BUCHAREST: The forgotten European capital city
October 3 is a holiday here in Germany (Tag der deutschen Einheit, or Day of German Unity). Since it fell on a Monday this year, it made for a perfect long weekend for my boyfriend and I to do an excursion outside of Berlin. We weren't too fussy about where we went, but liked the idea of trying somewhere different from the usual European sights. The cheapest airfare to a nontraditional location ended up being Bucharest. Neither of us knew anything about the city besides the absolute basics (capital of a former communist country, cheap, urban), so it seemed like the perfect mini-adventure. We booked with little hesitation.
We spent roughly three days total there, arriving late on a Friday and departing on a Monday evening. Overall, the city left a very positive impression on both of us. I would describe it as a less stunningly beautiful Budapest - which is not to suggest that Bucharest wasn't pretty, merely that it lacked (in my opinion) any explicitly gorgeous sights, unlike the parliament building or Fisherman's Bastion in Budapest, for example. But like Budapest, probably even more so, there was a fascinating mix of beautiful, classical European-looking buildings and general dilapidation. The aftermath of its communist past was plain to see on nearly every street, with extremely drab, utilitarian facades mixed in with buildings that wouldn't be out of place in Prague or Paris.
There were also ample signs that this is still a city that is in flux and that has aspirations of cosmopolitanism that sometimes go unfulfilled. There were numerous sad, empty storefronts along major streets and in heavy tourist areas. We also stopped by what purported to be an open air street food/food truck market that was extremely underwhelming and dead on a weekend, although perhaps we just weren't hitting it in the right season.
But overall, the city was pretty, interesting and exceptionally lively, specifically in the Old Town, which is absolutely packed with bars and clubs. For people interested in simply seeing a new city and experiencing a different kind of European vibe, I think it's absolutely worth the trip. Still,
Rather than doing a day-by-day breakdown of what we saw and did, here are some general thoughts about our experience there and tips for anyone who might want to visit, including food highlights.
- We got along just fine speaking only English. Every bar or restaurant we went to had no problems accommodating us.
- Many of the main sights are not far from each other. It's a very walkable city and we almost never took the Metro.
- When we did take it, the Metro was easy enough to use, but busses were another story. The process for validating tickets on board was very confusing to me (I never really figured it out). Buying tickets was also a bit painful. When we arrived, the electronic kiosk was not working properly, so we had to buy from a nearby window where luckily someone was still staffed (you can't buy tickets from the bus drivers). When we wanted to head back to the airport, we couldn't find any electronic machines in the city, so we ended up having to wait in line at a ticket kiosk to buy from someone in-person. The process was ridiculously slow (seemed like the technology he had available to him to print the tickets was very slow moving), so keep that in mind if you're planning on taking the bus to the airport -- allow yourself time to wait in line to buy tickets.
- Bucharest's Old Town is the lively center of Bucharest. We first went there the night we arrived (a Friday) and we were completely blown away by how much activity was going on. There were tons of bars and clubs with music blasting into the streets as well as restaurants with packed outdoor areas. There were people everywhere, laughing, drinking and having a generally good time. It's probably one of the most lively Old Towns I've seen in Europe.
- That said, it did feel a bit tacky at times. Most bars and restaurants there had little to no historical or traditional significance, although the Old Town itself was generally pretty, especially by day. Still, if you go into it with the right expectations, I think Bucharest would be a particularly fun city to go out in with a group of friends due to this atmosphere.
- There are some very lovely examples of classical European architecture in the city, such as the Romanian Athenaeum (concert hall), the Palace of the National Military Circle, and the so-called CEC Palace.
- On Sunday, we took part in a free tour of the city via Walkabout Free Tours. This was definitely worth it, as it showed us multiple places we hadn't seen yet on our own and gave us some additional historical perspective on the city.
- We adored the Carturești Carusel bookstore in the old town. It's for sure one of my favorite bookstores I've ever seen. It's beautiful to look at and fun to explore, and it also provided us a nice getaway on Monday when the rains arrived and we just wanted to hole up somewhere for a bit.
FOOD AND DRINK
- Prices in Bucharest were not astonishingly cheap, but still, the average prices for things were definitely notably cheaper than in Berlin, which I suppose is saying something for people used to the prices in other parts of Europe (since Berlin is already fairly cheap).
- Main dishes in a normal restaurant (so, not super upscale but also not fast food) tended to cost 5 - 9 EUR, although usually veering more to the high end of that. Cocktails were usually in the range of 4.50 - 5.50 EUR.
- Reservations seemed to be very big in Bucharest -- basically everywhere we went it seemed like tables were always reserved, and most times were seated in between reservations with a request to please be ready to go in an hour and a half. This was never an issue for us and we always found a place to sit with enough time to enjoy our meal, but if you can be bothered, it would be smart to reserve ahead, especially for any place that you know is popular.
- Service was generally prompt, but a bit colder and stiffer than in Berlin, which is saying something if you know the service style in Berlin. No one was outright unfriendly, though.
Further, here are some of the places we ate and/or drank that we quite enjoyed and would recommend to others:
- Simbio: A great spot for brunch or lunch -- lots of traditional brunch favorites as well as burgers and sandwiches. The interior was bright and fresh. It seemed to be very popular on a Saturday morning however, so definitely reserve if you can.
- Alt Shift: Solid dinner choice. It was a bit confusing to find (had to go upstairs to find the restaurant, no signs pointing the way) and I found the interior a bit spartan and boring, but the food itself was very tasty, Also some nice cocktail options.
- Energeia: This might be our favorite place we went to. We stopped only for cocktails, but the food options both sounded and looked amazing. The cocktails were not shabby either -- some really interesting options.
- La Copac: If you want to get in touch with more traditional Romanian food, this is a great bet. Many of the menu items are mix-and-match, letting you pick you meat of choice with your sides of choice.
I found many helpful recommendations on this Made in Bucharest website. Check it out for more tips on places to see and eat in the city.