Want to go vampire hunting? Grab your garlic necklaces and crosses and make your way to Romania. Oh, and these aren’t Edward Cullen vampires we’re talking about.
What you’ll find in Transylvania (a place some people aren’t even aware is real), nestled alongside the Carpathian mountains, is a region still largely unexplored and dotted with ancient castles, walled cities, armored churches and wildlife sightings (they have the highest concentration of bears and wolves on the continent).
Infrastructure is a bit behind the times -- most trains are from the Cold War era and horse-drawn carriages are still pretty commonplace -- but that’s what you get for what’s being called the last genuinely medieval landscape in Europe.
If you want to hunt vampires...
...you can follow in author Bram Stoker’s footsteps. Stoker wrote the famed “Dracula” in 1897, and although he didn’t actually visit Romania himself, they say he got the mood down pat. And, admittedly, a lot of details from the novel are rooted in relative truth. Except, you know, the blood-sucking count part.
Count Dracula was based on Vlad the Impaler, a nobleman of ancient Transylvania who defended the country against enemy Turks by defeating and impaling (hence his nickname) an estimated 80,000 adversaries on long spikes that he’d then show off to his people. The city center of Sighisoara, the home of Big Bad Vlad, has been classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as have a number of other sites throughout the country.
Sighisoara can be walked in a couple of hours and has adorable pastel-painted residences along their cobblestoned streets.
Stoker also drew from the superstitious Transylvanians who believed in what was called the Strigoi, or evil souls (“Dracula” even means "son of the devil" in modern Romanian). Other authors have also used these spirits in their writing, like Richelle Mead in her “Vampire Academy” books (the movie adaptation of which did not do well, sadly).
Even though local Romanians resisted for a time, tourism boards have decided to capitalize on “vampire tourism” and take advantage of the kooky vampire hunters that come to town every year to hang out with Drac (around 800,000 visitors showed up to a Dracula-synonymous castle in 2016). A number of Dracula tours run, but there’s definitely a lot of imagination and speculation thrown into them.
For one thing, there is no Castle of Count Dracula. The Hotel Transilvania in nearby Cluj-Napoca, for one, claims to have been the inspiration for Stoker’s castle, and employees are milking it.
“We would like to follow the book in creating a suite that resembles the era that the journey was told in the novel through painting, pictures, albums, old movies, items and furniture,” Adriana Sava, the hotel’s general manager, told Atlas Obscura in 2016.
Then there’s Hotel Castle Dracula, which stakes a claim in the location that Stoker wrote Castle of Count Dracula on. It’s along the Tihuta Pass in the Bârgāului Mountains and is now vampire themed complete with a fake graveyard and Dracula’s “tomb” in the basement. It was built by in 1983, commissioned exclusively by Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu. He was big into theatrics.
Finally, we have Bran Castle, which is what is most closely considered Dracula’s castle today. Based on looks alone, it makes the most sense to be considered for the novel’s supposed setting: Built in the 14th century, it’s high on a ridge on the mountainside and contains spooky stairwells, secret passages and a torture chamber. Fairly on brand, I’d say.
It used to be a summer residence for the Romanian royal family and is now a museum. Down in the small village below the castle’s peak, vendors sell wooden crosses and plastic fangs to really drive it home.
If you want to be a regular tourist…
...there’s plenty to see.
Besides the crowds staking (get it?) out Bran Castle, Transylvania in the fall months promises smaller crowds and nice temperatures. It's also big for foliage, which we as Americans are suckers for. Renting a car is pretty encouraged so you can cruise around the countryside to take in all the gothic and baroque architecture, and you can take a drive down the Transfăgărășan Road.
Transfăgărășan has been hailed as a must-see as far as roads go. It twists through the mountains in turns that look like you should take them pretty slowly, but it’d be an exciting ride nonetheless. And the views aren't bad.
You can also visit where Prince Charles (yep, the British royal) hangs out when he visit Romania. He’s really into the conservation over there and has bought and restored numerous farmhouses that visitors can rent out. The Prince of Wales claims to be a distant relative of Vlad the Impaler which...is a strange thing to brag about, if you ask me.
And lastly, hiking is big in Transylvania, so allow me to recommend Mount Tampa in Brasov, if for no other reason than that it has its own Hollywood sign.
Regardless of your intentions of visiting, Romania is probably one of the least-visited European countries -- do it some justice.