Backpacking Romania: Top experiences
- Stepping back in time to the Europe of the 1800’s in the Maramureș
- Reading the personalized poems and life stories on headstones at the Merry Cemetary in Săpânța
- Staring up at the massive Parliament building in Bucharest
- Walking between elaborately painted monasteries in Southern Bucovina
- Getting close to vampires at Dracula’s Castle
Jump to the list of posts from Romania, or read on for my comprehensive Romania travel guide.
Romania itinerary ideas
The ideal Romania itinerary takes in the big cities, charming Transylvanian towns and castles, and at least one off-the-beaten-path region.
If you only have one week for backpacking Romania, focus your time in the south. Spend a day in lively Bucharest to take the free walking tour and see the museums and architecture. Then take the train up to Brasov. Two nights is plenty of time to see the town, explore the nature nearby, and do a day-trip to “Dracula’s Castle” in Bran. Then, complete the “Transylvania Triangle” with one- or two-night stops in Sigisoara and Sibiu before returning to Bucharest for your flight home.
With two weeks, you can head north from Transylvania. The first stop is Cluj Napoca — a charming student town with vibrant nightlife. But don’t linger, as the real treasures are further north. Take the long, slow train ride north to Sighetu Marmaţiei and use it as your base to explore the Maramureș. You’ll need at least three days here. The biggest gem is Săpânța, the teeny-tiny town where you’ll find the iconic Merry Cemetery.
Finally, endure another long and chaotic bus journey to reach Suceava, your base to explore Southern Bucovina’s painted monasteries. Two days is plenty if you have your own wheels or plan to take a tour, but allow three days on public transportation. From Suceava you can hop on a quick bus or train back to Bucharest.
Adding a third week to your Romania backpacking itinerary would allow you to take in the Danube Delta — birdwatching and boat trips are the highlights. Or you could go west to Timisoara, spend more time road-tripping around Transylvania, or do a longer hike in one of Central Romania’s wilderness areas.
Romania weather and when to visit Romania
Romania’s weather and travel seasons match the rest of Central Europe. Expect hot summers, mild springs and autumns, and cold, snowy winters.
Summer — namely July and August — is high season for Romania travel. Not only is the country becoming increasingly popular with international tourists, but locals also tend to go on holiday during these months. The Black Sea coast is particularly crowded.
The best times to visit Romania are May, June, September and October. The weather is warm enough to enjoy outdoor activities, but the crowds from the summer are gone.
Winter is great if you like skiing or if you don’t mind walking around in cold, snowy weather. But many tourist sites are closed and I wouldn’t want to drive in the mountains.
Language in Romania
The main language spoken in Romania is Romanian. It’s a Romance language, and therefore has a lot in common with Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French.
However, Romanian has been heavily influenced by Slavic and Balkan language traditions as well. So even if you speak other Romance languages, you may find Romanian quite difficult to pick up. While some words derive from Latin, the grammar and much of the vocabulary differs wildly from other Romance languages.
Romanian uses the Latin alphabet, so even if you can’t speak it, you may be able to kind-of read it if you speak French or Spanish.
If you stick to southern Romania, you won’t really need Romanian language skills to get by. Sure, buying train tickets will be a little more difficult and outside of Bucharest you’ll make fewer local friends, but you’ll manage.
However, if you plan to travel into the Maramures or Southern Bucovina — especially if you’re reliant on public transportation — you should absolutely attempt to learn some Romanian. You’ll have a very difficult time getting around without it. You can find some useful travel vocabulary here.
Budget for backpacking Romania
If you’ve been traveling around Western or Central Europe, backpacking Romania will be refreshingly affordable. It’s certainly pricier than backpacking around Southeast Asia — but the value for money is great. Even compared to stereotypically “cheap” neighboring countries like Hungary and Serbia, you’ll have an easier time sticking to a tight budget.
If you stay in hostels the whole time you backpack Romania, cook for yourself or eat fast food, and travel on public transportation, you could keep your budget to around $20 per day. Occasional restaurant splurges and a private room here and there will bump your Romania budget up to $30-$40 a day.
Most activities cost so little that they aren’t even worth mentioning. If you have an ISIC student card, you can get into many museums for free. Note that most churches and monasteries charge an extra fee for photographs inside.
The biggest backpacking Romania budget buster is renting a car. Try to meet other travelers in Bucharest or Brasov to share costs with. Tours are also quite expensive, but can save you a lot of stress while traveling around Southern Bucovina.
Dorm bed in a hostel: 50 lei
Kebab from a street vendor: 20 lei
Cup of coffee at a sidewalk cafe: 7 lei
Museum or historical site admission: Free-10 lei
Train ticket from Bucharest to Brasov: 40-50 lei
Car rental (per day, minus fuel): 85 lei
Tour of the painted monasteries in Southern Bucovina: $55 USD
Romania visa requirements
Romania is part of the European Union, but it is not part of the “borderless” Schengen zone that makes up most of Western Europe.
North Americans, Australians and citizens of many other countries do not need a visa to go on vacation in Romania. Simply show your passport and get stamped. You can stay for up to 90 days. If you’re a citizen of the EU, you can enter Romania with only an ID card — but you will have to show it at border crossings.
Formalities are straightforward at both the airport in Bucharest and at land borders. (The remote Moldovan border is…interesting, but that’s more Moldova’s fault than Romania’s.) If crossing by land, be aware that customs authorities often pay close attention to tobacco products due to rampant smuggling between Romania, Moldova and Ukraine. Bringing in hand-rolled cigarettes is basically asking for your luggage to get searched.
Accommodation in Romania
Romanian accommodation is good-value and inexpensive. You can stay at backpacker hostels, campgrounds, family-owned guesthouses or international hotel chains for a fraction of what you’d pay in Western Europe.
Hostels in Romania are very friendly and a great place to meet other travelers if you’re backpacking independently. You’ll find the biggest concentration in Bucharest and throughout Transylvania, but the best-value and most memorable hostels are in the north, way off the beaten path.
Some hostels are big, international-standard operations. But just as often you’ll be in a dorm room in an extension of someone’s apartment or house — more like a homestay than a hostel. Most have kitchens for guests to use (although you may have to share with the owner’s family). They’re invariably clean and comfortable, with plenty of common space reserved for guests. But they don’t always have 24-hour staff — when booking, pay close attention to the check-in rules and take note if you need to inform them of your arrival time in advance.
Prices start around 40 lei for a dorm bed. Since so few people go backpacking in Romania, you’ll often have a dorm to yourself!
If you venture to off the beaten path places in Romania, or if you don’t want to stay in dorms, you’ll often rely on small guesthouses. Prices start around 130 lei for a private room. You’ll frequently encounter language barriers at these types of places, which mostly cater to domestic tourists.
Food in Romania
Romanian food is nothing to write home about, but it’ll fill you up for a reasonable price.
Much of the Romanian diet consists of typical Central European comfort food. Meat, potatoes, meat-and-potato stews, cabbage, and — more surprisingly — polenta are the staples. In the Danube Delta area fresh fish is on every menu. The typical meat is pork, but you’ll find chicken and tripe as well.
Vegetarians can occasionally find grilled or roasted veggies or vegetable stew, but more often you’ll be relegated to ordering off the salad menu. Vegetarianism as a concept is not widely understood and difficult to explain without language skills.
Romania has plenty of cheap eats. The most common is the donor kebab, an import from Turkey via Germany that bears more of a resemblance to its Turkish cousins than the German variation. You’ll also find pretzels and donuts for sale from street vendors.
Self-caterers will have good luck shopping at the markets, butchers and bakeries that you’ll find in even the smallest towns. For less than $1 USD a day, you can assemble a bounty of vegetables to prepare and serve with fresh-baked bread.This is a huge help for keeping your backpacking Romania budget low. Supermarkets carry the usual pantry products but many are not well-stocked. (I once went on a day-long search for hummus — with no luck.)
Drinks in Romania
Cafe culture is strong in the southern cities, but pretty much nonexistent north of Cluj Napoca. There’s nothing better than sitting in the heart of one of Romania’s medieval cities at an outdoor cafe with a good cappuccino. It provides some of the most authentic people-watching you’ll find in Europe. Most cafes have proper espresso machines. Bucharest in particular has a growing third-wave coffee culture, including a number of cafes geared toward digital nomads.
However, caffeine isn’t really the Romanian drug of choice. Alcohol is much more popular and plentiful. The liquor of choice is called țuică. It’s a fruit brandy similar to raki, uzo, amoro, etc. If you feel so inclined while travelling around Romania, you can buy home brews from giant tin vats at most markets. It’s nasty stuff, but sharing a flask of it is a fast way to make local friends.
Wine is widely available in Romania. It’s produced domestically in five different regions and it’s surprisingly good. Imported Moldovan wine is also popular.
Beer is the weakest link in Romania’s alcoholic beverages. The country produces a few national brews and has a low-key craft beer scene. Most beers are on the light side. They’re mostly fine but not anything special.
Activities you can do while backpacking Romania
Even on a tight budget, you’re spoiled for choice with activities while backpacking Romania. History, culture, nature, beaches, and epic road trips — this country has it all.
Bucharest is the best place to get acquainted with recent Romanian history. Take the free walking tour to learn all about the real-life “Dracula,” Nicolae Ceauşescu’s dictatorship, its eventual collapse, and the messy rebuilding of the country’s politics post-revolution. The city also has a fantastic modern art museum and architectural gems ranging from the massive Soviet-style Parliament building to a handful of painted churches. Brașov, Bran, Sigisoara, and Sighetu Marmaţiei also have great museums.
Most people backpacking Romania come to see Transylvania, the mythical home of vampires. Brașov is a good base for exploring the region — it’s an attractive and friendly city with all the modern amenities. Nearby, you can visit Dracula’s castle in Bran. The “Transylvanian Triangle” also includes Sibiu and Sigisoara. The best things to do in Transylvania are admire the architecture and go to the museums.
But don’t miss out on the incredible natural attractions nearby. You can hike and drive spectacular mountain passes just outside the major Transylvanian towns. The Transfăgărăşan road is one of the country’s best drives, and Piatra Craiului National Park has some of the best hiking in the region (access it from Zărnesţi).
Northern Romania is a different world entirely — nowhere more so than the Maramureș. This region still feels gloriously untouched by 21st-century urban life. It’s the kind of place where you can visit a “livestock market” to see people haggle over cows and goats, hitchhike your way to a cemetery filled with hand-painted tombstones, and see some of Europe’s finest wooden churches. You are way off the beaten track here, so expect travel to be slow and difficult, with no English spoken. That being said, it’s the most rewarding place to go backpacking in Romania.
A less-challenging side of the north is Southern Bucovina, where you can visit painted monasteries to get a glimpse of the Romania of centuries ago.
The Danube Delta is a wildlife hotspot. Bird-watchers in particular will appreciate boat trips through the small channels and into the marshland. Some of Romania’s best beaches are the river beaches in this area as well.
Transportation in Romania
You’ll have no trouble getting around on a budget when you backpack Romania if you stick to the main tourist focal points in the south. Head north of Cluj Napoca and having your own wheels will save you tons of time and stress.
In southern Romania, the best way to get around is by train. There are several classes — Regio, Inter Regio and Inter City. Inter City trains are expensive and while they’re fast, the value for money isn’t great. Inter Regio provides a fair balance of speed and price. Regio trains can be intolerably slow, but they’re dirt-cheap.
Prices are about $1 an hour for Regio trains and about $1.50 an hour for Inter Regio. Discounts are available for students, although some ticket agents will only apply them to Romanian students. You can usually buy tickets at the station right before leaving. Trains are comfortable and easy to navigate. In the north, they may not leave on time and they may be hours slower than the schedule says.
Across the North, an unreliable network of buses and minibuses is the dominant form of transportation. They’re uncomfortable, but very cheap.
The biggest challenge is very, very little information exists about these routes. You’ll usually have to ask several locals before getting an answer along the lines of, “the bus leaves from around the corner from the gas station sometime between 8 and 9:30 am and it might drop you off in a parking lot 10 km outside the town you’re trying to get to, but I’m not really sure.”
Some remote parts of the Maramureș are only accessible by hitchhiking. This is the most common form of transport for locals and is considered safe. Ask locals where to pick up a ride from and always offer the driver the comparable bus fare. Don’t hitch when you could take a bus or train instead.
Due to the challenges of getting around the Maramureș and Southern Bucovina, many people on Romania backpacking trips rent a car or take a tour to cover the sights outside urban centers. This is certainly convenient, but it’ll cost you 10 times what the buses cost. Irene’s Hostel in Suceava is the best place to ask about backpacker-oriented tours.
Safety when backpacking Romania
People from across Western Europe — and even many Romanians — will attempt to convince you Romania is dangerous. So is Romania safe to visit? My answer is resoundingly YES — most of the bad things you hear are largely thinly-veiled racism against the Roma people (derogatorily referred to as “gypsies” in much of Europe). So in this section I’m going to cover some of the myths and realities about whether it’s safe to travel to Romania.
First, a few actual risks:
The two biggest risks you’ll face in Romania aren’t from people at all — but from stray dogs and bears.
Stray dogs are a big problem throughout the country, but particularly in Bucharest, where they can be very aggressive. Keep your distance. If one approaches you, pick up a rock and pretend to throw it. If you do get bitten, get a rabies shot as soon as possible.
When hiking in remote areas, watch out for bears. The hills around Brasov are notorious for having one of the largest per-acre bear populations in Europe. Don’t hike at dusk or dawn and if you do run into a bear, give it a wide berth. Even nature trails in the immediate vicinity of cities are risky.
Finally, while hitchhiking is a common and often necessary way to get around northern Romania, there’s always a small chance that it will put you in a bad situation. To mitigate the risk, hitch like the locals do — find out where they go for rides, wait in line with them, and share cars with them. Solo female travelers should insist on paying their drivers to avoid any misunderstandings about other ways they might “pay” their drivers.
Now, to dispel some rumors:
Romania has a large Roma population. White Europeans have a lot of racial stereotypes about the Roma. So you’ll hear that backpacking Romania is very dangerous — even from white Romanians! — because the “gypsies” will rob you blind or try to hurt you.
This is just racism. The reality is that many Roma live in extreme poverty, are denied access to social services, are constantly threatened with deportation, and are arrested at much higher rates than White Europeans. While many Roma have overcome these barriers and work in White-dominated spheres of Romanian life, a lack of opportunity and structural racism has forced a disproportionate number of Roma onto the streets.
While you’ll see Roma beggers in most places in Romania, remember that that isn’t the whole story. It’s worth trying to actually connect with Roma people in a non-transactional way. If you meet someone with Roma heritage who is willing to talk with you about their life — which you most likely will — ask questions and make a genuine attempt to learn.
Be wary of Romanians — both Roma and White — who attempt to take advantage of your interest in Roma culture. At some point when you’re backpacking Romania you’ll inevitably be invited to a “Roma camp.” Chances are good that there is no camp, and the scammer will simply bring you out to the middle of nowhere and extort a massive sum of money to take you back. You can easily avoid this scam simply by treating Roma people you meet like human beings, not tourist curiosities.
Romania travel advice for women alone
Backpacking Romania presents no issues whatsoever for women alone. It’s one of the lowest-hassle countries in Europe for solo female travelers. That’s why it made my list of best places to travel for solo women. In fact, one of the biggest joys of traveling in Romania is how friendly and open the locals are.
If you stick to traveling in southern Romania, you’ll meet plenty of other travelers. Cluj Napoca, Sibiu, and Bucharest are good bases to form backpacking groups. Cluj Napoca also has a very active CouchSurfing scene. Even if you don’t use it for accommodation, consider looking for meetups on the website.
The main difficulties of solo backpacking Romania — whether you’re a man or a woman — come from navigating the Maramureș independently. While locals are extremely generous in their offers to help, the language barrier can be very isolating. It is not a good place for first-time solo travel due to the really dodgy transport infrastructure and the constant possibility of being stranded somewhere.
In fact, in nearly ten years of extensive solo travel on tight budgets all over the world, my single scariest experience was trying get from the Maramureș to Suceava on my own. My bus dropped me off in a different town than the driver had promised, in a parking lot behind an auto repair shop, and it took me almost two hours to find someone who spoke English well enough to communicate with me about what town I was in. Despite the challenges, the Maramureș remains my favorite part of Europe, but if I hadn’t been such a confident solo traveler it could have been dangerous for me to be there with no money and no car.
If you plan to explore the Maramureș by hitchhiking, try to share rides with local women — the drivers will almost always be men. And if traveling in warm months on a tight budget, taking a tent would be a good assurance against being stranded.
More mundanely, Romanian women don’t wear shorts, so you’ll stick out if you do. In rural areas, dress is much more conservative, but no one seems to care if you have shoulders or knees showing.
Always keep a scarf in your daypack in case a church wants you to cover your shoulders or head.
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