When you hear about “Romania”, there are quite a few things that come to mind, and not all of them are good things.
After the country shed its authoritarian communist regime in 1989, many of its worst people spread rapidly across entire Europe, begging, stealing, and generally hurting the overall reputation of the country’s residents.
To be honest, life in Romania is not the easiest – let the large Romanian expat communities in several European countries be witness to this fact. The news tells us that corruption runs rampant in the country, that its healthcare is precarious, that its roads are bad, that it’s full of beggars, pickpockets, and drunkards.
As you might expect, though, this is not entirely true – if you ask locals and travellers visiting, you’ll see that while most of them had some bad experiences (similar to those in other countries, by the way), most of them describe Romania as a welcoming, beautiful country, a hidden gem waiting to be discovered.
A little bit of Romanian history
Between the two World Wars, Romania was very much a European country, sophisticated, in line with the latest artistic and cultural trends. Its capital, Bucharest, earned the nickname of “the little Paris” in this period due to its elegant buildings and burgeoning cultural life. Its popularity among Europeans was comparable to that of other Western capitals and resorts like Baden-Baden, one of the best spa and casino destinations in Europe to this day.
Unfortunately for the country and its residents, the King and the Parliament made quite a few decisions that have proven to be wrong before and during the Second World War.
The local radical factions increased their power to the point that when Romania joined World War II, it did so on the side of Germany. This has led to a pretty dark time in the country’s history – after the war (during which it switched sides, joining the Allies), it was stuck on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, under Soviet occupation.
The following years transformed Romania from a vivid European country to a communist appendix to the Soviet Union, isolated from the rest of the continent.
For almost 50 years, the country remained in a fortress of solitude with little regard to human rights, riddled by forced industrialization, political police, food shortages, and the strict rationing of electricity, fuel, and all other goods.
The population endured under this oppressive regime for decades before it decided enough was enough: in 1989, the communist leader of the country was ousted, tried, and executed, and a new era of democracy was instituted in the country.
In the 30 years that have passed ever since, Romania reopened its borders, joined the European Union, and started to reclaim what it lost during the decades of oppression.
Natural wonders of Romania
Experts say that almost half of the surface of Romania is covered in natural or semi-natural ecosystems. Translated, this means that it still has many areas of untouched wilderness stretching between its cities, towns, and villages.
It has 14 mountain ranges with peaks above 2,000 meters, a dozen natural reserves and national parks, and a surface almost evenly distributed between mountains, hills, and plains.
Besides, its southern border is the river Danube itself, flowing into the Black Sea at the largest river delta in the European Union, the Danube Delta.
There is no shortage of natural wonders in Romania, which makes it a perfect destination for those who love hiking, camping, and generally spending time in nature.
The country’s authorities have spent most of its efforts on turning the Romanian seaside into a tourist attraction – the Romanian seaside is pretty crowded each summer, filled with everything from cheap holiday rentals to five-star hotels, accommodating local and foreign visitors of all ages.
This doesn’t mean there are no mountain resorts in the country, though – on the contrary. There are several popular tourist destinations with a wide range of options for pretty much every pocket, from dirt cheap chalets to all-inclusive hotels.
As you might expect, though, the least accessible places are considered the most beautiful in the country.
Some areas can’t be accessed by train or bus but remain popular destinations, mostly for locals – their relative isolation allows them to remain relatively untouched by civilization. Most of these can only be reached by foot (this makes Romania a perfect destination for hiking) while the nearby villages are perfect spots for base camps.
If you are planning to visit Romania for its natural wonders, here’s a tip for you: in 2008, the “Seven Wonders” of the country have been voted by the locals in 2008 as the most unique and representative natural landmarks.
The winners of this “contest” can be the basis for a great itinerary: the Danube Delta, the Retezat National Park, the Scărișoara Ice Cave in Alba County, the Cheile Nerei-Beușnița National Park, the Ceahlău Massif, the Piatra Craiului Mountains, and the Sphinx and Babele, two natural rock formations unique in Europe.
Man-made attractions and landmarks
As you might expect, Romania is not without its share of man-made attractions and landmarks.
Many of them were included in the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, like the centuries-old orthodox churches of Moldavia, the 12th-century historic centre of the town Sighisoara, including the former residence of Vlad Tepes (who inspired Bram Stoker’s infamous count Dracula), the villages with fortified churches in Transylvania, and many others.
Besides, it has some world-famous locations that you may have heard about in the past: the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, which is the world’s heaviest building (and the most expensive administrative building ever made, thanks to the megalomaniac communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu) or the Transfăgărășan, a highway crossing the Carpathians in the Southern part of the country that was called “the best highway in the world” by Jeremy Clarkson, the former host of the BBC car show “Top Gear”.
Aside from these famous and recognized spots, many others are worthy of exploring. The small city of Oradea in the North-Western part of the country is the perfect entry point: it has everything from a medieval fortress (and the medieval festival to go with it) through Art Nouveau buildings to a modern aquapark.
It has small eateries and five-star restaurants, and lodging options ranging from cheap hostels to chain hotels like Continental and Hilton.
It is easily accessible, it’s close to major tourist destinations like the resorts of the Apuseni Mountains or the thermal springs of the Băile Felix health spas.
Other spots that are a must-see while there include the city of Brasov, filled with ancient buildings and amazing restaurants, the Râșnov Citadel, the best-preserved citadel in Europe, the Bran Castle, once inhabited by Vlad Tepes, the Corvin Castle, a fortified castle that looks like a page torn out of a fairy tale, the Merry Cemetery in the village of Săpânța, Maramureş county, where all headstones are covered in funny quotes and jokes, the salt mines of Praid and Turda, veritable underground entertainment hubs where you can have fun while breathing in the healthy, salty air, the monasteries of Horezu and Curtea de Argeș, beautiful examples of the Byzantine architecture, and the list of unique sights could go on and on and on.
Although it is a latecomer to the global cultural and entertainment circuit, Romania has already made a name for itself with a handful of world-class events.
One of the best-known is Untold, the electronic music festival held each August in the city of Cluj-Napoca. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people come to the city to party over a crowded weekend filled with world-class DJs and performers on its several stages. The event won the European Festival Awards for the Best Major Festival in 2015 and was nominated for several similar awards ever since.
The other notable music festival held in the area is Electric Castle, an event covering everything from indie to techno. It is one of the best middle-sized European festivals, attracting a massive international and local audience each July.
On the more “cultural” side, there is the Gărâna Jazz Festival, one of the biggest events of its kind in the country. It has a long tradition – it was held each July since 2007 – and it attracts major international performers as well as budding local talent. ARTmania Festival is a rock event held each year in Sibiu since 2006 – while it doesn’t attract hundreds of thousands of people, it still offers a complete experience covering everything from performing arts to handicraft, all inspired by rock music.
Romania is a country stuck between East and West, surrounded by Slavic countries but proud of its people’s Latin origins, while bearing the marks of a variety of influences in its different areas. It’s an amalgam of cultures and traditions in everything from its music to its food. It is truly a hidden gem that’s worth exploring at least once in a lifetime.