The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Romania: Raluca Spiac of Beyond Dracula.
Raluca’s friends throughout her homeland of Romania will make you feel right at home and ensure you gain a full appreciation of its beautiful landscapes and its culture charmingly stuck in an earlier era, when people organized their lives around the seasons (but now check their smartphone to see what time sunset is). Raluca loves to arrange trips that combine the Carpathians’ forested peaks (ideally seen on foot or horseback), Bucharest’s curious combination of Art Nouveau and brutalist architecture, the Danube Delta’s rich avian and aquatic life, and a few 13th-century UNESCO World Heritage-recognized villages and churches (where you can spend an afternoon with one of the many traditional craftspeople that Raluca has befriended, likely ending up in their attic looking through old photographs). Her preferred accommodations range from the country’s few true luxury hotels to guesthouses serving home-cooked meals with produce from their garden.
Things to Do and See
Most underrated experiences
The sheer natural beauty of the country. Even those who expect it are still surprised—as well as those who aren’t particularly passionate about nature.
The same goes for the food and wine. Romania lost its reputation for good wine during the Communist era, since Russians like their wine sweet, but the current vintages are excellent. The food is praised not so much because of the dishes, which are often adaptations of Arabic or European cuisine, but because the ingredients taste so local and genuine.
Malankrav, a small village in the heart of Transylvania, has one of the smallest and most welcoming fortified churches. The frescoes are colorful, the little garden is well tended, and overall there is a peaceful atmosphere. Many other churches feel heavier and darker by comparison.
The Village Museum in Sighetu Marmatiei, in Maramures. There are many museums that display rural constructions from all the regions around Romania. This one is hardly visited, but it’s very realistically done—so much so that you feel at any minute someone will come out of one of the old wooden houses and welcome you.
Seeing bears from a bear hide in the forest. Though it’s impossible to guarantee, Raluca has never had travelers not see at least one—and some have seen eight or nine, including cubs.
Horseback riding. No matter your level of experience, one hour in the meadows and forests of Transylvania is exciting and fun.
Renting a sports car to drive the Transfagarasan. It’s been called “the best road in the world,” but unless you arrange for the road to be closed (which is possible but expensive), you’ll get stuck behind traffic while you try to race around the curves. All but the wildest car aficionados will be happier taking it slowly and stopping for photos.
How to spend a lazy Sunday
Sundays are great in Bucharest (and the other larger cities) because there is little to no traffic and the atmosphere is relaxed. The better restaurants in town get busy, though, so make sure you have reservations.
Therme—the largest spa, entertainment center, and covered pool in Eastern Europe—is actually best visited on a weekday, when it’s relatively empty and you can fully enjoy your surroundings.
Where to Stay and Eat
Privo, in the peaceful small town of Targu Mures (in central Transylvania), has a very professional staff, good prices, and exceptional meals. Reserve one of the apartments in the Villa Csonka, and book time with their sommelier to learn about the wine collection.
Romania does not have a proper five-star hotel yet (though some claim otherwise). The true standouts in the country are guesthouses in Transylvania and Maramures. You’ll find no fitness center or spa, but the locations are fantastic (small, quaint villages surrounded by pristine nature), the meals are generous and tasty, and there are plenty of truly welcoming people around. One of my favorites is Sesuri, in Maramures. The village has adopted the guesthouse’s German owners, who fell in love with this corner of the country on a hiking trip in the 90s, and they’ll make you feel as at home as they now feel. The place is rustic but designed with an eye for fine detail.
The Cinsor Guesthouse in Transylvania is a former schoolhouse with an amazing chef who arranges for Raluca’s travelers to be greeted with a nice snack or a proper meal, depending on their arrival time. (Many other guesthouses just have local ladies cooking, and the food is good but not remarkable. But Cinsor has a proper chef—who might be part magician, given what comes out of the kitchen.) If you reserve the Big Attic Room, you’re greeted with a view of the Carpathians as you wake up.
Restaurant the locals love
GRANO, in Bucharest. It’s Italian cuisine like Italian mothers cook, yet in a chic setting. The menu is limited, but everything is prepared in-house, often with ingredients brought from Italy. The best dishes are the AOP (alio olio pepperoncino pasta), octopus salad, and carrot cake. Definitely order some Cartizze, a type of Prosecco made in Veneto by the father of one of the owners.
Meal worth the splurge
Raluca can arrange for a chef to set up a five-course meal outdoors for you, in a meadow overlooking the Carpathians. Enjoy Romanian wine and the hospitality of your host while you try local delicacies such as truffled butter or zacusca, a veggie spread usually made in the fall to use during the winter months.
Prime picnic spot
Herastrau Park, in Bucharest, is large enough that you don’t feel like you’re in one of the busiest cities in Eastern Europe. There’s a large lake—with options to row or paddle after your picnic—and plenty of shaded grassy spots. (If you haven’t gotten it together to bring lunch provisions, there are nice restaurants along the lakeshore.)
May, June, and September see prime weather and the fewest crowds. The second half of April and first half of October can also be good, but there is a chance of rain and some colder days.
Bucharest gets very crowded in summer. In August in particular, many Romanians are traveling, so traffic is crazy and the main sights are mobbed.
November and December tend to be gray, making for a drab landscape.
Expecting a vampire-themed trip. While Bram Stoker is said to have based his character Dracula on Vlad the Impaler—once the prince of a region in what is now Romania—vampires don’t play a major role in the country’s traditions or culture. “Dracula’s Castle” was actually the summer residence of Queen Marie, so it’s a feminine, romantic location. There are kiosks en route to the castle that sell cheap and kitschy Dracula merchandise, but there’s nothing authentic about them. Still, the castle is beautiful and worth a visit; Raluca arrangea private tours via a seldom-used entrance.
Raluca can arrange for the archive of a history museum to be opened, revealing archaeological discoveries that aren’t on exhibit. Your docent is the very archaeologist who is researching these pieces and can best explain their significance.
She also knows many local craftsmen—one of whom has been recognized by UNESCO for his living cultural heritage—and you can spend time with them in their workshops. It could be a blacksmith who works with tools (and techniques) he inherited from his grandfather, or a tailor who sews beautiful coats out of sheep skin; others are woodworkers or potters who will invite you to create a keepsake alongside them.
The 1000-meter-high platform in Zabola. On a clear day, you can see the Carpathians on the horizon, and on fall evenings at sunset you get a gorgeous combination of oranges and pinks and purples.
An Ia, the traditional Romanian blouse. Two good places to shop for one in Bucharest are on Calea Dorobanti and at the myRomanian store by the Athenaeum.
Explore Romania, which is produced by the tourism ministry, gives a good overview of the country.
A ten percent tip is the rule at restaurants and in taxis; however, if something costs between 5 and 10 Romanian leu (roughly $2.50), leave 10 leu. In general, round up the final amount paid—so, leave 15 leu on a bill of 13, or 25 on a bill of 23.
Something small and typical from your own hometown or country. Hotel staff, drivers, and guides just light up when receiving a small gift from travelers, such as a pin or a postcard that tells something about where they come from.