Transylvania is a land of mystery and intrigue, a true to life fairytale that the Romanian government encourage to attract tourists. Truth and fiction interweave in a marketing masterpiece designed to appeal to those in search of Halloween horrors, the paranormal and dark tourism. Transylvania has a rich and fanciful legacy of storytelling that dates back to Medieval times. Fantastical myths abound of fairies, nymphs and princesses. Bloodthirsty Strigoi, predatory ghouls, and werewolves add to the intrigue. On this one-day self-drive tour of 3 of Transylvania’s magical castles you may encounter them all!!
Introducing 3 of Transylvania’s magical castles
From romantic Rapunzel style towers and glittering ballrooms to torture and the macabre. Prepare to be mesmerised by your first sight of dramatic Bran castle floating above the whimsical fairytale town of the same name. Bloodcurdling stories of Dracula, vampires and Vlad Tepes attract those in search of horror. By contrast, Peles and Pelismor Castles transport visitors to a more gentile era of romance and glamour. The palatial exteriors are more reminiscent of Jane Austen scenes than Dracula. Transylvania’s storytelling encompasses nightmares and fairytales within its pages and you will witness them all in Transylvania’s magical castles.
Before we get into the joys of each castle however, let’s take a trip into the storybooks. After all, over 2 million visitors flocked to the Carpathians in 2019, many attracted by its myths and legends. It is important however to distinguish between historic reality and the marketing ingenuity of Romanians keep to enhance the hypnotising allure of the region.
Myths and legends
In medieval times, Transylvania was a melting pot of transcient populations. They brought with them extragavant tales now embedded in modern folklore. One of these is the story of evil spirits called strigoi. These bloodthirsty creatures possess incredible abilities and gain power by feasting on the blood of their victims. Remind you of anyone?
Vlad Tepes (not a myth)
Vlad Tepes was the barbaric ruler of Wallachia in the 15th Century and name you will see frequently in Transylvania. The ruler was a bloodthirsty, ruthless despot, renowned for his delight in impaling his enemies in a gruesome fashion. He was often known as Vlad Dracul!! Mmm, a theme seems to be developing…
Bram Stoker appears to have borrowed from both Romanian folklore and history when he created the fictional character of Dracula. Dracula’s thirst for blood is reminiscent of the mythical strigoi whilst the character’s name may have been stolen from Vlad himself. It is understandable therefore that the Romanian government have capitalised on this blend of truth and fiction. After all, Dracula is a Transylvanian count who lives in a castle perched high above a valley and flowing river. As Bran Castle is the only castle in Transylvania that fits this description, it is also known as Dracula’s castle.
Many tourists that travel to Romania in search of the mythical and mysterious specifically come to see this castle.
A brief recent history of Bran castle
Although the castle has known its share of bloodshed and violence, in more recent times its history is more regal. Bequeathed to Queen Maria of Romania in 1920, the castle became a much loved royal residence. Landscapers transformed the area around the castle into an English park with decorative ponds and the interiors were made comfortable and cosy.
The castle was hugely ahead of its time. It housed a 57 metre deep well that provided water from nearby natural springs and in the 1930s workers installed an hydro electric power plant and elevator. The former provided power to light the castle whilst the elevator allowed easy access from the castle to the ornamental park below. It has now been converted into the Time Tunnel attraction.
In 1938 when Queen Maria died, the castle was inherited by Princess Ileana. Her patronage was short-lived however as she was forced into exile by the communists who confiscated the castle in 1948. Her family ultimately settled in the United States but it was only in 2009 that the castle’s ownership was restored to her legal heirs.
These days the castle’s notoriety is more myth and legend than reality. However, it is truly a fascinating destination in which you can begin to comprehend the legends and folklore of the Transylvanian region.
As we climb the winding road into the Carpathian mountains, a snowstorm makes visibility limited. Towering conifers and snow clad woodland simply add to the drama of our entry to Bran village. We inch along sludgy roads peering into the forest for hints of the werewolves and other mythical creatures that allegedly inhabit these lands. We round a corner and catch our first sight of magnificent Bran castle. This huge Gothic masterpiece clings to a steep cliff jutting imperiously above the town. Mist swirls above the turrets and snow glitters on the rocky escarpments. The castle seems to hover above the hamlet below, an intimidating monument to subdue hostile invaders. It is certainly not hard to imagine medieval horror stories as you gaze up at this ominous fortress, erected as a defence against the Ottoman empire by Hungarian King Louis The Great in 1388.
Note, you might want to opt for a 4WD in April if you plan to head into the mountains as weather conditions deteriorate fast. We hired our car through Rental Cars who search the entire rental market for the best deal. We paid less than £30 for 2 days car hire.
Interior of Bran Castle
Inside however it is a whole different story. That austere exterior encloses warm, lovingly decorated royal chambers. It is strangely cosy for a gothic castle so vast. Tapestries add warmth to sturdy wooden benches and fires crackle in oversized hearths. The fire’s warm embers seem a world away from some of the horrors depicted in the signs around the castle referring to life in Medieval times. It certainly seems more fitting a home to Princesses than ghouls and vampires.
As you stroll through the inner courtyards and feast your eyes upon the little nooks and crannies it is not difficult to imagine courtesans wooing young ladies, or royal children playing hide and seek. The upper terrace would be a fantastic place to host evening drinks receptions in summer with its wonderful views of the surrounding mountains.
Multi-media displays in Bran Castle
On the 4th floor, there is an excellent interactive display which introduces visitors to a plethora of local myths and legends focussed on the macabre. Displays reference an array of ghoulish characters including the Grim Reaper, ghosts, Strigoi, Sorcerers and werewolves. These Romanian mythical figures all symbolise evils and fears that have amplified through the ages. You may reignite childhood fears as you visit cleverly constructed displays that feed our imaginations with fuel for nightmares. Imagine the castle at night, shrouded in darkness, and it isn’t a stretch to visualise these mythical beings rising from the ashes of the ages to wreak havoc on modern day believers.
The tour of the castle weaves between internal chambers, the inner courtyard and outdoor terraces and is utterly captivating. Eventually it pops out in the base of the inner courtyard and the entrance to the Time Tunnel.
The Time Tunnel is mildly entertaining but far from the highlight of our visit. However, if you visit in winter, it is worth the extra 20 lei to avoid the treacherous cobbles that descend from the castle. As you descend the old well shaft, multi-media images depict scenes through the ages.
You exit into a dimly lit tunnel. Multi-media displays line the walls and tell stories of the castle through the years. Finally visitors reach an interactive display where they can strike a pose. The resulting photo finds guests transported back in time to party with Dracula and other medieval guests. Purchase your photo in the gift shop on the way out.
Cost: 20 Lei or around £4
Bran castle tickets
We booked our Skip the Line tickets directly on the Bran castle website. They cost 45 Lei (9 euros) as we had our own transport. You can also book these through third party providers, such as Get Your Guide where you can book combo packages. The skip the line tickets allow you to avoid the ticket office queue but not any queues to enter the castle. Note, there should be a member of staff by the entrance to the castle who can scan your QR codes as the code does not work in the turnstiles.
If you would like to take a themed Halloween tour you can book these directly via Get Your Guide. A three day tour costs £495 a person and includes 2 Halloween parties. On the first night, you celebrate in Sighisoara’s Medieval Citadel (Dracula’s birth place). The next night you will party the night away at Bran Castle (if you are brave enough to venture inside afterdark). If you do not fancy the 3 day tour, don your best Halloween outfit and simply opt for the Halloween party at Bran castle. It includes transfers from Brasov for £147 per person.
If you need further persuasion, just check out this short video of the castle in winter. I love a castle but Bran Castle stole my heart and hopefully this video will show you why. Who could imagine a castle more fitting for a children’s storybook?
Peles and Pelisor Castle
Peles castle and Pelisor Castles are a world away from Bran in architectural style. They resemble more an Hapsburg grand palace then a draughty castle with medieval fortifications. Their German neo-renaissance exterior resembles a swiss chalet and inside the castles reflects Queen Maria’s love of unusual art. Instead of displays dedicated to bloodthirst and mythical beasts, these castles offer access to several classical collections of purses, ceramic clocks, silver works and glassware. Check the website to see opening times and access to different collections
Costs: admission prices to Peles castle are:
- 50 lei for adults
- 25 lei for seniors
- and 12.5 lei for children and students.
Costs: Entry to Pelisor castle costs:
- 30 lei for adults
- 15 lei for seniors
- and 7.5 lei for children and students.
Even if you do not wish to enter the museums it is still worth a visit. There are some enchanting walks through the woodland surrounding the castles and beautiful views of the castles and nearby mountains. The romantic elegant gardens and beautiful terraces and courtyards are truly stunning.
Getting to Bran
The small hamlet of Bran is just 23 km south of Brasov in the heart of Transylvania so it is best to base yourself in Brasov which is less than 30 minutes away. Check out this post for details of how to reach Brasov from the UK. The nearest airports are Sibiu or Bucharest but the best way to check out flight options is to input ‘United Kingdom’ in the from box below and then ‘Romania’ in the destination field. This will bring up all your options so you can decide which best suits your needs.
If you do not want to hire a car, you can opt for a tour of all three castles. Alternatively, you can just jump on a bus to Bran from Brasov which takes about 50 minutes. Buses run every hour and cost around €1 to €2. You can find timetables on Rome 2 Rio.
Where to stay
Brasov is a delightful town near Bran and the ski and hiking resort of Poiana Brasov. It offers huge arrange of accommodation from budget to luxury. If you want to be in the heart of the action, you could check out one of these options in the Old Town.
- Safrano Palace on the main square just minutes from restaurants and bars. Rooms start from £120 in May
- Barrique Chambers offers mountain views and roll top baths in its modern rooms. Rooms cost circa £100 in May.
- The Hotel Aro Palace is on the edge of the old town and has a spa and fitness centre. Rooms cost around £200 in May.
You can also check out hotels and pensions on Trip Advisor.
The map below shows you the locations of the castles and the driving times. Total driving time for this journey is around 2.5 hours but much depends on the traffic and weather. The traffic can be horrific and the weather conditions can change quickly as we discovered. One day we were sat in Brasov in the sun enjoying beers in 21° and the next day it was 0° and snowing. For context, we visited in mid April.
If you elect to follow the route to or from Bucharest you will need to adjust your times. From Sinaia to Bucharest is around 1.75 hours.
What do you think?
Have you visited any of Transylvania’s magical castles? If so, which was your favourite and what tips do you have for other visitors? Feel free to share in the comments.