I know what you're thinking. For most people, Transylvania immediately conjures images of Dracula. But this region in central Romania has much more to offer than just vampire stories. There are castles, fortresses, UNESCO-recognized old towns, fortified churches and more. And, if we're talking history, it's actually the German Saxons that you'll hear about the most in Transylvania rather than the undead.
Here are five places in Transylvania that you might want to add to your Romanian itinerary.
The small city of Brasov can be found in the heart of Transylvania and is one of Romania's top tourist destinations. The German Saxons settled the city in the 1100s as a favor to King Geza II of Hungary. At that time, Transylvania bordered the Hungarian empire, and the Saxons were rewarded for settling the region and defending it in the name of the king.
Today, remnants of the Saxons fortifications can be seen in the Old Town of Brasov, with its old stone walls, imposing watchtowers, and orange-tiled roofs. Brasov is also a bustling cafe city, and it's not uncommon to find the squares and terraces overflowing with locals and tourists alike enjoying a drink or snack.
Must do activities in Brasov: Visit the Black Church; walk along what's left of the old city walls (the view from the Black Tower is the best); and take the funicular up to Mount Tampa for great views.
Sighisoara, like Brasov, has a Saxon past. It, too, was settled in the 1100s by the subjects of the Hungarian king, though it never grew to be as big as Brasov. The fortified city center still remains in Sighisoara, and it's been recognized by UNESCO - the whole town is essentially a World Heritage Site. With cobbled streets, colorful buildings and a pedestrian-friendly, walled Old Town, walking through Sighisoara feels a lot like walking through a fairy tale.
Sighisoara also has another interesting claim to fame: being the birthplace of Vlad III (also known as Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, and Vlad Dracula). Vlad's father was ruler of nearby Wallachia, but was in exile in Transylvania when Vlad was born. Vlad's birthplace is marked with a placard in Sighisoara and is now home to a very kitschy restaurant called Casa Dracula. This really is the only link between Transylvania and Dracula, though.
Must do activities in Sighisoara: Climb the clock tower for some nice views; visit the Church on the Hill; and just wander the colorful, cobbled streets.
One more city worth visiting in Transylvania is Sibiu, yet another Saxon-influenced city. Sibiu was named a European Cultural Capital for 2007, and its historic, fortified city center was added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites in 2004.
Like Brasov and Sighisoara, Sibiu is filled with picturesque architecture, cobbled squares and ancient city walls. Sibiu is also known for its curiously constructed homes. Many are tall with tiny windows that resemble eyes with heavy lids and, in fact, Sibiu is often known as the city with eyes.
Must do activities in Sibiu: Hang out in the city's large square; get a view from one of the towers; walk across the Bridge of Lies; and take the Stairs Passage, which connects the Lower and Upper parts of the old town.
Transylvania is home to the Carpathian Mountains, and tucked into those mountains lies Peles Castle near the Romanian city of Sinaia. Unlike most of the other items on this list, Peles Castle does not have ties to Saxony. In fact, the castle wasn't even begun until the 1870s.
The Neo-Renaissance castle was commissioned by King Carol I of Romania, who fell in love with the mountainous region and decided to have a royal hunting preserve and summer retreat built on the spot. Today, the castle is mostly a museum, which you can visit via guided tour.
This former fortress on the border of Transylvania and Wallachia is often said to have been Bram Stokers model for Dracula's castle in his 1897 novel. However this castle has no real connection to Stoker, or Vlad Tepes, who supposedly was Stokers inspiration for his blood-sucking main character. That doesn't stop it from being one of Romania's top tourist attractions, though.
During peak season, this small castle can see thousands of visitors per day, most of them taking day trips from nearby Brasov. It's worth a visit if you're in the area, though nearby Rasnov Fortress is just as cool but much less crowded.
Bonus: Fortified churches
One last cool thing you'll find throughout Transylvania are fortified churches. These churches were built by the Saxons who originally settled the region, and were meant to serve not only as churches, but also as defensive posts during times of conflict.
There are more than 150 of these well-preserved churches left in villages throughout Transylvania. If you happen to pass through one with a fortified church, be sure to stop in - these aren't your average churches!
So what do you think? Are you surprised by what Transylvania has to offer?
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