12 things to know before your first trip to Transylvania
Twenty years ago, when I told people that I grew up in Transylvania, inevitably my eyes were wide and incredulous, accompanied by the question, “Is this a real place?” Sometimes it was followed by “Have you ever met a vampire?”
A land once known in the United States only as a setting for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Transylvania is today a popular destination for travelers from all over the world. In fact, it’s one of National Geographic’s top 25 places to visit in 2021. And for good reason.
Cradled in the center of the magnificent, heavily wooded Carpathian mountain range, Transylvania is indeed a land of enchantment. Lazy hills and rivers, deep woods and tumultuous streams, pristine mountain lakes and wildflower meadows are just a few of the region’s natural wonders. The plethora of medieval castles, walled towns and quaint villages in Transylvania is why we sometimes call my homeland Tündérország – “Fairyland”.
However, Transylvania is a real place, with real people, although it has a pastoral feel of old Europe, where you will still see horse-drawn carts on the streets. And, it is open to visitors who seem to have discovered its beauty. Once behind the Iron Curtain – which is why people in the United States believed it was a fictional land – Transylvania welcomes visitors from all over the world.
Now, when I tell people “I grew up in Transylvania”, I encounter enthusiastic looks and specific questions about the land and its people, the places to go and the best ways to get there. To answer these questions, here are some things to know before your first visit to Transylvania.
1. You need a passport to travel to Transylvania, but you do not need a visa
Transylvania is part of Romania and you need a passport to enter the country. Check your dates to make sure your passport does not expire for at least three months after your date of departure for Romania. On top of that, you don’t need a visa to visit unless you plan to stay longer than 90 days.
2. You can fly to multiple cities to use as gateways to all of your destinations
Several cities in Transylvania have international airports that you can fly to. There’s no need to fly to Bucharest and worry about taking public transport or renting a car.
At that time, you can fly to Cluj or Sibiu, and soon to Brasov (the city’s international airport should be finished by December 2021). These three cities are perfect destinations on their own, but also gateways to other attractions in Transylvania.
3. For most of your transactions, you will use the lei (RON), the Romanian currency.
In Transylvania, you will use lei for your transactions, so it is useful to exchange some before you leave or when you arrive at the airport. But you don’t need it.
You’ll find plenty of ATMs everywhere, around street corners or at local banks, where you can use your debit card to withdraw local currency from your bank. The ATM will display the rate and any fees charged before your transaction, which you can complete in English. This is by far the easiest, and therefore my preferred choice of transactions. You always get the official transaction rate, and the fees are minimal and convenient.
You can also use your major credit cards in major cities and tourist destinations, but be sure to ask them if they take them before you sit down for dinner at a restaurant.
4. Tipping is customary and appreciated
As in the rest of Romania, tips are appreciated in Transylvania. The wages are low, so your tip is always useful.
As for the tip, there is no standard answer. Typically, locals tip around 10%, so this is a good rule of thumb to follow, even if it depends on your bill; the higher the bill, the lower the tip percentage.
5. To charge your electronic devices, you will need a converter
Romania uses 220V as opposed to the 110V used in the United States. So you will need a converter for all your electronic devices. Bring a few so you can plug in and charge your devices. But if you forget them, you can easily buy them at any electronics store in the country.
Laptops, tablets, Kindles, and similar devices all perform here as well as they do in the United States. Wi-Fi is available in major cities and in most places, except in some remote villages in the countryside.
6. Your cell phone works there – Just make sure you have service
Before you go, be sure to call your mobile operator and let them know that you are traveling to Romania. You will probably have the option of adding a temporary international service from your provider. With most plans, you can choose to upgrade it for a month or as long as you need.
You will have good mobile coverage in most parts of Transylvania, especially in cities.
7. You will hear some spoken languages, but you don’t need to understand them
Although part of Romania, Transylvania is home to several nationalities. Besides Romanian, a large majority speak Hungarian. Like many parts of Europe, the region has a colorful history, with often shifting borders that have resulted in this mix of people over the centuries.
Due to this mix of nationalities, the people of Transylvania are cosmopolitan and open-minded. Many are bilingual and speak fluent English, so you won’t have any problems communicating there. The younger generation are especially happy to practice their language skills with you.
It still helps to understand a few words of Romanian, as the public signs are in the official state language. And if you are visiting the Hungarian speaking regions, a few words in Hungarian will be appreciated.
8. You will probably make some friends during your stay
The people of Transylvania are friendly and known for their hospitality. Not only will they go out of their way to communicate with you in your language, but they’ll invite you to their home and won’t let you go without a meal – and a drink.
And if you ask about any of the places you want to visit in their vicinity, they will be happy to play the guide. They will tell you everything about where to find your destination and how to get there with personal stories, myths and legends about it. They may even offer to take you there themselves.
9. You will have the opportunity to explore medieval castles, fortresses and fortified churches
Transylvania is dotted with medieval castles, citadels, and fortresses, so you’ll find a few nearby no matter where you land. No wonder Bram Stoker chose this campaign for his fictional vampire story. Bran Castle, however, is far from the largest or most spectacular castle in Transylvania.
This honor goes to the Gothic-style fairytale castle Hunyadi in the east-central part of Transylvania, one of the largest and most spectacular castles in all of Europe. However, you will find a greater concentration of castles in southern Transylvania, built to protect the borders, with Bran Castle being one of them.
Also in southern Transylvania, you will find the villages with fortified churches in Transylvania, collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And everywhere you go you will see remains of small castles, citadels or medieval fortresses, in different stages of ruins.
In larger cities, like Cluj and Brasov, you will find parts of the old walls and bastions that once protected them. But none correspond to the center of Sighișoara, with its walls and buildings still intact. It is the only inhabited medieval fortress in south-eastern Europe, and therefore another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
10. You will find many forests in Transylvania
Transylvania is also home to some of the oldest and densest forests in Europe. Even the name reflects it, because Transylvania means “above the woods” in Latin: trans = finished, silva = wood. No wonder these deep woods made a perfect home for JK Rowling’s dragons in his Harry Potter series.
Although you won’t see dragons here, you will see some wild animals, most likely including bears. My last encounter was near Lake Santa Ana about two years ago when I saw a young bear in a clearing.
You can find a local guide (try Medveles) to take you to an area where you can watch them from a secluded cabin and away from bears safely. Or, to learn more about them, visit the Zarnesti Bear Sanctuary, where they care for injured bears that cannot survive in the wild.
Pro tip: Never approach a bear in the wild and keep all your food and drinks locked up if you are visiting areas where bears may be present.
11. You will find rare natural wonders and a world famous underground amusement park
In the region known as Székely-Land, home to the Hungarian minority of Székely, you will find Bear Lake, the largest solar thermal lake (both above and below ground) in the world and the only d ‘Europe. The solar thermal phenomenon refers to a layer of fresh water that forms on the surface of the salt lake, isolating it and thus maintaining its temperature constant. Used to treat many medical problems, the lake is part of a spa that you can visit.
Near Cluj you will find the Turda Gorge, a narrow, steep-sided canyon filled with caves and caverns. A natural monument and reserve, the gorge is home to rare or endangered plants and animals, unique to this region. Nearby, the spectacular world-famous underground amusement park and museum, Turda Salt Mine, attracts thousands of international and local visitors.
12. You will find that the real Transylvania is even better than its fictional version.
You won’t find vampires or dragons in Transylvania, but you will find friendly people and beautiful, natural and architectural wonders. By the time you leave, you’ll realize that the real place is better than any fictional version you might have heard of. No matter when you visit or how long you stay, you will always find something unique and beautiful about Transylvania.