Bucharest, the city of Dracula, Ceausescu, lots of beautiful snow, a bizarre mix of communist blocks and churches, cold people and the biggest palace in the world, the list is almost endless.
Read my country guide about Romania to find answers to all your questions for a comfortable trip.
I came back from Romania yesterday and the world seems very different, I think it will take a few days to get back to normality. It is a place like no other. On one hand, you have a nation struggling to forget its past and move forward but 50 years of communist rule has given way to a culture that is very ‘obedient’. People walk with a straight face in straight lines and I didn’t see many people chatting or laughing in the streets except for the younger generation which is more receptive to the European lifestyle.
Not sure which building is this but loved the lighting..
Bucharest is the capital of Romania but it was not the main reason for a visit although it changed my opinion after the visit. I wanted to see the Dracula castle in all its might, on a grey snowy day when you get the chills in your spine but about that later, this is about Bucharest or Bucaresti. (Bewkareshti is how it is pronounced).
Fun Fact: The Danube is the second biggest river in Europe. It flows through 10 countries and has 4 capitals located on it; Belgrade, Bratislava, Budapest and Vienna.
(This random fact because I, for some reason, believed Bucharest was on the Danube, It is 60km South and the last Danube Capital is Belgrade).
According to folklore and legend, Bucharest was founded by a shepherd named Bucur who loved the beautiful valley and decided to stay and gave the city its name. He is said to have married lovely Dambovita and produced the people of Bucharest. Such simplicity! There is a church dedicated to Bucur today in Bucharest on Radu Voda Street so without wasting more time I’ll take you through this lovely city which I loved and hated both (loved a lot more honestly) with its beautiful surroundings and biting cold weather.
All Things Bucharest
To & From Airport
Bucharest has two airports but the main airport is Henri Coanda which is out of the city in Otopeni and it is usually called Otopeni airport. It is modern and quite big with quite good food and drink options and getting to and from is easy.
You can either take the bus which can take from 30-60 minutes to take you the heart of the city in Unirii square and the tickets can be bought at level 0 just outside the door on the right-hand side. (It is a small booth). The other option is taxi which I had heard a lot about and honestly, I was not comfortable with the remotest chance of being scammed on the landing so we took the bus which was quite easy. If you want to take the taxi make sure the metre is running and it has some official number on it.
The tourist information counter at the airport wasn’t very helpful, to put it mildly, and they keep insisting you read the brochures, not sure why they sit there then?
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We stayed in the Old town which is right in the middle of the city but this comes with a bit of catch. Unlike other old towns, this one is not ‘old’ culturally and most establishments are intended for nightlife (clubs, bars, erotica and ‘massage’ places) and it can be quite loud so stay at the periphery. Also, the buildings are not entirely safe so use this map to check the safety, if you are using Airbnb or book a hotel which is not very expensive here. Most nightlife and things happen around Unirii square and University square and we stayed right in the middle which gave us easy access to all things.
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Bucharest has a free walking tour as well organised by Walkabout and we totally loved it. It is probably the best way to make sense of the city and learn some fun facts and history. Our guide was Mihaela and she kept us totally engaged for 2 and a half hours in -4C which says a lot. You can get more info here.
A really strange thing happened on the tour though. Our guide was telling us about the city and a guy randomly started hurling obscenities at her and called her a ‘Gypsy’. She laughed it off but it was such a random thing we were all shocked. We also saw another man being loud to a policewoman while she stood there looking bored. Apparently Romanians like their opinions to be known, oh well!
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The Old City of Bucharest is probably the biggest disappointment of all. I am used to roaming around in well kept old cities, preserved and revered. This one was full of Betting shops, Casinos, Erotica and ‘massage’ establishments, clubs and bars with loud music. The buildings are very unruly but I think a bit of regeneration work has started. They do have some good bars for cheap booze and most of the famous sites are located here along with some good restaurants as well.
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Parliament Palace and Tour
The biggest palace in the world, the most expensive building in the world and the second biggest building in the world (after Pentagon) is a bit of an experience on its own. It is a mammoth with more than 1000 rooms but because of its size, it requires massive amounts for its upkeep which unfortunately the country doesn’t have. I was told the tour was quite boring but luckily we had a good guide and we enjoyed the 90 minutes tour. You will not be allowed to go in on your own without the guide. I definitely think it is worth it. You can reserve the tour on the website here and don’t forget to give them a call one day in advance otherwise they will cancel your reservation.
After 90 minutes of roaming around this somewhat sad building, we only got to see 5% of the building, oh dear lord!
Fun Fact: They will also take you the balcony where the dictator wanted to address his subjects. Ironically, it was used by Michael Jackson for his concert. The amusement doesn’t stop here because he cheered the crowds in on the beautiful Unirii boulevard with greeting to BUDAPEST and not Bucharest. Some history the balcony has!
The boulevard is really gorgeous and it is bigger than Champ de Elysees in Paris for that was the requirement. The building style was picked by Ceausescu by entering the room of structural models and simply choosing the biggest model by scale without any other inquiries. The architect was a 28-year-old girl who spent her whole life creating and then maintaining this mammoth. At its height, it was worked on by thousands of workers 24 hours and up to 700 architects.
Fun Fact: When communism fell, Donald Trump tried to buy the building to turn it into a casino but ran away after it was appraised at 4 billion USD in 1989. I couldn’t help thinking if the Romanians had given him this one cheaper he wouldn’t have pursued White House perhaps?
Tip: There are entrance doors on each side but the entrance for tours is on the left-hand side on Blvd. Natiunile Unite. We went to the wrong entrance and took us 30 minutes to get to the other side and we missed our tour.
Tip: Cash, please bring cash, they don’t take cards, another big surprise I got which meant going out again in -6C to get cash for our tour. Also, don’t forget your ID card or passport.
The palace and the boulevard both have their own presence and while Romanians live with it amongst them, they have no particular fondness for it. I suppose this is what happens when you build stuff with the blood of your people by destroying the oldest neighbourhoods in the city.
Romanians are not friendly people generally and this truly reflects in the attitude of staff in Tourist offices. My God, it is a mission to get anything out of them. Whatever you ask, they just keep insisting you have to read the lengthy brochure because it has EVERYTHING in it.
The main office is in Universitate metro station on a lower level in the shopping area but I would highly recommend walking to the Revolution centre and using the privately run Tourist info centre. The address is Calle Victoriei 68-70. The girls there were really lovely and helped us with all our questions and you can also book tours with them.
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Public transport is quite good but honestly, you won’t need it much because all the stuff to see is around the old city. The metro is quite good and is one of the biggest in eastern Europe. We didn’t use the buses so can’t tell you but don’t expect anything fancy. The metro stations still look very commy and basic but the trains are clean and run quite often.
Taxis are also common and very cheap throughout the city. Uber is fairly limited though.
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The younger generation understands and speaks English quite well but most folks on the street are not familiar with it. You will get most of the websites in the English version as well along with Romanian.
Fun Fact: Romanian in its present form is the closest to Latin and the only language that still boasts that ‘honour’.
Food was probably the biggest surprise in Romania and Bucharest. I was made scared of bland Eastern European food with pork-filled menus which is fairly untrue. Bucharest has a lot of new restaurants with people experimenting with new ideas and giving a modern twist to traditional food.
The best thing for breakfast are these shops with a window hole that sell pastries and there was so much variety you can try a new thing every day. The swirly marbled chocolate bread to pancakes rolled with jam to croissants to Nutella bread, grab a coffee to go and you are sorted! Totally loved the idea and how little time it takes out of your sightseeing day.
You simply cannot go to Bucharest and not go to Caru’ cu bere. This icon of Bucharest has been around since 1879 and the interior is absolutely stunning. It is a treat to enjoy the food here. The name literally means The Beer Wagon. It opened when the trading routes opened and the first imported drink Romanians tasted was beer.
The current restaurant is more of a tourist attraction and in all honesty, the food was fairly average but the atmosphere was good and we loved the time we spent there. Don’t forget to get a reservation though, it can be quite busy. Smoked aubergine sauce with tomatoes was my absolute favourite, yum!
Fun Fact: The logo of Caru’ cu bere is a cat and a rooster which represented ‘We will party all night like the cat till the rooster sings in the morning.
The highlight of food in Bucharest was Lacrimi si Sfenti. This restaurant located within the Old City was the best food we had while in Bucharest. The interior is a fusion of modern and traditional and so is the food. Highly recommended! If you are lucky you will also get to hear some Live Romanian music like we did 😉
P.S I have never been anywhere where they love and Peat Polenta so much, don’t be afraid I totally loved it, especially with sour cream and cheese. *drool*
And my favourite Leonard Cafe in Hanul Manuc for some coffee.
Bucharest is still fairly conservative but it is definitely coming out of the shadows. There are no dedicated bars and only one club that does gay nights on the weekends. It is called Queens Club but based on what I have heard it is very hookerish. Another alternative is Control club but you need to check the nights on their website.
A friend just told me that Queen’s has been closed so there goes the last gay club in Bucharest…
We didn’t really go out somewhere because honestly it was not very comfortable and I didn’t feel very safe. I met Vlad who I had been speaking to through Scruff and he helped me understand a few things about the gay scene in Bucharest. Coming out isn’t easy in Romania still despite EU law and switch because the culture is fairly conservative and most guys aren’t out. Grindr, on the other hand, was buzzing with quite a few guys and I was surprised to see so many of them with their faces on, a little positive surprise and a good break from all the torsos 😉
All in all, if I were you, I wouldn’t go to Bucharest for its gay scene, not yet at least!
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Romanian history is full of tyrants and cruelty, sometimes so much that I shuddered and shivered and then some more. You will hear this name again and again and again until you start hating the guy as well! It is pronounced Chao-shes-ku btw.
The last communist leader whose demise came with the revolution in 1989 was one of the cruellest communist leaders with the strictest rules anywhere in the communist world at the time and he was competing with North Korea, China and Russia, go figure!
He is the architect of most of the city structure of Bucharest in its current form. He built the parliament palace and the boulevard in front of it for his grand vision of the city, sadly at the expense of his people. He was quite loved at first with his reforms but then we went bonkers and in his obsession to pay the entire national debt of Romania he started importing everything out of the country and this lead to major shortages of everything. He was eventually toppled over in 1989, got captured with his wife Elena, had a one hour trial and shot by a firing squad on live TV, ummmm!
Vlad the Impaler
Draculaaaa or Vlad the impaler (or Vlad Tepes which was his real name), call him whatever the guy has international fame and while the rest of the world considers him an evil character, he is surprisingly a Robin hood type figure for Romanians.
One of the Romanian princes, he ruled the country on behalf of Ottomans and rebelled. When his father first arrived in the city as the conqueror, he was carrying a flag of Order of Dragon (an order formed to fight Ottomans) and since Romanians had never seen a dragon symbol before they called it ‘Dracul’ or the devil. With that extension Vlad was called Dracula or son of Dracul, nothing to do with blood-sucking unfortunately for all those Vampire enthusiasts.
He was ruthless but he was also fair to Romanians and people from Walachia. He also refused to pay the tribute to Ottomans which resulted in them sending a small army of 2000 soldiers to fight him. He captured them all and the next time when the bigger army arrived, he impaled them and hung them on the way to Bucharest which terrified the Ottoman army.
The way impaling was done was cruel, to say the least. First, you take a long wooden pole and make one end pointy. Then you enter it to the body through the anus and then the man slide on it. The pole was designed not to pierce any major body organs and you died a slow and painful death which some times took more than 48 hours. Some Robin hood he was!
He didn’t last very long but stories of his cruelty are still alive, some more in Bran castle post…
Romanians are mostly Orthodox Christians and the churches are mostly similar Orthodox style. In contrast to the catholic mega structures, these are relatively smaller with one or two small domes which are a little elevated like minaret domes. It seems much closer to Greek Orthodox style and an interesting change because all the places I visited in the last year were massively catholic and despite my obsession with churches you do get bored of the grandeur and similar style.
The churches here are mostly very interesting buildings not because of their style but also where they are located. Most of them are surrounded by or are behind grey commy blocks and it is such a huge contrast comparing the decorated churches with dull square blocks, makes them look more ornate!
Another interesting thing that I saw in Bucharest only was the loudspeakers. The churches have loudspeakers that continuously relay the sermons to people going around on the streets in Romanian. I have never seen that anywhere in the world, even in Islamic countries where only call to prayer or Friday sermons are relayed to people on the street and even that’s in decline. Quite an interesting aspect of Romanian religious side…
The biggest spa in Europe is located surprisingly in Bucharest and not London or Berlin or Paris and my god it is gorgeous! We spent the entire evening there. you can take the free shuttle that runs between the city and spa at different times and come back on the same shuttle. Check the schedule on the website here under How to get here section. The taxi cost us roughly 35 Lei.
The spa has three different areas based on the theme and the day we went only Galaxy was open. The whole spa is a massive complex and it was quite a good mix of relaxation, fun and excitement because with normal spa stuff and pools they also had water slides. It was a welcome break.
Unfortunately, the massage is offered only in Elysium area which was closed but they did have hydromassage beds which were not as good but weren’t too bad either. The pools were amazing especially the hot pool with seating and a bar where you can chill and have drinks without walking out of the water and last but not the least, the outdoor pool. I absolutely love outdoor pools and the experience here was absolutely amazing. We chilled out there for quite some time before heading back in. Sadly the only part missing was a good scenery but oh well! Oh and don’t forget to try different saunas which were really invigorating.
p.s I think they hired all the good looking guys from Bucharest to work in Therme, another reason to stay a bit longer… 😉
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Bucharest is a big city and you need a lot of time to explore its different sides but I am assuming you are short of time and need to see the main highlights in a couple of days. If you have more time and it is not sub-zero you can definitely do and see more.
You can see the main attractions in two days around Bucharest and for most of them you don’t need to use public transport, walking around is the best option with plenty of bars, coffee shops, restaurants and shops at every corner. Day 1 is designed to spend around the Revolution square and with the Walking tour you can have a look around the Old City and Little Paris and you will end up in University square.
Romanian Atheneum –> Revolution Square (Piata Revolutiei) –> National Museum of Arts –> Kretzulescu Church –> University Square (Piata Universitate) –> National Theatre –> Biserica Sfantul Gheorghe Nou –> Biserica Sfantul Ioan Nou –> Unirii Square (Piata Unirii)
A beautiful concert hall next to Revolution square with a gorgeous garden in front. It is quite a beautiful building and has a special presence in the square.
Revolution Square (Piata Revolutiei)
The revolution square is surrounded by some really important buildings that played a key role in the history of Romania with the Royal palace and monument of rebirth located here as well as a library of the University of Romania.
Don’t forget to enjoy the ‘Impaled’ potato, Romanians like ase impaling. 😉
National Museum of Arts
Right across is the former Royal palace which now hosts the National Museum of Arts. The entrance door is magnificent and feels like I needed the strength of 3 people to open it, a beautiful building with a gorgeous garden though.
Another beautiful building on the corner of Revolution square. The Eastern Orthodox Church has two domes. I just fell in love with the door and the ceiling at the entrance. The altar inside is even more beautiful, quite a peaceful place.
University Square (Piata Universitate)
You will walk to the university square which is the centre of life in Bucharest. You will come across some magnificent but abandoned buildings and some of them are being regenerated. The University of Bucharest has its beautiful building located one corner.
This newly constructed building has a beautiful edifice and my favourite statue in the whole of the city in front of it.
Unirii Square (Piata Unirii)
The walk from University square to Unirii square is quite beautiful with three churches on the left-hand side. Remember when I wrote about the loudspeakers above, it was right here. The park around Biserica Sfantul Gheorghe Nou is quite peaceful. The last church before Unirii square is Biserica Sfantul Ioan Nou.
Unirii Square –> Hanul Manuc –> Biscerica Sfantul Antoine –> Princely Court (Curtea Veche) –> National Museum of History –> Biscerica Stavropoleos –> University Square –> Therme Spa
Unirii Square (Piata Unirii)
Unirii Square is the start of the tour. The Union square is one of the largest and is located between the Unirea shopping Mall.
The Unirii Boulevard bisects the square and on the other side, we saw probably the most communist blocks ever. The fountain in the middle is where we met our guide.
The beautiful inn stands at the corner of Old city. It is elegant and mostly made of wood with a very gorgeous courtyard. The other side has one of the pastry shops for a quick snack and also my favourite coffee shop ‘Leonard Caffe’.
Biscerica Sfantul Antoine
The oldest church in Bucharest and with its beautiful red-orange interior and two domes, it is dedicated to St. Anthony who also happens to be the patron saint of Travellers so pop in to say hello to him.
Princely Court (Curtea Veche)
This is the spot with the statue of Vlad Tepes and the site where Romania was first considered a country in its own right. The old princely court isn’t more than a ruin sadly without much in the background either but the stories make up for the lack of glamour..
National Museum of History
Romanian really went berserk after the revolution and most of the revolution came from Paris. For some reason, all communist countries have a fascination with Paris. Even Russians used to think Paris was the height of sophistication. (I am not negating that just disputing that ;))
Romanians imported a lot of architects from Paris and the Parisian style Palace building boom started and this was one of those buildings. Today it is a museum without much going on and a statue of an old Roman emperor carrying the she-wolf that raise Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. Not sure why it is there and also not sure why it is so ugly, hmmm?
The palace opposite is my favourite with its stunning dome..
The most beautiful church cum monetary in Bucharest! The building is small but the decoration and the details is fantastic. The central courtyard of monastery was full of snow which made it looks so beautiful with the windows above and the arches below. so calming!
We heard some more of the revolution on the way while passing through Little Paris and then the full story at University square where most of the action happened.
We spent the second day by heading to the parliament and after the tour, we walked back to the old town to walk around and see the places up close we had seen the day before during the walking tour. Then we took the metro to The Arch of Triumph and the outdoor museum and then headed back through Victoriei street back to the old city or you can take the shuttle or taxi from University square to Therme, the biggest spa in Europe for some amazing relaxed time and a great end to a busy walking day.
Palace of Parliament
The palace was built in the 1980s and as I mentioned above we went with the tour. Sadly it was built on the old city of Bucharest so the ancient part of the city is lost.
Fun Fact: The palace has 10 floors up and officially only 2 floors down but rumour has it that there are 9 floors down with the building 86 meters above and 91 meters below with reports of a nuclear bunker, tunnels and whatnot. I think the government likes the keep the intrigue under the name of national security with not much down there 😉
Fun Fact: The palace rents out rooms to individuals, companies and even governments so if you can afford it, you can get married here 😉
Arch of Triumph (Arch de Triumf)
The arch is close to Avaiatorlor metro station and it is the third one for the Romania soldiers to march under. The national day os Romania is 1st December and like all things Paris inspired this is quite Parisian albeit the statues and decorations are very Romanian.
Honestly, it was so cold that we ran back to some cafe coffee and hot chocolate instead of going to this open-air museum which is located inside the park. I have heard good things about it and you can see the beautiful houses and country life of Romania here.
Finally, we went to Therme and I think spending the rest of the day was the best decision ever! There’s quite a lot to do and we didn’t feel like we were bored throughout the evening.
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