Surrounded by the peaks of the Southern Carpathians on three sides, Brasov, Romania, is one of the most beautiful cities in Transylvania. Baroque buildings and medieval churches, cobblestoned streets, and modern cafes, plus nature trails up a forested mountain make it a great destination for visitors of all interests.
Though inhabited from ancient times, Brasov was established as a city in 1211 by the Teutonic Knights. Invited by the Hungarian kings and with Saxons from German-speaking areas, they were offered large areas of land in exchange for defending the southern border of Transylvania. The Transylvanian Saxons, as they became known, built walled cities, fortresses, and citadels. They established Brasov, then known by its original name, Kronstadt, as their trading center. Its location was perfect as it was at the crossroads of routes leading to neighboring countries.
Visitors walking through the inner city of Brasov can still see some of the historic buildings dating back to the 14th century. These include bastions, parts of the fortified walls, watchtowers, and the landmark of the city, the Black Church.
A two-and-a-half-hour drive from Bucharest, Brasov is easy to visit. Once there, spend a few days in the town exploring its medieval structures, then take a few extra days for day trips to the surrounding fortresses and citadels built during the same period.
Built as the stone structure we see today in 1310, Fagaras Fortress replaced a wooden structure erected a century earlier that was burned down by the Turks. The stone fortress has never been conquered since. It’s withstood at least 15 sieges over time, though it changed hands often. It served as a residence of princes and royalty, a garrison for different armies, and a Communist political prison before being turned into the museum you can visit today. A moat, home to swans, surrounds the fortified outer wall, while five towers flank the inner building, where the rooms house an extensive history museum.
Unspoiled by tourist crowds, the fortress is open for visitors for a fee of 15 lei. Walking through the museum and the Prison Tower involve stairs, and you can expect a bit of walking to get through everything, but nothing strenuous.
You can reach the Fortress of Fagaras driving 41 miles east of Brasov on E68, an easy hour-long drive. From here, you can drive to Bran Castle, Rasnov Citadel, and back to Brasov for a spectacular round trip.
The most famous landmark in Transylvania, thanks to Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, Bran Castle has no historical relation to Dracula. But this compact medieval castle is still worth a look, especially if you don’t mind the crowds and are up for a touristy experience.
Finished in 1388 as part of the chain of fortresses and citadels along the Southern border of Transylvania, Bran Castle was used more for customs than for protection. Sitting in the Bran Pass on the trade route across the Carpathians, it was the perfect place to collect taxes from merchants and visitors crossing into Transylvania.
The castle is much prettier today than it was in the time of the Saxons, though, since, in the 1920s, Romania’s Queen Marie renovated it and used it as a summer residence.
The castle is now open to visitors as a museum and can be visited for an entry fee of 40 lei. Its exhibits showcase objects and furniture related to Queen Marie, although you will get a chance to admire the castle’s medieval architectural. You’ll need to walk up a few stairs, but the castle is compact and doesn’t require too much additional walking.
You can reach Bran Castle driving 41 miles from Fagaras on the DN73A.
A peasant citadel designed to house three villages (represented by three roses on its coat of arms) during sieges, Rasnov Citadel was built for protection. Perched on the mountaintop above the villages and surrounded by high walls, two bastions, and nine towers, its architecture, in tandem with its location, made it impossible to conquer by force. Walking within its walls, you are transported back in time into a medieval village with narrow streets and close-knit neighborhoods. The reconstructed homes now house gift shops and museums that showcase medieval tools and household objects.
Sitting high above its surroundings, visiting Rasnov Citadel involves some uphill hiking unless you opt to take a tractor-pulled train from the parking lot at the bottom of the hill. Alternatively, you can take a cable car from the town of Rasnov below. Rasnov Citadel tends to get crowded in the summer months, so get there early for the best experience. They charge an entrance fee of 10 lei.
You can reach Rasnov Citadel by driving eight miles from Bran on the DN73, back toward Brasov. After visiting Rasnov, the drive to Brasov takes about 20 minutes on the same road.
The smallest of the citadels in the area, Feldioara Citadel dates from the same era, though its importance was mainly to protect the road and the surrounding villages, not so much the Transylvanian border. Recently reconstructed, it features a few buildings connected by a wall and three towers surrounding an oval-shaped inner courtyard.
Two of the four-story-high towers are set up as museums, while the third one is the citadel’s entrance. Though you won’t find much related to medieval history here -- the exhibits focus on the 18th and 19th centuries -- Feldioara is still worth a short stop on your citadel circuit. The entrance fee is 10 lei.
You can reach Feldioara Citadel by driving 11 miles north of Brasov on the E60.
Unique in design, Rupea Citadel spirals around the hill it sits on like the shell of a snail. It consists of three separate citadels: lower, middle, and higher, each featuring its own walls, towers, and inner courtyards. Though this design might seem like it would make it impossible to conquer, the citadel of Rupea, unlike Fagaras or Rasnov, fell into the hands of enemies a few times. But a devastating fire, not enemies, ended up demolishing it in 1643, after which the Transylvanian Saxons abandoned it.
Reconstructed in 2013, the citadel is open for visitors for a small fee of 10 lei. Visiting involves walking through three interconnected citadels, all uphill, so be prepared for some exercise. A few rooms are open at street level, some showcasing basic medieval furniture. Visiting the towers involves climbing some stairs, but the views of the countryside from their windows make up for the climb.
You can reach Rupea driving 40 minutes north of Feldioara on the E60.
A UNESCO Heritage site, the center of present-day Sighisoara is one of the few still-inhabited medieval cities. Walking through it, visitors are transported back in time while strolling through narrow streets and colorful medieval homes.
Built for defense, the citadel featured 14 towers, nine of which still stand today, and a few bastions surrounding the inner city. The towers were built and maintained by the guilds of the city, hence their names, which include Cobblers’, Rope-makers’, and Goldsmiths’ Towers.
The only exception was the Clock Tower, which was the responsibility of the City Council. The largest and best-preserved tower, it features a clock that not only showed the passage of time but marked the beginning and end of the workday in the medieval city. Today, it houses a history museum you can visit for a fee of 15 lei. The top level offers a view of the wooden figures of the clock, plus the opportunity to walk a balcony with spectacular views of the city.
You can reach Sighisoara following the same road, E60, north for another 32 miles from Rupea -- about an hour-long drive. Return to Brasov on the same road; it takes about 1 hour and 40 minutes to cover the 72 miles. Or, stay in Sighisoara overnight. The town is definitely worth a longer visit!
While in Romania, don’t miss these eight incredible Bucharest hidden gems and unusual places.