Things to Do in Romania
Romania’s most controversial building sits like a megalith in the middle of Bucharest, a monument to the folly and ego of fallen Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, who conceived his grandiose idea after visiting another dictator, Kim II-sung, in North Korea. Started in 1984 and designed by young Romanian architect Anca Petrescu, the palace was conceived from Ceaușescu’s wish for it to be the biggest office building in the world – and he almost got his way, with only the Pentagon being larger. Churches, synagogues and 30,000 private homes were demolished to make way for this awesome monstrosity, and its mammoth proportions include 12 stories (with four underground), 1,100 rooms and state apartments, a brutal Soviet Realist façade of 270 meters (886 feet) in length and a vast subterranean nuclear bunker. Around 20,000 builders worked for six years to complete the palace, working seven days a week and using only materials available in Romania.
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.
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.
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.
First built in 1878 as a wooden monument to mark Romania’s Independence, Bucharest’s Arch of Triumph (Arcul de Triumf) has long been one of the city’s most memorable landmarks. Although rebuilt again after WWI, the current Arch of Triumph is the work of architect Petru Antonesc, reconstructed in granite in 1936, and decorated with sculptures by Romanian artists like Constantin Medrea, Constantin Baraschi and Ion Jalea.
Towering 27-meters over the intersection of Kiseleff road, Mareșal Alexandru boulevard and Alexandru Constantinescu street, the monumental arch now marks the entrance to Bucharest’s Herăstrău Park. Still a poignant reminder of Romania’s independence, it’s the site of military parades and celebrations on Romania's National Day (Dec 1st), and an internal staircase also allows visitors to climb to the top, looking out over the busy boulevards below.
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.
More Things to Do in Romania
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.
Bucharest’s Jewish History Museum was founded in 1978 by Moses Rosen, who was the city’s chief rabbi between 1964 and 1994; it is found in the ornate Holy Union Temple synagogue, which was built in 1836 by the wealthy Jewish Tailors Guild and is in Moorish style, with layers of brickwork alternating with white plaster fronted by an extravagant rose window. Among all the gold and silver religious ephemera inside, displays detail Jewish history in Romania and mark the community’s contribution to Bucharest society. The somber memorial room at the back of the synagogue is dedicated to victims of the Holocaust, when thousands of Romanian Jews lost their lives in Transnistria. However, star prize probably goes to the startlingly colorful interior of the three-tiered, galleried synagogue, which is liberally ornamented with Byzantine and Moorish tiling, marble floors and decorative walls and ceilings.
Finally inaugurated in 2009 after a long (and somewhat controversial) wait, Bucharest’s Holocaust Memorial serves as a stark reminder of the thousands of Romanian Jews affected by the Holocaust. The memorial holds great significance not only for Romania’s Jewish community, but as a symbol that the country recognizes its role in events (a fact often denied by the post-war communist government).
The memorial itself is a simple yet poignant monument, designed by artist Peter Jacobi and featuring a plaque dedicated to the estimated 280,000 Jews and 25,000 Roma who lost their lives during the Holocaust. The memorial includes a ‘Column of Memory’, inlaid with the Hebrew word for ‘Remember’, and a Roma wheel, dedicated to the Romani people.
Founded in the early 16th century, the Curtea de Arges Monastery is one of the most important pilgrimage and prayer sites in Romania. A Romanian Orthodox cathedral sits on the grounds of the monastery that also dates to the 16th century. Built with pale gray limestone in a Byzantine style, it features Moorish arabesques and an interior covered with murals by French painters Nicolle and Renouard and Romanian painter Constantinescu. The monastery is also home to numerous relics and a gospel written in gold by Queen Elizabeth of Romania, as well as the graves of Kings Ferdinand and Carol I and Queens Elizabeth and Maria.
The monastery is tied to several local legends, including the legend of Master Manole, who is said to have sacrificed his wife and his own life to complete the building of the monastery. Another legend relates to the holy relics of Saint Filofteea, a 12-year-old girl who was killed by her father after giving food to beggars.
Taking centerstage in Bucharest’s Old Town, Revolution Square (Piata Revolutiei) is located along the central boulevard of Victoriei Street and has long been at the forefront of the city’s historic events. Originally named Palace Square (Piața Palatului), Revolution Square earned its current moniker after the Romanian Revolution in 1989, and remains one of the city’s principal landmarks and navigational hubs.
For first-time visitors, the grand square is undeniably impressive, framed by ornate buildings and crowned by the towering Memorial of Rebirth – a 25-meter-high marble pillar erected in the center of the square, in memory of the victims of the Revolution. Other important monuments on the square include the neoclassical Royal Palace, now home to the National Museum of Art; the Romanian Atheneum, a domed concert hall dating back to the 19th century.
The sprawling Cantacuzino Castle was completed in 1911 to plans drawn up by architect Grigore Cerchez; it was designed as a hunting lodge for Prince Gheorghe Grigore Cantacuzino, who was twice Prime Minister of Romania in the 1900s. Surrounded by forested hills, the mansion has an ornate stone-and-brick façade adorned with colonnaded loggias and towers in an exotic style known Neo-Romanian; it is open for guided tours of the decorative interior, where flourishes of Art Nouveau, patterned marble floors, stained glass, mosaics and embellished carved wood abound. A rare collection of Cantacuzino coats of arms is on display and the castle is host to occasional art exhibitions as well as summertime musical concerts known as Prahova Classic Nights.
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.
Arguably the most beautiful building in Bucharest, the Romanian Athenaeum is the city’s foremost concert hall and a source of national pride, with an elegant Doric-colonnaded façade topped with a pediment and cupola. It was designed in Neo-classical style by French architect Albert Galleron and opened in 1888 to great acclaim; the great Romanian conductor George Enescu debuted his ‘Romanian Poem’ here in 1898. The lobby of the concert hall is an opulent, almost Art Nouveau triumph of ornamental gilding supported by arched, pink marble columns that lead off to a series of twisting marble staircases leading up to the concert hall. The circular auditorium seats 652 under a fabulous domed ceiling richly ornamented in scarlet and gold and fringed by frescoes by Costin Petrescu depicting important events in Romanian history; it is world-famous for the clarity of it acoustics and is home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra.
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.
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.
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.
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