 destroying the citadel and impaling 40 merchants on top of the mountain. A hike to the top takes about an hour or you can opt to take the Tampa cable car to the peak (3,000 feet). Not only will you be walking in Dracula’s steps, but you’ll enjoy some great views of the old town from this perch.
2) Bran Castle
Bran Castle, located 16 miles northeast of Brasov, is the castle that served as the inspiration for Dracula’s Castle in the Bram Stoker’s novel, “Dracula”. Although it was in existence during the life of the real Dracula, Vlad Tepes never resided here. However, that does not make Bran Castle any less vampire-lair worthy.
The castle sprouts up from a rocky bluff and is located right at the edge of town at the Rucăr – Bran passage. Here, visitors can enjoy rooms dedicated to Transylvania’s most famous count and experience vampire-esque surprises like a hidden staircase, ancient torture devices, Queen Marie’s Tea House, and a glass elevator known as “Dracula’s escape route”.
At the base of Bran Castle, you’ll find a souvenir and local crafts market. This is the place to go for your Dracula souvenirs, as you will not find a collection like this anywhere else in Romania.
Another town worth visiting while in Transylvania is Sighisoara, which is located 72 miles northeast of Brasov (about a 2 hour drive). Many pay a visit to this town because it is the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, but it is also a World Heritage site.
A UNESCO designated town, it has a lot more going for it than just being Dracula’s birthplace. It is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe, with its nine towers, winding cobbled streets, burgher houses and ornate churches. Attractions include the home of Vlad, the Church on the Hill, the 13th century Venetian House, and the Church of the Dominican Monastery. A visit to Sighisoara is like stepping back in time, and it’s a town not to be missed on your journey through Transylvania.
4) Rasnov Fortress
On a rocky hilltop in the Carpathian Mountains, and only 9 miles northeast of Brasov, you’ll find the Rasnov Fortress. Sitting 650 feet above the town of Rasnov, you can’t miss this restored fortress.
The fortress was not only used for defense, it was also a place of refuge at times throughout its history. As such, it resembles a fortified small village, with homes, a school and a chapel. When you visit Rasnov Fortress, you’ll be treated to some great views of the valley but there’s also a degree of kitsch here, too, with a souvenir shop within the fortress.
5) Peles CastleA trip 40 miles south of Brasov to the town of Sanaia is where you’ll find one of Europe’s most stunning castles. I have seen a lot of castles in Europe, and I found Peles to be the most stunning of them all.
Located at the foot of the Bucegi Mountains, Peles Castle is located in a picturesque town that is also a popular ski resort during the winter season. The scenery at Peles Castle is breathtaking yet eerie as the fog creeps down the sides of the mountains.
The castle’s 160 rooms are beautifully decorated with European art, Murano crystal chandeliers, German stained-glass windows and Corboda leather-covered walls. If you want to take photographs inside the castle, you’ll have to pay a fee to do so. Do yourself a favor and pay the fee. You’ll regret not being able to photograph the beautiful rooms of this castle, each offering its own unique charm and character from the Turkish Salon to the Theater Room and so much more in between.
Trip Tip: While in Sinaia, you should consider visiting the Sinaia Monastery. It once served as the residence of the royal family until Peles Castle was built. It is still a working monastery today.
When my journey through Transylvania came to an end, I had a camera full of amazing photographs but no memory of any encounters with the undead, werewovles or vampires. Feasting on blood red wine and the Mixed Grill Dracula at dinner each night, snacking on chimney cakes during the day,and seeing some extraordinary scenery made this trip a delightful surprise. Transylvania is a beautiful area in Romania, and as two women driving through the countryside exploring on their own, we never felt safer.
I did, however, later uncover one piece of evidence that vampires may exist. As it appears my travel companion may have had a different experience while trekking through Transylvania, and now, the legend of Count Dorkula shall live on.
Featured image, CC: Tsvetelin Pavlov