Romania is a mystery land crowned by mountains and enigmatic landscapes. Much of this thunderously stunning country can be explored via day trips from Bucharest. Dare to drive the most beautiful and treacherous road in Europe, float upon the salty Black Sea, talk with the descendants of Vlad the Impaler’s former servants and marvel at some of the most beautiful castles in the world. And each of these adventures is just a short drive away from Romania’s capital city.
Rent a car, put on a warm coat and head up the mountainside on the stunningly beautiful Transfagarasan Road. This is one of the most gorgeous highways in the world making the drive itself worth the trip. The Transfagarasan Road traverses the Fagaras Mountains; the tallest mountains in Romania which are also known as the Transylvanian Alps. It takes nerves of steel to drive this windy, narrow road that clings to the Fagaras mountainside. The road passes Fagaras Fortress, Vidraru Dam and Balea Lake. The fortress is surrounded by a deep moat and was formerly the residence of Michael the Brave while the Vidraru Dam holds back the amazingly blue glacial waters of the Balea Lake.
Medieval history awaits just over the border in Bulgaria at Veliko Tarnovo. One of Bulgaria’s oldest towns, Veliko Tarnovo hangs on the side of the slithering Yantra River to make for some dramatic views. At the heart of this ancient town is the restored Tsarevets Fortress which served as the citadel for the Second Bulgarian Empire. Much of the town is unchanged through the centuries. Take a stroll through time on the cobblestone of ul Gurko lane and peruse handcrafts at the Samovodska Charshiya market much like the townsfolk did two centuries ago. Some of Tarnovo has modernized quite nicely. The new side of town boasts Bulgaria’s second-largest university and is a haven for backpackers traveling between Istanbul and Bucharest.
Vlad the Impaler was a notorious figure in history. The story of Dracula is said to be based on the Romanian ruler. You can visit his castle, which has been remarkably untouched by time, on a short day trip from Bucharest. Before heading up to the castle, head just a few miles south to visit the town of Arefu. The incredibly preserved ancient town is still full of the descendants of those who served Vlad the Impaler and they are proud of it. Vlad chose Poenari Castle as his stronghold in the 15th century. The castle’s isolation fed the brutal ruler’s penchant for paranoia. He eventually isolated himself from his closest friends and even his own brother. They betrayed him by having him arrested for high treason the second he emerged from this castle to ask for their help. He escaped the charges but never returned to his home on the hill.
Sitting on the Black Sea, Constanta lures tourists from all over Europe during the summer months. Constanta is the oldest attested city in Romania at 2,600 years old. It’s also Romania’s largest port and the third largest port on the Black Sea in Europe. Romania’s oldest city has plenty of historical landmarks, museums, shops, beaches and even a grand casino. Accommodation here is much more affordable than what you’ll find in Mamaia and it is only a 15-minute cab ride away. Be sure to check out the popular gathering spot of Ovid Square, the intricate beauty of the Roman Mosaics and the 26-foot Genoese Lighthouse built by the Black Sea Company in 1860.
Considered one of the most breathtaking castles in Europe, Peles Castle is nestled up against the Bucegi Mountains south of Bucharest. The castle took dozens of stone masons, wood carvers and artists over 40 years to build. Their persistence and commitment to their craft show in this stunning example of German new-Renaissance architecture. Get here early as this wildly popular tourist destination can sell out during the summer months. To see the incredibly lavish interior of the castle, you’ll be forced to take a 40-minute guided tour and the lines can be long. You’ll be smitten by the Honorary Hallway where German landscapes are hand carved into the walls and blown away by the castle’s museum-worthy armory.
A massive Holywood-style sign towers between Soviet blocks to make Brasov’s skyline one of a kind. Gothic guard towers still crown the city and you’ll have to enter through medieval gateways. Inside, you’ll find beautiful baroque churches and a cafe-lined main square called Piaţa Sfatului. If you can pry your eyes off the city’s beauty for a moment, take the time to talk with a local. They will spin you tales about the city that include Vlad the Impaler’s mistress, an old noblewoman resurrected from her grave and that time when a bear wandered into the town square. Brasov is a robust ski town with Poiana Braşov nearby and serves as a great homebase for exploring Piatra Craiului National Park just 30 km (19 miles) west.
Bram Stoker brought Dracula to life in the pages of a book in 1897. He loosely based his main character on Vlad the Impaler and amalgamated many of his European castle visits to create Dracula’s home. Bran Castle looks like Bram Stoker’s vision, but connections to Vlad the Impaler himself are thin. That doesn’t stop the people of the town of Bran from embellishing the origin story of this beautiful castle. Perched on a hill high above the town of Bran, the conical towers of this castle make for a great view of the surrounding landscape and town below. The creaky wooden floors are covered in bear skin rugs, the furniture is ornate and the fireplaces made of ceramic. Queen Maria and King Ferdinand actually lived in this homestead. Ignore any scant stories connecting the magnificent building to Bram Stoker or Vlad the Impaler.