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A Guide to the Best Cities in Romania

Author: David Pettitt

Often overlooked in favour of its better known neighbours, Romania is a beautiful country of outstanding natural beauty and charming medieval towns. Nestled in the heart of Eastern Europe, Romania has been heavily influenced over the centuries by the many different peoples, cultures, religions and empires that have passed through the region, whether the Romans, Saxons, Ottomans or Austrians. These diverse influences can most clearly be seen in Romania’s cities with their gothic churches, grand fortifications, medieval homes and opulent palaces. With so much to see and do, here is our guide to the very best cities to visit in Romania.

1. Brasov

Delightful Brasov is home to one of the best preserved medieval old towns in Europe. Bordered by the Carpathian Mountains, Brasov was established by Teutonic Knights during the early 13th century, then settled by the Saxons as one of their seven walled citadels. Over the centuries Kronstadt (as Brasov was known during this period) amassed great wealth from trade due to its location between Western Europe and the east and the result of this can be seen in the city’s fine gothic, renaissance and baroque architecture. Key places of interest in Brasov include the Black Church, the largest gothic church in Romania, Council Square and the impressive defensive towers, gates and bastions that once protected the city. To the north of Brasov, the 800 year old fortified church at Prejmer can also be visited.

View of the Black Cathedral in Brasov, Romania
Colourful buildings in the Transylvanian town of Sighisoara in Romania

2. Sighisoara

Located in the heart of Romania, Sighisoara is a beautiful medieval town and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Settled by the Romans and developed by the Dacians, Sighisoara is best known as the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, the powerful ruler who latterly inspired Bram Stoker’s epic tale. Little altered over the centuries, the heart of the city has survived almost entirely intact with the winding cobbled alleys, original pastel-coloured burgher homes, 14th century Clock Tower, Dominican monastery and 500 year old church all tightly set within the confines of Sighisoara’s ancient citadel walls. The citadel itself dates to the 14th century and once defended Sighisoara from Turkish attacks whilst the Clock Tower and Church on the Hill are two of the most elegant buildings in Romania.

Facade of the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

3. Bucharest

Modern capital of Romania and the most populous city in the country, Bucharest has had a tumultuous history. Made capital in 1862, Bucharest’s layout and architecture has been shaped by events of the last 150 years with the city flourishing in periods of cultural creativity and industrial productivity during late 1800s and early 20th century but also afflicted by two World Wars and the redevelopment that took place during Ceausescu’s communist rule. The best known building that survives the Ceausescu era is the mammoth Palace of Parliament which is the second largest administrative building in the world and contains an astonishing 1100 rooms. Also of interest is the opulent Romanian Athenaeum concert hall, Patriarchal Cathedral, Palatul Primaverii and Revolution Square.

Aerial view of the old town of Sibiu in Romania

4. Sibiu

In a country of elegant and historic cities, Sibiu may just be the most handsome. One of the oldest cities in Transylvania, Sibiu has a distinct Germanic feel to it and, along with Brasov and Sighisoara, was an important Saxon centre. Today, much of this heritage remains. Most of the historic defensive fortifications are still intact (including 39 towers and four gates), there is a beautifully maintained collection of 17th century buildings and numerous churches all still standing within the city’s original medieval street layout. Explore the graceful squares of the Upper Town – including the UNESCO protected Great Square – and Huet Square with its gothic architecture and Evangelical Cathedral, the Bridge of Lies, Brukenthal Palace and 13th century Council Tower.

Peles Castle close to the town of Sinaia in Romania

5. Sinaia

The mountain resort of Sinaia, which lies at the heart of a region of outstanding natural beauty, is best known for being the location of majestic Peles Castle. Set on the eastern edge of Bucegi Natural Park, Peles Castle is a masterpiece of German Renaissance architecture, was completed in the late 1880s and was the summer residence of the royal family until 1947. No expense was spared in the construction of the castle – each room is decorated in a different theme using priceless paintings and artefacts and, at the time, Peles was the only castle in Europe to have electricity. Also of interest is the 300 year old Sinaia Monastery, still a working monastic centre, and, further afield, the towering turrets of ancient Bran Castle which dates to the 1300s and was chosen by Bram Stoker as the legendary stronghold of Count Dracula.

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6. Timisoara

Located in western Romania close to the Serbian and Hungarian borders, Timisoara has long been at the crossroads of a number of different civilisations. Over the centuries the city has come under the auspices of the Romans, Ottomans and Austro-Hungarian Empire, the latter of which has left strong Hungarian, German and Serbian cultural links which are clearly seen in the architecture, art galleries and museums. Famous for its churches, grand municipal squares, parks and gardens, Romania’s third largest city is popularly known as ‘Little Vienna’ and there is plenty to see and do. Highlights include Union Square with its Roman Catholic and Serbian Orthodox cathedrals, the Habsburg-era architecture of Freedom Square, the grand Romanian Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral and three beautiful Jewish synagogues.

7. Cluj-Napoca

Romania’s second city, Cluj-Napoca is the gateway to Transylvania. Originally a small Dacian settlement that expanded during the Roman era, Cluj-Napoca was a major commercial centre and an increasingly important medieval Saxon stronghold. Immigration from central Europe and trade links with many of the most influential cities of the region fuelled economic growth which, over time, resulted in grand building works and a reputation for being a centre for education and the arts. Today Cluj-Napoca is a vibrant university city of galleries and gardens, bars and cafes. It is home to the 15th century gothic St Michael’s Church and baroque Banffy Palace, both of which overlook Union Square, and a number of museums including the Cluj National Museum of Art and Ethnographic Museum of Transylvania.

8. Suceava

Charming Suceava, once the capital of Moldova, is located in the far north-east of the country close to the astonishing UNESCO protected painted monasteries of the Bucovina region. Undeniable masterpieces of Byzantine art, the exterior walls of these monasteries are elaborately decorated with colourful 500 year old frescoes that depict everything from the life of Jesus and other key Bible scenes to portrayals of heaven and hell and illustrations of prominent saints and prophets. Three of the most important monasteries are Moldovita, Voronet and Sucevita (all a morning’s drive from Suceava). Moldovita’s frescoes show the Siege of Constantinople and the Tree of Jesse, those at Voronet are renowned for their quality and preservation whilst Sucevita has the largest number of paintings and a collection of priceless manuscripts.

9. Constanta

Constanta is thought to be Romania’s oldest inhabited city. Settled by the ancient Greeks and conquered by the Romans, a wealthy Genoese trading outpost and long-term Ottoman settlement, Constanta’s prominence is linked to its coastal location overlooking the Black Sea. A considerable amount of Roman history remains to be discovered in Constanta – the city’s main square is named after the poet Ovid who was exiled to the city by the Emperor Augustus, there are a number of wonderfully preserved mosaics and an extensive collection of artefacts in both the National History and Archaeology Museum and the open-air Archaeological Park. Visit the Art Nouveau casino, St Peter and Paul Orthodox Cathedral and climb the minaret of the Great Mahmudiye Mosque for city-wide views.

Grand building in the central square of Constanta in Romania

10. Iasi

Iasi is an important provincial city. In modern-day Romania Iasi is known as a major cultural, literary and educational centre – it was here that the first Romanian newspaper was printed, the first university founded and the first theatre established. For centuries Iasi also played a prominent role in the trade of the wider region, benefitting from a location that allowed its merchants to tap into the affluent commercial routes between Poland, Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Much of this wealth was invested back into the city – churches were built (Iasi is home to almost one hundred Orthodox churches), parks laid, palaces constructed and leafy avenues created. The opulent century-old Palace of Culture is a particular highlight and houses a library and four museums.

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11. Targu Mures

Elegant Targu Mures sits in the middle of Romania and the heart of Transylvania. For a city of a relatively small size, the architecture of Targu Mures is considered to be some of finest in Romania. This, in part, is a reflection of the distinct cultural heritage of the city (for centuries Targu Mures has been home to a large Hungarian population) and also the fact that since the medieval period the city has been a major centre for the arts and crafts. The most important building in Targu Mures is the Culture Palace, an Art Nouveau masterpiece completed in 1913, but also of interest is the baroque Apollo Palace, 17th century Palffy House and wooden orthodox church of St Michael.

12. Bistrita

Attractive Bistrita is one of Romania’s best preserved medieval towns. Established by Saxon settlers at the beginning of the 13th century, defensive walls, gateways and towers once surrounded Bistrita and although little of these remain today, the cobbled streets of the old town are home to a collection of charming pastel-coloured 15th and 16th century merchant homes. Explore the remnants of the original city walls, visit the 800 year old Orthodox Church and gothic Saxon Evangelical Church which overlooks Bistrita’s main square and take time to see some of the city’s most important medieval buildings. For literature buffs, Bistrita features in Bram Stoker’s novel ‘Dracula’ whilst, outside, of the town day trips can also be made to a number of traditional Saxon villages.

Grand historic architecture in Oradea, Romania

13. Oradea

Little-visited Oradea is undeniably a hidden gem and, for centuries, has been one of the main gateways to the country. Located only a few miles from the Hungarian border and lining the banks of the Crisul Repede River, Oradea is a stately city best known for its grand Art Nouveau and baroque architecture – most of which dates to the period when the city was under Austrian rule. Places of interest here include Oradea Fortress, with its classic five-pointed star layout, the Bishop’s Palace, the Church of the Moon, the baroque Roman Catholic Cathedral and the Black Eagle Palace which is one of the best preserved Art Nouveau buildings in the city. Oradea also has a proud Jewish heritage and is home to one of the region’s oldest and most important Jewish communities.

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