As Romania struggles to leave its Communist past behind and enter the EU, the country is at once steeped in tradition and cloaked in modernity.
Outside of bustling Bucharest, cars share the road with horse-drawn carts toting freshly farmed cabbage. From the sensory delights of cheap opera and symphony to the castles of Transylvania, home of the legendary Vlad Tepes (model for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”), and the painted monasteries of Bocavina, Romania has much to offer the adventurous tourist.
Once the capital of Moldovia, Suceava is now a rather dingy and depressed town. Nevertheless, it offers a spectacular view from the impressive 1388 Citadel of the Throne (follow the stone pathway next to McDonalds in the town center), and provides an ideal jumping-off point to tour the area’s legendary painted monasteries, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Two are within walking distance of the town; to view the others, rent a car or take a worthwhile tour offered by Class Hostel (90 lei plus entrance fees). Travelers can also sleep overnight in the monasteries for a minimal price.
The best views of this postcard-worthy town are from the top of Mt. Tampa (a one hour hike or quick cable car ride from the center), although the ancient White and Black Towers across town strive to compete. From September to May, opera and orchestra prices run as low as $2-$3 – pick up a schedule or free city map at the helpful tourist office, housed in the Country History Museum in the central square. Be sure to make the 45-minute excursion to neighboring Bran to view the dramatic “Dracula’s Castle,” and stop in Rashnov to view an impressive, partially reconstructed castle along the way.
Known for being the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, the small town is built around a 1911 citadel. At the entrance, a clock tower houses a small torture room and a museum of medieval armory. Eat in the café housed in the building where Tepes toddled, or simply stroll along windy, cobblestone streets. Climb the stairs to a rather creepy cemetery, or tour the surrounding countryside with Eyetours, which provides worthwhile, daylong excursions from Nathan’s Villa.
Trendy Cluj Napoca’s bustling shopping district is centered around Piata Unirii, which houses the Museum of Art and the imposing Saint Michael Catholic Church. Second-hand shops are bountiful, as are patisseries, upscale coffee houses and nightclubs (Obsession is considered one of the best in Romania). Check at hotels for up-to-date entertainment listings; ask at Retro Hostel about day trips. For a more accessible respite from the city, take a stroll through the expansive Botanical Gardens (5 lei), amid gravestones in the Hazsongardi Cemetery – Transylvania’s oldest – or up the hill off Dragalina Street for a fantastic birds-eye view.