274km (170 miles) NW of Bucharest

Sibiu hit the world stage in 2007 when it shared the "European City of Culture" title with Luxembourg. A thorough big-budget makeover rejuvenated its large medieval squares and elegant buildings, making it one of the most appealing places to explore in all Romania. An excellent example of the (usually smaller) fortified Saxon towns that dot the Transylvanian landscape, Sibiu was saved from destruction during the Communist era largely because Ceausescu's son, Nicu, was the city's mayor. The medieval heart, surrounded by a sprawling city, is held together by stone-walled fortifications and the remains of the 39 guild towers that served as defensive watchtowers; within lie cobblestone streets, secret back alleys, crumbling stairways, and elegant monuments.

Built by the Saxons in the 12th century on the site of the Roman village of Cibinium, Sibiu is known to Germans as Hermannstadt and it remains home to Romania's largest German-speaking community, though now a meager 5,500. Originally designed to a concentric circular plan, with four walls dividing the residential zones according to class, this was Transylvania's ancient capital, with the Saxons ruling from the center and Romanians occupying the outermost ring. While it's often thought of as Romania's most welcoming and laid-back city, it's worth remembering that it was here, in the second half of the 19th century, that the Romanian nationalist movement first stirred, agitating against Transylvania's Magyarization; today, vestiges of Astra (the Transylvanian Association of Romanian Literature and Culture) can still be found, particularly at the Folk Museum just outside the city.