If you’re like many people, you may be surprised to learn Transylvania is a real place. While it may not be full of vampires and werewolves (I can’t say for certain), it is nonetheless a magical region with a vibrant culture and history.
Where is Transylvania?
Transylvania is a region in Central Romania. The name Transylvania refers specifically to the area of the Transylvanian Plateau, a low-lying region of Central Romania bound on all sides by the Carpathian Mountains. Transylvania’s largest city, Cluj, is 201 miles (301 km) north-west of Romania’s capital city, Bucharest.
Even amongst Romanians, the term Transylvania is somewhat ambiguous in meaning. The name in Latin literally means “the area beyond the forest”, implying the region beyond, or westward, of the Carpathian Arc.
Therefore, in the strictest sense, Transylvania refers to the area of the low-lying Transylvanian Plateau, a region of Central Romania situated inside of the Carpathian Arc and bound to the west by the Apuseni Mountains.
However, an alternate and common interpretation of the term Transylvania also includes the regions west of the Apuseni Mountains. This broader interpretation includes the entire area west of the Transylvanian Plateau, all the way to the Romanian-Hungarian border.
Is Transylvania a Country?
Transylvania is not a country. It is a geographical and cultural region in present-day Central Romania. Transylvania is comprised of several counties, towns, and smaller cultural areas. In history, Transylvania has belonged to the Roman Empire, Kingdom of Hungary, Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Romania.
While Transylvania has typically been ruled over by various countries, kingdoms, and empires, it did at one time exist as an autonomous principality. Following the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, Transylvania became a de facto independent territory.
It eventually became subject to Turkish suzerainty in 1566, and possessed varying levels of independence until the conclusion of the 17th Century, when it came under the rule of the Habsburgs.
Transylvania was officially absorbed by Hungary in 1867, and then it was split between Romania and Hungary at the end of WWI (1920). In 1947, at the end of WWII, Romania gained the entire territory of Transylvania.
Other Names for Transylvania
The name Transylvania comes from the Latin words “trans” (across/beyond) and “silva” (forest). So, it translates literally as “beyond the forest”. The name Transylvania was first recorded 1075. Shortly after, it was used alongside similar Latin variants, such as Terre Ultrasilvana and Terre Ultra Silvam.
Here are other names for Transylvania used by the native populations who inhabit the area:
- Ardeal (Romanian)
- Erdély (Hungarian)
- Siebenbürgen (German)
The Romanian name for Transylvania, Ardeal, seems to stem from the Hungarian name Erdély. Erdély comes from the Hungarian word for forest, erdő. So both Ardeal and Erdély can be taken to mean “beyond the forest” or “before the forest”.
The German name for Transylvania, Siebenbürgen, is less literal in its meaning. The word is formed from the German words sieben (seven) and burg (citadel). So, the name Siebenbürgen translates literally to “Seven Citadels”.
Siebenbürgen is a reference to the seven Saxon citadels established in Transylvania by Saxon settlers. They are: Kronstadt, Schäßburg, Mediasch, Hermannstadt, Mühlbach, Bistritz, and Klausenburg.
Geography of Transylvania
Geographically, Transylvania is a high plateau, separated from greater Romania by the Carpathian Arc in the north and east, and the Transylvanian Alps in the south.
Taken in broad terms, the region of Transylvania extends to Romania’s western border with Hungary and to its northern border with Ukraine.
Transylvania is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring regions of Romania. Typical of the region are vast plains that offer incredible mountain views on all sides.
Cities in Transylvania
The largest city in Transylvania is Cluj-Napoca, with a population of approximately 310,000. The second-largest city in the region is Brasov, with a population of approximately 250,000. Historically, Cluj-Napoca, Sibiu, and Alba Iulia have served as the region’s capital.
Here are the largest cities and towns in Transylvania:
- Cluj-Napoca (310,000)
- Brasov (253,000)
- Oradea (196,000)
- Arad (159,000)
- Sibiu (147,000)
- Targu Mures (144,000)
- Baia Mare (124,000)
- Satu Mare (102,000)
- Bistrita (75,000)
- Zalau (56,000)
Of particular interest for international tourists are the cities of Sibiu and Brasov. Both Saxon towns, these cities have highly developed tourism economies and are prime examples fortified Saxon settlements in Transylvania.
Transylvania is also home to several UNESCO World Heritage sites. The medieval town of Sighisoara features a fortified old town which is a UNESCO cultural monument. Seven villages in Transylvania with fortified churches are collectively considered a UNESCO monument.
If you’re looking for adventure off the beaten path, Transylvania has a lot to offer. In the summertime, Transylvania’s mountain towns come alive, with many Romanians vacationing in this region to beat the heat of cities like Bucharest.
Popular activities in the region include hiking, gastronomy, and agrotourism.
In my experience, Transylvania’s real charm is in the small Saxon villages that dot the region. One summer, my brother and I took a guided tour of Marginimea Sibiului by bike.
Marginimea Sibiului is a string of villages surrounding Sibiu that are known for their natural beauty and old-world charm.
During our excursion, we came across a village wedding procession (accordions and all), tried local cheese, spoke with shepherds, and explored a fortified church. These experiences are typical in Transylvania.
Unfortunately, the rural, agrarian culture that once thrived in this region is rapidly disappearing. Young people leave their villages to seek work in larger cities like Cluj, or abroad in Germany or the UK. Many villages are filled with elderly residents, and some feel abandoned.
If you decide to visit the region, I highly recommend you book a stay at an agrotourism bed and breakfast. These are authentic establishments that allow you to get a taste for village life here, and they’re a great way to help sustain the local economy.