Romania: From Bucharest city to Transylvanian castles
Updated: Jul 16
We were excited and curious to see what the country of Romania had in store for us. This would be the furthest East we'd traveled in Europe and we were expecting a melting pot of cultures - and that's exactly what we got!
We learned so much about this fascinating country (way too much to recount here), including a history marked by invasions (the Huns, the Byzantines, the Ottoman Turks and more), its position as a cross-roads of diverse cultures and countries (Ukraine to the north, Moldova to the northeast, the Black Sea to the southeast, Bulgaria to the south, Serbia to the southwest, and Hungary to the west), and decades of communist rule.
We arrived late at night but the next morning we went out onto our apartment balcony and saw our first views of Bucharest. In the distance we could see huge gold domes in the sky and decided that would be our first spot, so we headed out to explore! There was so much history everywhere, from the Belle Époque architecture favored during the reign of King Carol I, to the aging square concrete buildings reminding us of the Soviet occupation that began in 1944 and the country's communist rule from 1948-1989, to the more recent buildings erected since it joined as a member of the EU.
As we wound our way toward the gold domes in the distance we found ourselves facing the Palace of the Parliament - you really can't miss it! It's the heaviest building in the world, weighing about 9.04 billion pounds, and is the second largest administrative building in the world (second only to the Pentagon). It's huge, but it isn't exactly...pleasing to the eye.
Its socialist realist and modernist architecture was ordered by Nicolae Ceaușescu, the president of Communist Romania, and something of a worshipped leader. It's located on Arsenal Hill where a multi-lane road crosses in front of the building, and another leads straight to the building. It's stark and hulking and, under the cloudy sky we had that day, it really made the reality of communist rule sit heavy.
Right behind the Palace of Parliament we found the gold domes we'd been looking for. The People's Salvation Cathedral (also known as the National Cathedral) is the tallest domed cathedral in the world, and when you're standing next to it you can see why.
It's massive! What completely surprised us, though, is that this isn't an ancient church at all, it's actually still under construction. Construction started in 2010 and it's expected to receive the final touch, the paintwork, by 2025. Unfortunately, because it's basically a construction zone, we couldn't go inside but we would sure love to see this place when it's completed!
We also made sure to visit Herastrau, the largest park in Bucharest and the largest park inside a European city. The entrance to the park is marked by the Arcul de Triumf, a gift from France that commemorates Romania's victory in the First World War and the coronation of King Ferdinand and his wife Marie. The day we were there, there were lots of local stands selling crafts and food, and we enjoyed lunch beside the large lake that, in the summer, you can enjoy on a boat ride.
Our apartment was in a great neighborhood with amazing restaurants and sweets (like all European countries, the Romanians love their pastries and cakes). World-renowned celebrity chef Joseph Hadad had two of his restaurants right down the street so we had to try them. The first, MACE offered dishes inspired by Tunisia, Africa and Morocco - in Romania! Why not? Our meals were amazing, beautiful, and unique. The night before a concert at the Romanian Athenaeum we dined at CAJU, a brasserie with North African-inspired fare. Again, delicious and totally different.
Almost 90% of Romanians are adherents of the Romanian Orthodox Church, which means there are beautiful churches all over the country and Orthodox Easter is a significant holiday. We were in Romania the week leading to Easter so we had the opportunity to see Bach's Johannes Passion at the Romanian Athenaeum, a gorgeous but intimate concert hall.
The concert included six soloists and a symphony, and even though we couldn't understand a word of it, we enjoyed every minute (and had a moment of revelation when we realized they were singing about the Passion of Christ as told in the Gospel of John - we'd had no idea what we were buying tickets for, we just thought it would be a cool experience). A concert here is a must-do if you're visiting.
Outside the capital, Romania is a rugged and beautiful country - with two-thirds of its land comprised of mountains and forests. We also learned that Romania has the largest brown bear population in all of Europe and some towns have seen an increase in bear visits as the increasingly warm temperatures entice them out of hibernation and into towns looking for food. Some towns even warn their visitors and residents to stay indoors during "high bear visitation" times!
We spent a day exploring the region of Transylvania, winding our way through medieval towns and mountains. It's quite a drive, about three hours from Bucharest, but worth it to get a taste of life outside the city. Our first stop was Peleș castle, the summer home of King Carol I, the King of Romania. He sure knew how to spend the summers! This Neo-Renaissance castle in the Carpathian Mountains has beautiful views and is actually right near a ski resort - when we were there (in April) the gondolas were still going up and skiers were coming down! It's a great place to explore the grounds and life in the mountains.
We also visited another, more storied place - Bran castle, of Dracula fame. Although Bram Stoker's Transylvanian Count Dracula is a fictitious character, and the author never actually visited Bran castle, he based Dracula's castle on a description of this place. People often confuse Dracula with a real living terrible person who enjoyed torturing his enemies by impaling them, hence the name Vlad the Impaler. Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad Dracul, was a pretty vicious Walachian Prince and this was his castle. That said, is it worth visiting this famous place? We'd say...no. Sure, we had to do it to check the box, but with so many other beautiful places to visit in Romania, this was pretty lame. It's small and that big tower you see there in front? It's just a facade, a completely fake front. The rooms inside are rather lackluster and there's really nothing memorable.
The final stop on our countryside road trip, the city of Brașov. The sixth largest city in Romania, this place was lovely and a great place to stop for lunch before heading back to Bucharest. There's even a funicular to take you to the top of a mountain for a great view of this colorful and historic town. Definitely worth a visit.
We were wrapping up our week in Romania but before we left, we had one more thing to do, a Tipsy History Tour of the Old Town. We were joined on our tour by two other guys - one was a Romanian who grew up in Australia but was now living in Salzburg, Austria, and the other was from Chile but living now in Geneva. We always love how traveling in Europe means you get to meet and hang out with people from different places. As you can imagine, we had lots of fun and interesting conversations! Our tour guide, Andre, was an amazing source of history and legends of Bucharest and Romania, the knowledge he had blew us away! We learned about the communist era in front of communist block apartments, where the government housed the people they removed from their land in the country and relocated to the city to work. We discovered more about Romanian history than anything we'd read (like that the money used for that beautiful gold-domed church was money taken away from building a children's hospital, with many people being unhappy about that).
Interesting info: Bucharest bars "focus" on selling one thing - ex. beer, traditional cherry liqueur, or wine - because people were so mistrustful of those they didn't know, people suggested meeting at a specific place and if they found they didn't trust a person they could always say, "I don't drink beer, so I'm going to leave." On our tour we visited a beer-only bar (Beer O'Clock) with hundreds of choices, a Vișinată bar (The Drunken Cherry), serving only an alcoholic beverage produced from sour cherries, sugar, and alcohol, and a wine bar (Le Spritz) that only serves Romanian, Georgian, and Moldovan wine. The wine was incredible (Le Spritz is a must stop if you're visiting) and we ended up staying way longer and later than we anticipated, sharing pizza with the owners and songs with their friends who brought a guitar, an accordion, and lots of energy to sing Romanian folk music.
Along the way we also stopped at a legendary local restaurant housed in a building that is recognized as an architectural and historical monument, Caru’ cu bere (the Beer Wagon), where everyone tried a shot of palinka, a traditional fruit spirit that's like grain alcohol. Harsh! We arrived at Caru' cu bere just in time to enjoy the dancers that perform throughout the evening. We even joined in for a dance when they invited guests to join them.
Romania is a beautiful country with a rich history and lots to explore. It's a melding of East and West, communism and democracy, city and country, the old and the new. It's a country that is both fascinating and beautiful, and our week here was one that we will never forget.
Enjoy a taste of our travels with drink recipes on Instagram - Worldwide.Cocktails.