For visitors, the gothic city of Brașov is a gateway into the surrounding towns of Transylvania. Brașov is a major regional hub and is quite centrally located within the Romanian region of Transylvania. It is also situated on the main train line that crosses the country on its way to Bucharest, the nation’s capital. All of this means that it has everything tourists could need as a base for making day trips into this fascinating region of Romania, renowned for its enchanting history and wild beauty. Here are four such day trips from Brasov, that will allow tourists to explore Transylvania in a comfortable and easily manageable way.
Let’s get this out of the way. There is no attraction more weakly linked to the Dracula story than Bran Castle. While its name was borrowed, the castle and setting in the story greatly differ from reality. The link with the real life Vlad the Impaler is also tenuous. At best, the ruler may have only rented the castle for a short time and there are many places in Romania that he had a closer relationship with. The castle itself does not play up its tie to the story of Dracula, surprising for a tourist attraction with a built-in hook. Within its exhibits, there is just one room related to Dracula, that aims to explain the local folklore from where Bram Stoker got some of his inspiration.
Now enough about what Bran Castle isn’t, and more about what it is!
Since the times of the Romans, the Bran Pass has been seen as a strategic point for securing this region near the Carpathian Mountains. As such, in the 14th century it was decided by the Hungarian King Ludovic I de Angou that the locals needed to build a castle along the pass to help defend the kingdom from the Ottoman threat. The castle passed hands frequently, between the Hungarians, Transylvanians and Wallachians, of which Vlad the Impaler was prince for a period.
From the end of the 15th century onwards, the castle became the property of the city of Brașov. As of the 18th century, it began to decline in importance and was not used to great effect until it became the summer residence of the Romanian royals, King Ferdinand and Queen Maria in 1920. When the castle was seized by the Communist regime in 1956, it was converted into a museum of medieval history and art, as it still is to this day.
It is Ferdinand and Maria who take much of the museum’s focus, with rooms exploring their family, lives and how the residence looked when it was used. Standout rooms include the Library, with shelves of undoubtedly old books; and the Music Hall with a bearskin rug and a charming german piano. Aside from seeing what the rooms and castle looked like, there is a wealth of information presented on panels in both Romanian and English.
Exploring the castle can be a disorienting experience, with many small rooms and staircases. The visit is not a linear one that’s for sure. In fact, at one point you are taken through an old secret staircase, somehow bypassing an entire floor of the castle. Still, who doesn’t think taking a secret medieval staircase is kinda cool?
Depending on your approach to museums, ie. how much you like to read, I can see the castle taking up roughly an hour of your time. Outside the castle, you can explore the grounds and there is also a small souvenir market directly in front of the entrance. Ultimately, the town of Bran won’t hold your interest much beyond the castle I don’t think. With an early start you could in fact combine this with another trip, likely Râșnov, as it is on the way back to Brașov.
Entry: Tickets cost 35 RON for adults, including free photography (rare in Romania)
Getting there: Buses run hourly from Autogara 2 (not the one at the train station!) in the direction of Moeciu de Jos for 7 RON. More info here.
Information: Romanian Tourism
Prejmer Fortified Church
The small town of Prejmer would not receive and visitors were it not for the town’s fortified church. As I’ve mentioned previously, this part of Transylvania hosts 7 fortified churches that together have made UNESCO’s world heritage list due to their historical and cultural significance. Prejmer’s church is indeed one of these and the nearest to Brașov.
As with the other fortified churches and citadels in this part of Transylvania, Prejmer owes its history to the Germanic Saxon settlers of the 13th century. However, it was in fact Teutonic Knights that first started building the church in 1212 and then later finished by Cistercians. Prejmer became the largest fortified church in southeast Europe and although besieged over 50 times throughout history, was only ever taken once. The fortifications included walls 12 metres high and 5 metres thick, a 30 metre long entrance tunnel protected with an iron portcullis and a secret underground passage for supplies.
Despite its age, many aspects of the fortified church are very well-preserved. The big metal portcullis still looks like it could hold off attackers and the rings of staircases and walkways inside the walls still handle the foot traffic of tourists. Around the inside of the fortified walls were rooms up to 4 storeys high that could provide shelter to over a thousand people during an attack. You are able to climb up into several of the rooms, most are bare but several are furnished and give you an idea of what they would have felt like.
Several of the staircases can also bring you up into the rafters of the walls, from which the defenders would have fought oncoming attacks. It’s quite dusty and claustrophobic, but it gives you a sense of the advantage the space provided. Other rooms include a small classroom with the old desks of students and fragments of paintings on the walls; and a room showing off local painted woodwork and ceramics dating back the 19th century.
Being a fortified “church”, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the church part. The church is built in a Greek-cross plan, with the nave featuring gothic vaulting. As it was later used by the Lutherans, it has a humble interior typical of protestant churches. The main feature of the church is its altarpiece, vividly depicting the Passion of Christ. It dates from the mid-15th century and is the oldest of the region. Make sure to also look up and admire the vaulted ceiling.
Prejmer is a very small town and one that can be quickly covered on foot. Once you have finished seeing the fortified church, you’re likely going to want to return to Brașov, but there are a couple of places to eat at if you want to break for lunch.
Entry: Tickets for adults are 10 RON
Getting there: While the train is quicker, it isn’t very frequent and the station is at the edge of the town. Minibuses run every half hour starting at Autogara Vest, but I was able to take it from the Faget Bus Stop which is more central, on Bulevardul Garii just east of the roundabout; ticket costs 5.5 RON. More info here.
Information: Romanian Tourism
When it comes to elegant, picturesque castles in Romania, Peleș Castle has to be near the top of the list. Although it doesn’t have the lengthy history of the other sights on this list, it more than makes up for it with its inspired architecture and regal extravagance. Really more of a palace than castle, Peleș was built for King Carol I and completed in 1914. It’s design was inspired by a combination of hunting lodge, Germanic castle and a score of other influences, in order to meet Carol I’s desire for a unique summer retreat. Closed during the Ceauşescu regime, the Palace was reopened to the public in 1990 and is now a growing tourist attraction.
While the tours at Peleș focus on the palace’s interior, there is plenty to appreciate from the outside. For starters, the secluded palace is surrounded by forest and manicured gardens, that to this day look fit for royalty. The terrace gardens in front are very regal and a popular photo spot. Aside from appreciating the beautiful architecture from outside, there is also a courtyard where you buy tickets for the tours inside. This courtyard is sure to grab your attention from its classical stone busts, to its gorgeous painted walls that should occupy your attention as you wait in the potentially long line to enter (I waited almost an hour to get in). Even just the windows and doors draw your attention, with intricate glasswork and ornate wrought iron protectors.
A well-known remark from Queen Elisabeth, wife to Carol I, was that they had craftsmen from all over Europe, each with a specific focus. This led to a cacophony of languages and a myriad of different attires that amused the queen, but evidently it led to masterful results in each of the different trades.
While the outside of the castle is remarkably beautiful, the interior manages to be equally elegant. Again, they obviously didn’t skimp on craftsmen. Room after room is adorned with gorgeous design and lavish furnishings. Upon entering, you’ll be led up stairs to a foyer with some incredibly intricate woodwork in European walnut. The glass roof is nothing to turn your nose up at either. Further rooms linked up by a rather regal red carpet include a well stocked armoury, a Turkish salon and the decadent residences. There are too many noteworthy details in the furnishing, windows, ceilings etc. to mention.
The basic tour of the castle includes the ground and first floor of the palace, while the complete tour includes the upper floor. Lines for the tours can be quite lengthy and unclear, while inside can be a little chaotic with multiple tours going in different languages. It feels like the castle hasn’t quite worked out the right system yet for the influx of interest it has seen.
The castle is situated above the town of Sinaia, itself known as a mountain resort. For visitors to reach Peleș from Sinaia, they must climb a little way up into the start of the Carpathian Mountains. There are two different approaches to the castle, one that leads up a lovely pedestrian road through the forest to below the castle; or the steep and windy road that the coaches take, which actually takes you a little above the castle before bringing you right in front of a bavarian-style inn/hotel close by. The former is certainly the more enjoyable path.
The town of Sinaia is itself quite a nice place to explore, with plenty of beautiful green spaces and some elegant old houses. In the centre of town, you’ll find plenty of restaurants, cafes, bakeries, bars and a supermarket. If you intend to hike and explore more of the forests and mountains, Sinaia may actually be a useful place to stay. However, if the castle is all you’re after, then a day trip from Brasov is more than suitable.
Entry: Starts from 20 RON for the basic tour (not including photography inside)
Getting there: Trains run roughly hourly from Brașov, in the direction of Bucharest with tickets at 13-17 RON; There are also a few buses that run in the morning from Autogara 1 to Sinaia with tickets at 10 RON. More info here.
Information: Romanian Tourism
The town of Râșnov is a bit of an outlier in this part of Transylvania in that it is not known for a fortified church or castle, but rather it’s imposing hilltop fortress. This large citadel sits on the lower reaches of the Carpathian Mountains, high above the small town that lies halfway between Brașov and Bran. Coupled with its extensive history and preserved buildings, visitors will find fantastic views out over both the nearby mountains and the plains below.
Although the strategic value of the hilltop has been known since ancient times, the current fortress dates back to the early 13th century. Built by the Teutonic Knights, it functioned primarily as a place of refuge during the repeated invasions of the Tartars and Ottomans. These periods of invasion often went on so long that the people actually built houses, a chapel and even a school inside the citadel in order for normal life to continue. Throughout its history, the fortress was only seized once when the secret route to its water supply was discovered and forced the defenders’ surrender. Soon after a well was dug inside the citadel to prevent such events reoccurring.
Surviving fires and earthquakes, the fortress was regularly used until 1850, where it provided refuge for the last time during the Hungarian struggle for independence in 1848-49. Despite neglect for 150 years, recent renovations have restored the imposing presence of this once vital stronghold. In fact, a brand new funicular has been built in the last few years to provide easier access to the growing numbers of tourists.
Arriving at the fortress gates, you’re met with the vast and mostly bare grounds within the walls. To the right of the path you’ll find rocks outlining where the citadel chapel once was, a simple and effective approach at showing you what was once there. Climbing the gate tower, you get a sense of just how large the area is within those outer walls and understand how it could have once given refuge to multiple villages. Inside the tower, you’ll find information on various wars fought in the region and the various uniforms worn by soldiers of the different periods.
Further in you will reach the keep, with its narrow and maze-like streets. Here you will find some of the old houses that those seeking refuge once lived in and the ever-so-important well. There are of course plenty of souvenir shops to browse and for the kids, a small archery range to keep them entertained. At the centre of the keep is a large rocky area by the flagpole with panoramic views of Râșnov, the mountains and plains below. It certainly makes the strategic value of the fortress become crystal clear.
The town of Râșnov below, while quite large, is light on other activities. For tourists to Râșnov, the focus is very much of the fortress and a dinosaur park for children nearby. I actually chose to stay in Râșnov, rather than visit from Brașov, in the hopes of seeing a bit more of the region but I really didn’t encounter much more. In town, there are a decent number of options for dining and the main street has a number of boutique shops. There was a noticeable degree of construction going on in town which makes me believe they are hoping to cater more to tourists in the future, but for now I’d still recommend it as just a day trip.
Entry: Tickets for adults are 10 RON
Getting there: Buses run every 15 minutes from Autogara 2 (not the one at the train station!) for 4 RON. More info here.
Information: Romanian Tourism
If you were to visit Brașov, which of these do you think you would like to visit? Have you made any of these day trips from Brasov and are there other day trips you would recommend? Please share in the comments below.