If Sibiu was the quaintest of all the cities we visited in Romania, Brașov was the next most quaint. Maybe it isn’t a valuable exercise to measure cities by their quaintness, but in a country like Romania where visiting feels like stepping back in time, it’s hard for me to stop thinking in those terms.
What We Did
We arrived in Brașov late in the afternoon. After getting settled in our rental apartment, we walked down the Strada Republicii (one of the main shopping and dining streets) to the main square, the Piața Sfatului.
We took a ride on the super cheezy tourist train. I hoped it would give us a good overview tour of the city while entertaining my son. It entertained him but I am not sure it showed us much of the city that we hadn’t already seen while driving ourselves and looking for a place to park when we arrived! The next day we returned to the Piața Sfatului as the starting point for more touring.
Biserica Neagră (Black Church)
Just off the Piața Sfatului is the Biserica Neagră (Black Church). It was built in the late 14th and early 15th centuries and is Romania’s largest Gothic church. It was named the Black Church after a fire in 1689 left it with a charred appearance.
We have visited a lot of Gothic churches in our travels, but I really enjoyed this one and found a lot of unique features that we haven’t seen elsewhere. It is filled with beautiful old, wooden pews that are painted with detailed scenes. It is adorned with old paintings, windowed doors, and gates. I found all these little details to be beautiful, unique, and interesting. It also houses a large collection of 100-400+ year old prayer rugs.
In the late 1980’s, some of Romania’s first public demonstrations against Nicolae Ceausescu’s government took place in Brașov. In one event, protesters under attack by military forces sought refuge in the Black Church. You can still find bullet holes and damage in some of the church columns from the troop’s attack.
Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the Black Church, so I can’t show you these things. If you visit Brașov, I recommend you go see it all for yourself!
Near the Black Church, we found an antique bookstore, Anticariat Aldus. I can’t resist a used bookshop, even if I know most of the books are in a language I don’t know. I bought a pretty little book published in Bucharest in 1943 to add to my travel library.
We took a walk through the Strada Sforii, also known as Rope Alley. It’s a tiny little street that serves as a practical passageway, but has also been romanticized with tales of its use by Vlad Tepes, and popularized by Instagrammers. It is a fun little spot with bright colors and a small area where visitors can write on the walls, so it is worth a visit to join in the fun.
City Walls, Towers, and Gates
Some of the city’s old walls, gates, and towers remain. We walked around the walls’ footprint to see the Schei Gate, Catherine’s Gate, Black Tower (Turnul Negru), and White Tower (Turnul Alb). The inside of both towers were closed, but they still offered great views of the city.
Outside the walls on one end of the city is a lovely park at the base of Mt Tâmpa. The park has walking/running paths, playgrounds, and exercise equipment. It reminded me a bit of the parks we saw in Warsaw. For what it is worth, communist governments seemed to provide nice park life for their people.
From this park, normally visitors can take a funicular/cable car ride up to the top of Mt Tâmpa. Here you can visit Brașov’s own Hollywood-esque sign. This is also the site of one of Vlad Tepes’ mass impalings. Unfortunately, while we were in town, the funicular was closed for annual maintenance, so we didn’t get to the top of Mt Tâmpa for these experiences. But at least we all know the funicular receives regular safety maintenance!
I enjoyed seeing city maintenance workers cleaning the park with what appeared to be handmade, wooden brooms. While walking around the city walls, we also passed a war cemetery and a beautiful Orthodox Church.
Because we were in Brașov for Halloween, we stopped in a store called Dracula’s House of Terrors for some costume additions and souvenirs. Unfortunately, we found that other than this spot and a few references to Dracula elsewhere, there were no Halloween celebrations or festivities around. This was disappointing for our son who was ready to wear his Harry Potter costume around the city, and for me because I love the Halloween spirit, but a visit to Bran Castle still made for a memorable Halloween experience.
On Halloween day, we drove to the city of Bran to visit Bran Castle. To tourists, this is known as “Dracula’s Castle” and the castle itself plays up this legend. There is only a little evidence that Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes (who people think of as the real-life Dracula) spent any time here (as a prisoner), and slightly more evidence that the castle helped inspire Dracula author Bram Stoker, but it is still fun to play into the legends.
All that aside, Bran Castle is beautiful inside. It’s most recent resident, Queen Maria in the early 1900’s, was a lucky lady to have lived here. It’s been beautifully maintained and restored and I found myself imagining a cozy life of luxury living there.
We had lunch at the Tea House on the grounds of the castle. We got lucky and got a table without a reservation, but from the looks of it, I’d recommend making a reservation if you think you want to eat inside the restaurant during your visit. We enjoyed traditional Romanian soups, a nice sandwich, and the company of the castle’s resident cat.
We enjoyed the drive between Brașov and Bran. We passed through small towns and mountain valleys, all lit by an atmospheric, golden sunlight. The air had a haze to it that we’ve seen elsewhere in Europe, probably attributable to pollution and bad air quality, but in low levels, it contributes to the scene and sets a relaxed mood.
All along the way we saw livestock that didn’t appear to be fenced in their land. Sometimes you could tell that horses were ground tied. Other times, flocks of sheep and cattle were contained by shepherds and their dogs. Other times, there was no containment. As we passed through one small town, we had to stop for loose cows to cross the road in front of us. (I devoted this separate post [link] to pictures from our drives in Romania.) We also saw stray dogs all over Romania, almost everywhere we went.
Some of the roads were rough to drive on, but some were under construction for improvements. We passed many horse-drawn carts being used for both agriculture and transportation. We saw many instances of old-fashioned methods still being used for modern life, but also attempts at modernization along the way.
After visiting Bran and before returning to Brașov, we drove to Hărman. There, we visited the 13th century Evangelical Fortified Church Hărman. This is one of many fortified churches throughout Romania that people used over past centuries to evade attack.
Inside the fortifications are the Church of St Nikolaus, a Bell Tower, a smaller chapel with beautiful 15th century murals depicting heaven and hell, and a few museum rooms showing traditional Romanian life within the fortified church grounds.
This was the only fortified church we saw. I imagine they are all impressive, but I can certainly recommend this one. When we were there, the main church was decorated beautifully for the Fall Harvest holiday. This is a typically German tradition, celebrated here because the settlers in this area were Germanic and continue to associate themselves with German culture rather than Romanian.
It was all beautiful in its simplicity. The murals in the smaller chapel were incredible. We’ve seen a lot of old churches and murals, but these felt uniquely special as it was a small, intimate setting and we could enjoy them up-close without crowds. In fact, we only saw two other visitors the entire time we were there.
What We Ate
The apartment we rented for our stay in Brasov was above a café managed by the same owner, so breakfast at the café was included every morning with our stay. The host prepared fresh breakfast for us every morning. He always gave us freshly pressed juices and way more to eat than we needed. We enjoyed spending some time talking with him every morning, getting local tips and learning about Romania from his perspective.
As I mentioned above, we ate one lunch at Bran Castle. We got another lunch of pizza slices and breads from a walk-up bakery, La Gigi. This seemed to be a common meal option for people, especially enjoying covrigi, pretzel-like round breads with sesame or poppy seeds. We tried the covrigi, and they were okay, but for me, nothing beats a hot German soft pretzel.
We ate traditional Romanian dinners at Le Ceaun and Ursul Carpatin. We enjoyed Le Ceaun so much, we ate their twice! The food and the service were both so good, we didn’t want to try anywhere else. We enjoyed their white bean and ham soup (ciorba) in bread bowls, sarmale (cabbage stuffed with meat and rice), and papanași for dessert (a fried dough filled with curd cheese and covered with sweet jam and cream). At Ursul Carpatin we had sausages, chicken, sarmale, and delicious lemonades. Once again, we found a country’s slight variation on lemonade. Theirs was equally sweet and sour but had an added kick of carbonation. I loved it.
In both restaurants we were approached by visitors unrelated to the restaurant. At Le Ceaun, we ate outside and were joined by a stray dog looking for scraps. At both La Ceaun and Ursul Carpatin, we were approached by wandering street vendors – including a little girl – trying to sell us flowers. The staff at the restaurants seemed to turn a blind eye to the vendors. With questionable legal legitimacy, it’s all part of the tourist economy there, I suppose.
Where We Stayed
We stayed in a privately rented apartment called the Attic Brașov on the Strada Republicii, one of the main shopping and dining streets in the old town center. (We booked this through booking.com. If you are interested, comment or send me a message and I can send you a referral link for booking with a discount).
It was a great location once we got over the hurdles of finding a place to park and dragging our luggage through the cobblestone shopping street! We enjoyed this lodging for its size, location, and aforementioned delicious breakfast. The host was very accommodating, and the apartment is family-friendly.
Staying here felt like we were living right in the heart of the city. I was worried about noise from the street, but the apartment seemed to be pretty sound-proof with the windows closed.
What We Missed
As I mentioned, we were disappointed that we couldn’t take the funicular up Mt Tâmpa. Similarly, guide books told us that we could visit the Citadel on Citadel Hill, but our apartment host told us it was private and closed to the public. Maybe you can still hike up to it for views, but we didn’t try.
In the Piața Sfatului, we could have visited the Brașov Historical Museum to learn more local history. Also there, we saw the Trumpeters Tower on the Council House, but never the trumpeters who were supposed to appear on it to announce the midday.
It would have been nice to see St Nicholas’ Cathedral, the Memorial to the Victims of the 1989 Revolution, and the Heroes’ Cemetery. Lastly, I was intrigued by the idea of the Liberty Bear Sanctuary nearby in Zărnești.
But, as always, with only a few days to explore, we didn’t have time to do everything and soon it was time for us to move on to our final stop in Romania, Bucharest.