About 20 years ago, I read a memoir called Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania, in which the British author William Blacker described falling in love with a Roma woman who lived in Transylvania and the way of life of her people. Ever since, I’ve been fascinated with Romania and eager to visit.
It took a while, but two years ago, my husband Barry and I visited four Transylvanian towns. All of them were walkable, historic, and surprisingly unvisited, but our favorite was Brasov, a city of about 250,000, with a pedestrianized old town and outdoor cafes on many streets. It offers charms to suit everyone, from history buffs to architecture fans, nature lovers to people-watchers. What appealed to us was not only all its green space -- more than any city I’ve ever visited -- but its very own centrally located mountain.
We flew to the Transylvanian town of Sibiu from Munich, and from there took the train to Brasov, but it will be easier next year because construction is underway for an international airport in Brasov. The first commercial flights are projected to take place in June 2021.
Pro Tip: Don’t fly to Bucharest, Romania’s capital, unless you really want to see it, because the train ride to Brasov is much longer, and Romania’s antiquated train system is not its greatest asset.
However you choose to go, here are seven reasons to visit Brasov:
1. The City Boasts A 3,000-Foot Peak Right In The Heart Of Town
You can’t miss Mount Tampa -- just head toward the enormous, glowing Brasov sign (a nod to Los Angeles’s Hollywood sign) on the hillside, which is in a nature reserve. The climb takes about an hour, and you have several trails to choose from, with different difficulty levels. You can also take the cable car (tickets cost about $5 round trip) to the top, an elevation gain of 1,000 feet. From the upper cable car station, walk 10 minutes along the path behind the Brasov sign to the rocky summit for the best views. After admiring the red-roofed city below, you can keep exploring at high elevations.
And Tampa isn’t the only hill -- more mountains lie just north of the city. We met a delightful young couple (a third of our age!) through couchsurfing.com, an international organization whose motto, “Changing the world, one couch at a time,” enables members to meet people by arranging for coffees or overnight stays. One Sunday, Katia and Emil invited us over for an afternoon of schnapps, and the next weekend we hiked with the two of them and Katia’s mom and her friends.
2. Pretend You’re Back In The Elegant 19th Century
As you stroll along Brasov’s Tampa Promenade, the long, tree-lined pedestrian boulevard at the bottom of Mount Tampa, you’ll see signs saying that people enjoyed walking there more than 200 years ago. Because I always understood the Soviet era to be architecturally severe and barren, I was surprised to see this beautifully preserved green space that Romanians enjoyed in that period. You can also walk along the walls of the old fortified complex of the medieval city, passing Drapers Bastion, the Powder Store Towers, and the Rope Maker’s Bastion.
3. Brasov’s Only Water Body Is Small But Sweet
Behind one section of the city wall flows a narrow canal, a lovely spot where you can stroll along a winding pedestrian path. I went every day! The Graft Bastion, which houses the city museum, sits in the middle of the path, and a steep staircase leads to the White Tower. Further along, you’ll see a sign for the Black Tower (which is actually white, but called black because it was burnt by lightning in the 1500s). Follow the walls as they veer to the left, and keep an eye out for Catherine’s Gate, and soon after, the Schei Gate.
4. Enjoy Being An Urban Flaneur, A Stroller Of City Streets
Not just the old city, but other Brasov neighborhoods are also historic and quirky. The Schei district, for instance, is where Romanians were forced to live during the Saxon rule of Brasov from the 13th to the 17th centuries. They were forbidden from owning property inside the city walls and had to pay a toll at the Schei gate to sell their produce inside the citadel.
On the other side of the gate, walk up Strada Prundului past the Jewish Synagogue to the ornate St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, a mix of Byzantine, Baroque, and Gothic styles. One afternoon I sat in the church, watching the light and shadows moving along the wall and the people coming in. A man of about 40 in a business suit entered the church, walked over to a small statue of Mary holding Jesus, and kissed it. I had never seen such an open, physical expression of faith by a grown man.
The narrow, winding lanes beyond the church slope upward against a hill. I followed the lanes up and up until I arrived at a horizontal path above town, carrying along until I came upon a find -- a tiny chapel with a red-tiled roof with arched windows.
5. Eat And Drink At Chic Venues For Half The Price
Brasov’s modern, hip, and clean Old City took us completely by surprise; we just did not expect this from a post-Communist state. Walking along the streets, we were struck by what we didn’t see -- litter, graffiti, homelessness, panhandlers, or street dogs. At times we felt like we were in cosmopolitan Barcelona or Milan, with the abundance of trendy fashion shops and outdoor cafes -- but without the flocks of tourists and at prices that were more like the ’80s. A cup of cappuccino, for instance, cost 5 lei, about $1.50. Our pizza for two on the main square cost 24 lei, or $6.
6. Get An Endorphin High Climbing the Seven Ladders Canyon
Thousands of years ago, Jurassic limestone ruptured and collapsed, creating a narrow canyon with waterfalls, which is located on the outskirts of Brasov. From the parking area, walk about 45 minutes to Seven Ladders Canyon, which you cross via a series of pathways, stairways, bridges, and vertical ladders ranging from eight to 49 feet. It takes about 30 minutes to reach the top. The canyon isn’t a difficult climb, but it may not be the right activity for people with a fear of heights. I do not have a fear of heights, but the ladders were so steep I was squealing with excitement and nerves, and grateful I was wearing solid shoes! You end up doing a loop, returning to your starting place through woods. The admission fee was 10 lei, or $2.50.
7. Check Out The Weird Castle Dracula Was Based On
Bran Castle, a national monument about 15 miles from Brasov by bus, is not actually the home of Dracula -- but that doesn’t stop the hordes of tourists who visit. According to the official brochure, the 14th-century structure with its red-tiled roof and many irregularly shaped turrets doesn’t have much to do with Prince Vlad, the model for Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula. Unlike Count Dracula, Vlad was a real person, popularly known as "the Impaler" after his method of killing his enemies slowly and painfully as they dangled on a pointed stake. In Romania, he's a folk hero, considered a master of psychological warfare.
On the way, visit Rasnov Citadel on a hill near Brasov with magnificent views. It was built in the 1200s by locals to defend themselves from attacks by invaders. You can either take the funicular or walk up the hill.
Our guidebooks said we only needed two days in Brasov -- one day for the city itself and one for the surroundings. Are you kidding? We were there an entire 10 days, then went on to Sighisoara and Medias, two other Transylvanian towns. But we weren’t done with Brasov! We returned for a second helping. And now, two years later, I’m ready for my third.