The first point of arrival for many visitors is the capital, Bucharest. While not an easy city to love – its wide nineteenth-century Parisian-style boulevards are choked with traffic, once-grand fin de siècle buildings crumbling and the suburbs dominated by grim apartment blocks – its cultural institutions, abundant greenery and lively Old Town nightlife reward patience. In recent years, the gastronomic scene has improved beyond recognition, while a wave of artisan coffee joints has revitalized the city’s café culture.
From the capital, most visitors make a beeline for the province of Transylvania to the north, setting for the country’s most thrilling scenery and home to its finest cities: the gateway is Braşov, whose medieval Old Town is a good introduction to the Saxon architecture of the region, which reaches its peak in the fortified town of Sibiu and the jagged skyline of Sighişoara, Romania’s most atmospherically sited town and the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler (Dracula).
North and west of here, the great Magyar cities of Târgu Mureş, Cluj and Oradea have retained a wealth of medieval architecture, as well as impressive Baroque and Secession buildings. In the southwest, near the Serbian border, is hugely enjoyable Timişoara, source of the 1989 revolution.
The best of Romania, though, is its countryside, and in particular the wonderful mountains. The wild Carpathians, forming the frontier between Transylvania and, to the east and south, Moldavia and Wallachia, shelter bears, stags, chamois and eagles. The Bucegi, Făgăraş and Retezat ranges and the Padiş plateau, meanwhile, offer some of the most spectacular hiking opportunities in Europe. The Black Sea coast is full of brash resorts, notably Mamaia, but it does have its charms, not least the old port of Constanţa.
Just north of here, the Danube Delta is set apart from the rest of the country; here life has hardly changed for centuries and boats are the only way to reach many settlements. During spring and autumn, hundreds of species of birds migrate through this area or come to breed. While not quite as remote, the villages of Maramureş, bordering Ukraine in the north, retain a medieval feel with their fabulous wooden churches. Close by, sprinkled amid the soft, rolling hills of Bucovina, are the wonderful painted monasteries, whose religious frescoes are among the most outstanding in Europe.