Our Transfagarasan road trip through Romania was #thebomb. The twists and turns of this one-of-a-kind highway are unlike anything you’ll ever see: this road is consistently ranked among the most fascinating driving routes in the world. We were lucky enough to do this road trip in September of 2018, when we were living in Bucharest. The road connects the historic Romanian regions of Wallachia and Transylvania and its northern end is basically Sibiu. You can plan other stops before or after your road trip or as you work your way up or down the highway, like visiting Brașov, Peleș and Bran castles, Sighișoara, and doing some hiking. However, when planning your Transfagarasan road trip, be aware that 1) this road can be dangerous because of its twisty-turny-ness and 2) it’s only open during the summer and early fall to avoid any dangers related to snow or ice. Hence, the road is usually only open from June to October, so do your research. I found this site helpful for planning.
First of all, let’s talk about this road’s crazy name (at least in the eyes of an English speaker). Romanian is actually a Romance language, so it has much in common phonetically and semantically with its cousin languages, like Italian and Spanish. I love languages and am a linguistics freak, so let me start by explaining the meaning of this word. The root “trans-” in English and Romance languages usually means “across” or “beyond.” This road actually travels across the Făgăraș mountains, the highest part of the Southern Carpathian mountain range in Romania. So “trans” + “Făgăraș” = Transfăgărășan = traveling across the Făgăraș mountains. Boom.
Now let’s talk about pronunciation. In Romanian, the road’s name is written “Transfăgărășan” – and, yes, if you don’t speak Romanian, these letters and their unusual squigglies can look daunting. In English, this word would essentially be pronounced “trans-fuh-guh-ruh-shan.” That’s because the Romanian letter “ă” is basically pronounced like the English sound “uh” as in “run”; the Romanian letter “ș” is basically pronounced like the English sound “sh” as in “she.” However, things get trickier: for my Spanish speakers out there, the syllables “trans” and “shan” are more accurately pronounced as if in Spanish. That’s because the letters “r” and “a” in Romanian are basically pronounced like they are in Spanish.
Finally, let’s briefly talk about how and why this road was built. The Transfagarasan was built in the 1970s under Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romania’s communist leader (we don’t like him; he was a bad guy). It was built for military purposes to protect against any possible Soviet invasion – Ceaușescu was a lil’ freaked out that the darn Soviets had invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 and was not down for a sequel invasion in Romania. The road was built mainly by the military using dynamite. Accounts seem to indicate that this work was neither fun nor safe 😑. You could always count on good ol’ Nic to exploit others for his megalomaniac purposes!
Our Transfagarasan Road Trip Itinerary
Saturday: Depart Bucharest at around 7:30 or 8:00 am.
Stop 1: Curtea de Argeș Cathedral
Yes, we had an early start time (I am NOT a morning person – BUT I can be when I’m traveling 😄). We started early because we had a lot of ground to cover, so your plans can change according to how much time you have and what you want to do.
It took about 2 hours (more or less) to get from Bucharest to our first stop on this Transfagarasan road trip: the Curtea de Argeș Cathedral. Travel time can depend on traffic and Romanian road quality, lol. This Romanian Orthodox cathedral has a stunning exterior: take a few laps around the structure to appreciate the Byzantine and Moorish architectural details. The interior is covered in frescoes.
After leaving the cathedral, we kept working our way up the highway!
Stop 2: Vidraru Lake and Dam
It took about 45 minutes to get from the cathedral to Vidraru Dam, our next stop on this Transfagarasan road trip. The real looker here is not the dam itself, but rather the lake – Lacul Vidraru – which is beautifully scenic.
Stop 3: Actually just stopping along the road as you drive, lol
As you drive up through the mountains toward Bâlea Lake, things get more and more scenic. This section of the drive was one of the best parts of our Transfagarasan road trip: the go-to move here is to safely pull over on the side of the road every now and then, get out of the car, and enjoy the scenery! When you get out of the car, you’ll be able to more safely appreciate the scenery AND better see the hairpin turns in the road, which you can look down on as you drive up.
Stop 4: Bâlea Lake
Bâlea Lake is a glacial lake situated at an altitude of about 2000 meters right up in the mountains. Yeah, cray. This was probably the pinnacle stop – literally and figuratively – of our Transfagarasan road trip. This is where you get some of the best views of the road’s hairpin turns, and the lake is also beautiful.
We got to the lake at around 2:00 pm, so we were ready for lunch. Although there was an option to eat on an outdoor, lake-side terrace at the restaurant we went to, it was a bit too cold for that, so we sat inside instead. I had my favorite Romanian #tripe soup, yaaass.
Although it was cloudy when we arrived at the lake, the sun magically emerged for us after lunch. The lake set within a backdrop of the mountains was breathtaking, so we spent some time walking around the lake and enjoying the scenery.
There are some options for hiking around the lake, which I was dying to do. However, between our time at lunch and simply enjoying the scenery of the lake itself, we didn’t have time to hike – we wanted to make it to the hotel before dark (we were not down to drive on this twisty highway at night, lol).
Stop 5: Bâlea Waterfall
This waterfall is about a 15-20 minute drive north from the lake. I’ll be honest: this wasn’t mind-blowing, and I’d say you can scrap it, especially if you’re low on time. We just kind of hiked a little til we saw the waterfall, then turned back. Nothing too special.
We spent Saturday night at this horrible lodge. The staff was unfriendly and it was not particularly comfortable. We had dinner there, I got violently ill from the food, and had a horrible night. I somehow survived the night, then we headed back to Bucharest ASAP Sunday morning. That was the sad end to our Transfagarasan road trip 🤢😭.
As per the above, I was a dehydrated quasi-corpse by Sunday morning, so we just drove back to Bucharest.
However, for those of you who do not feel like you’re on death’s doorstep when you do this road trip, you could do what we had planned to do on Sunday: hike around Bâlea Lake. But, alas. I was really upset that I couldn’t hike because I had been so excited about it, but, honestly, our Saturday on the Transfagarasan was just so awesome that it made the whole trip worth it.
You could also visit Poienari Castle, or “Cetatea Poienari,” on your way back to Bucharest. “Cetatea” means “fortress” or “citadel” in Romanian. Vlad the Impaler, homeboy associated with the inspo for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, actually lived in this castle in the Middle Ages. This fact is important because Bran Castle is usually the castle in Romania more often associated with Dracula. My “Rough Guide to Romania” insightfully explains the issue this way: “Although the tourist industry focuses on Bran castle in Transylvania, which has almost no connection to the Dracula myth (aside from the fact that [Vlad the Impaler] may have attacked it on occasion), Cetatea Poienari (Poienari Castle, aka Dracula’s Castle) was once Vlad the Impaler’s residence, and its location in the foothills of the Făgăraş mountains makes for a wonderfully dramatic setting.” However, I’m told that you gotta do a solid 30-minute climb to get up to that dramatic setting, so keep that in mind.
I highly recommend this Transfagarasan road trip. Whether you’re already planning a trip to Romania or simply want to plan a trip that’s a bit more off the beaten path, this one’s for you.