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Often overlooked on the regular European tourist trail, Romania is a worthy travel destination in its own right, offering a varied getaway thanks to architectural towns and medieval villages set against a backdrop of dense forests and rugged mountains.
With 20 million people spread over 240,000 square kilometres, the country is perfect for a road-trip-meets-city adventure. Serviced by most major airlines, Bucharest makes an easy starting point. Once known as the “little Paris” of Romania, the capital sets an example for the smaller outlying villages like Brasov, with a diverse cityscape made up of gothic, baroque and renaissance styles.
Sitting in the centre of Romania’s Transylvania region in the Carpathian Mountains (made famous by Dracula) Brasov was established by the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century. During the medieval period it was occupied by the Saxons, who turned the city into a walled citadel to protect against invaders. Today, Brasov is surrounded by those same medieval stone walls, but crêpe stands and cafés line the town’s wide, pedestrian-only main boulevard.
For centuries, the city’s central Romanian location gave it strong political influence in the region, especially during the Ottoman Empire, while it also acted as an important gateway for trade into western Europe. Its historical importance is reflected in its German and Latin names which translate to mean “crown city”, embodied in a coat of arms bearing a crown with oak roots which can be seen on walls and buildings around town.
The city centre is traversed by romantic cobblestone roads, with the “Black Church” (so-called having been charred by a fire) peeking out from behind colourful baroque houses that shield the council square, Piaţa Sfatului, and former town hall, Casa Sfatului.
Beyond the city, imposing mountains clad with thick forests dominate the countryside. Ride a gondola to the top of Mount Tampa and back for just 17 lei (€3.70) or buy a ticket one way and hike the other if the weather’s agreeable. This is the place to get your panoramic Instagram money shot.
We wouldn’t usually recommend tourist excursions, but Brasov’s free walking tour is ideal for first-time visitors. You’ll whizz through 800 years of history in just two hours, from the citadel to the “golden era” of communism, with a bit of Dracula thrown in as you walk down one of the narrowest streets in Eastern Europe. If you’re (blood)thirsty for more, drive 30 minutes out of town to the city to Bran, where you’ll find the notorious castle situated on the border between Transylvania and Wallachia. The pretty village beckons with tempting strolls along antiquated streets, lined with local shops and plenty of places to eat along the way.
Romania may not be known for its cuisine (cabbage rolls anyone?) but despite Brasov’s small-town feel and remote location, there several good restaurants. Try La Republique in the city centre for a laidback breakfast of fruit-filled clătites (crêpes), while La Vatra Ardealului is a small bakery near the Black Church and the place to sample local specialities, including covrigi (oven-baked bread rolls), gogosi (the Romanian version of doughnuts stuffed with fruit) and Habsburg-inspired strudels. For a more contemporary affair, head to Pocol, a design-led brasserie with exposed brick walls, brass fittings and a colourful bar, serving a carefully curated menu of meat and seafood plates.
Three days is sufficient to explore Brasov, though Transylvania’s fabled landscapes yield many more delights, with fairytale castles a constant reminder of the country’s often overlooked magic. Indeed, Romania’s earthy charm is for those who’ve ticked the obvious Euro spots off their list and are seeking something a little different. With relatively few tourists, there is not yet a clear divide between locals and travellers, making for a surprising trip full of chance encounters – though as holidaymakers venture ever further east in search of a cheap break, that may not be the case for long.
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