A well-planned and extensive European trip is a bucket list experience for most of us. We envision ourselves traipsing leisurely through the likes of France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Spain. Maybe we even spend our days daydreaming about the cool blue waters of Portugal or Greece or the painfully fashionable cities of Denmark or Sweden. Usually, though, the rest of Europe gets much less consideration, and many European countries, filled with culture, architecture, incredible scenery, great people and delicious food, fail to even make their way into our imagination, let alone onto our itineraries. One such country, with breathtaking natural beauty, vibrant cities, fascinating history and plenty of olde-world charm, is Romania, a hidden gem tucked away in Eastern Europe that rarely gets the recognition it deserves. Frankly, it’s high time we turned that around.
With a population of almost 20 million, Romania is a large country tucked away in southeastern Europe, bordering Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Moldova, Ukraine and the shores of the Black Sea. It has immense forests and mountain ranges, stunning beaches along one small but mighty coastline, and charming, culture-packed cities with plenty to see and do.
Your first point of call in this wonderful country should be Bucharest, the nation’s capital, with a population of just over 2 million. Dubbed the “Little Paris of the East,” Bucharest is a stunning city, with a French influence that cannot easily be missed as you stroll through its cobblestone streets. First off, wander through Bucharest’s grand Old Town, the city’s historic center, filled with neoclassical and neo-baroque architecture and plenty of cafes, restaurants, bars and boutiques. Don’t miss the Old Town’s Stavropoleos Monastery Church, a beautiful example of “Brancovenesc” style architecture from the early 18th century, built by a Greek monk named Ioanichie. Next, make your way to C?rture?ti Carusel, an enormous must-visit bookstore extending over six floors, and then settle down to eat some traditional Romanian food at the Hanul lui Manuc, the oldest operating hotel building in the city.
Bucharest is also home to the Palace of Parliament, which was the world’s second largest building by floor area until earlier this year; started by the former Romanian communist leader and dictator Nicolae Ceau?escu in 1984, the massive building took over 10 years to complete, finishing several years after Ceau?escu’s execution. Romania has a troubled past, with Ceau?escu’s almost 25-year reign considered perhaps the most repressive and totalitarian in Europe; for the history buffs out there, make sure to check out a walking tour of Bucharest to learn more and take in the most notable sites. If it’s art you’re looking for, then make sure to visit the National Museum of Art of Romania and the Museum of Recent Arts. Bucharest is also an incredibly green city, so make sure to wander through the famous Ci?migiu Gardens, Her?str?u Park or the perfectly charming Cotroceni neighborhood, which is also home to the Dimitrie Brândz? Botanical Garden and Cotroceni Palace.
If there is one part of Romanian culture that you may already be familiar with, it’s the story of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and his eerie Transylvanian castle. Yes, Transylvania is a real place and it’s right here in Romania. The castle in question is the world famous Bran Castle, which is close enough to Bucharest for just a day trip; I recommend lingering instead, though, and spending a handful of days exploring the nearby towns of Brasov and Sibiu. Brasov, the larger of the two, is surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains, making it the perfect base for a few scenic hikes—or, if you visit in the Winter, perhaps a day of snowboarding or skiing. The town is also home to Aventura Park, the biggest adventure park in Europe. Strolling through nearby Sibiu will feel like stepping back in time as it is teeming with well-preserved Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic architecture waiting to be explored. The town is a must visit for art and history lovers, as the place is known for its many galleries and museums. Make sure to visit the Romanian Art Gallery and the world’s second largest open-air museum, Brukenthal Museum, mostly housed within the walls of a grand 18th century palace.
Romania has no shortage of breathtaking medieval castles, churches and monasteries worth a visit. If Bran Castle whets your appetite, then make sure to visit nearby Pele? Castle or the painted monasteries of Bucovina. These Romanian Orthodox monasteries are masterpieces of Byzantine art and are decorated in frescoes which date back to the 15th and 16th centuries. A few of them have even made it onto the UNESCO World Heritage list and they are the only churches of their kind in Europe, so they’re well worth a visit. If you’d really like to step back in time, however, a visit to Maramure? in northern Romania is a must. Known as the country’s most traditional region, you can lose yourself in a medieval world filled with centuries old wooden churches, endless green pastures, unique cemeteries, stunning natural beauty and locals dressed in colorful and traditional garb.
While the nation only has a small coastline, it’s still beautiful, so don’t discount Romania when deciding on a spot for your next beach getaway. The coastal town of Constanta is well worth a visit if you’d like to enjoy the white sands and crystal blue waters of the Black Sea. If you love the water but aren’t fussed about making it to the coast, visit the Danube Delta, one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. You can hike alongside the river, or enjoy a luxurious boat tour.
From culture to castles and incredible scenery to iconic architecture, Romania is so much more than meets the eye. It is a criminally underrated destination with so much to offer and, at just a fraction of the cost of more well known European countries. So, for lovers of eating, drinking, hiking, sightseeing and strolling through streets that feel as if they’ve been plucked from a fairytale, a trip to Romania should be on your itinerary. I don’t doubt that you’ll fall in love with this hidden gem and after your first visit, you’ll be eager to return.
Bryony Parker is a writer and artist currently living in São Paulo, Brazil and working on her Masters in International Affairs. You can find her at @par666ker on all social media.