Romania: Castles, Ruins, and Medieval Villages - Atlas Obscura

Romania

Romania: Castles, Ruins, and Medieval Villages

Explore Romania's magnificent castles and ruins as you traverse its the dramatic landscapes. You'll discover the myriad influences of centuries' worth of imperial history on this ancient country, from Princess Ileana to Vlad the Impaler.

Romania, home to the fabled land of Transylvania, gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Just over 100 years later, the Romanian Revolution of 1989 broke 42 years of Communist rule and launched the country's democratic transition. The region's history goes back 40,000 years, according to discoveries in Peștera cu Oase ("The Cave with Bones") of some of Europe's earliest modern human remains. What then followed—listed in no particular order—were millennia of quarrels, alliances, invasions, counter-invasions, occupations, foreign rule, autonomy, and independence. 

This unique tour dives into all things medieval, dedicating particular time and attention to Romania's ancient history and enduring landmarks. Led by an experienced local guide, we'll explore some of the country's grandest buildings, taste its rich food and drink, and admire its varied landscapes. There will be new things to try and unexpected surprises waiting around every corner.

This trip is limited to a small group of 12 explorers.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Spectacular, historic architecture: From the grandeur of Communist architecture to the imposing Gothic style of the Black Church and the over-the-top Palace of the Parliament, everything in Romania is built to impress, to attract views, and dominate the surroundings.
  • Transylvania and Dracula's Castle: You know the legend, you've seen the movies, but what are the true origins of this world-famous story, and why are they important?
  • Salina Turda: This expansive and historical salt mine—and former bomb shelter and cheese storage facility—is now part wonderland, part theme park. 
  • Local exploration: In this written itinerary, we've only listed the main attractions of the tour. We're leaving plenty of room for surprises, spontaneous discoveries, and free time to wander around cities, towns, and natural landscapes.

TRIP COST

A $500 deposit is required to secure your spot. This deposit is nonrefundable after three days. We have a limited capacity, and we expect the trip to fill quickly. The trip will cost $3,350—the $500 deposit plus $2,850 final payment—and will cover all fixed costs including accommodations, meals as mentioned in the itinerary, and all the activities listed below.

NOTE ON HOTELS

Accommodations during this trip are in old mansions, boutique hotels, and countryside guesthouses, refurbished and decorated to offer an authentic taste of traditional—and noble—life. The trip cost covers double-accommodation rooms, with the option of a single supplement for a private room for $625. Otherwise we'll work to place singles of the same sex together. 

QUESTIONS?

Please email us at trips@atlasobscura.com or call us at (646) 961-4857 with any questions about the itinerary, logistics, and payment.

Itinerary
Day 1
Welcome to Bucharest!
  • Arrive in Bucharest by 5 p.m. If you are coming by air, we will arrange to pick you up from Henri Coandă International Airport.
  • After checking into our hotel, wander around the Old City Center of Bucharest before meeting for a group welcome dinner in one of the neighborhood's historic restaurants. This restaurant, which first opened in 1879, serves traditional Romanian food and operates its own brewery. Here, we'll have a chance to get to know our main guide and fellow travel companions.
  • After dinner, turn in for an early night's sleep, or, if you've still got energy, head out on your own to explore more of the city nightlife with some insider tips from your guide.
Day 2
Old City Center & People's Palace
  • This morning, we'll explore the seemingly never-ending interior of the Palace of Parliament, the largest civilian administrative building in the world, also known as the People's House. Built by the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Palace boasts 1,100 rooms, hundreds of chandeliers, 220,000 square meters of carpet, and a total area of over 365,000 square meters. Construction of the controversial building, starting in 1982, included the razing of several monasteries, factories, workshops, and an entire neighborhood, leaving over 40,000 families without homes.
  • Unless anyone in our group would like to outbid media mogul Rupert Murdoch's rejected 1990 offer of $1 billion for the Palace, we'll then head out for some sightseeing in Bucharest, the capital of Romania and the largest city in the country. After a drive along the main historic boulevards, we'll take a guided walking tour around the old city center, stopping for lunch along the way. We'll also duck into the Romanian Athenaeum, Bucharest's historic concert hall.
  • This afternoon, we'll then meet up with our driver and head into the mountainside. A two-hour drive will bring us to Sinaia, a small but notable town in Romania's history. We'll settle into our lodging for the night and have an opportunity to ask more questions over dinner.
Day 3
Sinaia Monastery & "Dracula's Castle"
  • In the morning, we'll visit Peleș Castle, completed in 1883 and once the summer home of the Romanian royal family. Nestled in the foothills of the Bucegi mountains, this palace is one of the most striking you'll ever see. Its 160-plus rooms include an enormous Weapons Room, Music Room, and frescoed movie theater, where Romania's first film projection is said to have taken place. It was opened to the public as a museum after the 1989 revolution. Near the castle down a wooded promenade, we can also see the 300-year-old Sinaia Monastery.
  • After lunch, we'll drive to Râșnov Citadel. The citadel is believed to date back to the 1220s, during the rule of Teutonic Knights in Burzenland, and was conquered only once in its long history. Like the Bran Fortress, the Râșnov Citadel was constructed to defend the gorge beneath it as well as offer shelter to villagers in the case of enemy invasion. 
  • Our last stop on this exciting day is in Bran, a commune in Brașov County composed of five villages. Here, as darkness begins to fall, we'll take a peek inside “Dracula’s Castle”—the Bran Fortress. While this ancient fortress earned foreign fame thanks to the Irish novelist Bram Stoker, its history is more fascinating than any vampiric folktale. Built in the 14th century, the castle played a key role in protecting against invading armies of the Ottoman empire, and later as a customs post. Notable castle players included Mircea the Elder, Vlad the Impaler, and Princess Ileana—who ran a hospital out of the structure during World War II before it was seized by the communist regime in 1948. It was only opened to the public in 2009. Our guided tour of the fortress will give you a whirlwind look through these centuries of fascinating and tumultuous history.
  • Later in the evening, we'll have dinner in Bran. Our lodgings for the night may even leave us feeling like Elders, Impalers, and Princesses at the end of a day that will undoubtedly bestow upon us some very lively dreams.
Day 4
Journey into Transylvania
  • Today, we'll take a break from ancient history and spend some time in nature with a mountain hike into Seven Ladders Canyon, a natural wonder carved out by the Șapte Scări Brook. A medium fitness level will be required for this two-hour exploration. Group members will also have the option to spend the day in Brașov if they don’t wish to join the canyon trek. Afterwards, we'll all convene for a picnic lunch.
  • Later in the afternoon after a picnic lunch, we'll go sightseeing in Brașov City Center and visit the Biserica Neagră (Black Church), one of the largest churches in Romania. The church was built in the Gothic style by Bulgarian workers beginning in the late 14th century. The church bell weighs six tons, and the historic pipe organ, built in 1839 and once host to weekly concerts, still puts on performances for lucky audiences.
  • This evening, take some time to rest and relax from the hike, and have dinner on your own or with your guide.
Day 5
Viscri & the Medieval City of Sighișoara
  • The day will start with a drive to Viscri, a rural town that is now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. We'll visit the Viscri fortified church, built in the 13th century when the region still belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary. 
  • Afterwards, we'll have a relaxed, homemade lunch in Viscri before our drive to the medieval city of Sighișoara (see-gi-shwa-ra). Sighișoara was built at the turn of the 13th century by a group of German settlers known as the Transylvanian Saxons, and just a century or so later had earned urban status and become a royal hub, playing a key strategic and commercial role in the region. Fourteen defense towers once guarded the gates and walls of the Citadel, each of them manned and maintained by a city guild (blacksmiths, butchers, weavers, rope makers, leather tanners, tailors, and so on). Nine of these towers are still standing.
  • In the early 2000s, a Dracula theme park was proposed for a nearby nature preserve, but rejected after strong opposition.
  • This evening, we'll have a relaxed dinner and spend the night in Sighișoara. At night, the cobblestone streets are quiet and serene, the city's historic clock tower aglow.
Day 6
Salt Mine & Citadel
  • Today is a unique highlight: Salina Turda, a former salt mine-turned-tourist attraction with 2,000 years of history. This morning, we'll drive from Sighișoara to this underground wonderland and art theme park.
  • The cavernous space has served in many roles over the years, including cheese storage center and World War II bomb shelter. Initial mining operations began during the Roman empire and continued all the way until 1932. During WWII, after a decade of abandonment, the mine was repurposed as an antiaircraft shelter. In 1992, it was reopened to the public, and has been a notable attraction and school field trip destination ever since, now outfitted with bright lights and pedestrian walkways, not to mention an amphitheater, Ferris wheel, and underground lake. Here, we'll have a chance to learn about the importance of salt in Romania's history, and ride yellow rowboats across water 400 feet below Earth's surface.
  • After a chance to catch our breath and reconnect with the wonders of natural light, we'll have lunch nearby then drive to Alba Carolina Citadel, a historic fortress city that once served as the capital of the Eastern Hungarian Kingdom. Today, the citadel is separated from the surrounding downtown of the modern city of Alba Iulia by a vast moat and several drawbridges. We'll spend the next two nights here in a grand historic hotel that once served as a mint.
Day 7
Changing of the Guards & Medieval Dinner
  • Today is yours to relax and roam at your leisure. Feel free to sleep in, or wake up early and stroll around the moat as the sun rises. Later in the day, you can rent bikes or mopeds to explore the historic city, or even wander beyond the moat and into the hustle and bustle of Alba Iulia for urban explorations. 
  • Within the fortress, you can visit Union Museum and Union Hall, and spent time in the vast, quiet interiors of St. Michael’s Cathedral and Reunification Cathedral, which stand across from one another within the main gate.
  • Later in the day, we'll gather to watch the changing of the guards. Come evening, we'll have dinner in the wine cellar of our palatial hotel, surrounded by shining armor and weapons of eras past.
Day 8
Hunedoara Castle
  • Today, we'll visit one of the largest castles in Europe: Hunedoara Castle, also known as Corvinilor or Corvin Castle. Built in 1446 by Ioan de Hunedoara, ruler of Transylvania and Regent of Hungary, the castle is protected by a double wall and features both rectangular and circular towers, some of which (such as the Deserted Tower and the Drummers' Tower) were used as prisons. On the drive through the nearby town, you'll see the unique, multi-story houses of the Roma community, with eye-catching, ornamental red roofs.
  • We'll receive a tour of the castle interior, including its watchtowers, bedrooms, and the "bear pit," into which prisoners and traitors were said to have been thrown. Check out this video for an incredible aerial view of the impressive, nearly 600-year-old edifice. Crossing the dramatic drawbridge and entering the Knights' Hall will leave you wondering where you left your armor.
  • After lunch nearby, we'll drive just under an hour and check into our countryside hotel, where you'll have the rest of the day off to enjoy an outdoor pool and horseback rides, if you choose. Feel free to take dinner on your own or join your guide.
 
Day 9
ASTRA Outdoor Museum & Eyes of Sibiu
  • This morning, we'll visit the "ASTRA" Museum of the Traditional Folk Civilization. This unique open-air museum was established over a century ago as a "shelter for keeping the past." The museum includes over 300 houses, a forest, two artificial lakes, and over six miles of walkways. You'll have a chance to wander with both the group and on your own to explore windmills, houses, cottages, workshops, and exhibits highlighting historic objects and architecture from all around Transylvania.
  • After some time for lunch, we'll drive just a bit farther to the charming city of Sibiu, which was named the 2007 European Capital of Culture. Colonized by Saxons in the 12th century, it is the home of Romania's first museum, library, school, hospital, mountain resort, and beer garden. As you walk around, you'll notice various sets of eyes following you wherever you go... if you look closer, you'll see that the houses are staring back.
  • Time permitting, we'll have a chance to drop by the small Pharmacy Museum of Sibiu. Once known as "The Black Bear," it is housed in a 1569 Gothic townhouse and is the site of the oldest pharmacy in Romania. With more than 6,000 items on display, the museum provides an intricate example of what an 18th-century Eastern European pharmacy would have looked like. We'll also try to climb to the top of Lutheran Cathedral of St. Mary, whose clock tower boasts fantastic views over the city and snow-capped peaks in the distance.
  • Our hotel is right in the center of Sibiu, with the Holy Trinity Cathedral, shopping, restaurants, and much more just a short stroll away. This evening after some free time to wander, we'll gather for dinner at a historic hotel near the central square.
Day 10
Abbey Ruins & Return to Bucharest
  • Our last full day together, we'll have breakfast at our hotel and possibly visit a local flea market. From Sibiu, we'll drive to the nearby ruins of a Cistercian Abbey dating back to 1205. We'll have some time to explore the ruins and climb the narrow, winding clock tower, and peek into the small accompanying museum. 
  • The afternoon, we'll make the long drive back to Bucharest (above five hours, depending on traffic), stopping along the way to grab a quick bite. We'll arrive at the RIN Airport hotel for a final evening together before tomorrow's departure.
Day 11
Farewell & Departure
  • Today, catch flights home or onto your next destination—or, if you'd like, spend a few more days exploring Bucharest. Our guide will be happy to provide additional recommendations! (We think the Geology Museum is pretty nifty.)
  • Until the next adventure!
The Fine Print

 

YOUR ATLAS OBSCURA ROMANIA EXPEDITION INCLUDES

  • All lodging in double-accommodation rooms in modern, well-equipped mansions, boutique hotels, and countryside guesthouses throughout the trip. (Single supplement for a private room is available for $625. Otherwise we'll work to place singles of the same sex together.) Be aware that due to the intimate size of these hotels, there may be an evening where double accommodation is required for all guests.
  • Breakfast daily at your hotel, two lunches, and two dinners.
  • An experienced, English-speaking guide to accompany you throughout the trip.
  • Private transport throughout the trip, in a comfortable minibus.
  • Admission to all proposed activities and events, including castles and museums.
  • Photo fees for all visits and locations.
  • A great group of fellow Atlas Obscura fans, excited to explore all that Romania has to offer!

NOTE ON FLIGHTS

For flights in and out of Bucharest's Henri Coandă International Airport, we suggest you arrive by 5 p.m. on Friday, May 31, and depart anytime in the morning on Monday, June 10. 

NOTE ON ITINERARY

Itineraries are subject to change. This particular tour has been designed with specific activities and events in mind, whose schedules and availabilities may change in coming months. If any activity or attraction that is advertised is missed or not available, then we will always replace it with another activity or location of significant interest and value.

NOTE ON PHYSICAL ACTIVITY

This tour is fairly active; travelers should be reasonably fit and feel comfortable walking 4 to 7 miles each day and remaining on their feet for long periods of time. Many parts of the tour involve cobblestone, dirt paths, and other uneven ground, as well as tight stone stairwells in castle and church towers.

PAYMENT

You will be charged a $500 deposit to hold your space. This deposit is nonrefundable after three days. The final payment of $2,850 will be due by February 18, 2019. All reservations will be final after this date and subject to our cancellation policy. By submitting your deposit, you agree to the Terms & Conditions. For travelers wishing to have single accommodations during the trip, an additional $625 will be included in the final payment.

TRAVELERS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR

  • Transportation and flights to and from Bucharest, Romania.
  • Travel insurance (recommended).
  • Baggage charges.
  • Additional meals and drinks outside of Atlas Obscura offerings; this includes most lunches and dinners.
  • If applicable, applying for a Romanian visa (not required for U.S. citizens).