The Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve is a perfect destination for nature-lovers and bird watchers. Although a standard vacation spot for Romanians, foreigners will find themselves off-the-beaten-path in one of the most diverse places on the planet. This guide breaks down everything you need to know for planning a trip to the Danube Delta.
Note: All prices are listed in LEI and USD. As of January 2020, 1 LEU = $0.23 USD
What is the Danube Delta?
A delta is a land form that’s created by the deposit of sediment as water leaves the mouth of a river and enters slower-moving or stagnant water.
The Danube Delta in particular is created at the junction where The Danube River meets The Black Sea. As the second longest river in Europe, it winds its way through 10 countries including Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania.
Why Should You Visit the Danube Delta?
Thanks to the hidden canals and waterways inside the delta, this area has become a bird sanctuary, with over 300 species worldwide using it as a safe haven during their yearly migration patterns. It’s a bird-watcher’s paradise!
If this alone doesn’t want to make you visit, here are a few additional fun facts that’ll get you dreaming of seeing the Danube Delta:
- It has the third largest biodiversity in the world, rivaled only by that found in The Great Barrier Reef in Australia and The Galapagos Archipelago in Ecuador.
- UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 1991.
- Only 50% of the delta is open to the public with the other half remaining completely wild and untouched.
- The delta is comprised of 12 distinct habitat types, from the deep aquatic to forests growing on high land.
Weather in the Delta
The weather in the Danube Delta varies greatly throughout the year, with the best time to visit during the warmer, summer months. That way you can take full advantage of the beach, and not be cold when out on the water while touring the delta.
Number of Days to Visit
We recommend 3-5 days in the delta (not including transit to/from). This will give you time to take 1-2 tours, and spend a couple days exploring the town/city where you base yourself. Our trip was 4 days in total and it felt perfect in terms of overall length.
How to Get to the Danube Delta
All travel to the Danube Delta (or The Delta Dunarii as it’s known locally) starts in Tulcea, a city situated at the head of the delta. As such, unless you’ll be staying in Tulcea itself, you need to plan for a multi-leg journey.
Leg 1: Bucharest to Tulcea
Since Tulcea is a bit isolated in the Northeast, your best route will be to bounce through Bucharest.
Autogari Augustina is the only company that runs a bus service from Bucharest to Tulcea (and by bus I mean minivan).
The benefit to taking the bus is it’s a fast journey, clocking in at just around 4.5 hours. They also offer multiple trips a day, so you don’t have to pre-book a timeslot if you’re unsure when you’ll be departing the city. Just show up, buy a ticket and they’ll put you on the next available ride.
Don’t expect to be very comfortable though during the trip. Seats are cramped together (worse than economy flights, if you can imagine) and you’ll be lucky if the air-conditioning works. Additionally, this journey comes at a hefty price tag of 90 LEI (approximately $22.50 USD) per person.
ProTip: The station isn’t like a normal bus hub as Augustina is a private company. If you won’t have cell data to use in navigating to their office, bookmark the location we’ve pinned below and look out for the white vans:
We found the train to be a much more pleasant journey. Although it takes longer (about 5.5 hours on the direct route), you won’t be squished into a van like a bunch of sardines, and it’ll mean you can get up to stretch your legs when feeling restless. It’s even a bit cheaper, with tickets costing 70.82 LEI (or about $16.50 USD) per person.
The downside to the train is that there are only a few trips each day, so you’ll need to plan further in advance if you want to travel this route. The train is also very small, with only a few cars, so seats can sell out quickly in high season.
ProTip: Pre-book your train travel through the Romanian CFR website. Not only will you get a slight discount for booking online, but it’ll also automatically assign you a seat. We saw some people who waited to get their train tickets at the station and were forced to stand the entire journey.
The final option is to drive yourself to the delta. This is worth considering if you’re a local and already own a car, or are renting one for a longer road trip around the country. However, cars can’t be taken inside the delta, so it isn’t recommended to rent one just for this trip.
Leg 2: Tulcea into the Delta
Once you’re in Tulcea, you’ll still need to get into the delta. There’s no overland transit to the towns inside the delta, so your only choice is to travel by boat. Here you have two options:
Navrom Ferry is the public transport of the region and offers a few services each day. You can try booking tickets online in advance, but from our experience this really isn’t necessary as the boats are decently large. You should be able to just show up and get the tickets at the time of boarding.
Depending on the day of the week, Navrom will either be running a high-speed catamaran (“semirapida”), or the regular slow boat (“clasica”). Both options will be cheaper than the private taxi-boat services at 8-56 LEI per ticket ($1.86-$13.00 USD), depending on your destination. However, you’ll need to time your travels properly, as they are very limited in the number of trips they make each day.
If you’re heading to a popular destination on the delta (such as Sulina), then you may have the option of taking a high-speed boat instead of the slow ferry. The high-speed boats are operated by private companies, which you can find parked along the waterfront in Tulcea. Just take a walk along the harbor and see what you can find.
Since we were headed to Sulina, we opted into using Travel Delta Star. They had an English speaking attendant and the captains knew how to pilot their vessels well. We felt very safe throughout the entire exchange.
The benefit to taking a speed boat is the flexibility it allows your schedule. Whereas Navrom has limited sailing times, the speed boats usually offer multiple trips per day. Cost, however, is higher because of this. From Tulcea to Sulina we paid 60 LEI (or approximately $15.00 USD) per person.
ProTip: Ask your hotel or homestay about transit options to their place. They may be able to recommend a specific boat company (such as ours did) to cut out some of the leg work you’ll need to do once arriving into Tulcea. We even read that some of the larger resorts offer their own boat pickup/drop off service for guests.
Where to Stay
For some Tulcea will be the end of your journey. Located at the head of the delta, it’s a large port city with much to offer tourists (including daytrips into the delta). This is a good place to base yourself if you want more creature comforts, or are short on time for your trip.
Although we ventured further into the delta, our first night was spent in Tulcea to break up the long journey from Bucharest. We can recommend the Delta 3 Hotel. It’s nice accommodation, well located next to the waterfront and comes with killer sunset views.
Inside the Delta
For those with more time or an adventurous spirit, we recommend heading down river into the delta. This will provide you with a local, off-the-beaten-path experience. We were the only international tourists while in the delta; everyone else was Romanian.
Heading into the delta there are three branches to select from: Chilia, Sulina and Sfantu Gheorghe (Saint George).
Chilia is the uppermost branch and runs along the border to Ukraine. Being accessed only by small vessels, it’s typically the least visited of the three channels. It’s also the youngest of the channels, and as such the waterways are still changing. While this branch houses many of the famous attractions to see inside the delta, they can easily be visited on a day trip from elsewhere inside the reserve.
Sulina is the middle of the three river channels, and the shortest arm of the bunch. Mostly a man-dug canal, it was created to facilitate an increase in river traffic and give easier access to villages. Consider this the most popular of the channels, and the busiest in terms of commercial and cruise traffic; although busy is a relative term. We visited in the height of summer and felt the amount of traffic was still very minimal, providing a quiet experience throughout the delta.
Lastly, you have Sfantu Gheorghe, the southernmost and longest branch of the delta. Although the majority of traffic along this channel is local versus commercial, there are still plenty of places for tourists to visit. If you’re looking for a quieter retreat into nature, then staying somewhere on this channel is a good option.
We recommend basing yourself along the central Sulina channel. Not only are there multiple towns to choose from along the waterway, but you’re also in the middle of the reserve, providing easy access to all the local attractions.
The city of Sulina itself (located at the mouth of the river and Black Sea) is the largest city inside the reserve. As the easternmost point of Romania, we found it comes with many other attractions to keep you entertained during your Danube Delta trip. We booked this homestay with a local family and had a blast. They were a lovely couple and provided us with many tips and help while in Sulina.
Top Delta Attractions
The reason one goes to the delta is to cruise the waterways, get some birdwatching in and experience the unique ecosystem. For this you will need to book a tour. They’re regulated by the DDBRA (Daube Delta Biosphere Reserve Authority) because of the site’s UNESCO status, so you can expect to find the same tour offerings in any of the towns/cities you base yourself. Cost, however, will vary depending on where you’re staying and the distance required to get to the tour destination.
Notable Tour Attractions Include:
Letea Forest is a unique ecosystem because it grows straight out of sand dunes. It’s also one of only a few places in Europe (and the world) where you can see actual wild horses.
The land where the forest is located used to be underwater. Centuries later, after the water retreated, the mineral rich silt and sand created the perfect location for a forest to spring up. No other place on the planet can you walk through a forest blanketed in sanddunes.
This tour also provides a good taste for everything the delta has to offer. From birds to plant life, it’s the one we’d recommend if you’re only taking one tour while in the area.
Standard cost for the tour we took was 140 LEI ($32.64 USD), but we negotiated down to 100 LEI ($21.31 USD) for the two of us. This did not include the cost for the car ride to the forest once inside the delta (which was another 25 LEI or $5.83 USD apiece), nor the guide fee to go into the forest (which was 5 LEI or $1.17 USD apiece). These are separate as a way to help the locals make money. In total we spent 160 LEI (or $37.30 USD) for the entire tour.
There was also the option to buy a local lunch while on the tour. This is typically pre-arranged at the beginning so the cooks know how much food to make. We opted out since we didn’t know if it’d be worthwhile, but after seeing the amount and types of food you get, it’s worth the price to try some local flavors. If you don’t opt into the lunch, then you’ll have to just hang out while everyone else eats. It’s okay though to bring your own sack lunch or snacks and munch on them while waiting.
If you’re not interested in seeing Letea Forest, then there are plenty of bird watching specific tours you can book. With over 300 species that visit the delta throughout the year, the diversity is a sight to behold. Many of the bird watching specific tours will take you to secluded lakes or nesting colonies where these birds are known to congregate.
Even though we opted for the Letea Forest tour, we still saw a multitude of birds. From mallard ducks, to storks, pelicans and egrets, it was awesome! Take a cruise along some of the waterways, and visit a few lakes if you can, to truly get good sightings of these magnificent creatures.
Visit the Black Sea and a Shipwreck
Finally, there are a few tours that head all the way to the Black Sea. This gives you a chance to view more sea-fairing birds (such as pelicans and swans), along with a lighthouse and old shipwreck. We didn’t partake in this tour, but hear it’s best to do at sunrise or sunset, where you’ll get to see the pretty sky and colony of birds nesting nearby.
Additional Delta Tour Tips:
- Be prepared for your tour guide to only speak Romanian. This happened to us (which was a great local experience!) but also meant we didn’t always understand what was happening during the tour. Thankfully we got lucky and our group had some people who spoke a little English, so they were able to give us tidbits of knowledge on what the guide shared throughout our trip, meaning we weren’t totally clueless the entire time.
- Payment for tours and services (such as the taxi boats) occurs after the ride is complete. Once you deboard the boat, you then pay the driver/tour operator.
- Don’t pre-book a tour before arriving to the delta. Instead walk along the docks where there will be tons of posters advertising the various companies in the area. Often the driver (or a booking assistant) will be sitting out front of the boat so you can ask them questions and make sure you’re happy with the vehicle (these were the only people we found that spoke decent English). It’ll also give you a chance to negotiate on the price. It’s a competitive market, and they want your business.
- Even if you negotiate a better price for the tour, be prepared to re-communicate this at time of payment as the booking assistant doesn’t always inform the boat driver of these discounts. We had this happen on our tour, with the boat driver requesting more money than was agreed upon. It worked out in the end, but was a little nerve-wracking to deal with because of the language barrier.
- Be prepared for your plans to change. We originally wanted to just go bird watching at some of the nearby lakes and so booked our tour accordingly. However, when we arrived the next morning, we were informed that they couldn’t secure a boat driver for the tour we wanted. They instead offered to let us join the Letea Forest tour that was leaving at the same time. This was extremely frustrating as it was our last day in Sulina and we didn’t have time to find another company that’d take us where we wanted to go. Feeling strong armed, we went with the alternative tour, and thankfully really enjoyed it. Lesson learned though is to either be willing to accept the change in plans if you try to go for a less popular tour, or schedule the tour early on in your trip so you have time to re-book if plans fall through.
- Don’t forget to tip your tour guide. 10% is good and up to 20% if you really enjoyed their services.
Money While Inside the Danube Delta
Cash is used heavily in the delta. While some establishments will accept card payments, these are hard to find. We payed for approximately 90% of our trip in cash, with only a handful of purchases accepting credit card.
Make sure to pull out a bunch of cash before you leave Tulcea since you can’t guarantee the ATMs inside the delta will be stocked properly. We personally had no issues the one time we pulled additional money from an ATM, but we were also staying in the largest city inside the delta. Smaller towns may have a different story.
We recommend taking at least 300 LEI per person. This was perfect for us, and covered basic meals, the cost of one tour and transit to/from Sulina. If you plan to dine out more lavishly, or take additional tours, then bring extra.
Prepare for Communication Barriers
Few people speak English in the delta, so be ready to use hand-gestures or translation apps to get your point across. In our experience we found the people truly wanted to help, so if they didn’t understand English and our other communication methods failed, they’d try to find someone nearby who could understand.
Remember to Purchase a Visitor’s Permit
Remember to purchase a visitor’s permit upon entering the delta. This is essentially a conservation fee that goes toward protecting the delta. When we deboarded in Sulina a sign directed us to the local visitor’s center to get our permit, but each town may be different.
You can also purchase the permit online at www.ddbra.ro. You’ll need to look for the “Permise Online” button, which should then take you to the purchase page. We had difficulty completing the online transaction and so opted to buy the pass in person instead.
Our local hosts said we didn’t need this permit until actually heading into the delta for our day-tour, so we waited on purchasing it. However, when purchasing our passes, we learned that you’re supposed to have it during your entire stay in the delta (the only time you won’t officially need a permit is if you’re staying in Tulcea). Oops. Luckily it seems the police don’t often stop tourists to check for valid permits while wandering around town. If you’re caught without the permit though, it could be a hefty fine, so we recommend playing it safe and purchasing one as soon as you enter the delta.
Passes are sold in 1, 7 or 365 day increments. It costs 5 LEI ($1.16 USD) for a single day or 15 LEI ($3.50 USD) for a week. We didn’t catch the price for a full year pass.
What to Pack for the Delta
Here’s a quick list of what we recommend packing in the warmer months. This list works for both men and women. If you’re visiting in winter, feel free to modify the list by adding in some colder weather gear.
- 1x Bathing suit
- 1x Beach towel
- Don’t expect your hotel/homestay to offer beach towels. We also didn’t see any for rent at the beach itself
- 2x Pairs of shoes
- Make sure one is beach worthy and the other good for walking around town
- Pack socks accordingly for the type of shoe you select
- 1x Light jacket for the evenings
- 2-3x Shorts or skirts
- 1x Nice pants or dress
- For an evening out at a fancier restaurant, although we didn’t find anywhere with a restrictive dress code so you could go casual
- 3-4x Shirts
- 3-4x Underwear
- Mosquito repellent
- Hat for sun protection