Romania is a place filled with folklore and whispers. When you arrive, you quickly understand why. Steeped in violent history, including ruthless dictators, uprisings and the fall of communism, Romanians have only truly been a non-Communist democratic society with the most recent election of a president of German heritage. We were told his election was monumental because ethnic Germans were never permitted to be a part of the communist party, "guaranteeing" a more stable government.
After our flight in from Serbia to Bucharest, we took a three hour train ride to a small town nestled in the Carpathian Mountains. We spent a week in Brasov, pronounced Brah-shahv, in an AirBnb near the famous Biserica Neagra (Black Church.) Tip: Attend an organ concert at Black Church on Tuesdays at 5:30 pm for 10 LEI.
Brasov is guarded by a Mt. Tampa, complete with a cheesy take on a Hollywood sign, which replaced the old Stalin sign that had been etched into the mountain side. During the early Communist era, the city was renamed Stalin City in his honor.
Brasov is a city from fairytales and is truly magical. The old buildings feel like you're walking onto a movie set, and the city is small and compact, making it easy to get anywhere quickly.
We hiked to the top of Mt. Tampa following the blue trail, which was extremely steep. You can also take the cable car to the top for a much easier trip. The trails are very well-marked once you find the start; walk along the Tampa promenade and you will find one of the two trail heads.
The Free Walking Tour, which we also did in Bucharest, was worth the nearly four hours of walking as the information is great and helps you hit all the hotspots easily, including Black Church, Turnbul Alb and St. Nicolas Church.
Brasov is also a great place to use as a hub for day trips. The most famous day trip is to Bran Castle, the supposed inspiration for Stoker's Dracula. We had heard mixed reviews regarding this trip so we skipped it in favor of Peles (Pell-esh) Castle. The train to get there is a stop in Sinaia on both the in and outboard train from Bucharest and takes just over an hour. Cost differs depending on time of departure and the fast or slow train. Note: From the Brasov train station to the center bus hub Bus Route 4 is the fastest route. It arrived roughly every 10 minutes on the third minute of the hour.
Peles is definitely worth the day trip, opulent and extravagant. Don't bother with the taxi to the top. Walk out of the train station and straight up the hill through the park, hugging the right path. At the top of the park is a tree-covered trail with shops taking you up to the Castle. The nearby monastery is a worth a quick look and won't take more than 30 minutes.
Pack a lunch, grab a basket of the fresh berries being sold on every corner on your way back down and a drink at the "market" next to the train station in Sinaia. Note: Peles has extremely strict copyright laws and you will need to buy a special photo pass for 32 lei for personal use only. If you want to take the tour of the apartments buy the double ticket for 50 lei per person. This was worth the cost in our opinion.
From Brasov we took the train to Bucharest. Bucharest is a huge city, holding over a quarter of Romania's population. We did not stay in the Old Town due to the cost and scarcity of accommodations, but it would be worth the splurge. Bucharest is not unsafe per se, but it is not the most charming place we've been.
We got a great history of the city during our walking tour, but note, it's a LOT of walking. Being such a large city, the walking tour covers more than it probably should and took us nearly 4 hours. It is a great option, though, to hear about the main historical points in Bucharest.
With limited time in Bucharest, we did the walking tour, stopped at the People's Parliament House (did not take the tour as we heard it is average for how over the top the building really is) and had a great dinner at the locally loved "Beer Wagon" or Caru' cu Bere. Definitely try the cheese balls, which sounds weird, but they were incredible. We enjoyed our dinner with new friends, Drew and Kelly, Americans currently living in Abu Dhabi, who we met at our Peles Castle day trip.
Romania's countryside is truly beautiful and there are so many natural places to see. Similar to Montenegro, you could spend weeks here hiking to waterfalls and other beautiful sites. The economic conversion rate is great as well. Romania is definitely on our list to return to and spend additional time outside of the main cities.