Romania has been on my travel wish list for a while. What can I say? I love grandiose castles and interesting architecture. But when it came time to plan a visit to the famed Bran Castle and to the widely agreed upon better castle, Peles, it was a little harder than I anticipated.
Why visit both? Why not just pick one?
If you’re in Romania, you basically have to visit Bran Castle. It’s mandatory. Imagine telling people for the rest of your life that you went to Romania but you didn’t see Dracula’s castle. That’s like going to Paris and skipping the Eiffel Tower.
However, by many accounts, Bran Castle is not all that. I can now corroborate that. Though I’m glad I went, the castle is really basic, the information is really haphazardly given, and they try to form links to Dracula and Vlad the Impaler (who never lived there) that only exist in myth. Basically the idea that Bran Castle was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula was fake news before fake news became a thing. But it’s been told so much, that everyone just kind of accepts it as true. So why even bother? Well, it’s still really beautiful and interesting, and kind of creepy, mostly because it’s full of small hallways and you can hear other visitors’ footsteps creaking on the floorboards above you.
A far more impressive Romanian castle is Peles Castle. It makes Bran Castle look like an outhouse. So if you’re going to both, do Bran first so that you don’t trek out an extra couple of hours only to be disappointed. Peles has an adorable and fairly unique architecture and it is way more accessible from Bucharest by train. And the interior of the castle is gorgeous. Both inside and out, it’s the most impressive castle I’ve ever visited. (Sorry, Neuschwanstein.)
What makes visiting both so attractive is that they’re fairly close to each other, and they’re each special and worthwhile in a different way. If you’re heading 2:30 hours north of Bucharest anyway, you might as well see both.
Finding the Best Way to Get There
There are many different ways to get to the castles from Bucharest, some more convenient than the others depending on the amount of time you have and the amount of money you’re willing to spend. Here are your options.
Take a tour
The tour is a totally brainless choice. You can take a small group tour that lasts about 12 hours from Bucharest to Peles, Bran, and the medieval town of Brasov, to boot.
The advantage of this is that you won’t find yourself stranded at any point in some tiny village in Romania waiting for a bus. The disadvantage is that you have to spend your day being herded around like cattle in a bus full of people. And there’s almost nothing I hate more. The even bigger downside is that the tour costs around 80 Euro or 100 Euro per person if you take a private tour. Even though it includes entrance to both castles, this price is definitely robbery. Convenience is nice, but I spent less than that for my entire stay in Romania on accommodation. So on principle, I couldn’t do it.
Another option is to drive. As a general rule, I don’t like driving in a country I’m not familiar with. You don’t know the road signs, you can’t read the language, and I suspect Romania is not as English-friendly as other places in Europe. But above that, most rental cars will have a manual transmission. And if you’re an American snowflake like me, you can probably only drive automatic. However, the cost of driving is minimal. A quick search on Kayak showed me that I could rent a car for $2 a day. That’s not an exaggeration.
However, if you’ve ever rented a car, you know that the flat rate is meaningless. You’ll end up paying for insurance, tolls, gas, GPS, and if you’re from out of the country, you also have to purchases a green card substitute which carries a daily cost.
All that being said, this would probably still come out cheaper than the tour. But it has other disadvantages. For one, Romania has the highest rate of automobile fatalities in Europe. As a result, the police are also really strict, which makes it more likely you’ll get a ticket for something you don’t know you’re not supposed to be doing. The road conditions can also be pretty bad, with potholes aplenty. This doesn’t even account for the fact that in northern Romania it’s still snowing in late April, so you can add ice to that.
And probably because of all that, traffic can get pretty gnarly from one place to the other because in smaller cities you may be sharing the road with pedestrians, bicyclists, stray dogs, and even horse-drawn carriages. And of course, if there’s an accident, you can expect to be backed up forever on some one-lane highway. So it sounds like a huge inconvenience at best, and kind of dangerous at worst.
Trains and buses
Luckily there are other ways of getting there on your own. Getting to Peles is the easiest thing and can be done in a day or a day and a half.
You can take a train from Gara de Nord in Bucharest to Sinaia, which takes about 1:30 hours, and costs around $5 one way. Once you’re in Sinaia, you can walk to Peles Castle, which takes 35 minutes, but it is a steep uphill walk the whole way. You can comfortably visit the castle in one or two hours, including the guided tour of the interior and a leisurely stroll through the garden.
The problem is getting from Peles to Bran and vice versa. There is a road that connects the two, but it’s not serviced by any public transportation. Frankly, this is a huge tourism failure on the country’s part. So in order to get to Bran, you have to take a train to Brasov, which is 2:45 hours from Bucharest, or about an hour from Sinaia.
Once in Brasov, you’ll have to take a local bus from the train station to the bus terminal #2. And then another bus from the bus terminal to Bran-Moeciu, which takes about 40 minutes. The problem is that this bus information is not available on Google Maps, so we were unsure what the timetables would be like for either of those buses.
Though the uncertainty of that doesn’t fundamentally bother me, the time it might all take does. Between waiting for buses each way, and hopefully eating at some point, you might end up not making it to Sinaia in time before Peles Castle closes.
Spend the night in Brasov
The other option is to endure the lengthy and confusing transportation but split it into two days so you can tour both castles and the city of Brasov without rushing. A night of Airbnb in Brasov is about $20-30. And the trains and buses amount to less than $20 total. This is still cheaper than a tour, and affords you more time in Brasov, which is an old medieval city in Romania.
How we did it and what it cost
Since accommodations are so affordable and trains are so frequent, we didn’t book anything in advance, but we planned to potentially spend the night up in Transylvania if we needed to. And after spending some time in Brasov and Sinaia, I wish we had because both areas are beautiful and worth taking your time visiting. But an unexpected snow storm that lasted 3 solid days had the potential to strand us up there with no way of getting back to Bucharest.
So, we did both castles in one day. We left Bucharest at 6 am for Bran Castle, since that would be the most complicated to visit. But to save time, we used Uber and taxis to get from the train stations to the castles in both Peles and Bran. In Brasov, an Uber to Bran cost around $16, which considering the weather and the fact that it took about 40 minutes, is not a bad deal. The problem with relying on Uber is that on the way back, it will be more difficult to find available vehicles.
The weather was awful and I was in Converse, so we had no intention of looking for the bus stop or waiting up to 30 minutes for it. But luckily there are plenty of taxis outside the castle. And to our surprise, the fare ended up being the same. We taxied directly to Brasov city center, where we walked around and checked out some highlights and had lunch.
Then we took another Uber from there to the Brasov train station, which took about 10 minutes. We made it to Sinaia by 2 pm, after an hour-long train ride. Then we had two hours to see Peles Castle before it closed. This time, Uber and Taxify were not available, so we took a taxi. The drive was less than 10 minutes. Our driver was awesome and gave us his card so we could call him when we were done. This was fortunate because the area outside the castle was a ghost town when we left, so we would have had to hike down.
But if you’re reading this and happen to be stranded up in Peles, his name is Sorin and the phone number is +40-0724-237-900.
We made it on the train back to Bucharest by 7 pm. So it’s definitely an exhausting day, but if you have no other option, it’s doable. The whole thing cost less than $55 including all the taxi and Uber fares (which were divided by 2) and entrance to both castles.
- Though castles are usually impactful and beautiful from the outside, I recommend you make time to see the inside of both.
- Bran Castle doesn’t have grounds. It’s just up on a hill, so if you go all the way out there and you don’t go inside, you’re basically doing the equivalent of seeing a postcard from far away. Bran costs 35 leu to enter (around $8).
- Peles Castle is the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen. The interior is a work of art, with elaborate rooms decorated in a variety of styles including Italian, French, and Turkish. It’s definitely a sight to see. And because it does have a pretty garden, I recommend you also spend some time touring the outside. Peles costs around $7.
- Bran is a self-guided tour, so if you’re pressed for time, this should be the one you rush.
- Peles Castle requires that you go in with an English speaking group. There seemed to be a constant stream of groups inside, so you don’t book a specific hour. You just go in and get a tour with all the other people who happened to come at the same time.
- You’ll need to buy a photo pass if you want to take pictures inside Peles Castle, though most people sneak pictures with their phone anyway.
- When booking trains, be aware that some are high-speed trains and some are slower regional trains. You’re better off using the high-speed trains so you don’t waste time.
- If you’re banking on doing both in one day, try to estimate the length of your visit and buy your train ticket out when you arrive at the station before going to visit each castle, just in case. Give Bran at least 4-5 hours, especially since you’ll want to spend time in Brasov and getting to and from Bran takes around 40 minutes each way. Peles, you can do in 1-3 hours, depending on how long you linger around the castle.
- But if you can, be flexible. You may want to devote more time to one or both of them and don’t want to restrict yourself. It’s not every day you get the chance to tour some really cool Romanian villages and castles. So make the best of it.