Things to Do in Transylvania
Brasov’s monumental Black Church (Biserica Neagra) soars heavenwards at the southwestern end of the city’s focal Council Square (Piata Sfatului) and is the largest Gothic church in central Europe. Afloat with flying buttresses and a landmark tower, construction on the church began in 1383 and it was completed almost a century later in 1477; along with several other prominent buildings in the city it was all but destroyed in the great fire of 1689 and takes its present name from its blackened, smoke-damaged walls. Repairs took more than 100 years and even today only one of the two proposed towers is complete, standing 215 feet (65.6 meters) above the Council Square. The Black Church’s Gothic vaulting remains but the interior now shows touches of Baroque in its styling; the flamboyant, 4,000-pipe organ is one of the best in Romania, designed in 1839 by the famous German organ-maker Carl August Buchholz and there are weekly organ concerts at 6 p.m. each Tuesday.
Bram Stoker might not have visited Bran Castle, but this Romanian architectural icon was still the inspiration for his most famous work. Fans of his fiction can visit the supposed home of Count Dracula and explore the dark history of one of the world's most famous castles.
Built in 1211 by the Teutonic Knights, Bran Castle is tucked into the steep cliffs between Magura and Dealul Cetatii and once served as home to royalty. Today, it's one of Transylvania's top tourist destinations, often visited from Bucharest. Travelers agree the views are epic, the history is rich and most of the displays are translated into English. Tours are available for a nominal fee, but travelers and vampire fanatics can explore the castle on their own, too.
Once marking the entrance to the fortified city and home to the Town Council, Sighisoara’s grand Clock Tower dates back to the 14th century and remains one of the city’s most memorable landmarks. Looming 64 meters over Piața Muzeului, the tower’s most distinctive feature is its 17th-century clock, complete with mechanical figurines that symbolize Peace, Justice, Law, Day and Night. Today, the Clock Tower is home to a fascinating local history museum, with exhibitions spread over the tower’s three floors and reached by the original narrow stairwell. Artifacts on display include Romanian furniture, medieval tools, medical equipment, old clocks and traditional handicrafts. Visitors can also take a peek at into the clock’s mechanism and climb to the top-floor observation platform for a view over the city.
Balea Lake is a glacial lake in Romania’s Fagaras Mountains. Sitting at more than 2,000 meters high, it is one of the most popular lakes in Romania. Most visitors are drawn to the lake for the landscape and superb views on the drive there; the water is typically too cold for swimming. Two chalets are open near the lake all year round, but it is most easily accessed in the summer months. In the winter, visitors must ride the cable car from the chalet near the Balea waterfall to get there. In 2006, the first ice hotel in eastern Europe was built nearby using blocks of ice pulled from the frozen lake.
The triangular expanse of Council Square (Piata Sfatului) has been the focus of life in Braşov since medieval times; at the heart of the city’s Saxon, medieval Old Town, it can rival the Rynek in Krakow for sheer beauty. The piazza is lined with a jumble of stately Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque townhouses – now mostly restaurants and cafés – and is overshadowed by the Old Town Hall, a Gothic masterpiece dating from 1420 and whose landmark Trumpet Tower was originally a watchtower against approaching invaders. Formerly the hub of civic activity in Braşov, today the Old Town Hall houses the tourist office and the city’s History Museum.
Braşov’s monumental Black Church (Biserica Neagră) stands at the southwestern end of the square and is the largest Gothic-style church in central Europe; its origins lie in the 14th century but much of the church was destroyed in the fire of 1689 and subsequently rebuilt.
With a width of over 140 meters, Sibiu’s Big Square (Piata Mare) is aptly named and for visitors, the enormous pedestrianized square makes a strategic starting point for a tour of the city. Piata Mare, along with neighboring Piata Mica and Piata Huet, makes up the main hub of Sibiu’s Old Town and is home to some of the district’s most impressive architecture.
Almost everywhere you turn on the square, you’ll be confronted by historical landmarks. At the north end of the square stands the Turnul Statului (Council Tower), the Holy Trinity Church and the early-20th-century City Hall, next to which is the tourist information office. To the west is the Brukenthal Museum and the Romanian Art Gallery, while the south and east sides are home to notable buildings like the 15th-century Casa Generalilor and Casa Hecht; the Romanesque Casa Haller, now home to the Haller Café; and the 16th-century Casa Weidner, now a hotel.
This picturesque Neo-Renaissance castle is located in the scenic Carpathian Mountains in Romania’s Prahova County. Built in the late 1800s, Peles is home to vast hand-painted murals, 170 rooms, 30 bathrooms and an impressive collection of art and arms. Visitors can tour the grounds and take in the garden statues, old-world paintings, rich tapestries and shining armor collected from Eastern and Central European. The Swiss stained glass vitralios are also worth a peek and rank high among Peles Castle’s prized art works.
Travelers who elect to take a guided castle tour should be sure to check out the ornate woodwork in the Honor Hall and the 500-year-old leather wall cover in the Imperial Suite. Visitors say these are among some of the most impressive (and well-kept) items in Peles.
More Things to Do in Transylvania
Framed by old-fashioned lampposts and lined with colourful flowers, the iron footbridge running between Piata Mica and Piata Huet makes for a romantic spot, looking down over Ocnei street below. But if you believe local legend, Sibiu’s landmark ‘Bridge of Lies’ is much more than a pretty photo opportunity. First built as a wooden footbridge some 200 years ago, the bridge earned its ominous moniker thanks to local myth, which dictates that the bridge has ‘ears’ and magical powers. The bridge was said to expose liars and cheats, creaking and shuddering when lies were told in the town, and would allegedly collapse if a liar attempted to cross.
The iron bridge that stands today was built to replace its predecessor in 1859, but the legend remains and it’s often cited as an example to local kids about the importance of telling the truth.
Built, as its name suggests, on a hilltop overlooking Sighisoara, the Church on the Hill is one of the city’s oldest buildings, dating back to the mid-14th century. Acclaimed as one of Transylvania’s most important examples of ecclesiastical Gothic architecture, it’s a striking sight, perched on the 420-meter summit of School Hill. It’s a steep climb up a 175-step covered wooden staircase, the ‘Scholar’s Stairs’, to the church, but it’s worth the effort to view the beautifully restored interiors. Highlights include a number of carefully restored 15th-century frescos, an elaborate 16th-century altar and an eerie crypt, home to around 30 tombs.
Romania’s oldest national museum, the Brukenthal National Museum is actually made up of six distinctive museums, but it’s the Brukenthal art gallery that takes center-stage, in prize place on the Big Square (Piața Mare). Housed in the 18th-century Baroque-style Brukenthal Palace, the permanent art collection includes over 1,200 works dating between the 15th and 18th centuries. As well as European masters like Rubens and Van Dyck, the galleries include an Anatolian rugs collection; a library of rare books and manuscripts; and a comprehensive collection of Romanian art, including an impressive selection of Transylvanian medieval art.
Also part of the Brukenthal National Museum are the Museum of History, housed in the 16th-century Altemberger House; the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Natural History. Additional collections include the fascinating Museum of Pharmacy, housed in a medieval apothecary, and the August von Spiess Museum of Hunting.
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