Romania: the heart of mystery

Created from the merging of the kingdoms of Wallachia, Moldavia, and later Transylvania, Romania has spent much of its life under other civilizations’ control from the Romans to the Ottoman Turks to the Soviet era communists. Its centralized location on the Balkan Peninsula and comprising some of the west coast of the Black Sea has made it a way point for all of Europe. In the past couple of decades the Romanian people have enjoyed independence, and as a fledgling member of the European Union, this country has begun to thrive. This places Romania in a unique point in its history: an inexpensive country with a rich cultural heritage that is just beginning to rebound from centuries of oppression. Whether you hunt for the historical Dracula in the mountainous forests of Transylvania or you look for relaxation on the shores of the Black Sea, a vacation to Romania will have something for everyone.


Getting in, out, and about


Romania is one of the newest parties to the Schengen Agreement. Although the country has not fully implemented the agreement, for the most part US travelers can treat Romania as a Schengen country. You only need a valid US passport to enter Romania, although it must remain valid for at least 90 days beyond your scheduled departure from the Schengen area. You can stay in Romania for up to 90 days within a 6 month period, much as it is with other Schengen countries. Unlike many countries in the Schengen area, however, US travelers can work in Romania during their 90 day stay.


Romania recognizes dual citizenship, so if you are a US citizen originally from Romania, you may be subject to additional Romanian laws and requirements that can make it difficult to leave the country once you have finished your vacation. Before you travel, consult with the nearest Romanian embassy or consulate for more information if this applies to you.


Romania’s health care system is underdeveloped according to US standards. Consequently, travelers should take precautions by not drinking the tap water or using ice cubes made from the tap water. The US Center for Disease Control also recommends that most travelers take a vaccination against Hepatitis A in addition to the common vaccinations, because it can be spread through contaminated food and water. Some travelers may want to consider taking additional vaccinations against Hepatitis B or rabies, but whether you need these or not will largely depend on what your vacation plans consist of. Consulting with your local physician to determine which, if any, vaccinations are best for you is advisable.


Romania is a rather large country geographically, the second largest in central Europe behind Poland. Consequently many of the sights and activities you can do in Romania will be spread out. It’s a gorgeous mountainous and heavily forested country, so taking slow trains or driving through the countryside can be quite rewarding. However, both the road and railway systems, while extensive, are not in the best shape. Taking trains throughout Romania can work well because nearly everywhere you want to go, there’s a train that can take you there. However, they are often slow and inconsistent in maintaining their schedules.


Travel through Romania via car can be a viable option, but there are several factors to consider. US travelers must have a valid driver’s license from their home state. This will remain valid for driving in Romania for up to 90 days, but if you want to drive legally beyond the initial 90 days, you will have to acquire an International Driver’s Permit before the 90 day period is up. All drivers and passengers must wear seat belts at all times, and you really want to observe this because Romanian drivers tend to drive both fast and recklessly. Furthermore, Romania practices a zero tolerance policy regarding drinking and driving. There is not legal blood alcohol limit, so that if you even have the smallest amount of alcohol in your system and you drive, you will be considered to be drunk driving. If you get in an accident in Romania, and someone is hurt, it’s vital that you stay on the scene. Even if you leave for the most noble of purposes, such as to get the police or other emergency services, you will be considered guilty of a hit and run.


Romania is ranked as one of the worst countries in the world in terms of road conditions. Many of the roads outside of the major cities are only two lanes wide, and roads in the mountains can get treacherous and icy without any warnings being posted. Inside the cities, particularly the capital Bucharest, traffic tends to be very thick, making travel by this means a slow going proposition. However, most cities in Romania have rather highly developed mass transit systems.


If you opt not to drive in Romania, your cheapest conventional option for travel from town to town would be the bus system. Another option is to fly on domestic airlines, which has the added advantage of being an exceptionally fast way to get around.


Romania is actually quite renowned for being a hitchhiking positive country and one of the best in the world for travelers looking to hitch a ride with cars and trucks already traveling the roadways. Hitchhiking is not usually dangerous in Romania, although you should always take precautions to ensure your own safety.


The traveler’s tongue


Romanian, the official language of Romania, is actually a romance language that’s related to Italian and Latin, although it has been heavily influenced by the surrounding Slavic languages and by Hungarian, German, and Turkish. Romanian is most closely related to Aromanian, which is a language spoken in parts of Macedonia and Greece, but lacks the Greek influence found in that language. You will also find people who speak Hungarian, German, Turkish, and Romany well represented in Romania.


The second most popular language in Romania, however, is English. It’s widely spoken throughout the country, with the exception of in the most rural areas. If you come across someone under the age of forty, chances are they will be somewhat fluent in English. Nevertheless, learning a few words and phrases in Romanian can not only be helpful when you find yourself in someplace out of the way, but it can also impress your hosts and make them more appreciative of you.


Money matters in Romania


The Romanian unit of currency is the leu (plural is lei). It comes in paper denominations of 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 200, 500, but the latter two are not all that common. The leu can also be divided into 100 bani, which are represented in coins of 1, 5, 10, and 50 denominations. You can change money using designated money changers, banks, or ATMs. There is also a thriving black market, but you should avoid this because often as not, this is a scam, and when it isn’t, the amount of savings you get from going this route is negligible. That said, exchange rates can vary. If you are able to, confirm the current official exchange rate at the Bank of Romania, and try to use only services that deviate by no more than 2% from the official exchange rate. Also, look for companies that charge 0% commission. A good rule of thumb for changing money is to avoid doing so in airports and train stations. These usually rely upon their convenient location for travelers, so that they can charge exorbitant prices.


Romania is a cash culture, so while you might be able to find individual businesses that accept major credit cards, this will be far from the norm. Even the most rural areas typically have ATMs available, so getting cash is usually far from difficult.


In Romania, tipping is a common practice. Wait-staff are paid in low wages, so they rely upon tips to survive. Tipping around 15% of the bill is appropriate. For taxi drivers, rounding up the fare is the usual practice. Hotel porters typically receive 2 lei per bag and hotel cleaning services typically receive 2-4 lei per day.


Romania is fairly inexpensive, although it is not as cheap a country as it was about a decade ago. Hostels in Bucharest, for example, range from $5 USD per person per night at the extreme low end to private hotel rooms at a budget hotel for less than $50 USD. Most hostels in the area average around $15 USD. For a three star hotel, you’re looking at an average of $60 to $70 USD per person per night.


Food prices also tend to be inexpensive, with a hamburger running around $3 to $4 USD, and a decent entrée at around $10 to $14 USD. If you are on a budget, stay in hostels or camp, use public transportation, shop at grocery stores, and limit your sightseeing to free and inexpensive activities, it’s possible to get by in Romania on under $50 USD per day.


Highlights of a vacation in Romania


Romania’s a country of pristine forests with mountains throughout, making it ideal for hiking and climbing in the summertime, when the temperature gets into the mid 80’s to mid 90’s F, and perfect for skiing and other winter sports in the winter. Here are some of the highlights of a trip to Romania:


  • Bucharest. The capital city of Romania was once dubbed “Little Paris.” It is now a hodgepodge of varying architectural styles from ancient churches to modern office buildings to the drab communist era block apartments. One adventure that’s unique to Bucharest is the Escape Rooms, a kind of game where you are locked in for an hour and have to figure out how to escape from an array of clues that have been left behind.
  • Bran Castle. This is that castle in the heart of Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains that is more famously known as Dracula’s Castle, even though the historical count, Vlad Tepes, reportedly never resided there. It’s located near the mountain resort town of Braşov, one of the most visited towns in Romania and a good launching point for all manner of alpine adventures.
  • Constanţa. Historically, this is the town where the Roman poet Ovid was exiled to by the emperor Augustus. Now, with it situated on the Black Sea, it’s the perfect place for summertime fun, and a popular vacation spot for European tourists. We should all be as lucky as Ovid.
  • Painted Monasteries. Romania is quite a religious country, with the Greek Orthodox faith dominating. The famous painted monasteries in the northeastern part of the country hearken back to a time when literacy was less prevalent. Monks painted their monasteries with Biblical scenes to educate the masses about their religion. A good starting point to begin touring the painted monasteries that dot the countryside is in the town of Suceava.
  • Danube Delta. Despite its long standing as an example of European poverty, Romania has focused its rebuilding efforts on environmental guardianship and sustainability, and nowhere is this more evident than at the delta of the Danube river along the country’s border with Ukraine. This area has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a great place to take a boat tour and discover the Romanian’s approach to ecology.


As with any country of its size, the attractions of Romania are too numerous to fully list here. Whether you travel for relaxation or adventure, Romania offers a menu of activities that are certain not to disappoint.