Explore the dramatic landscapes and grandiose castles of Romania. You'll discover the myriad influences that centuries' worth of imperial history have left 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 in 1989 broke with 42 years of Communist rule and launched the country's democratic transition. The region's long history goes as far back as 40,000 years, based on 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 between provinces and other regional players.
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, you will explore some of the country's most grandiose buildings, taste its rich food and drink, and admire its varied landscapes, all in the company of a small group of 12 Atlas Obscura explorers. There will be new things to try and unexpected surprises waiting around each and every corner.
- 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.
A $300 non-refundable deposit is required to secure your spot; we have a very limited capacity, and we expect the trip to fill extremely quickly. The trip will cost $2,969—the $300 deposit plus $2,669 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
All accommodation throughout this trip is 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 $325. Otherwise we'll work to place singles of the same sex together.
Please email us at trips@or call us at (646) 961-4857 with any questions about the itinerary, logistics, and payment.
Welcome to Bucharest!
- Arrive in Bucharest by 5 p.m. If you are arriving 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 both traditional Romanian food and international cuisine, in addition to operating 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.
Old City Center & People's Palace
- This morning, we'll 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.
- Following a light lunch, we'll explore some of 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. Demolition 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 head into the mountainside that afternoon.
- 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.
Sinaia Monastery & "Dracula's Castle"
- In the morning, we'll visit the 300-year-old Sinaia Monastery, followed by 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.
- After a relaxed lunch, we'll take a trip to Bran, a commune in Brașov County composed of five villages. Here, 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.
Journey into Transylvania
- This morning, we'll visit the 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.
- Later in the day, we'll take a break from ancient history and spend some time in nature with a short 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 relax in a grassy meadow if they don’t wish to join the canyon trek. Afterwards, we'll all convene for a picnic lunch.
- After 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.
- Later in the afternoon, a short drive will take us into the heart of the Saxon area of Transylvania, where we'll relax, have dinner, and settle in for the night.
The Medieval City of Sighișoara
- The day will start with sightseeing in Viscri, 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.
- We'll then explore the medieval city of Sighișoara (see-gi-shwa-ra), built at the turn of the 13th century by a group of German settlers known as the Transylvanian Saxons. Just a century or so later, the town 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.
Cluj: Capital of Transylvania
- On this morning's drive from Sighișoara to Cluj, we might have the chance to drop by a local cheese factory. This factory produces a variety of cheeses, including red wine cheese, chili and chocolate cheese, plus brandy-soaked walnuts. Yes, thinking about it is making us hungry, too.
- Today and tonight will be spent in Cluj-Napoca, the cultural and economic capital of Transylvania. The city began as a pre-Roman Dacian settlement, part of an ancient civilization that spanned much of this region. Following Roman conquest around the year 100, what was then known as Napoca later passed into German, then Hungarian, then Romanian hands.
- We'll take a tour of the towering interior of St. Michael’s Cathedral. Built in three different architectural styles (Gothic, Neo-Gothic, and Baroque), St. Michael's changed its religious denomination a total of five times: Catholic (1390) – Lutheran (1545) – Calvinist (1558) – Unitarian (1566) – Catholic (1716 to date).
- You'll have some free time in the afternoon and evening to wander. Tonight, we hope to welcome several students from Cluj's Babeș-Bolyai University, Romania's largest university, for dinner to share their experiences and reflections on Romania's education system.
Salt Mine & Citadel
- Today is a unique highlight on our trip's itinerary: Salina Turda, a former salt mine-turned-tourist attraction with 2,000 years of history. This underground wonderland and art theme park has been outfitted with bright lights and pedestrian walkways, not to mention an amphitheater, ferris wheel, and underground lake. 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 Roman occupation and continued under changing administrations until 1932. During WWII, after a decade of abandonment, the mine was repurposed as an antiaircraft shelter. Later, in 1992, it was opened to the public, and has been a unique and notable attraction ever since. 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.
- Later, after a chance to catch our breath and reconnect with the wonders of natural light, we'll visit the Alba Carolina Fortress.
- This evening, our group will stay at a historic hotel in Alba Iulia.
- Today, we'll visit one of the largest castles in Europe: Hunedoara Castle, also known as 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. Inside, you can download an app for a self-guided walk. 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, we'll check into our hotel, and you'll have the rest of the day off to enjoy an outdoor pool, sauna, and tennis court, and also horseback or carriage rides, if you choose. Feel free to take dinner on your own or join your guide.
Sip Pálinka in Sibiu
- This morning, after yesterday's relaxing afternoon and evening, 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.
- Later in the day, we'll check out 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—to name but a few. The city's historical center even prides itself on being Romania's largest medieval urban ensemble.
- Hopefully, we'll get a chance to poke our heads into the 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.
- You'll love our hotel in Sibiu—while accommodations throughout this entire trip will be special, this place is a real treat.
Lakeside Lunch & Farewell
- Our last day together begins with a visit to the ruins of a Cistercian Abbey. Dating back to 1205, the history of this place is simply fascinating—though you'll have to wait to hear the stories (and legends) from our guide.
- We'll then drive up Romania's tallest mountain range and back down the other side—weather allowing. Top Gear called this winding journey the "Greatest driving road in the world," though we'll be taking it nice and slow to prevent anyone from getting carsick.
- We'll take lunch at Lake Bâlea, a dazzling glacier lake perched at 2,034 meters in elevation. Afterwards, we'll stop at Poienari Fortress—once home to the "real" Dracula, aka Vlad III. If you're able to climb up the 1,480 steps to the fortress' defense posts, you'll gain a striking panoramic view of the entire valley below.
- At the end of this action-packed final day, we'll drive back to Bucharest and drop our now-intrepid explorers off at Henri Coandă International Airport or, if you're staying in the city a bit longer, at your hotel, and back to the 21st century.
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 $325. Otherwise we'll work to place singles of the same sex together.)
- Breakfast daily (either in your hotel, or at recommended traditional breakfast spots) and two dinners.
- An experienced, English-speaking guide to accompany you throughout the trip in addition to an Atlas Obscura representative.
- Private transport throughout the trip, in a comfortable minibus.
- Airport pickup and drop-off.
- 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 anytime before 5 p.m. on Friday, May 4, and depart anytime after 8 p.m. on Sunday, May 13. If you'd like to play it completely safe, we recommend arranging your flight the next morning in case of any delays. We will provide the option of an extra night on May 13 at a hotel with airport shuttle for an additional fee.
NOTE ON ITINERARY
Itineraries and pricing 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 3 to 6 miles each day and remaining on their feet for long periods of time.
You will be charged a non-refundable $300 deposit to hold your space. The final payment of $2,669 will be due by February 5, 2018. 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 $325 will be included in the final payment.
TRAVELERS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR
- Transportation and flights to and from Bucharest, Romania.
- Travel insurance (required).
- Baggage charges.
- Additional meals and drinks outside of Atlas Obscura offerings; this includes all lunches and most dinners.
- If applicable, applying for a Romanian visa (not required for U.S. citizens).