Things to Do in Romania
If you’re in Bucharest, it’s impossible to miss the massive Palace of Parliament which dominates the city center and contains more than 1,000 rooms. Built under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu, this opulent edifice is now one of Bucharest’s most popular tourist attractions and home to the National Museum of Contemporary Art and more.
Brasov’s most famous landmark, the monumental Black Church (Biserica Neagra) towers over Council Square (Piata Sfatului) and Brasov Old Town. Dating from the late 14th century, the largest Gothic church between Vienna and Istanbul got its name from the 1689 Great Fire, which damaged the church and much of the town.
First built in 1878 as a wooden monument to mark Romania’s Independence, Bucharest’s Arcul de Triumf (Arch of Triumph) has long been one of the city’s most memorable landmarks. Although rebuilt again after WWI, the current Arch of Triumph is the work of architect Petru Antonesc, reconstructed in granite in 1936, and decorated with sculptures by Romanian artists like Constantin Medrea, Constantin Baraschi and Ion Jalea.
Towering 27-meters over the intersection of Kiseleff road, Mareșal Alexandru boulevard and Alexandru Constantinescu street, the monumental arch now marks the entrance to Bucharest’s Herăstrău Park. Still a poignant reminder of Romania’s independence, it’s the site of military parades and celebrations on Romania's National Day (Dec 1st), and an internal staircase also allows visitors to climb to the top, looking out over the busy boulevards below.
With its towering limestone cliffs looming 300 meters over the river valley below and the gorge itself dotted with caves, gurgling streams and rocky trails, the Turda Gorge (Cheile Turzii) offers a dramatic backdrop for an outdoor adventure. The protected conservation area is also renowned for its abundant wildlife, with over 60 bird species and 1,000 plant varieties found in the gorge.
Just a short drive from Cluj-Napoca, the Turda Gorge makes a popular escape from the city, with ample opportunities for hiking, mountain biking and climbing, including a Via Ferrata route and a two- to 2.5-hour hiking trail running the length of the gorge. Another highlight of the gorge is the nearby Salina Turda, a former salt mine transformed into a unique tourist attraction, complete with underground boat rides and a Ferris wheel.
The cute little Stavropoleos Monastery (Manastirea Stavropoleos) started life in 1724 as an Orthodox monastery and inn, commissioned by the Greek monk Ioanichie Stratonikeas. It has an ornate exterior adorned with patterned frescoes, a colonnaded portal, elaborate carved wooden entrance doors and several small towers topped with tiled domes. Inside its church, every inch is liberally smothered with frescoes depicting biblical scenes and the golden altar screen is adorned with jewel-like images of Mary, Jesus, and a clutch of saints.
Today the inn, which was used to finance the building of the monastery, is long gone, but the pretty Stavropoleos Church has survived several earthquakes and was restored in the early 1910s. Crammed among Bucharest’s plentiful Art Nouveau townhouses on the edges of the party-loving Old Town, it is a pleasant respite from the excesses of the city, with a delightful cloister filled with 18th-century tombs. A small community of nuns and monks still live there, and there are several sung services held daily along with regular concerts of Byzantine music; the church also has Romania’s largest collection of rare Byzantine musical scores in its library of more than 10,000 books. Other highlights of a visit include icons brought together from across Romania and fragments of original frescoes that were replaced during renovation.
Founded in 1864 by Prince Alexander John Cuza, who ruled over the Romanian United Principalities of Walachia and Moldova, the University of Bucharest is located on Piata Universitatii, a buzzing square snarled with traffic and popular with Bucharest locals as a meeting place. The Bucharest University Palace’s imposing Neo-classical façade stands on the northwestern corner of the square; it was designed by architect Alexandru Orascu and completed in 1859.
Today the university has five faculties and is one of the biggest and most prestigious in Romania. Past alumni include playwright Eugène Ionesco, biologist George E Palade and philosopher Emil Cioran.
Outside the University Palace stand four monumental statues of pivotal figures in Romanian history as well as numerous stalls selling secondhand books. Piata Universitatii itself is surrounded by a jumble of architecturally diverse buildings, including the National Theater of Bucharest, the School of Architecture, the modernist Hotel InterContinental and the ornate Neo-classical beauty of the Coltea Hospital, the oldest in the city. A memorial of ten stone crosses stands in the middle of the square in tribute to the rebels who died in the 1989 revolution, which saw the downfall of the despotic President Ceaușescu and brought about the end of Soviet domination in Romania.
Arguably the most beautiful building in Bucharest, the Romanian Athenaeum (Ateneul Rôman) is the city’s foremost concert hall and a source of national pride, with an elegant Doric-colonnaded façade topped with a pediment and cupola. It was designed in Neo-classical style by French architect Albert Galleron and opened in 1888 to great acclaim; the great Romanian conductor George Enescu debuted his ‘Romanian Poem’ here in 1898. The lobby of the concert hall is an opulent, almost Art Nouveau triumph of ornamental gilding supported by arched, pink marble columns that lead off to a series of twisting marble staircases leading up to the concert hall. The circular auditorium seats 652 under a fabulous domed ceiling richly ornamented in scarlet and gold and fringed by frescoes by Costin Petrescu depicting important events in Romanian history; it is world-famous for the clarity of it acoustics and is home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra, who offer a full program of classical and chamber concerts as well as performing in the celebrated George Enescu Classical Festival, one of the biggest cultural events in eastern Europe.
Taking centerstage in Bucharest’s Old Town, Revolution Square (Piata Revolutiei) is located along the central boulevard of Victoriei Street and has long been at the forefront of the city’s historic events. Originally named Palace Square (Piața Palatului), Revolution Square earned its current moniker after the Romanian Revolution in 1989, and remains one of the city’s principal landmarks and navigational hubs.
For first-time visitors, the grand square is undeniably impressive, framed by ornate buildings and crowned by the towering Memorial of Rebirth – a 25-meter-high marble pillar erected in the center of the square, in memory of the victims of the Revolution. Other important monuments on the square include the neoclassical Royal Palace, now home to the National Museum of Art; the Romanian Atheneum, a domed concert hall dating back to the 19th century; and the former headquarters of the Romanian Communist Party, where Nicolae Ceausescu famously addressed the crowds for the final time, before fleeing by helicopter. Also around Revolution Square are the University library, the sprawling Palace of Parliament and statues of Iuliu Maniu and Carol I of Romania.
Finally inaugurated in 2009 after a long (and somewhat controversial) wait, Bucharest’s Holocaust Memorial serves as a stark reminder of the thousands of Romanian Jews affected by the Holocaust. The memorial holds great significance not only for Romania’s Jewish community, but as a symbol that the country recognizes its role in events (a fact often denied by the post-war communist government).
The memorial itself is a simple yet poignant monument, designed by artist Peter Jacobi and featuring a plaque dedicated to the estimated 280,000 Jews and 25,000 Roma who lost their lives during the Holocaust. The memorial includes a ‘Column of Memory’, inlaid with the Hebrew word for ‘Remember’, and a Roma wheel, dedicated to the Romani people.
Catherine’s Gate (Poarta Ecaterinei) is technically Brașov’s last-remaining medieval structure, though the central tower is the only original feature. Built by Saxon settlers in 1559, then used as storage space during the 19th and 20th centuries, the gate provides insight into Romania’s complex history and today serves as an important symbol of the city.
More Things to Do in Romania
Housed in the majestic former Royal Palace, which stands on Revolution Square and dates from 1812, the National Museum of Art of Romania (Muzeul National de Arta al Romaniei) opened in 1947; it was subsequently badly damaged in the Romanian Revolution of 1989, which saw the downfall and death of Communist despot Nicolae Ceaușescu. The museum reopened fully in 2005, displaying three major collections spread over three floors of the palace, and is now regarded as Romania’s premier art gallery.
The European Paintings and Sculpture galleries include mighty Old Master treasures from the private collection of King Charles I – the likes of Rembrandt, Rubens, El Greco and the Impressionists – while the Romanian Medieval collections feature glittering silver icons, rare manuscripts and stone sculptures in the Lapidarium, found in the restored cellars of the palace. The Romanian Modern galleries are jam-packed with works such as modernist sculptures by Constantin Brancuşi, the best-known of Romania’s 20th-century artists.
An ever-changing selection of temporary exhibitions highlights the best of contemporary Romanian art, from installations to photography, drawings and prints. The museum is currently in the process of handing back artwork stolen from Romanian nationals in the Soviet-era late 1940s, and guided tours of the palace’s sumptuous royal apartments are now available, at a cost of 20 lei.
Located in the heart of old Brasov, Council Square*(Piata Sfatului)* is lined with beautiful Gothic, baroque, and Renaissance buildings. Home to a number of key landmarks, Brasov’s main square has been a focal point of life in the city since medieval times. It’s a popular gathering place and a great spot to soak up the scenery.
Running for almost 3km through the heart of central Bucharest, Victoriei Street (Calea Victoriei) is the capital’s main thoroughfare and the obvious starting point for a walking tour. First laid out in the 16th century, the historic boulevard is one of the oldest in the city, and it’s lined with architectural landmarks, palaces, museums and upmarket hotels.
Start from the commercial hub of Piata Victoriei, with its modern office towers, and head south down Victoriei Street, passing notable buildings like the Cantacuzino Palace, home to the George Enescu National Museum; the Athenaeum concert hall; the CEC Palace and the Palace of the National Military Circle. Be sure to stop by the famous Revolution Square, hemmed in by impressive monuments, and the National History Museum, before arriving banks of the Dambovita River. As well as being a prime spot for photographers, the street is crammed with shops, restaurants and cafés, offering ample opportunities for a sightseeing break.
Alternatively, north of Piata Victoriei, Victoriei Street becomes Șoseaua Kiseleff and leads the way through Kiseleff Park to the Arcul de Triumf and the enormous Herăstrău Park (around 2 km from Piata Victoriei).
Bâlea Lake (Lacul Bâlea)is a glacial lake in Romania’s Fagaras Mountains. Sitting at more than 2,000 meters high, it is one of the most popular lakes in Romania. Most visitors are drawn to the lake for the landscape and superb views on the drive there; the water is typically too cold for swimming. Two chalets are open near the lake all year round, but it is most easily accessed in the summer months. In the winter, visitors must ride the cable car from the chalet near the Balea waterfall to get there. In 2006, the first ice hotel in eastern Europe was built nearby using blocks of ice pulled from the frozen lake.
Eastern Europe’s foremost open-air museum was opened in 1936 and presents a collection of more than 60 historic rural buildings from across Romania and of different eras, all carefully reassembled in 15 hectares of parkland on the shores of Lake Herăstrău in Bucharest. Featuring farms, churches, windmills, wooden cottages, cow sheds, and farm machinery from remote districts such as Moldavia, Hunedoara and Transylvania, each building at the National Village Museum (Muzeul Satului) is painstakingly labeled with its exact geographical and cultural provenance and accompanied by a multi-lingual commentary on its original use, building up an accurate picture of rustic village life in a Romania before the advent of Communism. Highlights include earth houses from Straja and cheerily painted, shuttered houses from Tulcea, as well as the 35-meter (115-foot) belfry of the wooden church from Maramureş, embellished with faded icons on its interior. Making a wonderfully family-friendly day out, the museum has a souvenir store, a range of eating options from stalls selling candy to a restaurant in a 19th-century inn, and regular displays of traditional crafts such as weaving and winemaking.
Sitting high on top of a 200-foot (61-meter) cliff in the middle of Transylvania, Bran Castle is surrounded by an aura of mystery tied to both the myth of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula and the infamous Vlad Tepes—also known as Vlad the Impaler—who is said to have made Bran Castle his home. One of the world’s most famous castles, Bran Castle today is a museum dedicated to Queen Marie of Romania.
Founded in the late 14th century, Snagov Monastery (Manastirea Snagov) sits on an islet in Lake Snagov, just a couple kilometers north of the village by the same name. The monastery is best known as the burial place of Vlad the Impaler, who provided the inspiration for the fictional Dracula. However, the island also once housed the coin minting facility of the medieval principality Wallachia and was considered one of the most important printing houses in southeastern Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
Whether or not he ultimately came to rest at the monastery, Vlad the Impaler was strongly connected to it, building fortifications around the monastery in the 15th century, as well as a bell tower, new church, a bridge to the mainland and a prison and torture chamber. The remains of the prison can still be seen behind the present day church and frescoes from that era are visible inside the church. Vlad’s alleged grave can be found inside the church toward the back.
With a width of over 140 meters, Sibiu’s Piata Mare (Great Square) is aptly named and for visitors, the enormous pedestrianized square makes a strategic starting point for a tour of the city. Piata Mare, along with neighboring Piata Mica and Piata Huet, makes up the main hub of Sibiu’s Old Town and is home to some of the district’s most impressive architecture.
Almost everywhere you turn on the square, you’ll be confronted by historical landmarks. At the north end of the square stands the Turnul Statului (Council Tower), the Holy Trinity Church and the early-20th-century City Hall, next to which is the tourist information office. To the west is the Brukenthal Museum and the Romanian Art Gallery, while the south and east sides are home to notable buildings like the 15th-century Casa Generalilor and Casa Hecht; the Romanesque Casa Haller, now home to the Haller Café; and the 16th-century Casa Weidner, now a hotel.
Dating back to before the 15th-century, Piata Mare has long been the focal point of local life, hosting everything from town meetings and markets, to executions. Today, it’s a buzzing with life day and night, with a smattering of cafés and restaurants circling the square and seasonal events like a Christmas market and summer fair held there throughout the year.
Founded in the early 16th century, the Curtea de Arges Monastery is one of the most important pilgrimage and prayer sites in Romania. A Romanian Orthodox cathedral sits on the grounds of the monastery that also dates to the 16th century. Built with pale gray limestone in a Byzantine style, it features Moorish arabesques and an interior covered with murals by French painters Nicolle and Renouard and Romanian painter Constantinescu. The monastery is also home to numerous relics and a gospel written in gold by Queen Elizabeth of Romania, as well as the graves of Kings Ferdinand and Carol I and Queens Elizabeth and Maria.
The monastery is tied to several local legends, including the legend of Master Manole, who is said to have sacrificed his wife and his own life to complete the building of the monastery. Another legend relates to the holy relics of Saint Filofteea, a 12-year-old girl who was killed by her father after giving food to beggars.
Built in the late 1890s and opened at the turn of the 20th century on one of Bucharest’s main boulevards, the CEC Palace (Palatul CEC) was designed by French architect Paul Gottereau and the construction of this fine Beaux Arts masterpiece was overseen by Romanian architect Ion Socolescu. Designated to be the HQ of Romania’s oldest savings bank, Casa de Economii și Consemnațiuni (CEC) and located opposite the National History Museum of Romania, it is a monumental mansion topped with five cupolas; the central one stands over the grandiose, colonnaded entrance and is made of glass and steel. The palace is slated for transformation into an art museum and was sold to the city council for more than €17.75 million in 2006; while plans are drawn up the CEC Bank rents it back from the council but its sumptuous, marble-clad interior – much of which was covered over in Ceaușescu’s time – is no longer open to the public.
Also called the Brancovan Palace, the Mogosoaia Palace was built at the end of the 17th century by Constantin Brancoveanu. The building combines elements of both Venetian and Ottoman architecture, creating a style often referred to as “Brancovenesc.” Located just 10 kilometers from Bucharest in the village of Mogosoaia, it has been a museum since 1957 and is one of the most important tourist sites in the area. The palace is part of a vast complex that includes a guesthouse, watchtower, kitchen, vault, ice house, green house, church, and beautiful gardens.
Today, visitors can tour parts of the palace or visit a museum featuring Brancoveanu style art. Exhibitions of paintings or textiles are often staged in the palace as well.
Reputedly the narrowest street in Europe and certainly the narrowest in Romania, Rope Street (Strada Sforii) connects Cerbului with Poarta Schei in Braşov’s Old Town. It is 262.5 feet (80 meters) long and just 3.5 to 4.5 feet (1.10–1.35 meters) wide, making it almost impossible for two people to pass each other. It has its origins somewhere around the beginnings of the 17th century and may have been built for access by firefighters into the Old Town. Renovated in 2003, Strada Sforii is signposted from both ends and bears a plaque declaring its dimensions; it’s a favorite photo spot for travelers to the city.
Bucharest’s Jewish History Museum was founded in 1978 by Moses Rosen, who was the city’s chief rabbi between 1964 and 1994; it is found in the ornate Holy Union Temple synagogue, which was built in 1836 by the wealthy Jewish Tailors Guild and is in Moorish style, with layers of brickwork alternating with white plaster fronted by an extravagant rose window. Among all the gold and silver religious ephemera inside, displays detail Jewish history in Romania and mark the community’s contribution to Bucharest society. The somber memorial room at the back of the synagogue is dedicated to victims of the Holocaust, when thousands of Romanian Jews lost their lives in Transnistria. However, star prize probably goes to the startlingly colorful interior of the three-tiered, galleried synagogue, which is liberally ornamented with Byzantine and Moorish tiling, marble floors and decorative walls and ceilings.
Once marking the entrance to the fortified city and home to the Town Council, Sighisoara’s grand Clock Tower dates back to the 14th century and remains one of the city’s most memorable landmarks. Looming 64 meters over Piața Muzeului, the tower’s most distinctive feature is its 17th-century clock, complete with mechanical figurines that symbolize Peace, Justice, Law, Day and Night.
Today, the Clock Tower is home to a fascinating local history museum, with exhibitions spread over the tower’s three floors and reached by the original narrow stairwell. Artifacts on display include Romanian furniture, medieval tools, medical equipment, old clocks and traditional handicrafts. Visitors can also take a peek at into the clock’s mechanism and climb to the top-floor observation platform for a view over the city.
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- Things to do in Bucharest
- Things to do in Cluj-Napoca
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- Things to do in Sibiu
- Things to do in Sighisoara
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- Things to do in Bulgaria
- Things to do in Transylvania
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- Things to do in Western Romania
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- Things to do in Black Sea Coast