A city that demands to be experienced on foot, Sibiu in southern Transylvania is home to Romania’s largest German minority. On a slope with intricate rings of fortifications, the city made a clear division between the Lower Town for artisans and merchants, and the Upper Town for the more affluent citizens and religious elite.
Between the two is a labyrinth of intertwining alleys, stairways and passages. Dipping under vaults and cutting through brick ravines, these paths turn the simple act of getting around into a journey of discovery.
There’s also never been a better time to visit than right now, as showpieces like the Grand and Small Square have been spruced up since Romania joined the EU.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Sibiu:
1. ASTRA Museum of Traditional Folk Civilisation
In the Dumbrava Forest four kilometres south of Sibiu is a terrific outdoor museum in the Swedish “Skansen” tradition.
The proportions are awesome, at 96 hectares and with a ten-kilometre trail taking you past reconstructed dwellings, windmills, animal paddocks, workshops, churches, water mills and farms from all parts of Romania.
There are more than 300 buildings, showing off the diversity of styles and ingenuity and resourcefulness of rural folk in Romania.
Many of the houses and workshops are much more than just static exhibits, with staff bringing to life centuries-old traditions and skills from weaving to cooking.
The museum also has a lake where you can hire a rowboat in summer, and there’s a constant cycle of folk celebrations with bright traditional costumes and dance.
2. Piața Mare (Grand Square)
This huge rectangular square has been the centre of attention in Sibiu since it was drawn up in 1366. The Grand Square measures 142 metres long by 93 metres wide, making it one of the largest in Transylvania, and a fitting place for markets, fairs and even executions.
In the northwest corner is the Brukenthal Palace, one of Romania’s best examples of Baroque architecture.
Also Baroque and from the 18th century is the large but unusually understated Jesuit Church, while standing in contrast next door is the theatrical mayor’s office, built at the start of the 20th century.
Give yourself a moment to admire two 15th-century houses, Casa Haller at no. 10 and Casa Lutsch (Centre for Romania’s German Minority) at no. 13. In December the square twinkles with thousands of fairy lights during Sibiu’s Christmas market.
3. Piața Mică (Small Square)
Head through the portal below the Council Tower and you’ll come to the Small Square, which is actually pretty large and has a very irregular shape.
In the middle there’s a street that spirals down to the Lower Town, and crossing the big brick embankments is the beautiful Bridge of Lies, which we’ll talk about later.
The square is fringed by merchants’ houses from the 14th to the 16th centuries, with cool, shaded arcades on their ground floors and little dormers on their roofs, often described as the “eyes of Sibiu”. Make a bee-line for no.
26, Sibiu’s first pharmacy, in a building from 1568. There’s a small museum inside, run by the Brukenthal National Museum, and going into detail on Samuel Hahnemann who invented the alternative medicine of homeopathy in the basement.
4. Sibiu Lutheran Cathedral
Begun in 1371 and completed in 1520, Sibiu’s Lutheran Cathedral is one of the greatest and largest Gothic churches in Transylvania.
First of all, step around to the east side, where, at the southern facade of the choir, there’s a relief of Jesus at the Mount of Olives, carved in the last quarter of the 15th century.
Also essential is the narthex, which was turned into a separate chapel in the mid-19th century and is clad with ledger stones and monuments to Sibiu’s preeminent personalities.
The oldest is for the mayor of Sibiu Georg Hecht from the 1498, and there’s one for Samuel von Brukenthal, the Habsburg governor who made a lasting impression on the city at the turn of the 19th century.
5. Brukenthal National Museum
The palatial home of the Habsburg governor of Transylvania, Samuel von Brukenthal, is the headquarters for a museum with a few locations around Sibiu.
This institution was first founded using Brukenthal’s personal collections more than 200 years ago.
His residence holds the Brukenthal Art Galleries, replete with German, Flemish, Dutch, Italian, French and Spanish painting from the Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo periods.
To give you an idea of the standard, two of Romania’s four paintings by Peter Paul Rubens are hanging here.
Transylvanian art also abounds at the museum, with pieces by the avant-garde surrealist János Mattis-Teutsch and the landscape artist Johann Böbel.
6. Turnul Sfatului (Council Tower)
Standing tall between Sibiu’s Grand and Lesser Squares is the seven-storey Council Tower, a lasting symbol for Sibiu.
Tapering a little on each level, this historic defence was constructed at the end of the 13th century and was a gateway on Sibiu’s the second circle of fortifications.
A few superficial changes have been made down the centuries, resulting in the current Baroque design.
If you’re wondering about the tower’s name, it comes from the building next door, which used to hold the Town Hall (Council). On the south side see if you can make out the reliefs of two lions, carved in the late 16th century.
And from 10:00-20:00 you can climb the 141 stairs to see the clock mechanism on the 5th floor and then survey Sibiu’s rooftops from the top.
7. Lower Town
Pressed between the Cibin River and the Upper Town, the Lower Town was where merchants and craftsmen lived, as opposed to the Upper Town, which was for rich families and clergy.
The houses, mostly two storeys tall, are more rustic in the Lower Town, and set on unusually broad cobblestone streets delivering you to small squares.
Every few steps there’s a large semi-circular wooden gate that gives way to an interior courtyard.
At the foot of the Stairs Passage is the Butoiul de Aur (Golden Barrel), which, dating to 1452, is the oldest restaurant in Romania.
Other sights to keep on your radar are the 13th-century hospice and its adjoining church, which is the oldest in the city.
8. Huet Square
The square around the Lutheran Cathedral also warrants a mention for its cluster of buildings dating from the 1400s to the 1700s.
Huet Square is where Sibiu’s earliest fortifications used to be in the 1100s, and in the northern part you can find the Stairs Tower, guarding the stairway down to the Lower Town.
The first tower went up in the 13th century to be replaced by this current structure from 1542. Also particularly old is the red-painted Parochial House at nos. 1 and 2, built in stages from the 13th century and with a marvellous Gothic stone portal.
Finally at no. 5 is the Baroque Samuel von Brukenthal Gymnasium, completed in 1776, the city’s only totally German school, on the site of an earlier school founded in the 1300s.
9. Strada Nicolae Balcescu
Between Union Square and the Grand Square is a wide and convivial pedestrian artery that used to link the marketplace with the defunct Cisnădie Gate at the southern entrance to the city.
There was a fire here in the 17th century so although no architecture survives from the earliest days, most of the houses are Baroque and Neoclassical from the 1700s and 1800s, and have gates that open onto inner courtyards.
Fifteen of the houses from nos. 2 to 42 are on the List of Historical Monuments in Sibiu County, bringing plenty of panache.
House no. 12 was the home of Baron Michael Brukenthal (nephew of Samuel), who ordered the current Baroque facade in the late-1780s.
10. Stairs Passage
The pick of all the routes linking the Upper and Lower Towns is the Stairs Passage, which has a moderate, winding slope as it was designed for oxcarts in the 13th century.
The most photogenic section beckons you below the Lutheran Cathedral past high brick retaining walls, which have flying buttresses arching over the passageway for reinforcement.
Amateur photographers should come at dusk in summer when the light is magical.
11. Holy Trinity Cathedral
Although Sibiu’s Orthodox cathedral was built in just two years from 1902 to 1904, fundraising had begun 45 years before, when the Transylvanian Bishop Andrei Șaguna first wrote to Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I. It’s a stirring sight, with neo-Byzantine alternating bands of yellow and red brick and a humungous copper-covered dome.
On the inside of the dome is the classic Orthodox image of Christ Pantocrator flanked by angels, high above the gilt-wood iconostasis.
Both were painted by the eminent Transylvanian Symbolist Octavian Smigelschi, who travelled to the Kingdom of Romania to the south to study religious art for this project.
12. Muzeul de Istorie (Museum of History)
An arm of the Brukenthal Museum, this attraction is set in the Casa Altemberger, named after Thomas Altemberger who was mayor of Sibiu in the late 15th century.
The house, with mullioned windows and turrets, is one of the outstanding pieces of secular Gothic architecture in Eastern Europe.
From 1545 to 1948 it housed the Town Hall, while its tower contained the city archive throughout that period.
Since the late-60s Casa Altemberger has been a history museum for southern Transylvania.
In the galleries there’s glassware crafted nearby in Porumbacu de Sus, a Roman lapidarium from the 1st to the 3rd century, religious art, coins, weapons and armour from the 1500s and 1600s.
13. Bridge of Lies
Linking two halves of the Small Square is Romania’s oldest iron bridge.
The Bridge of Lies was cast in 1859 and soon became another emblem for Sibiu.
It got its memorable name by a quirk of language because in German the words for “to lie” and “to lie (tell untruths)” are similar.
The bridge was called the “Lying Bridge” as it has no standing supports and instead rests on two embankments.
But soon, thanks to oral tradition the structure got its own legends.
The most famous goes that the bridge will collapse of someone sits on it and tells a lie.
What is true is that it’s an elegant piece of design, with Neo-Gothic motifs in its ironwork and four wrought iron gas lights on pedestals at each corner.
14. Museum of Steam Locomotives
For a quick trip back to the steam age there’s a museum at a roundhouse and turntable not far from the main train station east of the Old Town.
There are 33 locomotives to check out, along with three snowploughs and two steam cranes.
Out of the 23 standard gauge and ten narrow gauge trains, seven are in working order, and all ran on Romania’s railways between 1885 and 1959. Most of the engines are by German manufacturers like Henschel & Son, Schwartzkopff and Borsig, but there’s also a model by the Baldwin Locomotive Works from the USA.
Technically part of Sibiu, this small mountain resort is an easy and scenic drive into the Cindrel Mountains.
Deep in coniferous woodland Păltiniș is the oldest ski resort in Romania, having been founded in 1894, with three of its original palatial villas surviving to this day.
Since Romania joined the EU there’s been an expansion to the residential area, and the number of restaurants and shops is increasing by the season.
Thanks to a maximum elevation of 1,681 metres there’s snow on the upper slopes for six months of the year.
So if you are in the mood for some powder in winter there’s a couple of downhill pistes and five cross-country trails.
This same terrain is equally beautiful in summer, when you can use the resort as a springboard for rugged hikes, the toughest taking you up to the Cindrel Peak at 2,444 metres.