Often referred to as “the Pearl of Bucovina,” Vatra Dornei is a town in Romania surrounded by nature and filled with traditions. With delicious food and outdoor adventures in the abundant forests, meadows, and hills of surrounding villages, the Țara Dornelor area is an unexpectedly unique travel experience. Take a look around with local expert Simona Popescu.
After a visitor arrives in my city, I always recommend going straight to the central park because that’s where they will meet our famous “Marianas.” The friendly squirrels that inhabit our park are all named Mariana and will come running to anyone who calls them, expecting to be offered some nuts to eat.
The best time to be here is in summer, which is June through August for us. That’s when the town and the surrounding villages come alive with lots of different cultural and culinary events. Local tourism organisations host all of these different events with support from the locals who are happy and proud to provide the best cultural and culinary experiences to visitors.
I tell first-time travellers to buy cheese made in Țara Dornelor (The Land of the Dornas), as it is made by the locals and holds the essence of our mountains within it. We may be biassed, but we like to think our cheese is some of the best cheese in the Carpathians. I also tell them to avoid spending all of their time inside the city, because the true charm of the area rests in the villages surrounding Vatra Dornei.
People from here know better than to spend a lot of time inside. Instead, they would rather go out and explore the area on foot or bicycle. There are quite a few hiking trails to pick from in Țara Dornelor and even a few cycling trails.
The best museum to start your journey and get a good sense of this city is the Ethnographic Museum because that’s where you can get acquainted with the customs and traditions of the area. We locals are especially proud of the traditional garments that we’ve inherited from our elders, and the Ethnographic Museum is the best place to get to know the history of these garments.
Parents should take their kids on a sleigh ride if they visit during the winter (December-February) because that is one of the simplest yet most joyful activities for children, guaranteed to become a memory for a lifetime.
Food from the Heart
Among the food (or dishes) my city is most proud of, sarmale cu mămăliguță (Romanian cabbage rolls and polenta) is an absolute must. I like to go to Pensiunea Poiana to really enjoy it.
When we get together to celebrate a family reunion or any other happy occasion, afinată (a homemade alcoholic beverage with blueberry syrup) is what people here traditionally drink. I like to gather my friends and go to Casa Bucovineană for a round.
When I eat completely local, I will go to Pensiunea Poiana. I know the food here is delicious, made from ingredients from the inn’s own farm and gardens or ingredients that are locally sourced.
Another two classic, iconic restaurants include the restaurant of the Kaban Boutique Hotel, which offers a more modern culinary experience, and Terra Bistro, which serves some of the best international dishes in the city.
The part of town where locals come for traditional food is actually … out of town. The restaurants and pensions in the villages that surround Vatra Dornei usually provide the best traditional food and some of them even create a traditional atmosphere within the restaurant so that you feel as though you’re transported back in time.
My city is known for making delicious wild strawberry preserves or preserves of other forest fruits. The Vatra Dornei area is also known for bottling natural mineral water. Some of the most famous mineral water brands in the country come from Vatra Dornei.
The best outdoor food market in Vatra Dornei is the Farmers’ Market on Republicii Street. And the best outdoor market to buy everyday items like kitchen utensils or garden utensils is the market on Oborului Street, where the items are usually sold by older people who love to tell stories about their products and even make a joke here and there.
I always take visitors to the Bucovina Shop stand in the Bucovina Market to buy real, local souvenirs. The products are a perfect blend of modern and traditional, encapsulating everything we love about our area and the vibe is proud and joyful. And we know to avoid the souvenir shops on the sidewalks of the city centre because the products are usually imported and of low quality.
Getting Deeper into Vatra Dornei
A great book to learn more about my city and the historic Bucovina region is “Bucovina – The Land of the Beech” by Florin Andreescu.
Most people know about the national parks surrounding the area, but simple hills, forests, and meadows should also be visited because that’s where you will be able to find a real connection to nature and the mountains. Ask a local for directions and go on a more authentic mountain adventure.
My city is a place people are attracted to because of the ski slopes in the winter season and the hiking opportunities during summer. All year round, people who come to Vatra Dornei seek a connection to nature and a simpler way of life.
To really celebrate my city at its best, come during the summer because that’s the best time to experience the life of the area. People are energetic and excited about the events being organised, locals are happy to engage in conversations with tourists, and the weather is just warm enough to know that it’s summer, but also cold enough to feel like you can take a breath of fresh air.
Most people think of my city as a place to come for health reasons to visit one of the various spa resorts, but really this is a destination to become connected to nature and find your inner wild self again.
This is one of the best places in the world to experience the old ways of mountain life. Locals are proud of that because the knowledge and customs have been passed down through generations and some extremely old traditions and customs have been preserved to the present day. So, if you were to visit one of the touristic sheep farms up in the mountains and learn about cheese making from the shepherds, you would not only discover the way in which they do it now, but how their families have done it for hundreds of years.
Getting Around Vatra Dornei
One thing you should know about getting around my city is that walking is the best way to discover all of its hidden gems. However, if you want to explore some of the idyllic villages that surround the town of Vatra Dornei, then you might find yourself in need of a few car rides.
The best way to travel in my city to have as little impact as possible is by walking or riding a bike. Getting around Vatra Dornei is easily done on foot, and if you would like to explore the villages around it, there are buses coming and going every two hours.
Outside the City
To get away and into the outdoors, I like to hike up the Oușoru peak, in the village of Dorna Candrenilor (approximately seven kilometres West of Vatra Dornei). Whether I’m able to conquer all of its 1,639 metres or just get halfway there, the hike is peaceful and the views are picturesque. In the fall and summer, beware of snakes.
For a day trip just beyond my city, I like to visit the town of Bistrița, about an hour drive west of Vatra Dornei in the historical region of Transylvania. Vatra Dornei is also a great place to be mesmerised by the colourful Saxon houses on each side of the road, as well as the Transylvanian architecture.
Many people will head to Tinovul Mare for a walk in nature, but locals know to go to Zugreni Gorges Nature Reserve, because it offers a picturesque view of the river and cliffs. Also, there are several rope bridges across the river.
I really enjoy the view of my city from the chairlift, as it provides a great view of the mountains as well. The ride is approximately 25 minutes and it is beautiful in both summer and winter seasons, however if you go during the winter make sure you are well dressed, as it gets really cold.
Connecting with Locals
When I want to have fun and celebrate being out in my city, I usually start with the Lordinu restaurant for some pizza, then continue with a walk from there to the central park, crossing the bridge to say “hello” to the ducks on the river.
To hang out with my friends and go to a real insider spot, I go to Champions Pub where I know I will find the best atmosphere in town, with lots of people chatting and having fun, great music, and football-watching parties every now and then.
The best resource for finding out what’s going on around town is Țara Dornelor, which provides information about the local events and great ideas of activities for visitors.
When I want to enjoy my city without spending much (or any) money, I like to climb the 200 stone steps that connect the Mihai Eminescu Street with the Runc hill. The climb isn’t too difficult and the destination provides a pretty good view of the city. (Sometimes I even bring a book with me, to read while waiting for the sunset.)
Finding Solitude in Vatra Dornei
When I want to go somewhere to sit and meditate about my incredible city, I go to the camping site on the Runc hill. There are walkways into the forest and you can have a very quiet and peaceful walk, away from the more crowded areas in the central park.
If I chose the one place that makes me most proud of my city, it would have to be the Carol Hotel because of its beautiful architecture. It was built in 1896 and it has been preserved quite well. It is one of the most beautiful buildings in Vatra Dornei, in my opinion.
When the Seasons Change, This City Shines
Spring (March-May) is the best time to go on a hike in the Călimani Mountains, in search of the bujor de munte (mountain peony or wild rhododendron, although there is no exact translation), which is an endangered mountain flower, protected by the law in Romania. Locals usually go “hunting” for the beautiful flower in the spring and come back home with lovely photos of it; it is illegal to collect them.
I always recommend visitors participate in local events in the summer (June-August) because the energy is unmatched and the experience can prove to be unique.
The fall (September-November) here is magical when you take a walk in the park, on a sunny October day. There are so many leaves covering the ground and walkways. If there is a little wind you can see the leaves falling and it’s one of the most beautiful sights to see.
The winter (December-February) is a great time to go skiing and if you don’t know how to ski, then it’s a great time to learn, as there are ski instructors available on the slopes. Sleigh rides and snowball fights are also encouraged for people of all ages.