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Romanian Holiday: The Stories Behind the Great Castles of Romania

From ancient fortresses swirling with legends to more recent masterpieces well worth the trip, picking the best castle to see can be one of the most difficult parts of planning a trip to Romania. Romania is a favorite for castle-hunters and a no-brainer for any travelers setting their sights on Eastern Europe. With plenty of direct flights from Central Europe, low accommodation costs, and sites for both adventure and relaxation, glimpsing the best castles is a great way to launch a memorable trip to the intriguing lands of Romania.

Corvin Castle

Corvin Castle

With a moat surrounding an old stone structure peaked with sky-reaching red turrets, the Goth-Renaissance styled Corvin Castle (also known as Hunyadi Caslte) looks like it was pulled directly from the storybooks. But under the picturesque exterior, the inside walls of Corvin tell of a darker tale, as it is widely believed it was one of the places Vlad III of Wallachia was imprisoned as the legends of his cruelty were swelling around Romania.
Outside of its allegedly infamous connection with Vlad the Impaler, Corvin showcases overlapping eras in Romania’s fascinating history. Constructed right on top of the ruins of a fortress from at least the 14th century, the current structure was built in the 15th century by John Hunyadi and designed to be a major symbol of Hungarian military might. Complete with Transylvanian engineering features like a double wall to go with formidable towers looking down over the rich, green countryside, Corvin projected enough strength to avoid many significant military skirmishes, though it was well-known for holding prisoners in three of its main towers.
After dominating the landscape for centuries, the castle received a major facelift in the 1600s, blending the Gothic roots with Renaissance architecture and engineering to give the castle its iconic look. It was still a significant spot of military importance at this point in its history, as two new defense towers were assembled in addition to the immense palace erected on the interior. Although it did suffer from neglect for a couple of centuries afterwards, Corvin Castle reemerged in the 19th century following a complete restoration that solidified its status as a national landmark.

Peles Castle

Peles Castle

Anyone who makes it to Corvin also might want to take a look at Peles Castle, a magnificent 19th-century palace about two hours from Deva. Built for the Romanian royal family under King Carol I, Peles is a visually stunning collaboration of German and Italian engineering particularly well-known for the vivid autumn colors of the surrounding countryside. Like with Corvin, Peles Castle is also about a six or seven hour drive from Budapest, Hungary.

Bran Castle

You don’t have to actually believe Count Dracula once lurked from the battlements to feel a foreboding chill known to linger in the air around Bran Castle, the most famous castle in Romania and one that regularly makes top 10 lists for all of Europe. Built to replace a fortress once held by the Teutonic Knights, Bran Castle’s red roof has been a landmark near the Wallachia-Transylvania border since it was constructed in the 14th century. While Corvin also has some mythical ties to Vlad, Bran Castle is the one regularly marketed as “Dracula Castle” to tap into the dark and mysterious legends that have arisen around the fortress.

Bran Castle

Though horror writer Bram Stoker never actually traveled to Romania, Bran Castle’s position high up on a hill above the neighboring region does seem to loosely match Stoker’s description of his classic story. Tall tales about a vampire that once lived there have also emerged over the generations, building a general sense of wonder in addition to the undeniable beauty of its construction. It was also a crucial strategic military base for the area, serving as the region’s chief defense against Ottoman-Turkish invaders as well as a semi-formal customs station.
But even if a little poetic license is required to attach the inspiration for Dracula to Bran Castle, there is still plenty of mystique that continues to intrigue visitors. While the restored red roof exterior gives the castle a timeless look, inside the walls visitors can inspect secret passageways and courtyards that showcase its renovated Gothic architecture. The fingerprints of Queen Mary of Romania are also all over the restoration, as she took over the property in the early 20th century and helped fully transform its former glory with a modern twist. Today, visitors have a little fun by combining real history and legend while perusing one of the premier castles in Eastern Europe.

Rasnov Citadel

Built on a clearing atop dramatic cliffs in the Carpathian Mountains, Rasnov Citadel was a matter of life and death for area occupants dating back to at least the 13th century, providing important shelter that made the region habitable. When the Tatars raided the region in 1335, Rasnov’s natural defense proved to be too difficult for the invaders to conquer, leaving the citadel as one of the only military strongholds in the region not to be overrun. A close-knit society developed within the fortress’ walls as it became a more permanent dwelling for the locals, with much of the interior architecture reflecting a simple peasant life much more than an upper-class lifestyle.

View from Rasnov

Even though Rasnov was regarded as extremely difficult to successfully siege, it certainly had no shortage of challenges. The Citadel held for centuries before it finally cracked, partly because it also had a secret passageway that allowed the defenders to bring in fresh water during sieges. Eventually, it was the Ottoman army that caught on, forcing the first and only surrender of the castle in 1612. After the castle came back into local control not long after, legend has it that two Turkish prisoners were forced to dig a well over the course of nearly two decades, designed so inhabitants never had to leave the walls for water.
More recent history also contains tumultuous periods, including a nearly disastrous fire and an earthquake that both threatened to topple the medieval fortress. 800 years after it was founded by the Teutonic Knights, Rasnov Citadel has a become a major Romanian destination thanks to its stunning views of the Carpathian Mountains and the town of Rosnov, and for the cozy village hidden behind the castle walls.

Travel options

One of the reasons that Bran Castle is so popular is because it’s less than three hours by car from Bucharest, the capital and most populous city in Romania. It’s also very easy to take a train to Brasov before catching a short bus ride right to the castle, making it possible to experience Bran Castle as a day trip or an extended stay. You can also do the same with Rasnov Citadel, another place easily linked by bus through Brasov.
The more difficult castle to get to is Corvin, although it’s still easily accessible by car, train, and bus. By car, it’s about a five-hour drive northwest from Bucharest, with most visitors settling in for the night in either Hunedoara or Deva. Though the castle is technically part of Hunedoara, there are more accommodations in Deva to go with more to offer outside of the castle, which is why many consider it worth the extra 15 minutes on a bus.
Take a romanian holiday and visit one, or all, of these stunning historic castles!