The word on Bucharest is that it’s ugly, gritty, grimy — and parts of it are. But don’t make do with first impressions. As our guide aptly put it: “New-old-beautiful-ugly. This is what Bucharest is.”
Energetic, hectic and not quite a quarter of a century out of Communist rule, this textured capital city of 2.2 million people is an acquired taste, and it’s still in the process of defining itself. Just as Romania has been touted as the New Italy, Bucharest is being hailed as a sophisticated but less pricey alternative to Budapest and Belgrade.
The overarching signature of Bucharest today is the intersection of Communism and capitalism: Buses carrying tourists routinely pull up to the massive Palace of Parliament, built by Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu as a tribute to himself. (More than one-sixth of the city was leveled to accommodate his indulgence.) The endless grey blocks of apartments that rose during Communist times are still in evidence, but so are outlets for Ferrari and Maserati, Hard Rock Cafe, ING, Starbucks and McDonald’s. And the national sense of humor that Romanians quietly relied upon to help them survive Ceausescu’s dictatorship is out in the open now. Locals, for instance, call the Judicial Ministry “the laundry”: where politicians go in dirty and come out clean.
Located between the Carpathian foothills and the Danube River, Bucharest in its golden age — the late 19th and early 20th centuries — was known throughout Europe as “Little Paris.” Royals ruled at the time, and the city was famous for its elegant architecture, grand thoroughfares and cultural elite. There are still some gorgeous neo-Classical buildings that date back to Bucharest’s heyday, but World War II bombings and two earthquakes altered much of the skyline.
A member of the European Union since 2007, modern-day Bucharest is trying hard to regain its fallen stature as a European capital. In a travel piece in The Guardian, the British newspaper called Bucharest “Paris eaten then spat out.” Get real. Bucharestians make no apologies for their city — and they shouldn’t. Just like its residents, it’s a place with a big personality and a huge heart.
With its elegant, historic city center, emerging cafe society, architectural high points and proximity to lovely Transylvania, Bucharest has a lot to offer tourists. But there are a few caveats. Pickpockets troll the public transportation system during the peak hours of 7 – 9 a.m. and 4 – 5 p.m., so use caution. Bucharest also has a severe problem with stray dogs — thousands of them. It’s best to steer clear if you happen upon one. Also, Bucharestians joke that there are no traffic rules in the city, only traffic suggestions. Take them at their word when doing something as simple as crossing the street.
A visit to Bucharest would not be complete without a look at the Communist landmarks that make up much of the city’s visual signature. Not only do the sites represent a difficult part of history that ended with the 1989 revolution, but the monuments are interesting architecturally. (“Anything that looks weird was built by the Communists,” our guide told us. He was right.) Among the sites that mark Ceausescu’s 25-year dictatorship: the former Central Committee of the Communist Party building on Revolution Plaza, the scene of Ceausescu’s last speech and, across from it, a brick and glass building that headquartered the secret police; the large white obelisk shooting through a symbolic black cloud, a monument known locally as the “impaled potato,” which celebrates freedom from Communism; and the Palace of Parliament, one of the largest buildings in the world. The building, Ceausescu’s greatest folly, has more than 1,000 rooms, an enormous nuclear bunker and a 328-foot-long lobby. It took 20,000 workers and 700 architects to build. Palace of Parliament is located on B-dul Unirii, a boulevard modeled after the Champs-Elysees. Revolution Plaza is roughly nine blocks north of Parliament.
A counterpoint to the Communist landmarks is the lovely Lipscani district, the historical heart of Bucharest. The old city center, now being refashioned into an upscale neighborhood, is a mishmash of architectural styles, from Baroque to neo-Classical to Art Nouveau. This jumble of cobblestone streets and pedestrian walkways houses art galleries, antique shops and coffeehouses. It is also home to the stunning Stavropoleos Church. Built in 1724, this small architectural gem is a mixture of Romanian and Byzantine styles with a beautiful facade, frescoes and wood-painted icons. Many consider it to be Bucharest’s finest church.
Bucharest has many museums, but far and away, the two local favorites are the National Village Museum (Sos Kiseleff 28 – 30), an open-air collection of peasant homesteads transported from across rural Romania, and the Museum of the Romanian Peasant (Sos Kiseleff 3), which houses 18th- and 19th-century collections of weavings, handicrafts, pottery and other folk arts. The latter was named European Museum of the Year in 1996. Another museum, underrated but quite wonderful, is the Museum of Art Collections. Founded in 1978 and part of the National Art Museum, it contains private collections confiscated by the Communists and later recovered. (Some promotional literature about the museum says the art was “donated to the state.” Don’t believe it!) The artworks — traditional glass, Transylvanian icons, 19th-century French furniture and works by Romanian masters — mirror the development of Romanian art in the 19th and 20th centuries and hint at how the nation’s avant-garde once lived. The museum, headquartered in a neo-Classical building at Calea Victoriei 111, has sketchy hours, so it’s advisable to call first.
The Arch of Triumph, based on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, is an important city landmark that honors the bravery of Romanian soldiers who fought in World War I. Originally built of wood in 1922, the 85-foot-high arch was finished in granite in 1936. The monument is located on Sos Kiseleff, the same street that houses the National Village Museum and Museum of the Romanian Peasant just a few blocks away. Kiseleff itself is notable because it showcases Bucharest’s finest villas, occupied today by diplomats and political parties, among others. During the Communist era, it was reserved strictly for Communist party officials.
Herastrau Park, considered by many to be Bucharest’s nicest park, stretches along a manmade lake, and is a great place to stroll, bike or boat. There are open-air cafes, restaurants, and nice spots to relax and live like the locals for a while.
Tack some time in Transylvania onto your stay in Bucharest. It’s gorgeous mountain country that houses ski resorts like Sinaia, 80 miles from Bucharest, and the lovely medieval town of Brasov, 100 miles away. The tourism industry has made much ado about Bran Castle because of its so-called association with Dracula. In fact, there is no association, and the castle itself is not all that special and is sparingly furnished. For day trips, the best bet is to focus on tours that include Brasov, Sinaia Monastery (founded in 1695 and still in use) and the extraordinary Peles Castle. The Peles compound, one of the most visited sites in all of Romania, is stunning architecturally and tells the story (through design, artworks, furnishings and family objects) of Romania’s golden age and the royal family that made it so. Viator offers a number of day trips.
The Dracula legend originated in Romania, and to experience it locally, check out lovely Snagov, a weekend retreat for Bucharestians just 25 miles north of the city. There’s a lowland forest, a lake and, notably, an island in the lake that features a 15th-century church that is home to Vlad Tepes’ tomb. Tepes was the brutal prince who inspired novelist Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Rowboats, often manned by priests, are available to take visitors to the small stone church. For do-it-yourselfers, there are buses and a shuttle service that travel to Snagov; the concierge at your hotel can fill you in. There are also guided tours from Viator and others.
Take a day-long excursion to Piatra Craiului National Park, which supports rare species of plants. You can typically arrange for a tour that includes a cable car ride in the Bucegi Mountains and lunch in a chalet in the heart of the park. See your hotel concierge, or check out Viator day trips.
Romanians joke that when vegetarians ask a waiter for meat-free menu options, they’re told: “No problem. We have lamb.” This is a country that loves its meats: pork stuffed with ham and cheese; beef stuffed with mushrooms, bacon, peppers and a tomato puree; and mititei, small, skinless grilled sausages made of minced pork, lamb, beef and spices.
Romanians also love soup. A national favorite is the hearty ciorba, a sour soup made from fermented bran, vegetables, parsley, dill and beef or chicken. It’s usually served with a bit of sour cream and green or pickled pepper. For the experimental diner, there is ciorba de burta, a tripe soup made with sour cream, vinegar and garlic sauce. (It’s good.)
Popular desserts include pastries, usually with a cheese filling. And, by all means, sample Romanian wines. This wine-producing nation is known for its reds and dry and demi-sec whites.
Note when eating in a restaurant that the tip is rarely included, except sometimes in large groups. The recommended tip is 5 to 10 percent, depending on the quality of the service.
Beloved by both locals and tourists, Caru’cu bere (Str. Stavropoleos 5) is a gorgeous restaurant with stained glass and wood carvings that dates back to 1879. Menu favorites include squash stuffed with minced meat; Romanian pork shank served with pan-fried sauerkraut, polenta, horseradish and chili pepper; grilled trout; and grilled mutton sausages. Caru’cu bere means “a beer wagon,” and the huge menu includes a number of home-brewed beers. The restaurant is nicely located in the historic Lipscani district, one block from Stavropoleos Church.
Located just around the corner from the Arch of Triumph, L’esperance (Str. Clucerului 86) is a small family business with a robust menu of Romanian specialties. You can’t go wrong with the sampler plate: caviar in quail eggs, foie gras, fried pressed cheese, mititei and grilled pork, veal and lamb. There is also a nice selection of Romanian wines. A favorite of local families and business people alike, L’esperance is the real deal.
If you’re interested in a quick bite, try a kebab shop. Considered better and fresher alternatives to traditional fast food outlets, the eateries feature grilled chicken or beef with Romanian (by way of Turkey, a one-time occupier of the nation) spices, sauces and garlic. Sides include salads, grilled veggies and Turkish yogurt. Shaorma Dristor, with multiple locations, is a popular choice. Look for its Dristor kebap signs.
Shopping in Bucharest
Like any big city, Bucharest has malls and department stores, and you’ll find all manner of stores on Calea Victoriei, the historic thoroughfare. But the best selection of Romanian souvenirs — folk art, religious icons, sheepskin vests, ceramics, woven rugs, embroidered table runners — can be found at gift shops at the Museum of the Romanian Peasant or the National Village Museum. (Be sure to check the museums’ opening hours before you go.) Prices range from the inexpensive to the extravagant. Romanian wines from the Prahova Valley, widely available in wine shops and grocery stores, are also a great buy.
If you’re looking for a little extra reading material, check out Anthony Frost English Bookshop (Calea Victoriei 45); another good stop for bibliophiles is Libraria Noi (B-dul Nicolae Balcescu 18), which also has a decent selection of English-language books (as well as cool old maps).
Bucharest has a number of shopping malls. AFI Palace Cotroceni, located on Boulevard Timisoara, boasts not only a wide variety of shops (including familiar names like Calvin Klein and Sephora) but also an IMAX theater, casino, go-karts and laser tag. The Unirea Shopping Center (Piata Unirii 1) is another large mall offering clothing, electronics, household goods and even a supermarket.
For antiques, the historic Lipscani district is a good bet; you’ll also find some antique stores along Calea Victoriei.
–written by Ellen Uzelac