Last Updated on November 24, 2021 by Jim Ferri
Want to experience medieval Europe? Head for Romania…
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
By Jim Ferri
You’ll find plenty of things to do in Romania, especially if you want to visit authentic Medieval Europe.
All of these ancient, and oftentimes medieval, towns are very appealing and interesting to visit, but many are actually just tourist towns.
Most of their old towns have been given over to tourist shops and restaurants, and their streets are filled with tour groups and backpackers. Their medieval areas are no longer a living part of the actual old city.
A Top Thing to Do in Romania – Visit Medieval Transylvania
But in the Transylvania region of Romania – an area many travelers relate only to the 19th-century novel Dracula – I found an authentic vestige of Medieval Europe. To tell you the truth, the only talk of Dracula was from tour operators in Bucharest, as well as a handful of tourist shops near the castle where the fictional Count was supposed to have lived.
In Transylvania, I found a countryside with medieval walled towns where people still live and work in medieval buildings built by their ancestors in the Middle Ages. The only thing missing are the legions of tourist shops and legions of tourists.
It’s an eye-opening place to visit in Romania. But, for the most part, it’s a window into authentic-Medieval Europe, something you’ll find in very few places.
Bucharest is the best city in Eastern Europe for getting bargain rates on luxury hotels.
I hadn’t been back to Romania in years, and I was interested in seeing how the country may have changed, especially Transylvania.
After sailing on the Viking Cruise Passage to Eastern Europe, a cruise on the Danube from Budapest, I arrived in Bucharest. An 11-day sail through five countries was the perfect way to get a taste of several different countries without having to pack and unpack every day or two.
In Bucharest, all passengers were put up at the Bucharest Intercontinental, the hotel included in the Viking package. It’s well situated in the city if you want to wander about for a day or two.
An added benefit of Bucharest is that it’s a bargain for luxury hotels. For example, at this writing, the five-star Intercontinental is $107 per night for two on Booking.com. The Athenee Palace Hilton Bucharest is $100, the Sheraton Bucharest $95, the Radisson Blue $127. You’ll find plenty of bargains.
Fairy Tale-Looking Sibiu
I rented a car from an agency in the hotel and set off on a four-hour drive to Sibiu, a fairy tale-looking city in a fairytale-looking area of the country.
It’s a pretty little town, very medieval and colorful, and was named a European Capital of Culture in 2007. You’ll find many things to do in this Romanian city.
Sibiu was founded by Saxons, who were invited by the region’s Hungarian rulers to colonize the area and help defend its borders. Over time, the colony became a city citadel and a prosperous center of trade.
You can still see that prosperity in Piata Mara, its main square that is as beautiful as vast. At one end is a Baroque palace built for Samuel von Brukenthal, the Governor of Transylvania, in the late 1700s. It now houses the Brukenthal Art Museum, Romanian’s oldest museum, home to a collection of Romanian and Western art.
Sibiu’s historic center is exceptionally charming, with medieval steep-roofed houses with attic windows looking almost like eyes peering out at you. A plethora of narrow streets and lanes tumble out into open squares rimmed with colorful façades of buildings and churches.
Walk across Liars Bridge, just a block from the main square, and you’ll find yourself at the bottom of another plaza filled with people sitting in tree-shaded cafes at lunchtime. The whole place is incredibly charming.
Be Entranced by the Sights on the Drive to Sighisoara
I left Sibiu after a few hours to drive to Sighisoara, another cornucopia of Medievalism. Again, it was a beautiful day for a ride, with an azure sky highlighting wisps of cirrus clouds as I drove across the countryside. Taking this drive was one of the best things I did in Romania.
The beautiful countryside rewarded me with the feeling that I was gazing out the car window into another century. The hills were speckled with flocks of grazing sheep, their bleating occasionally carried towards me by the breeze as I stopped to take a photo. There were no fences to slice my view since now, as in Medieval times, the pastureland continues to be communally held.
There were no tractors in these fields; farmers still cultivated the land with horse-drawn plows, and people tended their crops by hand. Along the highway, I passed farmers on horse carts as I sped past the tops of countless vegetables pushing their way up through the loamy, near-black topsoil.
Passing through little towns, it was almost as if I was looking at a child’s drawing of a brightly painted block-like house set up right along the edge of narrow sidewalks.
Many of the houses were painted so vividly – ranging from earth tones to near-atrocious neon – that I began to wonder if such color choices had been a result of Romanians having lived under a Communist regime for decades. Without any freedom of expression for so long, perhaps painting one’s house in vivid colors was one of the few allowable freedoms they enjoyed?
Colorful Biertan and the Fortified Church
I turned off the road when I saw a sign for Biertan, one of the places I wanted to see.
I immediately entered a small village where people were dressed in a mix of traditional costumes and jeans. A group of teenagers playing soccer in the street paused just long enough to let me through. Further along, a half-dozen men stood in the street talking. Once through the village, I was in a countryside as green as I had seen anywhere.
When I reached Biertan 10 minutes later, I was shocked that it looked as if it had been plucked from the German countryside. It was beautiful, with a fortified church overlooking a little village beneath a small, terraced mountain.
The church is one of seven fortified churches in Romania that are UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Biertan church was surrounded by three 35-foot tall walls that made it impossible to conquer in medieval times.
People were out on the street in the village, standing in little groups chatting with one another, reminiscent of the passeggiata in little Italian towns.
Unfortunately, since I needed to get to Sighisoara, I only had time to roam about for a half-hour, and on my way back out of town had to slow down for a shepherd grazing his two cows along the roadside.
Sighisoara, Another Place to Visit in Romania
Like Sibiu, Sighisoara was also founded by Germans, invited by the Hungarian king. And like Sibiu, it is a living medieval town with centuries-old houses still inhabited by residents, not tourists.
One of the few places tourists can stay in Sighisoara is the seven-room Residence Fronius, which claims to have been welcoming guests since 1609.
I had gone online and had booked a room there for €95, and it turned out to be very comfortable, a large room with a modern bath, and a good breakfast. It was the perfect location to wander about the old town, although I was glad I could drive up the cobblestone street to it and not have to drag my luggage.
Around the corner was the city’s most famous sight, the 13th-century clock tower in the old city walls, renowned for its wooden figures on the clock symbolizing day and night. Near it was the house where Vlad the Impaler was alleged to have been born in the mid-1400s.
Unfortunately, I had to leave early the following day to continue my travels back towards 21st-century Bucharest, to catch my flight to London and then onto the U.S.
Although I had traveled only a few hours to the west, I found myself centuries away from the energetic, sometimes frenetic, capital of Bucharest. I discovered my foray to be one of the best things to do in Romania.
The three-day trip, however, was too short and too rushed. Still, it was an excellent three days of travel that allowed me to step back into another century and experience authentic Medieval Europe more closely than ever before.
Obviously, sans Dracula and Vlad.
If You Go:
Romanian National Tourist Office
355 Lexington Avenue, 8th Floor
New York, NY 10017-6603