My recent road trip through Romania's Transylvania with my friend Caitlin was easily the most challenging, yet simultaneously delightful trip I've been on to date. Having visited more destinations in Europe than I can recount from memory, I've grown to be quite a confident traveler when exploring any new destination on this particular continent…that is, until I arrived in Romania. Don't get me wrong, this country is stunning and someplace that absolutely deserves a spot on your travel list. But it’s also a destination that requires doing some homework before you go and proceeding with caution for a few different reasons. Should you choose to replicate the itinerary we followed, you definitely want a car (many of these locations are not accessible by train). I highly recommend everywhere that we visited, so here are some things to know before you visit yourself.
DRIVE WITH EXTREME CAUTION
I've never experienced more hazards while driving than in Romania. Hitch-hiking is very common here, and those seeking a ride will often stand in the middle of the road. You'll also pass loads of horse and carriages, however there is no shoulder for them so they'll occupy a good portion of the road. The number of stray dogs exceeds anywhere I've ever been before, so you'll also want to keep an eye out for these guys who are often crossing the roads freely. It's also worth mentioning that there are no interstates in Romania, so no road is exempt from these hazards. Finally, the drivers here are aggressive — and passing is par for the course. You may think you're pretty close to the car in front of you, but if there's even the slightest amount of room for another car to squeeze right in front of you, they'll do it. My advice while driving? Take your time and always proceed with extreme caution.
TAKE A VIDEO WALK-AROUND OF YOUR CAR WHEN YOU PICK IT UP
Caitlin befriended some Romanian locals when she arrived in Bucharest a few hours before my flight got in. They told her to be very careful with the car rental process, as some Romanian companies will try to scam you. They suggested we record a video walking around the entire car to show the state of it when we picked it up. Simply marking pre-existing scuffs on paperwork isn’t always enough (so they told us) because some companies have been known to tweak the paperwork and charge you for damage you aren’t responsible for. Finally, they told us to insist on a receipt when you return the car to show what the final total will be so there are no last minute surprises.
ROMA PEOPLE VS. GYPSIES VS. ROMANIANS
I definitely fell under the category of "ignorant" on this particular topic prior to visiting and learning the difference first hand. These titles are often conflated and confused and I felt silly trying to differentiate who the gypsies were while I was visiting. There are definitely stereotypes that are centuries old at play here, and part of the confusion is due to the fact that Romania has one of the largest percentages of Roma people (but not all Roma people consider themselves gypsies). Confused yet? I sure was. To learn more about the Roma people, watch this quick video, but my takeaway is that:
Roma people are a traditionally itinerant ethnic group living mostly in Europe and originating from the northern-Indian sub-continent (they are colloquially known as Gypsies, however this term has become more of a negative title associated with crime, which doesn’t apply to all Roma people).
Romanians are simply citizens of Romania, which does include the Roma people, however, not all Romanians are Roma.
LANGUAGE AND CURRENCY
We obviously aren’t fluent in Romanian and we didn’t have much of an issue at all with the language barrier (almost everyone in the cities spoke wonderful English and even in the rural areas most people spoke enough for us to get by on). Per usual, I always recommend learning how to say thank you, at the very minimum, in the local language, which in this case is “mulțumesc”. For currency, you’ll definitely want to have some cash (Romanian leu) as more rural areas didn’t accept cards, however lots of places in the larger cities have no issue with cards.
Now that some of that need to know information has been addressed, let’s talk about the itinerary. We had about 5 days total in Romania and chose to spend it accordingly:
DAY 1: BUCHAREST TO BRASOV
After customs, getting our luggage and sorting our rental car at the Bucharest airport, it took us over 4 hours to drive to Brasov (Google maps will likely tell you something closer to 3.5, however with traffic and driving a bit more slowly because of all the aforementioned hazards, it added another hour to our drive.) Brasov is an incredible town known for its medieval Saxon walls and bastions. The cobbled streets, lively cafes and kind-hearted people won us over straight away!
We stayed in the Old Town for 2 nights (which I highly, HIGHLY recommend) at an Airbnb (link here) that was clean, safe and so affordable (we’re talking $27 per night!) Since it was already dark when we finally got into town, we didn’t do too much exploring, however we found an amazing dinner spot that is an absolute must-try while in Brasov: Bistro De L'Arte. All the food was farm to table and incredibly delicious (and again… so affordable!)
QUICK SIDE NOTE: I recently acquired this beautiful Lipault Paris Plume Elegance Leather Medium Satchel Bag which has become a dream for travel. I first spotted this brand while shopping in my favorite neighborhood in Paris and have wanted one ever since (it’s high-quality and Parisian-chic, yet without the pretentiousness of some high-end designers). So if you’re looking for a timeless, elegant handbag from Paris- I highly recommend it.
DAY 2: BRASOV AND BRAN CASTLE
The next morning we woke up early to grab breakfast and explore the town in proper daylight! We had amazing berry pancakes at La Birou Bistro (and our server was so nice and helpful about telling us what all we needed to see/do in Brasov). After roaming around for a few hours, we hopped in the car to drive to our first stop of the day.
While driving, we kept pulling over to take photos of the scenery, which was so beautiful!
We finally arrived to Bran Castle, which was built in 1382 and meant to be what Bram Stoker based his inspiration for Dracula on. The foliage this time of year (mid-October) was incredible and it was so fun to see the castle decorated so festively right around Halloween! I highly recommend touring it when you visit, no matter what time of year it is.
After exploring the castle and the little town around it, we hopped in the car to head back to Brasov just in time to catch a beautiful sunset from the rooftop of Aro Palace Hotel. They had an incredible view of the city (especially with the foliage this time of year!) and a great wine selection too—it’s a great spot to grab a drink before dinner and watch the sunset. For dinner on our second night we found local spot in the Old Town to eat some traditional Romanian cuisine: Cârnați (garlicky pork sausage) and polenta.
DAY 3: SIGHISOARA TO SIBIU
The next morning we woke up early to check out of our Airbnb and drive to Sighisoara (about 1 hour and 45 minutes from Brasov). This little town was a great spot to stop for lunch to break up our drive to Sibiu (where we would spend the next 2 nights) and was a dichotomy of beauty + grit. The old town in the upper part of the village looked like it was straight out of a storybook, while the outskirts had crumbling roads and facades. After spending some time exploring, snapping photos and eating lunch at Vlad Dracul Restaurant, we hopped back in the car to finish our drive to Sibiu.
I adored Sibiu. Grit, glamour, charm, history... this place had it all! For starters, the Germanic architecture and pops of color that are peppered throughout this old town will win you over straight away. But there is also a coziness and charm to this town that you can’t quite articulate properly…
After we checked into our incredible Airbnb (linked here…. again, so cheap!) we explored for a few hours before the sunset. By pure luck, we stumbled upon the most darling restaurant, Kulinarium, where we had an incredible dinner (very centrally located in the upper town). After too much food, wine + dessert, we tucked in for the evening before another day of exploring.
DAY 4: CASTELUL DE LUT AND BÂLEA LAKE
Day 4 was certainly our most adventurous. To start, we hopped in the car and drove to Castelul de lut, which is made purely from clay, sand and other natural ingredients. It’s reminiscent of a Hobbit house and a “must” while passing through the Sibiu area (it’s only about an hour away by car!)
Our next stop was a bit more complicated to get to. In fact, it was named one of Condé Nast Traveler’s “Sexiest Road Trips of Europe” — driving to Bâlea Lake. With loads of hairpin turns along the Transfagarasan Highway, you won’t be lacking any adrenaline on this drive. We almost didn’t add this into the itinerary because driving in Romania was scary enough without adding mountainous drop-offs into the mix, but I’m SO glad we did… it was truly incredible and something I’ll never forget.
On our drive back to Sibiu, we saw loads of Roma/ gypsy communes that I don’t have photos of (largely out of respect). Wanting to really get a sense of life in this area, we parked our car down the road and walked into one of the villages (although we didn’t make it a very long trip). There was so much unfamiliarity and we were warranting a lot of stares from the people, so we decided to turn around shorter than originally planned. While I am all for immersing yourself in the local culture while traveling, I also believe in showing respect while doing so. I think this kind of scenario is better to enter into with some sort of connection instead of forcibly intruding on their life. Additionally, I was still learning a lot about the difference between gypsies and Roma and Romanian people, so given my naivety it also didn’t feel very smart to stick around an area that could have been potentially dangerous.
Romania was incredibly humbling for reasons like this. Having traveled quite a bit and knowing people from all sorts of different countries, cultures, religious backgrounds and economic classes, I thought I was a pretty globally enlightened person. Until suddenly, I was extremely aware of my western, white privilege: always having access to a car, the internet and other means that I deem "standard" which actually, are quite a luxury to many people in the world. I think if I were traveling to a remote part of Africa or a country where I naturally had a third-world association with I may have been less surprised, but I didn't anticipate having this revelation in Europe. While Romania absolutely has educated and affluent citizens, it also has a lot more poverty than I expected to see. Perhaps that sounds ridiculous to you. And trust me— I felt so stupid at various points on this trip when I found myself asking "Is this a safe area?" (when really, it had nothing to do with safety and everything to do with my pre-conceived notions of what a "safe" area should look like). I'm willing to own up to my ignorance because I think that's the point of traveling— to learn about the world and the people in it. To realize how different we all are. To open our eyes to privilege and give us perspective we didn't know we needed. To help us get outside of our egos and self-centeredness and realize what other stories are playing out everyday. It serves a far greater purpose than merely providing a backdrop for our Instagram backdrop.
I think a lot of us like traveling places that feel "safe." Places where they speak our language or where we can order our usual drink at Starbucks that we know we'll like. But it's my hope, no matter where you travel, that you'll stretch yourself outside your comfort zone and embrace trying things that are new and unknown. Sure, it sounds cliché. But I believe that this simple practice of opening your mind and giving way to something unfamiliar has transformational powers that can tear down some of the most divisive walls that exist in our world today.
Excuse that diversion… back to our itinerary. We drove back into Sibiu for one final evening in this charming town. We explored the narrow streets and let ourselves get lost before finding a cozy spot for dinner at Crama Sibiul Vechi, which is located in a wine cellar and decorated with traditional towels, plates and jugs. The menu offers authentic Romanian dishes like chicken soup, polenta with cheese, pork sausages, sarmale and papanasi. It was a great last meal to wrap up our time in this darling town.
DAY 5: SIBIU TO SINAIA TO BUCHAREST
The next morning we woke up early to make the trek back to Bucharest. Since the drive was rather long, we decided to stop in Sinaia (about 3 hours from Sibiu) for lunch and some sight-seeing in the afternoon. The main attraction here is Peleș Castle, which is a Neo-Renaissance castle in the Carpathian Mountains. It was gorgeous with all the foliage and there were loads of cute little restaurants in the area we passed as we drove in and out of town.
After taking it all in, we hopped back in the car and drove another ~2 hours to Bucharest to return the car (with a lot more terrifying driving as we neared the city). We opted not to go into Bucharest and spend more of our time on this trip in the quaint villages instead. Given an early flight the next morning, we stayed near the airport at Aviator Boutique Hotel, which was actually quite cute and had a great little restaurant to have one last Romanian meal! They also had an airport shuttle which was very convenient given the fact we had already dropped the rental car off.
Overall, Romania was an unforgettable trip that stretched us and kept us on our toes, but mostly showed us a beautiful corner of the world that we had so much fun exploring. I 100% recommend visiting and would be more than happy to help you plan your own trip - book a travel consulting session with me if you’re interested in learning more.
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Hope you found this guide to be helpful and thanks as always for stopping by!