Beautiful gay Romania: Sighisoara, Craiova, Bucharest, Brasov, Bran & Peles castles, and much more

A mythical nation telling of ancient Dacian sorcerers and blood-sucking princes brooding from Gothic castle turrets, Romania is one fairy-tale vacation not to be missed. Its famed Danube River winds along the nation’s southern border before forking into the north, slaking national parks and medieval towns on its path to the Black Sea. It’s at this point the river reaches its culmination, on the bountiful wetlands of the Danube Delta where first-rate hiking, boating and birdwatching adventures await. The Carpathian Mountains slicing through the centre of Romania also make for spectacular hiking, this time through meadow and pine forest ending on craggy peaks grazed by elk. As for gay Romania, the story remains to be finished. While gay Bucharest has its burgeoning gay scene, conservative attitudes are yet to fully change. With so many beautiful heritage towns to visit, however, we doubt you’ll find this such a problem.

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Gay Romania

The Romanian gay scene may still need a few years to catch up with Western Europe on the matter of gay rights, but, even today, despite lasting Romanian Orthodox influence, you’ll find progressive attitudes and a strong community can be found, most notably in the capital. Located in southeastern Europe, Romania, of course, has its struggles in the pursuit of LGBT rights. Most notably you’ll find that locals outside of the capital are somewhat socially conservative, with negative attitudes towards gay and transgender communities not uncommon. In terms of law, while the gay community is protected by anti-discrimination laws, same-sex couples are still unable to get married and influence from the church means this is very unlikely to change in the near future.

Gay rights organisations in Romania work tirelessly to advocate for gay rights and social acceptance but nevertheless Orthodox educations regarding ‘traditional family values’ has made it difficult to shrug off the notion of gay ‘immorality’. Be aware that rural towns and communities may think this way and open displays of queerness may be ill-advised. Find the most open gay scene in Bucharest, where tolerant and progressive locals live mostly in harmony with the LGBT community.

Palace of Culture, Iasi | Photo: Cezara Md

Galaţi, Romania | Photo: Felea Emanuel

1. Bucharest

Upon starting out in the capital, one should know that Bucharest is undergoing some changes. Formerly under the communist dictatorship of Nicolai Ceausescu, the city had long been seen as Europe’s “forgotten capital” up until very recently when money from the European Union came flooding in and redevelopment projects began. Bucharest now sits under the dust of construction work and pretty bad traffic, but the potential of this south-central city is undeniable. Resist the urge to turn tail and run towards more rural parts on arrival in Bucharest International Airport and instead brave a few days of frenetic charm.

Patient visitors will be rewarded by various attractions, starting out at the sweeping Parliament Palace, the world’s second-largest building built for Ceausescu on the site of the woefully demolished historic centre. But revolution comes next, commemorated in the form of Revolution Square, now the heart of the city and home to the superb National Art Museum where Romanian medieval works hang proudly. Slightly north you’ll find Calea Victoriei where city life comes to shop, drink and socialise, while University Square, closer to the city’s famed north-south axis, is the actual site of the 1989 uprising. Below that lies the redevelopment area – and one-time historic centre –  which, though decidedly shabby, maintains popularity among locals for its great number of bars and restaurants, including some gay bar Bucharest hot spots.

Old Town, Bucharest | Photo: Adrian Dascal

Photo: Ana Maria Nichita

2. Sibiu

Once out of the capital, Romania’s nature takes centre stage particularly in the region of central Romania, Transylvania, two hours north of Bucharest. The medieval towns and cities here seem straight out of a fairy tale, or indeed the famed gothic novel Dracula, a book inspired by the region. Never is this truer than in Sibiu, a town located on Transylvania’s Cibin River and once named European Capital of Culture thanks in part to its Baroque architecture and cobblestone appeal. But more than this, Sibiu sends visitors through the centuries, landing in the 12th century at downtown Sibiu’s citadel built for German settlers (otherwise known as Transylvanian Saxons) when the region was a part of Hungary. Moving on in time, you’ll find the 15th-century Baroque styles of the Grand Square, followed by the gabled houses and church-laden squares of the 17th century.

Though most of the city’s main historic attractions lie in the upper town, continue walking to the lower town for quaint streets and brightly coloured houses edging the imposing city walls and towers that lead down to the river. Other things to do while in Sibiu include a visit to the open-air ASTRA Museum of Folk Civilisation, an evening with the philharmonic orchestra, or summertime festivities of performing arts across Sibiu’s parks and theatres. For party animals wanting a wilder time in gay Sibiu however, Delirio Gay Club – a mainstay of Cluj-Napoca and a new addition to Sibiu’s nightlife scene – will be the highlight.

Sibiu | Photo: Tudor George

3. Sighisoara

Walled in by preserved citadel walls built by 12th century Germans, it’s clear that Sighisoara holds much intriguing history from the get-go. If you must know, it was on orders of the King of Hungary that the city be defended and, as a result, the city became a hub of trade for many centuries. Arguably the best-preserved medieval town in Europe, listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Sighisoara Romania has many stories to tell. Most famous of which is the story of Vlad the Impaler (or Prince Vlad Dracula), a 15th-century ruler immortalised in Bram Stoker’s eponymous Gothic novel as Count Dracula. Was Vlad a vampire? Probably not. But that doesn’t stop hordes of visitors visiting the ex-ruler’s home as well as the Church on the Hill, Dominican Monastery and Venetian House, all landmarks depicted within the novel.

Picture-perfect and oh-so Gothic, it’s easy to see why Stoker would want to immortalise this town in literature. Pull your eyes from the pages to glimpse gingerbread roofs and cobbled lanes eclipsed by medieval church towers high up on the town’s forested hills. While there is a great amount of vampire-themed souvenirs, Sighisoara may also surprise you with its rather more cute café scene on commercial streets boasting boutique hotels and local craft stores.

Sighisoara | Photo: J Walters

4. Brasov

While vampire sightings are unlikely, jaw-dropping castles are ubiquitous in Transylvania. There’s the 14th century Corvin Castle and King Carol’s 19th-century abode, but the spookiest of them all must be Bran Castle in Bran, 25 kilometres southwest of Brasov. A dynamic city home to much fascinating history, Brasov offers more than just Dracula’s fictional residence. While the 13th-century hilltop castle is seen by many to be the highlight of the city, other worthy attractions include the Black Church cathedral and its 4,000 pipe organ, as well as Rope Street, the nation’s narrowest alleyway. While it’s easy to have sporty adventures in Brasov, thanks to world-class skiing and ice skating services high up in the Carpathian mountains, don’t leave without taking time to wander the centre. Try Council Square and the nearby museum before or after getting lost in the maze of streets lined with boho cafés and gingerbread-style houses. While gay Brasov is slightly subdued, the mixed local nightlife is enough to keep most amused.

Bran Castle | Photo: Nomadic Julien

Bran Castle | Photo: Nomadic Julien

5. Cluj-Napoca

Film capital of Romania and home of the country’s largest university, is the unofficial capital of Transylvania, Cluj-Napoca. With its large student population, Cluj-Napoca blends ancient history with modern attitudes to create a charming space that lures the nation’s artists and filmmakers. The city itself predates Roman colonisation and hosts artefacts from as far back as the 2nd century. Across the city, you’ll see ancient landmarks of different styles, such as the towering St. Michael’s Church, built in the 14th century by Gothic architects or the 18th century Alexandre Borza Botanic Gardens which have grown to feature over 10,000 plants across 35 acres. The town’s Baroque-era Bánffy Palace meanwhile now doubles up as the National Museum of Art, the city’s main arts and culture centre.

As you’d expect from a university town, Cluj-Napoca has a stellar night-time offering that is both liberal and artsy in good measure. While most mixed bars and clubs, gay Cluj-Napoca is in its second year as host of Cluj Pride, a proud moment for the local gay community. At all other times, Cluj’s one and only gay club – Delirio Gay Club – ensures LGBT people have a place to call their own. Once you’ve had about all you can take of uneven cobblestones and gothic buildings, leave Cluj to venture into the Apuseni Maramures mountain range, for hiking, cycling, horse-riding and kayaking adventures passing through Romania’s best natural landscapes.

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Named for the great Mount Sinai which rises sharply in the west, Sinaia is a mountain resort town like no other, built around an old monastery in the valley beneath Bucegi Mountain range’s best ski slopes

6. Sinaia

Named for the great Mount Sinai which rises sharply in the west, Sinaia is a mountain resort town like no other, built around an old monastery in the valley beneath Bucegi Mountain range’s best ski slopes. As well as religious heritage, Sinaia also boasts royal history. The ornate Peles Castle is a must-see while visiting, as the summer home of King Charles I, Romania’s first king and now a popular filming site. Tour the regal gardens and inner museum of Peles, appreciating the Neo-Renaissance stonework and stained-glass windows complimented by panoramic mountain views beyond. Skiing may be the go-to activity during winter in Sinaia, but at any other time, hiking is also much loved, thanks to fir-tree forest trails and wildflowers dotting the entire valley.

Photo: Larisa Birta

7. Craiova

Another university town this time in the Pelendava region, Craiova is the perfect resting point for travellers making their way from Bucharest to Timisoara. More than that however Craiova offers both historic interest and youthful vibes, largely within the walkable old centre. Evermore palaces allow insight into Craiova’s wealthy past,  but it’s the town’s art museum – the one-time home of Romania’s richest family, as well as an ex-monarch, former Yugoslav leader and exiled Polish president – that reveals the most. Inside, you’ll also find the renowned works of sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi.

Delving further into Craiova’s past, you’ll learn that the town is based on the ancient site of Dacian and Roman settlements. A Roman fortress uncovered in Trajan, for example, is among the town’s oldest archaeological finds. Most of the history on show in Craiova, however, is from the 15th to 18th centuries. Surviving an earthquake in 1790, shortly followed by the plague and a Turkish assault in 1802,  St. Dimitru Church still stands from 1652, rebuilt in original styles.

Craiova | Photo: Marius Berceanu

Photo: Theodor Vasile

8. Maramures 

Journey from Cluj-Napoca to this next one – the traditional region of Maramures based high in the mountains of northern Romania. Centred on the capital of Baie Mare, Maramures is renowned across the country as the ‘Land of wood’ for a simple reason. All of the houses and centuries-old churches here come constructed in timber, all backgrounded by vast woodland. As well as being home to skilled carpenters, local enterprise in the town focuses on handicrafts, textiles and music, much of which has been taught in the culture for thousands of years. Besides enjoying the region’s wooden architecture, come to Maramures for its untouched forests and medieval history. Spot deer, wolves and bears on trails within the forest, ending your day in Baie Mare’s main square (Piata Libertatii) for a true taste of traditional life and a feast at the vibrant food market on Piata Izvoarelor.

9. Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

It’s not often a series of buildings warrant a passage of their own, but for the Bucovina monasteries, we make an exception. Located in the northeast, in the cultural gateway town of Suceava, the monasteries live peacefully among other  UNESCO World Heritage Sites including the Bucovina Ethnographic Museum and the Princely Court. Elaborately painted in 15th and 16th-century Byzantine frescoes, depicting saints, prophets and the afterlife, the Bucovina monasteries must be seen to be believed. Amble through tranquil villages from Bucovina to Lasi, marvelling at the perfectly preserved buildings alongside modern examples of local craftsmanship, such as rare black pottery in Marginea.

The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina | Photo: Pv746

Bucovina | Photo: Dan Fador

10. Mamaia and Constanta

While mountains dominate Romania’s landscape, the nation is not without its seaside retreats. Mamaia is the most famous resort on the coast, located north of Constanta on an eight-kilometre stretch of beachfront. Sunbathing here can get highly competitive in summer leading to hoicked prices and crowds, but the warm waters and vibrant nightlife means we don’t mind getting our elbows out. Once an elite vacation spot, Mamaia now draws locals and internationals of all tiers, thanks to its stunning location between Lake Siutghiol and the Black Sea. Choose from any number of fancy hotels exuding modern luxury, such as the Laki Hotel, Albatros Villa or Rex Hotel. From your base, enjoy long leisurely days between the beach and the town’s impressive archaeological museums, visiting the royal summer residence of Cara-Dalga Castle before watching the moon rise over the sea or the sunset beyond the lake.

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A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Danube Delta is best seen by boat, particularly on slow-moving sunset cruises when the view is at its most sublime

11. Sarmizegetusa Regia

Though quite a mouthful for newcomers to the Romanian language, Sarmizegetusa Regia is sure to leave you tongue-tied for a whole other reason. The capital city of the ancient Dacian Empire and a key military, religious and political hub for millennia, Sarmizegetusa Regia earns its UNESCO World Heritage listing with ancient ruins amidst the unbeatable natural backdrop. Elevated 1,200 meters, deep within the forests of the Carpathians, Sarmizegetusa Regia wows visitors with tales of its ancient history, underscored by key archaeological artefacts dating back to the 1st century BC. From then on, old’ Sarmi has seen Kings and Roman emperors come and go, becoming inlaid with a history of conquests, religious power and sacred culture. See fragments of fortifications built in the Roman era as well as a number of temple ruins offering insight into the sacrificial customs and spiritual life of the Dacian Empire.

12. Danube Delta

The culmination of Europe’s largest river leaves a deep impression on all who visit. At the meeting point between the Danube and the Black Sea in the Dobrogea region, the Danube Delta flourishes with life of all kinds. Home to the world’s largest wetland area, the delta is home to 23 distinct ecosystems, each fostering unique species of plant and animal life. Over 5,000 square kilometres of snaking riverbed there is said to be some 300 bird species and 45 species of fresh-water fish inhabiting the lakes and marshes bordering the Delta’s main artery.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Danube Delta is best seen by boat, particularly on slow-moving sunset cruises when the view is at its most sublime. Otherwise, venture closer to the coastline for spectacular hiking opportunities within the Delta Biosphere Reserve, before returning to civilisation by way of the sleepy fishing village of Sulina. Romania’s easternmost point, Sulina is a worthy base before embarking on nature tours in the region, with tranquil beaches and authentic lodgings close to Argamum and Enisala medieval fortresses as well as the orthodox monasteries of Saon and Celic Dere.

Photo: Ana Maria

Danube Delta | Photo: Falco

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Palace of Culture, Iași | Photo: Tudor Baciu

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