Romania is an often overlooked and mostly undiscovered destination when it comes to hiking, outdoor adventures and by those seeking out natural beauty. A pity given that two-thirds of the Carpathian Mountains, the 3rd longest in Europe, take up 45% of Romania’s land surface, reaching altitudes as high as 2,544m at Omu Peak.
Also known as Transylvania’s Alps, Romania’s mountains are wild and completely uninhabited in some parts such as Fagaras, Retezat and Parang where they host a large variety of vegetation and animals. Often dubbed Europe’s last wilderness reserve, the mountains have been featured in two mesmerising documentaries. Outdoor adventure fans will be thrilled to know much awaits them here, some of which are highlighted below to give you an idea of what Romania’s nature has to offer.
1. Hiking in the Carpathian Mountains
The Carpathian Mountains attract all types of tourists thanks to their wild natural beauty, stunning scenery, variety of landscapes and rich wilderness. For hiking enthusiasts, the peaks have challenging, well-maintained, and captivating hiking trails that suit all ages and abilities and all levels of hikers. Fagaras Mountains stand out as one of the best hiking destinations in the Carpathian Mountains. They have plenty of well-marked trails, making them easy to explore, even for novice hikers. You can arrive here from Sibiu or Brasov, both small and beautiful cities approximately 70 kilometres away.
The famous Transfagarasan Road is the most accessible point of access and is generally open between June and September, providing access to the main areas by car. Balea Glacier Lake is a landmark and one of the natural Romanian wonders at 2,034m altitude. You will find a waterfall on the right bank of the river Balea, close to the trails, creating a superb backdrop for hiking and exploring. Moldoveanu Peak (the highest peak at 2,544 m) and Podragu Lake (the deepest glacial lake) are other landmarks.
As you’ll see, hiking in these places will require some alertness, as you’ll have to watch out for bears and other typical dangers in the mountains. But this aspect will make the experience more authentic and remarkable. Other notable and favourite hiking destinations are the impressive Piatra Craiului Mountains with their 24 km long limestone ridge, Bucegi Mountains famous for their Sphinx and Apuseni Mountains where traditional life is still very well preserved.
2. Wildlife watching
Romania has several unique places perfect for wildlife watching, with the Danube Delta and Bucegi Mountains topping the list. The Romanian Danube Delta is one of Europe’s largest, wildest, and best-preserved deltas, coming second only to the Volga in size. Proclaimed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, it is the third-highest biodiversity location worldwide. The small town of Tulcea is the entry point into the delta and from where boat trips depart. It encompasses 2,200 square miles of canals, rivers, reed islands, marshes, and lakes. Locals and tourists are drawn to these places as they can spot species on the brink of extinction, spend several days exploring the stunning sights, and engage in different activities such as fishing, kayaking, trying local fish recipes, biking, and several others.
Over 300 bird species, 45 freshwater fish species, 54 species of mammals, 11 species of reptiles, and ten species of amphibians find a home in the biodiversity surrounding the river. The vegetation is just as abundant, with over 1,800 species of plants and trees. Retezat National Park in the Carpathian Mountains is another incredible place for wildlife enthusiasts. It provides a suitable habitat for over 120 bird species, such as brown bears, wild boar, wolves, wildcats, red and roe deer, chamois, fox, and even lynx.
The closest city to the park is Deva in Hunedoara County, where you can find shuttle buses offering rides to the park. Corvin Castle, one of the famous Romanian castles, is a popular tourist attraction in Romania and approximately 70 kilometres away. Perched up on a rocky ledge, this fortress impresses with its historical significance and stunning architecture.
3. Skiing and snowboarding
Poiana Brasov is generally recognised as the most popular and best ski resort in Romania. It has improved over the years to offer artificial snow when the weather conditions are unfavourable for winter sports, new cable car facilities, and new slopes and routes. Here, you’ll find 13.7 kilometres of slopes spread across 24 pitches and 5 kilometres of ski and snowboard routes available for all skill levels. The resort’s offerings draw both locals and national and international tourists to Poiana Brasov, providing slopes that suit both inexperienced and seasoned ski adepts, ranging in difficulty from low to medium to the most challenging.
Poiana Brasov is situated 13 kilometres from Brasov, a beautiful historical city filled with natural attractions and monuments, from where you can find public transportation or trains to the resort. Bucegi Mountains are a breathtaking natural attraction, abundant in hiking trails and vistas where you can visit the Babele and Sphinx rock formations. Sinaia is another sought-after destination, offering tourists a network of approximately 5 kilometres of ski routes and 19.7 slopes, especially suitable for downhill skiing. The resort caters to skiers of all skill levels, suiting both inexperienced and seasoned skiers alike.
Tourists are drawn to the family appeal of the location and the après-ski opportunities, such as relaxing in thermal spas, trying the local cuisine in the numerous restaurants, or unwinding in chalets.
Romania has an extensive 8,355 cave system which makes it the second most impressive in Europe.
Most of these are small though (at only 50-100m) and many are not suitable for regular tourists. But for caving – that’s another story! Of the 200-plus impressive caves worth exploring, most are in the Western Carpathian mountains, close to Cluj-Napoca and Oradea. One of the most famous caves in Romania is Scarisoara Cave, in the Apuseni Natural Park. It’s also one of the largest ice caves in the country and Europe. It’s known for its impressive ice block that doesn’t melt throughout the year and a history that stems back 3000 years. At 105m in depth and 720m in length, the cave is divided into five areas where you can visit the icy chambers with stalactite formations, including ‘the Church’ which has over 100 stalagmites.
The contrast between the cave formation and the frozen surface creates a surreal atmosphere and a photogenic setting. Abrud, in the north-western part of Alba County, is the closest city to Scarisoara Cave, from where you can start your journey to the destination and enjoy the landscape of the Apuseni Mountains. Pestera Muierilor, also known as “The Women’s Cave,” is another superb place for caving. The closest city to the cave is Gorj, which is around 60 kilometres away and takes one hour to reach by car. You can find cave bear remains and a human skull dating back thousands of years ago, which can send shivers down your spine. It is full of stalactites, stalagmites, and other ice formations, as well as artefacts casting light on the prehistoric human activity around the area.
Apuseni Mountain is ideal for those looking for the adventurous atmosphere and thrilling rush that camping in the mountains provides. You can find numerous suitable spots here to lay your tent and find campsites surrounded by natural beauty that provide all sorts of facilities. During the day, you can visit the 200 caves I mentioned before, go hiking, try your luck on a via ferrata course, or hang out with the locals and see what rural life in the mountains is like. Unlike the other mountains in Romania, these parts are known to have fewer sightings of brown bears and large mammals, which makes it safe for camping. If you want to wake up to the sound of the waves, you can find numerous camping spots along the extensive Romanian Black Sea coast.
Both locals and tourists love camping in arranged spaces with facilities or setting up their own camping spots in areas that permit this activity. The Black Sea coast, on the other hand, is an excellent place for those who love being close to the beach and sea. The most popular tourist resorts for camping, such as 2 Mai and Vama Veche, are a haven for camping and suitable for all types of tourists. The small village of Corbu on the other hand is known for its wild beaches and areas, so if you choose to set up base here you must be well prepared. Constanta is the closest city where you can find different types of transport and supplies.
6. Open-water swimming
Romania is filled with swimming-friendly lakes, rivers and thermal baths that gather all sorts of tourists to enjoy health benefits, relaxation opportunities, cultural activities and more. Lake Techirghiol, the largest Salt Lake in the country, is located close to the Black Sea and is a unique ecosystem that gathers tourists from all over. The place attracts visitors thanks to the healing properties of its mud and water rich in minerals and salt. People like to do ‘mud baths’ which have proven therapeutic benefits for joint problems and skin conditions. Plus, you’re covered here if you’re not a professional swimmer but want to enjoy floating on the water’s surface. The high salinity content keeps you afloat without needing a life jacket. The rivers of Buzau and Mures are particularly known for white-water rafting. On certain sections and during Spring or late Autumn these rivers become a hotspot for those seeking adrenaline and a team-building adventure.
As the country is still largely undiscovered and relatively affordable, it’s a great choice for your next holiday. The best time to visit is April – October and if you’re based in Europe make sure to check low-cost carriers as there are lots of flights to smaller airports in the country closer to the mountains.
Read my post – 24 Hours in Romania’s Capital, Bucharest.
** Words and advice shared by Alex Tomescu of RomanianFriend.
** Pics sourced.