Our trip to Romania was unexpected. We had our whole year planned out, but learned belatedly that we’d have to make some changes. While searching for places outside the Schengen Zone (more on that another time) but not halfway across the world, we inevitably found our way to Eastern Europe. There was Romania, beckoning to us. I had never been there but had always wanted to visit. Joe was intrigued, so we took the plunge. And it certainly wasn’t what we expected.
Romania is beautiful, developed, quaint, loud, peaceful, and challenging. Many people did not speak English, especially in the Danube Delta (and even in Bucharest), and the language barrier made more of a difference than I expected. We learned as much Romanian as we were able and we got by. Our apartment wasn’t really situated in a neighborhood, and at times we felt a bit lost. But we tried to explore a little further afield and found some true gems. Once we got more comfortable venturing outside our comfort zones, we started truly living in and enjoying Romania.
We explored three areas of the country (plus a little bit of a wine region), so I’ll review each area separately. Bucharest was full of incredibly loud and fast sport bikes, fancy cars, humongous stone buildings and eight-lane avenues. The Danube Delta transported us to another, more foreign world full of Romanian tourists and innumerable wild creatures. And Transylvania – along with a couple beautiful wineries – brought that little bit of magic we were craving. Here are some of our favorites from each place.
Industry Wine Bar: We visited this little wine bar five times during our stay in Bucharest. It was just that good, cozy, charming, affordable, and fun. The owner and his girlfriend welcomed and befriended us immediately and always made us feel comfortable. Their local wine selection is excellent and the big pours and smiles just can’t be beat.
Latin Pizza: Imagine your favorite little hole-in-the-wall eatery. The smells, the cheap food, the crowded stools or tables. We found ours in Latin Pizza. The oblong pies crowded the counters and tempted through the windows, and the myriad toppings seemed to change daily. Ordering is simple: just tell the employee how much you want and they cut it off with scissors and weigh it. Every ounce was always flavorful and fabulous.
Stadio: I had one of the best cocktails of the trip at this expansive bar and bistro. Gin, fresh mango, prosecco, and black pepper is a winning combination! The menu was extensive (we had everything from mini tacos to ribs to pasta) and the service was efficient.
The Botanical Gardens: Visit these spectacular gardens in the spring or summer when everything is in bloom. You’ll be rewarded with mosaics of color laid over a deep green canvass. Work your way through the huge, geometric, central greenhouse and you’ll experience several completely different climates. A stunning place to spend a morning.
Gradina Cismigiu: These beautiful gardens became our exercise haven in the middle of the city. Tall, leafy trees line almost every walkway, creating shady canopies and cooler temperatures. Joe and I would walk there several times a week and run intervals under the trees. You could even rent a little paddle boat and cruise through the long, narrow pond that wound its way through the middle.
Random outdoor concerts: Live music abounds in Romania! Huge music festivals were on every weekend, and Classical music played every Sunday in a small park. We stumbled upon some great entertainment and made friends in the process.
The Danube boat tour: Our full-day tour of the Danube Delta was definitely the highlight of the weekend. We saw almost 30 species of birds, ate a freshly prepared fish lunch at a local villager’s house, and made some great friends. Our guide was informative and friendly, and the scenery did not disappoint.
The Delta Nature Resort: Our stay at this slightly funky, self-proclaimed “Five Star” resort was nothing if not entertaining. Groups of Romanian families watched their kids play in the pool overlooking the delta, and the restaurant turned out some seriously tasty food. But the resort appeared to be managed by teenagers, and occasionally it showed. Thankfully the bus into town came two out of three times.
Transylvania (and the Dealu Mare wine region)
Hiking Mt. Tampa: Hiking a steep mountain always gives one a sense of accomplishment. No exception here – the path was shaded and thick with tall trees, and the views of Brasov from the top were pretty spectacular. There’s an “easy” way and a hard way – fortunately, we only went down the hard way. But my knees didn’t thank me.
Visiting Rasnov and Peles castles: Yes, I’m aware that neither of these is “Dracula’s” castle. Rasnov was much more interesting (and the views of the surrounding mountains and valley were unbeatable) and Peles was much more beautiful than Bran in all respects. So I’m recommending them instead.
The Black Church: Burned by a massive fire in 1687, this huge, gothic cathedral was almost completely rebuilt over the course of the 18th-19th centuries. The beautifully carved and painted wooden pews, each decorated by one of the city’s Guilds, are some of the only original features that remain (along with various tombstones). Worth the visit, but the outside is more impressive than the inside.
Walking the Walls: The old city walls encompass Brasov’s Old Town district, and they’re punctuated with many elaborate and unique gates. A little path that runs around parts of the outside of the walls makes for a lovely walk.
Rope Street: One of the narrowest streets in Europe! You can touch each side with your arms outstretched. Kinda gimmicky, but fun.
Dei Frati: Unpretentious, almost gourmet food lives here. Our server was lovely and extremely friendly, and we had what must be the best sparkling rosé in the country. Set in a small, cobblestone alley off the main square, it’s perfect for a romantic dinner.
Bistro Simone: If you’re vegetarian or vegan (or a meat-eater who simply enjoys fresh, hearty food), this is the place for you. We sat at a tiny table outside and munched on quesadillas and grilled chicken salad. Casual, comfy, and frequented by many regulars.
Opus 9: An excellent spot for a pre-dinner cocktail. My Aperol Spritz was perfectly balanced and huge, and Joe offset a whiskey cocktail with an oreo shake. Great for people-watching and sunset photography.
LacertA Winery: If we lived in Romania (or if they shipped to California) we would’ve considered joining their wine club. Our guide let us taste wine straight from the tanks and barrels, took us out into the vines, and was very liberal with the number of wines on our tasting schedule. And the wine was so delicious, we took three bottles with us back to Bucharest. Incredible quality, even better value, and a truly gorgeous setting.
Viile Metamorfosis: This large, industrial-looking winery sits at the edge of massive sunflower fields down a long, straight, dirt road. A lovely young woman named Ana gave us the grand tour (their tanks are massive!) and spoiled us with platters of meat, cheese, olives, and fruit along with our tasting.