Our first time visiting Romania was 11 years ago. SVV and I were living in Holland, had just met in September and, come December, decided to forgo the journey back to the States for the holidays in favor of a road trip to a new-to-us, undiscovered land.
That place we mutually agreed on wound up being Romania.
Even though it was the height of winter, we had a great time, waking up with no route in mind, driving from town to town each day protected by a wall of snow, pulling over at roadside vendors to buy wheels of cheese and two-liter Coke bottles filled with palinka (Central/Eastern Europe’s version of moonshine), making friends with the feral dog population in each stop we made. It was an unlikely choice for a winter road trip, but we were glad we’d done it. We’ve been talking about that trip for years now.
So when we found out our AmaWaterways river cruise would be ending in Giurgui, just an hour south of Bucharest, and that our Turkey extension would not be happening thanks to the political unrest, we convinced the rest of our crew to join us on a quick four-day road trip to traipse about the Transylvania Mountains instead.
We had planned to spend some time in Giurgui, but after docking there the night before—plus talking to some of the ship’s crew—we quickly realized there wouldn’t be much to do. So we called our Blacklane driver, who was transporting us to Henri Coandă International Airport (OTP) to pick up our rental car, and bumped up our pick-up time to earlier in the day, departing the port city just after lunch and arriving at the Bucharest airport an hour-and-a-half later.
From the moment our van approached the capital, we saw the effects of the European Union; Romania joined the EU in 2007, two years after we were first there, and what a world of difference it’s made. First of all, the tourism industry has expanded quite a lot; there seems to be more infrastructure in place, and while Western Europe it is not, Romania is a lot more set up for tourists in peak summer season.
Speaking of which, most of the tourists we encountered were Eastern Europeans, not those from the West like we’d come so accustomed to seeing in our travels.
After picking up our rental car, we headed straight for Brașov, which took about three hours (account for more if on Fridays or in peak season). We checked right into our Airbnb in the heart of the city and figured we didn’t need to go anywhere, because this house was a vacation in itself.
But eventually, we did leave and we were in for a bit of a surprise. Despite it being Sunday, we couldn’t find anywhere that could accommodate a group of eight for dinner without a reservation, not even a fast-casual joint. I was shocked, and a bit annoyed that the local restaurant staffs were unwilling to point us to a place that could feed us—or tell us to come back in an hour when they’d have a table ready.
It wasn’t just the unaccommodating nature, but the rudeness with which the news was delivered, a shrug that said, “I don’t know what you want me to do, but it’s not my problem and we can’t help you.”
How could this be—we’d bragged to my family about how Romania was basically the best place on Earth, how the locals were so warm and welcoming, and here we were showing them why we loved it so much, just to have the metaphorical door slammed in our face time and time again.
It then struck me that perhaps we glorified Romania in our minds a bit too much—we were young and newly in love; I’ll chalk it up to that—and maybe even traveling with rose-colored glasses. This trip back was an entirely different, eye-opening experience. While sure, we met exceptions like our host Gabriela who were friendly to a fault, the majority seemed brash and a bit rude, dismissive and unwilling to help out. I know this is just a difference in culture, but coming from Serbia where everyone was so kind, chatty and helpful, it was a bit of a blow.
But we persevered, had a good night’s sleep, and while the locals didn’t get much friendlier, we lowered our expectations and started to enjoy ourselves.
Sometimes I think being the tour guide puts a certain stress on the situation you wouldn’t have were you traveling solo. I wanted everyone to have a good time, wanted them to enjoy Romania as we had the first time we’d come here 11 years ago (my mom assured me they all did), didn’t want them to walk away having had even a remotely unfavorable encounter.
Early difficulties aside, though, Brașov wound up being the perfect place to make our base for three days and unwind after a week of waking up in a different city each morning.
A lovely resort town at the bottom of the mountains, Brașov would be my pick for a jumping off point if this is you’re first time visiting Romania (or even Eastern Europe as a whole) as it’s a more manageable size than, say Bucharest; it’s walkable if you stay in the right area; it’s close to so many neighboring attractions so you won’t spend all day every day behind the wheel of your rental car.
If you’re arriving from the direction of Bucharest, it may seem a bit like a Communist Era eyesore, but head for the city center and you’ll be charmed by its candy-colored houses and Old World architecture.
What to expect when you go to Romania:
You won’t find the friendly hospitality of other European countries like, say, the UK or Germany. So unlike we did, acknowledge that upfront and your stay will (hopefully) go a bit more seamlessly than ours.
Many people don’t speak English, and it’s not like France where they just pretend not to; they really don’t know anything but their native language. Bear that in mind and have a method of translation (like an iPhone app) handy.
Hardly anywhere accepts the Euro, and not all of them take cards either. Come prepared with plenty of leis, the native currency. There’s no shortage of ATMs, but be sure and alert your bank ahead of time. I had no trouble taking out multiple withdrawals with my Bank of America card, but one of the members of our group could not use his Visa the entire time until he returned to the United States.
Summer is definitely preferable to winter here. The downside? Castle Bran was absolutely brimming with tourists, as was Peleș, versus us having both of them completely to ourselves when we visited in mid-December.
When you rent a car, you might be overcharged. Our Expedia rental booking was supposed to be for $97 per car (we rented two); however, the rental agency charged us a total of $184 per car, claiming that it’s local tax that was tacked onto it. This shouldn’t be the case; when you rent a car, you’re doing so to lock in that rate. We’re still fighting for a refund from Expedia on this.
The roads, particularly around Bucharest, are straight-up crazy. We were using Google Maps to navigate and took quite a few wrong turns because of the loops that go every which way. Don’t rely on technology; also have a print map handy, and give yourself plenty of time to get to your destination.
Still, despite its downsides, I do think Romania is worth a second look, particularly if you’ve never been there before. Just know what you’re getting into before you go.
Where to Stay:
While I’d love to visit the Maramures region, home to the wooden churches, in the far north, I always gravitate toward Brașov at the base of the Transylvanian Mountains, as it’s an easy jumping off point to do Castle Bran, Sighișoara and several of the other attractions in the Carpathians. We stayed in a two-level, four-bedroom Airbnb rental in Brașov for a song. It was lovely, and I’d highly recommend it if ever you find yourself in Brașov.
What It Costs:
- Hotel: $60/night for an airport hotel for two people
- 4BR Airbnb: $251/night
- Rental car: $197 for a compact car for four days
- Gas: $4/gallon for unleaded
- Pint of local beer: $2
- Fancy dinner: $12 per person, including alcohol
Have any questions about Romania travel? Have you been? Would you go?
Hi! Waving at you from Maramures. We got “home” a few days ago and boy is it good to be back. We fell in love the first time we visited 18 mnths ago now, and the romance is still fresh, we just LOVE it here. These country people are some of the best in the world, the toughest, hardest working and most kind and generous. You’re right, outside the cities and the young people there is barely a word of English, but we get by, our Romanian is coming on. I’m very pleased with myself today for asking around, finding and buying our winter firewood yesterday, we have no heating other than our 1 wood stove. This is REAL life. It makes me feel alive. But of course I loved my summer in Richmond Upon Thames too 🙂 Glad you’re here, Brasov is lovely, we often stay there in a MUCH cheaper AirBnb! We made it to Budapest a few days ago too, I was chatting to you here about it. LOVED it! Stunning city. Enjoy!
I think part of the attitude can just be chalked up to culture in this part of Europe – but I also wonder if it isn’t exacerbated in Brasov by the influx of tourists each summer? I have a feeling that the last couple of years has seen a big boom of (foreign) tourists to the city now that the secret is getting out. Maybe they don’t like us. 🙁
Still looks like you had an awesome time, though. Next time be sure to hit up Maramures! It was my favorite part of Romania!
‘Lovely post Kerstin. 🙂
I haven’t yet been to Romania but I’m the Queen of Eastern Europe having lived in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, before moving to Berlin, when nobody even knew where they were lol!
I think it’s to do with the new times. When I first went to the Czech Republic, it was in the late 90’s, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and neither did they! I was brought into the Czech fold by a group of artists and never went back to my hotel for a month! Now, it’s different, tourism has set in and so have the dollar signs.
It’s not you, it’s them. It’s just the way they are.
You should come to East Berlin. It’s pretty much the same. A sour look, a slab of potatoes banged on the table, a rude mumble, but underneath, a rough heart of gold!
I was shocked to read that the hospitality wasn’t up to the standards you had expected. I’ve never been, but I know quite a few Romanians and I always assumed the country would be as friendly as they are. I’m even more intrigued to visit now!
I think it was perhaps just the region we were visiting, Dominique. I shouldn’t make such a blanket statement like that. You should totally visit there for yourself someday!
Thanks to your photos I recognised the town I visited some time ago and forgot the name. It was Brasov! Lovely place.
My now husband and I have also visited Brasov in winter of 2005, and basically became a couple around then. We were there just before Christmas, so possibly at the same time as you. I was born in Romania, but have to agree with you on people there being rude and trying to rip people (especially tourists) off. I think poverty (at least compared to western countries) and jealousy play a role. Communism has been tough on my birth country, but it’s been 27 years since it has fallen… so, I don’t know. While Romania is a beautiful country, it’s sad to watch the kind of people the Romanians have become.
I hate to say anything bad about your native home, Diana. I truly did love it there, I just think Brasov during summer months left a very different impression on us!
Brasov looks so amazing! I’ve never even heard of it before.
It’s one of the big ski regions in Romania! I’d never heard of it either until we first visited in 2005.
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Why are other countries so much more colorful than ours? Looks like a pretty cool city to ramble around for a few days!
Right? I can’t think of a colorful city we have other than maybe San Francisco. I do love all the street art cropping up around the US, though. Adds a bit of much-needed color =)
Lovely write-up and photos! I’m Romanian myself, but also American, lived in the States for the past 10 years and now in France. Just few observations I have. I agree that some people might come across as rude or not as accommodating, however it can also be bad luck, Brasov and Bran area is pretty touristy. Also, 4 days doesn’t necessarily reflect all of Romania or everyone. I usually hear the opposite from tourists, that people are very hospitable. Sorry you had a not so good experience. Second, not sure who you interacted with there, but it is absolutely not true that most people don’t speak anything other than their native language, Romanian. I speak 4 languages fluently, and so do most of my friends living there, and their parents (at least 2 languages, whether it be French or English or whatever). So if you were referring to remote rural areas and elderly people, true, they probably won’t speak other languages, but in most urban areas, I’d be very surprised you don’t find several people that do. That’s one of our strengths, and I certainly haven’t seen this in the States, or in France where I live now, where they don’t care to speak any other language. They struggle with English. Hope you don’t mind my comments, and hope we see you again in Romania!
Hey Monica! Thanks for your insight. I apologize if I offended you for saying these things about Romanians. I have known so many Romanians in the United States who are the loveliest, kindest of souls, and perhaps I was too quick to judge based on the experiences we had on this trip. Like I mentioned, we spent a couple years there in 2005 and had a very different takeaway—perhaps it was because we were there during winter when there were few tourists or perhaps because we got off the Brasov path and visited places like Sighisoara and Timisoara. And yes, I’ve mainly spent time in the rural areas, never Bucharest, so I’ve found that English speakers are few and far between. They’re normally more Baby Boomers and elderly I’m interacting with, not Millennials and younger who were likely brought up speaking English.
Regardless, I appreciate your input as someone born in the country! I formerly lived in NYC, and I feel like New Yorkers get a bad rap in general when I found them to actually be the most straightforward and helpful people, so perhaps Romanians are similar: gruff exterior, soft core, big hearts. =)
*couple weeks, not years!*
Searched for this post as Fly Dubai, Dubai’s budget airlines to many destinations in Europe and the Gulf cities (and Africa and now including as far as Bangkok) is having a sale. Bucharest is pretty cheap from here so was considering to go for 3 nights on a long weekend (+1 day “sick” leave from work) at the end of April.
Will I get bored spending 3 nights in Bucharest alone? I won’t be renting a car so will have to take the train to Brasov is required…
I’ve heard Bucharest is really cool, I just haven’t spent any time there. I’m sure you’d be able to plan an action-filled long weekend there by yourself!
I am surprise that Romania is not tourist friendly. Glad i check this story.
We loved Bucharest and the drive through the pristine mountains, clean roads and we found people to be friendly-maybe because we were with a Romanian friend. Bucharest is like a cleaner Paris…a beautiful city.
No problem with English or food. But then, have to admit we didn’t do it on the cheap.
I’ll definitely have to check it out next time we’re in Romania! I imagine Brasov is the way it is because it is SO touristy, especially in the summer. I imagine the capital to be a bit more cosmopolitan and English-speaking (and friendlier!). Glad to hear you have good things to say about it, Sylvia =)
Even though it’s not a very prominent country in Europe to visit in comparison to the ever glorious, Paris, Amsterdam, Spain and even the UK. This blog is very enticing and i’m looking forward to spend my holidays at Romania. Also, i have a friend who came from an exchange and shared his experience with me. Romania is a beautiful place.
I am sorry your latest experience was not as pleasing. I have found otherwise, having traveled to Brasov 4 times in the last 5 years. The food is exceptional and not expensive, there is always great night life and generally the people are friendly and accommodating. I can think of several other European countries where the arrogance is unparalleled. When you get outside of the cities and hit the small villages, English speakers are a premium, but that is to be expected and you are compensated for the outstanding scenery and views. It would be very hard for me to visit any country in Europe and not make a stop to Brasov, enjoy the main square’s always happening entertainment, have ing a beer and meeting new people….
We still had a good time, I just was put off by the rudeness—something we had not previously experienced. We were also there in September, so seems as if we visited during the height of tourist season? I think I prefer winter when tourists are scarce and businesses seem grateful for customers. Again, this was just in the main area around the square in Brasov, not all of Romania. The owners of our Airbnb were Romanian and fantastic.