Ten things you need to know before visiting Transylvania

Transylvania is best known as the mysterious land of bloodthirsty vampires and howling wolves. Some may think it’s fictional, but this central Romanian region is a real place. And it’s pretty special, too. Bordered to the east by the Carpathian Mountains, ‘the land beyond the forest’ still feels undiscovered. So, pack your garlic – here’s the lowdown on one of Eastern Europe’s most captivating regions.

Dracula is real (sort of)

Bram Stoker’s 1897 vampire novel was inspired by centuries-old superstition and the real-life exploits of Vlad Dracula. Known by his murderous moniker, Vlad Ţepeş (the Impaler), the 15th-century Wallachian nobleman was said to have skewered up to 80,000 enemies on long spikes.

Despite his wicked ways, he’s considered a hero in Transylvania, so not everyone’s thrilled with the region’s bloodsucking reputation. After years of opposition from locals, the Romanian tourism board announced plans to develop ‘vampire tourism’ using European funds.

It’s like stepping back in time

While it’s hard to avoid the creepy count, you’ll also find hardwood forests, lush pastures and wildflower meadows. Travelling around Transylvania, described as ‘the last truly medieval landscape in Europe’, feels like you’ve gone back 100 years. Horse-drawn carts rumble along dirt roads, while shepherds tend their flocks and villagers make hay in the sunshine.

Keep your romantic notions in check, though. This also means poor infrastructure, such as potholed roads and slow trains, so you’ll need a bit of patience. Trains are slow, so buses are your best bet between towns and cities (check timetables at autogari.ro), but you’ll need to hire a car to explore the countryside (try autonom.com). Driving conditions aren’t as bad as some make out. Crater-sized potholes and the odd stray dog are your biggest challenges.

A Hungarian phrasebook comes in handy

Tongue-twisting Hungarian is the default language in eastern Transylvania. It’s also widely spoken in cities such as Miercurea-Ciuc, Târgu Mureş and Cluj-Napoca and the counties of Covasna and Harghita. That’s because the region had been associated with Hungary for over a thousand years, up until the end of WWI when it was united with Romania. Today, ethnic Hungarians make up around 19% of the population of Transylvania. Around half of these are Székely people, thought by some to be descended from Attila’s Huns.

The Saxons made their mark

German merchants arrived in the 12th century to help defend the region against the Tatars and Turks. Over the next few centuries, they built seven fortress towns, known as the Siebenbürgen, and hundreds of fortified churches. Must-see spots include the pastel-hued city of Sighișoara and the churches of Biertan and Viscri, all Unesco World Heritage Sites. While the medieval Saxon architecture has survived, the population has dwindled. Following the collapse of communism at the end of 1989, around 90% fled to West Germany.

ou can wallow in thermal springs

Transylvania has a number of resort towns, famed for their therapeutic waters. The mineral mud and warm salty waters of Bear Lake in Sovata are rumoured to cure infertility. The buoyant, balmy waters of Ocna Sibiului near Sibiu – right up there with the Dead Sea when it comes to salinity – are good for arthritis.

Feeling brave? Head to Covasna for a mofette, a ‘sauna’ of post-volcanic gases, mainly carbon dioxide and a dash of eggy sulphur, thought to benefit cardiovascular conditions. Patients stand for up to 20 minutes while the heavier carbon dioxide gas swirls around their knees and is absorbed by the skin. Inhaling the gas can be fatal, so it’s strictly under medical supervision.

It’s great for bear-spotting

The Carpathian Mountains are home to wolves, lynx and Europe’s largest population of brown bears. Around 5000 bears roam the oak and beech forests. Strangely, the population flourished during the communist period, as dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was the only person allowed to hunt.

The Forestry Commission owns a number of hides where you can observe bears in the wild with a ranger, including the popular Stramba Valley hide north of Zărnesti. The best way to visit a hide is through a tour company, such as Transylvanian Wolf (transylvanianwolf.ro). Not so keen to meet one in the wild? The Libearty Bear Sanctuary (bearsanctuary.com) near Brașov cares for more than 70 bears rescued from cages and circuses.

Prince Charles is a big fan

The heir to the British throne first visited Transylvania in 1998 and has been a regular visitor ever since. The Prince of Wales is involved in conservation of rural villages and has bought and restored a handful of farmhouses that visitors can rent (transylvaniancastle.com).

The guesthouses, in the remote villages of Viscri and Zalánpatak, are decorated with handmade wooden furniture and rugs. Prince Charles can even claim kinship with the region’s most infamous son; according to genealogists he’s a great grandson 16 times removed of Vlad the Impaler.

It has the world’s most amazing road

While most Transylvanian roads are heavily potholed or unpaved, the Transfăgărășan Road bucks the trend. Built as a military route in the 1970s on Ceauşescu’s order, it winds up and over the towering Făgărăș Mountains. The road zigzags up a barren valley to Lake Bâlea and through a 900m-long tunnel, before continuing down through the forests of Wallachia region. Heavy snow means the road is open only a few months a year, usually from late June until early October, when it’s packed with petrol-heads.

Palincă is the local tipple

Transylvanians like to start a meal with a slug of palincă, a fiery brandy traditionally made from plums. At around 45% proof (or more if it’s the homemade variety), the double-distilled drop certainly packs a punch. It’s served at room temperature and downed in one with a hearty Noroc! (‘cheers’ in Romanian) or Egészségére! (in Hungarian).

And it’s not just for pre-dinner drinks. Locals like to welcome guests and toast most happy occasions with a shot. You’ll see roadside stalls selling homemade firewater, or pop along to Teo’s Distillery (delateo.ro) in Sighișoara to taste brandies made from different fruits.

Bran is just one of many incredible castles

Perched on a peak with turrets and towers, Bran Castle looks straight off the pages of your favourite vampire novel. The 14th-century pile near Braşov pulls in the crowds accordingly, but Vlad the Impaler’s real digs were at Poienari Citadel in Wallachia. Now a ruin, it’s difficult to visit by public transport so it’s one for Vlad’s hardcore fans.

If you don’t fancy shuffling through Bran, head 50km south to the mountain resort of Sinaia. The fairytale Peleş Castle rivals Bavaria’s best and was built for King Carol I in 1875 as his summer retreat. It’s technically in Wallachia but easiest reached by either bus or train from Braşov (one hour).

A DIY day tour of the Vatican

It might only cover about half a square kilometre, but the Vatican looks every inch a religious superpower. Its holy buildings are monumental in scale and its lavishly-decorated halls house some of the world’s most celebrated artworks. Follow our day-long tour to make sure you don’t miss out on any of its spectacular highlights.

Morning at the Vatican Museums

Start early at the Vatican Museums. This colossal museum complex occupies the 5.5-hectare Palazzo Apostolico Vaticano and contains one of the world’s greatest art collections, culminating in the Michelangelo-decorated Sistine Chapel. There are kilometres of galleries to explore, with everything from Egyptian mummies and Etruscan bronzes to classical sculptures, cartographic tapestries and Renaissance canvases. The Stanze di Rafaello (Raphael Rooms) will stop you in your tracks as you pause to marvel at the Renaissance maestro’s amazingly detailed frescoes.

Almost as famous at the museums’ masterpieces are the queues to get in. Booking your ticket online at biglietteriamusei.vatican.va will cut waiting time, but costs €4 extra.

Gaze heavenwards in the Sistine Chapel

The Vatican Museums’ star attraction, the Sistine Chapel boasts two of the world’s greatest masterpieces: Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes (1508-1512) and his Giudizio Universale (Last Judgment; 1535–1541). For the best views of the ceiling design, which covers 800 square metres and depicts episodes from the Old Testament, cross to the chapel’s main entrance in the east wall (opposite the visitor entrance).

Lunch break: divine pizza

There are plenty of eateries near the Vatican Museums but most are overpriced tourist traps. For a taste of heavenly pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice) search out Pizzarium, a short walk to the west of the Vatican. Alternatively, head northeast to Romeo where you can keep it simple with a slice of pizza, or push the boat out and lunch on fashionable modern fare at the chic, contemporary restaurant.

Feel the embrace of St Peter’s Square

Refuelled and ready to go, wander down to St Peter’s Square. The Vatican’s great focal space, this keyhole-shaped piazza is enclosed by two vast colonnades, designed by baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini to represent ‘the motherly arms of the church’. You’ll probably have some time to admire the rows of Doric columns as you queue for the St Peter’s Basilica security checks.

The square is packed on Sunday mornings as crowds gather for the pope’s midday Angelus. Similarly, crowds form on Wednesday morning as the pope meets the faithful, either in the square or in the nearby Aula Paolo VI. To attend the audience in the Aula you’ll need obtain free tickets – see vatican.va for details.

Hallowed art in St Peter’s Basilica

Entering St Peter’s Basilica for the first time is an unforgettable experience. The size and opulence of the cavernous 187m-long interior are breathtaking to behold, and wherever you look your gaze falls on yet another priceless masterpiece. One of the basilica’s most celebrated works is Michelangelo’s Pietà, a moving sculpture of the Madonna cradling her lost son near the main entrance.

Another much-loved sculpture is a statue of St Peter whose right-foot has been worn down by the touch of millions of pilgrims. Nearby, Bernini’s towering baldachin rises 29m above the main papal altar and the extravagant Cattedra di San Pietro stars in the tribune with its yellow window and mass of golden angels.

Beneath the main basilica, and accessible by a door in the Pier of St Andrew, are the Vatican Grottoes, where you can see several papal tombs and columns from the original 4th-century basilica.

Note that strict dress codes are enforced for entry to the basilica, so no shorts, miniskirts or bare shoulders.

Climb St Peter’s Dome for breathtaking views

Save one last gasp for Michelangelo’s greatest architectural achievement: the dome, reached by a side door to the right of the basilica’s main entrance, a creaky elevator ride, and a 320-step climb up a narrow, winding staircase. Emerge to soul-stirring panoramas of Rome’s rooftops awash in rose-gold light.

Reflect over a quiet drink

Recover from the Vatican’s sensory overload with a well-deserved drink. In the atmospheric Borgo neighbourhood, just off Via di Porta Angelica (the road between Piazza del Risorgimento and St Peter’s Square), Makasar is a tranquil retreat, offering teas and a selection of Italian wines. Alternatively, drop into Passaguai, a cosy basement wine bar that serves regional wines, craft beers and platters of cheese and charcuterie fit for a cardinal.

Afterwards, return to Rome via Ponte Sant’Angelo, a pedestrian bridge adorned with Bernini angels near the landmark Castel Sant’Angelo.