It’s like a scene from a picture book: a fairytale town rests at the base of a shadowy castle fit for a brooding monarch, a forgotten recluse, or a fearsome monster. Above the scene, blue skies battle against dark clouds that threaten to overtake them, reminiscent of a good-versus-evil battle you might expect to play out in the kind of story that would be set in a place like this. It’s not a beautiful illustration, though: in fact, it’s a very real place. The town is Bran, which is nestled in central Romania’s Transylvania region three hours northwest of Bucharest.
And the castle? That belongs to Dracula.
Since Bram Stoker first penned his tale of the world’s most famous vampire, Bran Castle has been synonymous with Dracula. Even though our visit to Romania took place on a beautiful, warm day, we couldn’t let our trip wind down without making the trek to a spot that feels a bit like Halloween even in the heat of summer. As we discovered, there is far more to the castle, its real-life inhabitants, and even the Dracula tale than we could have imagined. If you have ever wondered what it’s like to visit the Dracula Castle, here are some of the stories we heard and the reasons why it quickly became one of our favorite Balkan destinations.
Dracula Castle: Who Was the Real Dracula?Although Bran Castle is commonly called the Dracula Castle, the Dracula that comes to mind—a fictional vampire born from Bram Stoker’s imagination—did not live there. Neither did the Romanian ruler known as Vlad III Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler—and his story was even darker and more horrifying than his fictitious counterpart.
Vlad assumed the name Dracula from his father, Vlad Dracul, or Vlad the Dragon. Dracula had a reputation for extreme cruelty toward anyone who crossed him. He was most fond of the type of torture that eventually became part of his name; he is believed to have killed more than 20,000 people by impaling them. Using a technique that impaled victims without hitting their vital organs, thereby keeping them alive for hours or even days, he viciously threatened everyone from enemies to his own people. In one instance, he famously hosted a dinner in his own honor surrounded by thousands of impaled bodies perched atop spears. When invaders from the Ottoman Empire encountered the scene, many of them were so repulsed they turned back instead of pressing forward to capture and overthrow him.
Vlad the Impaler rose to power three times in his homeland of Wallachia, on the Transylvanian border, and his death was just as violent and bloody as his life.
Bram Stoker and the Birth of the Dracula Legend
Although Vlad the Impaler was certainly a bloodthirsty figure in the Romanian countryside, it is Count Dracula that more commonly haunts Transylvania’s history. Bram Stoker’s novel, published in 1897, has some perceived connections to the Dracula that would have tormented Romania four centuries before. However, there is limited evidence that Stoker was aware of Vlad the Impaler and would have drawn some inspiration from his life. There is far more evidence that Stoker’s work drew from Transylvanian superstitions, including those connected to stories about vampires.Stoker never set foot in Romania, and his knowledge of Transylvania was limited to his research and the writings of those who had visited the country. That’s why understanding the story of Stoker’s Dracula is best done through Transylvania mythology instead of the historical accounts of Vlad the Impaler.
In Romanian folklore, the word vampire is not commonly found or used; instead, bloodthirsty creatures of the night are called Strigoi. Strigoi share a number of characteristics with vampires, including their penchant for rising from the dead to hunt the living. They gain their vitality from the blood of the living, and they can both transform into animals and become invisible as needed. Similar to vampires, killing Strigoi involves cutting the heart into two pieces (reminiscent of driving a stake through it) and placing a garlic clove beneath its tongue—another symbol used to thwart vampires.
Other “symptoms” of both Strigoi and vampires are terrifying to consider (and added to Stoker’s depiction of his vampire!) but have very simple explanations. Both the Strigoi and vampire legends include corpses found to have enlarged teeth or post-mortem finger nail growth, and while there is evidence of each of these occurrences, they are both related to the natural receding of the gums and skin which exposes the teeth and fingernails after a person expires. Common diseases in the time of Vlad the Impaler, such as the plague and rabies along with rare illnesses like an anemia called Porphyria, could also be an explanation for vampire and Strigoi traits including light sensitivity, insomnia, and foaming at the mouth. We also heard stories of an old tradition in Romania where people would hide mirrors when someone dies to protect the soul from being trapped—a possible explanation for why vampires don’t have a reflection.
It’s far more likely that tales of Strigoi and Vampires influenced Stoker’s Dracula than any of the true stories of Vlad the Impaler, and it’s also more likely that these myths found their way into Stoker’s research for his novel over the historical records of Vlad the Impaler’s reign of terror in Wallachia.
Dracula Castle: Connections to Bran Castle
From our base in Bucharest, Bran Castle was a three-hour drive into the picturesque Romanian countryside. Although we were excited to visit what is widely known as the Dracula Castle, the history of Stoker’s Dracula weighed a bit on our minds. Stoker never visited Romania, and there’s a good chance he knew very little about Bran Castle. In fact, Vlad the Impaler did not have any real connection to the castle, either; there is no evidence that he visited the castle and certainly no indication that he would have lived there. It left us wondering how a historic castle unknown to the real Dracula or the creator of the fictional Dracula came to represent two almost parallel tales of terror.Bran Castle was built in the 13th century and served as a fortification against the Ottoman Empire as well as a residence to a series of Romanian kings. For years it was the rumored location of Vlad the Impaler’s imprisonment at the end of his life, although that theory has been largely disproven. Bran Castle is a large, somewhat haunting castle, and the romanticism of housing a deadly ruler within its walls provides more compelling imagery than the more likely reality that he was deported to a location in Budapest.
The reason Bran Castle embodies the spirit of Vlad the Impaler’s legacy and Count Dracula’s mythology is directly connected to Romanian tourism. When Stoker’s Dracula rose in popularity, the Romanian government recognized an opportunity to fuel interest in the country itself. Bran Castle’s somewhat remote location, foreboding architecture, and loose connection to Vlad the Impaler’s Transylvania made it a great contender to represent the Dracula Castle, and since the 1970s it has benefitted from a concocted marketing campaign that drives thousands of tourists to visit each year.
Visit Dracula Castle: the Bran Castle Experience
When we arrived at Bran Castle at mid-day, we stepped out of our guide Alex’s car into the midst of the fairytale I had half expected to see. Hundreds of tourists milled about, wandering throughout the marketplace and dozens of souvenir shops that makes up most of the small town of Bran. We barely glanced at the scene unfolding around us, though; it was hard to look at anything but Bran Castle, looming large atop a hill right in front of us. Despite the fact we knew no Dracula had ever set foot on the property, I wouldn’t have been surprised if my eyes had met a more sinister pair on the other side of the windows.
You earn your visit to Bran Castle with a walk up the hill on a stone staircase, dodging fellow travelers posing for selfies against the backdrop of the imposing structure. You continue to earn it when joining the long line of visitors who stand shoulder to shoulder throughout the slow march through the castle’s rooms. Bran Castle is primarily a museum these days, featuring some nicely presented information about Romania’s royal family as well as some of the myths and legends that fuel interest in the Dracula Castle. The rooms are small and quickly become crowded, making it challenging to find the uninterrupted space we prefer to read and digest information from exhibits. The staircases and hallways were even more challenging, as narrow passages impeded our ability to move freely between rooms as fellow visitors struggled to move in our direction.While the castle’s rooms are a primary attraction, the central courtyard is a beautiful location as well. We quickly noticed grapevines growing throughout the courtyard, and Alex told us the grapes they produce are, indeed, turned into wine. Dozens of doorways and corridors open into the courtyard, and while it was anything but uncrowded it was also a nice spot to pause between rooms and exhibits.
Our moment of respite came with a detour into a special exhibit on torture, an appropriate topic to address in the Dracula Castle. The exhibit requires an additional entry ticket that most people opted not to purchase, but we found it to be both educational and a welcome break from the crowds and chaos in the main hallways. Medieval torture is not an easy subject to learn about, and we had mixed feelings as we explored the exhibit. As we wandered around and observed the dozens of horrible inventions designed to torment people who committed—or didn’t commit—crimes within their communities, it reminded me of some of the other places we have visited that have been haunted by similar tales, including the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in West Virginia where residents were subjected to all manner of unspeakable, often undeserved, punishments.
When our tour of the castle’s interior was complete, we walked back outside, pausing away from the crowds to take in the centuries-old architecture. Bran Castle is especially stunning from the outside, and it’s worth walking around the exterior to notice the more classic views of its towers as well as the eastern shield wall that rises in dramatic fashion by the entrance. We were happy to spend a few moments relaxing in a nearby park before we were finally ready to leave the view, and Bran, for our return to Bucharest.
Is It Worth Visiting the Dracula Castle?
Knowing that Bran Castle is nothing more than a stand-in for a castle that simply doesn’t exist, is it worth a visit? Adam and I both emphatically agreed that it is worth the time to seek out Bran Castle for a day trip from Bucharest. Bran Castle is touristy, often crowded, and somewhat disconnected from both of the stories that most commonly call visitors to its walls. Still, it’s a beautiful structure in its own right, and its loose ties to Vlad the Impaler and Count Dracula are just strong enough to bring your imagination to life. It’s a worthy bucket-list destination for fans of the Dracula story, and it’s a terrific spot to learn about Romanian history.
Peles Castle: a Great Addition to the Transylvania TourAlthough our goal was to visit Bran Castle, Alex included a visit to another Romanian castle on our way to our destination. By many accounts, Peles Castle was the more impressive of the two castles we visited. In stark contrast to Bran Castle’s narrow hallways and tiny rooms, Peles Castle is well-appointed and loaded with impressive artwork and expensive fixtures. Upon arrival, castle personnel instructed us to put on shoe covers in order to preserve the floors. We were not allowed to take photos for the castle’s interior, so our memories (not our phones!) were quickly filled with images of extensive carvings, ancient armor, and gorgeous furniture. Peles Castle is a much younger castle than others in the area. It was built in 1873 and completed just more than 100 years ago, and it is as well-preserved as a building of such a young age should be.
If you plan to visit the Dracula Castle, Peles Castle is a great stop to make for either comparison or to experience a very different architecture style on an unforgettable daytrip.
Where to Stay for a Dracula Castle tour
The closest city to Bran and Dracula Castle is Brasov, which has plenty of hotel options to consider. Brasov is also home to the villages with Fortified Churches in Transylvania, a UNESCO World Heritage destination. Because we visited Bran Castle as a one day tour from Bucharest, we made the capital city our home base. It’s a long journey and a long day, but staying in Bucharest can be a very convenient choice depending on the other Romanian adventures you plan to incorporate into your vacation. We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Bucharest, a fantastic hotel just outside of the Old Town with spacious rooms and a terrific breakfast.
More Information: Booking.com/hilton-garden-inn-bucharest-romania
We discovered the Hilton Garden Inn Bucharest on Booking.com, which is our preferred hotel research and booking site. You may also find great rates or your ideal hotel in Bucharest or Brasov there as well!
Enjoy Your Visit to the Dracula Castle!
The story of Count Dracula is enormously popular and deeply memorable for many reasons, not the least of which is the haunting imagery of the vampire in his Transylvanian castle. Equally haunting is the imagery of a real-life savage, Vlad the Impaler, exercising his bloodthirst with every body he speared and left for dead. Although the two stories share little common ground, they are somehow united in their representative home, a dark castle whose popular nickname reflects both tales and their influence over history and culture. A visit to the Dracula Castle can be fun, educational, and even a bit spooky—and it’s sure to be an unforgettable part of your trip to Romania.
More Information: Bran-Castle.com
Looking for more spooky destinations to visit aroudn the world? Check out a few more of our favorite off-the-beaten-path spots!
* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we had a full day tour of Dracula Castle from Bucharest with Bike The City, and this post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected Bike The City based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review. Learn more about our travel philosophy here.