Sighisoara, in Romania’s Transylvania region, is a picturesque city with winding streets and spiky towers, centered around a medieval fortified city center on top of a hill.
It is well set-up for tourism, with comfortable hotels and dining places that are reasonably priced and strategically located for sightseeing. But it gets full of tourists in the hot months, so come slightly off-season if you don’t want to rub elbows with visitors.
Let’s examine the curious buildings in that Old Town within the hilltop city walls, then hike up even higher to the Church on the Hill – before plunging down to enjoy the Lower Town and two fascinating churches by the river.
The Old Town dates from medieval times when Sighisoara was among the first cities founded by German settlers. They were invited by Hungarian King Geza II to help defend his kingdom’s eastern frontier at the time. The Germans ensured that the hill the Old Town stands on was mostly covered with streets and buildings by the late 14th century. The city quickly became a center for crafts and arts, and for trading in such products.
While Sighisoara is far from being the only city in Transylvania that retains some of the medieval stone walls that once encircled it, no other city has such extensive remnants of the fortifications still in pretty good shape. To tour the Old Town, we’ll start at one of its main squares, Piata Muzeului, and visit the Monastery Church, a Gothic edifice.
This church is a remnant of a former monastery complex – the monks ceased living there in about 1550 and the monastery was knocked down in 1886, clearing space for the building which today is the City Hall. Since then, this church has been Sighisoara’s predominant Evangelical gathering-place. It’s dedicated in the name of the Virgin Mary.
Construction began during the 13th century, but most of what you see today dates from subsequent work in the 15th century and reconstructions during 1677-78. Check out the Last Supper scenes that itinerant artist Jeremias Stranovius painted on the 1680 carved altar. The characters supposedly were modeled on the city council members and mayor of the time. Sighisoara’s former prominence as a trade center is reflected in the Turkish carpets from the 16th and 17th centuries that adorn the church interior.
On the opposite side of the square is the likely birthplace of the historic Dracula or Vlad the Impaler. This yellow building was the home of that man’s father, the nobleman Vlad “Dracul,” who became prince Vlad II of Wallachia (a region now forming the south of Romania). His infamous son, who was born in 1431 and lived in this house for his earliest four years or so, eventually succeeded him, becoming Vlad III. This house may be the oldest in the area enclosed by the citadel, as it survived the 1676 fire.
Also on Piata Muzeului is another former home of a noble family, a pink house whose tall windows are topped by three-lobed arch shapes. These windows have led to it being called the Venetian House. Mayor Stephanus Mann once lived here. The 16th century building now contains a little art gallery.
To continue exploring the citadel area – whose roughly 160 inhabited structures are mostly over three centuries old and in many cases have two-meter-thick walls – walk north on Strada Manastirii. This street leads past a bust of Vlad the Impaler and then the neo-Renaissance city hall, which was built in 1886-1888 and designed by Hungarian architect Ignac Alpar. Nearby stands a statue of Sandor Petofi, a Hungarian poet who was involved in Hungarians’ uprising against Habsburg rule in 1848 and is thought to have perished in a battle near Sighisoara.
Continuing up the street, you reach a Catholic church that serves Sighisoara’s ethnic Hungarians. The 1890s neo-Romanesque silver-and-gray edifice has porch bearing the Hungarian message “Velünk az isten!” which means “God is with us.”
Near this is a statue of Sighisoara-born clergyman Vilmos Apor. As bishop of the west Hungarian city of Gyor in World War II, he first spoke out against persecuting Hungarian Jews, then sheltered women and children in his residence when Soviet soldiers took over. He died protecting his guests from soldiers who stormed his residence in 1945.
Let’s turn around now to walk back along another old-city street, Strada Bastionului. Check out house number 4, which has been renovated to look like the residences of medieval German craftsmen who used to live here. The roof juts out over the street – a design feature that used to allow for hauling up goods using a pulley.
This street lands you on the other main square in the citadel area, named Piata Cetatii. Attractions here include a Renaissance mansion whose corner has a painted stag with a head that sticks out of the wall, topped with real stag antlers. The “House with the Stag” (Casa cu Cerb), whose history goes back to the 13th century, bears a wall inscription explaining that it was reconstructed after the fire of 1676 by its then owner, mayor Michael Deli. Now it’s a restaurant and hotel.
So much for exploring the hilltop citadel. Now let’s ascend a famous wooden staircase to an even higher part Sighisoara’s hill where there’s a fascinating church and school. The Church on the Hill (Biserica din Deal), built at a height of 429 meters, is reached via the Scholars’ Stair, a wood tunnel containing 175 steps dating from 1654. It leads up from the city street called Strada Scolii, and is named for the students who, to this day, scale it to attend classes.
The big Gothic church is dedicated for Saint Nicholas and has stood up here since 1345. The current state of the building mostly reflects periodic expansions and renovations during the 15th to 16th centuries.
The exterior is quite simple, with scarcely any adornments, except that each of the four buttresses bears a little statue, one depicting the Virgin Mary with Christ child and the other three representing the magi.
The main entrance door is located on the church’s western side, furthest from the city. Its Latin inscription means “This work was completed with God‘s help in the year 1488, when on St Gerard‘s Day heavy snows broke the fruit trees down.” Stepping through it reveals a beguiling interior.
The ethnic Germans, by and for whom the church was built, were Catholics originally, but became Protestants along with their western kin at the time of the Reformation. That explains why the colorful 14th-16th century paintings that once covered its walls, showing Saints’ lives and bible stories, were whitewashed – and only started being rediscovered from the 1930s on.
Take a look at the arch on the right as you enter the church and you’ll see a 1380 fresco centering around a picture of the Holy Trinity. It’s shown as a three-faced man. It’s a very unusual instance of an artist depicting the Holy Ghost as having a human face.
For another surprising wall painting, head further in and look at the wall on the left just before reaching the choir. It’s a series of pictures, created in about 1500, relating the tale of Saint George versus the dragon. The last picture but one shows the dragon being killed, but in the final picture, George leads the dragon, not slain but evidently tamed.
An adjacent wall has an interesting painting of the Last Judgment. It’s presided over by Jesus, at whose feet St John and Mary kneel. St Peter leads the righteous to heaven, brandishing its key. Archangel Michael banishes evil people to Hell.
Up in the arches of the church, you’ll see a 1483 picture of Archangel Michael, and a painting of Veronica showing off her cloth, bearing the imprint of Jesus’s face just as her legend says. The church’s font, which dates from the 1400s and has Gothic decoration, stands by the choirstalls, and is used in baptisms. But before the local Germans converted to Lutheranism from Catholicism, it stood by the entrance, allowing all worshippers to take holy water and cross themselves prior to a service.
The choirstalls are beautifully carved from linden wood and are the work of Johannes Reychmuth from Sighisoara. The Renaissance-style stalls are carved with plant and animal motifs. For a throwback to when the local Germans were Catholics, look out for the stall with an inscription, dating from 1523, which is written in German but emphasizes the importance of using Latin in church. “Wer in dys gestul wil stan und nit latyn reden kann, der solt bleiben draus, das ma ym nit mit Kolben laus” (Anyone wishing to sit in this stall who does not know Latin should stay away, if he does not want to be beaten with staves).
Also within the church, look out for the tabernacle (i.e. sacrament cabinet), a tall, elegant, white sandstone creation in a Gothic turret shape, bearing floral carvings. It was made around 1500. The carved stone pulpit was made in 1480. It’s thought that the altar, which once stood in the Dominican monastery that used to be in the citadel, was made around 1515-1520 in Sighisoara. Several other 16th century altars are on exhibition within the church, originating from Germany and Transylvania.
The big building close to the church is Sighisoara’s Old School, whose history goes back to 1402 or perhaps even earlier. A good part of the exterior you can see today dates from renovation work in 1901. It is still an operating school, long noted for its high educational standards, with an emphasis on theology.
Not everything in Sighisoara happens on a hill. In fact, most of the everyday business of the city now happens in the lower town, lying east from the hilltop citadel. A square featuring a nice park in the middle, Piata Hermann Oberth, is contemporary Sighisoara’s real center. Running from it is a main street named Strada 1 decembrie 1918, or, at places, Strada Hermann Oberth. A notable building here is number 12, the Steaua hotel, which was constructed in the 19th century and then revamped between 1910 and 1912 in the Secessionist style popular at the time. A brief walk from this area, cross the Tarnava river to find two interesting churches.
You can’t miss the Orthodox cathedral, a huge domed edifice directly by a pedestrian bridge crossing the river. As is true in many Transylvanian cities, Sighisoara’s principal place of worship for the Orthodox Romanians dates from the period following World War I, which was when Transylvania was incorporated into modern-day Romania instead of the former Austria-Hungary. Reflecting that historical background, such cathedrals are typically huge, located a little outside the city’s historic center, modern in construction, and emphatically Byzantine in style as if to stress the “eastern-ness” of the Orthodox tradition. This one went up in 1934-1937, and is dedicated for the Holy Trinity. Long, rich bell chimes emanate from its massive tower morn and eve. It was designed by Romanian architect Dumitru Petrescu Gopes.
Walk further west by the riverside, and then go down Strada Stefan cel Mare as far as the railroad, and you will find the curious 15th-century Lepers’ Church (Biserica Siechhof). Situated snugly against the railroad tracks, the church has an outside pulpit jutting from its front wall. Nowadays the wall is bricked up behind the pulpit, but the priest used to be able to step out onto it from inside the church. That was the only way he could preach to patients from the lepers’ hospital that was opened nearby in 1507, because they were not permitted within the church.
Recommended hotels in Sighisoara’s citadel area, all with good restaurants
And a good restaurant in the lower town: Perla
Read more about Dracula and Sighisoara
Written by and photos by David Hill for EuropeUpClose.com