Beautiful Brasov, located in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains, is the main tourism hub for the famous/infamous Transylvania region of Romania. A steady stream of curious travellers, mountain lovers and Dracula buffs make their way out to this scenic area as part of their Balkan holiday, most of which get their visit started among the medieval streets, classic churches and pleasant plazas of Brasov, Romania’s 7th largest city.
Even though it is a fairly large place (approx. 250,000 people), most of the best sights are found in the compact Old Town area, making it the perfect introduction to this fascinating, diverse country. This post will help you plan your visit to Brasov, Romania which was a great stop on our travel through the Balkans.
Back on the road, Romania is the first country we visited after a summer at home and, with a full week in Romania now under our belts (and over, in the case of the various Romanian beer I’d been diligently taste-testing) we’re finding it a pretty fascinating country.
Especially Transylvania, and especially considering we’ve never been to Eastern Europe, unless you count Croatia, which even they would rather you didn’t, or Turkey, the qualifying portion of which is more like an Eastern European thumb, or maybe a small, creepy vestigial tail. Either way, this whole former Communist bloc business has been pretty interesting to see, not to mention the picturesque old towns and wide variety of historic churches.
We started out with 4 nights in each of Brasov and Sighisoara, key locations in famous Transylvania (no, you’re not the only person we know who thought Transylvania was actually fictional, although you’re still wrong). Our main plan was to gently nurse ourselves through the jetlag borne of an abrupt 9-hour time change, with just a little dabbling in the sightseeing business to keep ourselves occupied.
Well, 7 nights on we’re starting to get our sleeping schedules on track, the weather has been almost shockingly consistent in the high 20’s, sunny and calm during the days, and there has certainly been no shortage of aimless wandering of the local highlights. Hello, 400-year old church. Nice to see you, elegant town square. The pleasure is all mine, giant pitcher of Romanian beer.
Here is a list of the best things to do in Brasov which kept us busy during our four day visit.
Things to do in Brasov, Romania
Visit the St Nicholas Church
The St. Nicholas Church located just outside the main tourist area of Brasov in an interesting, quiet residential neighbourhood, is loaded with a lot of history and did a great job of staying still while posing for some great photos.
Wander a Picturesque Cemetary
Cemeteries, especially really old ones, provide such a paradox: obviously sombre and depressing, yet often incredibly photogenic. Disrespectful or flattering? I guess it depends if you take a leak on a tombstone, or are the thoughtful type who will hold it until he finds a nearby garden with a bevy of concealing shrubberies. At least that’s my criteria. This cemetery is next to the St Nicholas Church and wanders up a hill with a view to the traditonal neighbourhoods surrounding it.
Measure the Rope Street
This is Laynni demonstrating just how narrow Rope Street is. Apparently, it is the third narrowest street in all of Europe. What makes it a street rather than an alley, you ask? No idea. To be considered for the narrowest streets in Europe rankings does it have to be in a country that is a member of the EU? Probably, although I couldn’t tell you exactly what I’m basing that on. Will Brexit mean it could move up the list in the future? Only time will tell.
Spend Time in the Brasov Main Square
We really enjoyed the Main Square in Brasov. It seemed that most roads led to it so we always seemed to end up back in it during our wanderings. It has the City Hall, a refreshing fountain and some nice cafes.
Climb up to See the Brasov Sign
The famous Brasov sign, a virtual replica of the far more famous one in Hollywood. A smaller replica, I suppose, and one that uses almost entirely different letters. Although it was a nice hour-long hike up through the trees to “Mount” Tampa to get there (a solid 300 metres of elevation gain!), where we were greeted by all the people who came up by cable car. Not that I blame them, we rode it back down, it only cost $3 each, and was, on the whole, really quite pleasant.
From the sign and other viewpoints on Mount Tampa you can get a view of Brasov and its red roofs laid out below.
Climb to See the Straja Hill Fortress (Cetăţuia de pe Strajă)
The Cetăţuia de pe Strajă was constructed in the beginning of the 15th century and started out as only a watch tower. By 1524 it was a bastian with four towers and over time has been both a prison and city archive. The fortress has been renovated and is now a tourist landmark and worth walking up to for the view over the city.
Wander Past the Beth Israel Synagogue
Beth Israel Synagogue is included in the list of National Historic monuments in Romania. We didn’t go in but found the facade to be symetrically pleasing and the Brasov sign in the background a nice touch.
Find the Schei Gate
The Schei Gate was built in 1827 after the nearby Catherine’s Gate became too small for traders’ carts. It has the main arch for vehicle traffic and a smaller arch on each side for pedestrian traffic. It also frames the streets of Brasov nicely.
Have a Drink and Watch the World Go By
Choose one of the many squares or pedestrian streets and settle in to watch the world go by while having a coffee or a drink. Or two.
Here I am looking just oh so happy at the end of a short morning of hiking. Happy with my beautiful surroundings, of course, and happy to be on my way for a beverage because I was pretty thirsty by this point, something that is hard to tell simply by looking at this photo. Another thing that is hard to see is how much sweat had accumulated underneath that little backpack. It was a fair amount, I assure you.
Reunion beers! On our third day Chris Looney arrived following a long, apparently arduous, journey from Croatia via Bosnia and Serbia. A journey that used to simply be called “across Yugoslavia” but now involves multiple border crossings.
We last saw Chris in Guatemala, in Mongolia before that, and Antarctica and Ushuaia originally, which we eventually calculated, rather astoundingly slowly, to mean we have now met up on 5 of 7 continents. What that signifies we really have no idea, other than it seems to warrant drinking a lot of beer most days. In celebration, I guess.
This is how lighting, photographic composition and laughing so much you don’t even stop while drinking looks when an unofficial pub crawl has progressed for roughly 7 hours. I know that happened at some point, anyway, although can’t say for sure it was at this point because, well, I have no recollection of taking this photo. Or of that bar, come to think of it.
Where to Stay in Brasov
We recommend staying near the main square so you are close to the old town, the pretty pedestrian streets and the main Brasov attractions.
Guesthouse Postavarului – a economical two-star hotel in an early 17th century townhouse in Brasov’s old town on a pedestrian street. The rooms are cozy and very clean.
Safrano Palace – You can’t beat the location of this midrange hotel across the street from the main square. It has a very good breakfast and comfortable rooms.
Hotel Aro Palace – For a splurge, this five-star hotel is the one to choose. It overlooks the Tampa Mountain and the medieval old town of Brasov while facing the Central Park. The Belvedere Club on the top floor has views of the Brasov’s Citadel. It features luxury and comfort as well as a swimming pool, saunas, massage areas and a gym.
How Long do You Need in Brasov
Visiting Brasov was a highlight of our time in the Balkans along with Lake Bled in Slovenia, the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia and Dubrovnik in Croatia. If you are in a rush you can get through the highlights in a day but we really recommend staying a few days to enjoy this relaxing city.
How to Get to and from Brasov
Henri Coandă International Bucharest Airport (OTP) to Brasov
We came directly from the international aiport to Brasov by using the Brasov Minibus network that runs throughout the day. Tickets for the Minibus cost €15.50, while trips usually average 3 hours. We booked the tickets ahead and had to wait about half an hour for all the passengers to arrive before leaving.
Another option is to take an airport taxi. This will be the fastest way to Brasov but also the most expensive. It will take around 2 hours and 15 minutes and the fares vary from driver to driver but a rough estimate is around €90.
There is a regular bus but it only leaves once a day. The final option is to go into downtown Bucharest and take the train from there.
Bucharest to Brasov
The best choice is to take a train. There are 18 trains daily but if the timing works try to take one of the InterCity (IC) trains, of which there are three per day.
Brasov to Sinaia
We went from Brasov to Sinaia by train to check out some famous Transylvanian castles and hike in the Bucegi mountains. This is the easiest and cheapest option. You don’t need to buy the tickets ahead, just show up at the train station.
Brasov to Sighisoara
We also took a train to Sighisoara and this particular train is a perfect example of why it is best to try to use the InterCity trains. This was not an IC train.
Unwittingly I may have cursed our train journey to Sighisoara, proudly documented as one of the best places to visit in Romania, by talking up the essential greatness of trains, their general levels of comfort, the joys of an onboard bathroom, the inevitable picturesque journey through the bucolic countryside.
The train we ended up on, however, and for whatever reason – chance, karma, the dilapidated state of the Romanian transportation department – was actually a bit of a nightmare.
Almost twice as long as originally anticipated, taking nearly 4 hours to go 120 kilometres, it was hot, stuffy, uncomfortable, and with a bathroom that would not feel out of place among more famously disgusting public facilities we have experienced around the world in places such as India, Mongolia and the Prince Albert Exhibition.
When it first pulled up we thought the fact it was covered front to back in graffiti was trendy and charming. We soon learned that besides blocking the windows and any chance at a silver lining of good views, it was really just a portentous omen regarding the low level of maintenance and attention it received. Colourful, though. And at least they left the doors open for the breeze.
Day Trips from Brasov
Peles Castle, Bran Castle and Rasnov Citidel
While we were staying in Sinaia, we really enjoyed Peles Castle, which is beautiful, with large, intricate façades, lavishly furnished rooms and an expansive green lawn that makes for terrific pictures. We then went back to Brasov to rent a car to see Bran Castle and the Rasnov Citadel which were both also worth seeing.
You could rent a car and see all three in one day trip on an organized tour or use the train to go to Sinaia and see Peles Castle as a day trip. Although, if possible, we recommend staying a couple nights in Sinaia.
You can visit Sighisoara as a day trip on a tour or spend a few nights like we did.
Sighisoara is described in the Lonely Planet as “so pretty it should be arrested”, a statement so simultaneously irritating, meaningless and, I suppose, sexist (??) that I can’t get it out of my head, so much that I have had to struggle to keep it from negatively impacting my opinion of the city itself. I mean, it is pretty, but not that pretty. Not “detain a woman against her will in a prison just because she is nice-looking” kind of pretty.
The other, somehow less offensive, thing Sighisoara is known for is being the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, more commonly known as the inspiration for the character of Count Dracula, and more sinisterly known as Vlad the Impaler.
Not “Impeller”, we discussed this at length and, while still sounding somewhat dangerous, it has less to do with merciless – and potentially immortal – dictators and more to do with the efficient use of centrifugal pumps. Nonetheless, 5 lei is roughly equivalent to $1.65 Cdn, and it still sounded like way too much money to see the room where a guy who a book was based on was allegedly born.
We wavered briefly when we found out the room also featured a coffin that you could have your picture taken next to, but eventually passed when we were unable to come up with a non-idiotic connection between the two things. Another series of events which are probably just as related – while entering town from the train station a random woman gardening in front of her house gave Laynni a 4-leaf clover that she had just found, and the room we stayed in had both a fireplace and a record player.
Remember that scene in Reservoir Dogs where all the guys are walking in slow motion? This photo reminded me of that, other than the medieval arch behind us, or the seemingly miniature woman protruding from my arm like a slightly pregnant tumour, or the fact we’re both grinning like we’re just so thrilled to be celebrating our fifth date.
Another cemetery, another impressive view, another church that won’t entirely fit in the frame of a photo (you can’t see it because I couldn’t fit it into the frame of the photo). It smelled like smoke, too, which was either annoying or worrisome, depending on just how gruesome an imagination you possess.
Obligatory anniversary photo. Chris has the exact same photo, just without us in it. In many ways it seems to be the superior photo.
Obligatory birthday photo. And fitting proof of the effects of aging on flexibility, coordination and overall judgement.
Day Trip From Sighisoara to Fortified Churches
In the tiny village of Richis we just happened to catch this rickety old guy at one of two times a day he has to climb up to the top of the rickety old fortified church to ring one of the 7 rickety old bells. The big one, as it turns out.
A neat experience, although watching an old man transparently desperate to prove that his strength hasn’t fully faded seems a touch of depressing foreshadowing considering it occurred the very day I turned 44 years old. A number to which our 20-year old driver/guide responded to with a brief, inadvertent choking noise, followed by an awestruck “Whoaah!”, then some sustained laughter.
This cool arched laneway was one of the many notable areas of the very popular fortified Saxon church (a.k.a. German Castle with Pews) in Biertan. The others being the church full of old Swiss people, the stupendous views over the surrounding hills and the incongruously modern restroom built into the area where, in the past, the serfs would have slept side by side with their donkeys.
This photo shows what is possible when a young Romanian girl in tight pants intervenes on your behalf to ask a smitten middle-aged bar owner if he will be showing the Arsenal game tonight. To his disappointment, however, her commitment to the English Premier League extended only as far as asking questions, not to sticking around to enjoy all the work he put into designing this impressive and impromptu outdoor viewing area. As consolation prizes go, I get the impression we were uninspiring at best.
I thought this old lady was just so cute. The way she carefully emptied a carton of beer bottles and set it up as her stool, laid out her tiny little flower arrangements, then just sat there looking all stoic and grandmotherly.
So cute that I insisted Laynni try to get an inconspicuous photo of her from her side of the table (iPhones are good at a lot of things, but zooming in from distance to creep on people anonymously is not one of them).
Then just as I had decided I simply had to buy some flowers from her, she got caught up in a weird conversation with this drugged-out young guy with a horrible rat-tail hairstyle, then berated a woman who tried to offer her, apparently, far too little for one of her meagre bouquets, then started yelling at another woman who tried to give her some change, followed by actually flinging the coins across the street with a velocity, and off-putting rage, that ultimately convinced me that a) looks can be deceiving, and b) maybe I could live without a handful of mismatched flowers after all.
Now we’re still in Transylvania, but farther south in the heart of the Carpathian mountains, and looking forward to some castle-gazing and mountain hiking.
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