“Bucharest? Don’t you mean Budapest?”
“Is it safe?”
For the record, I’m blaming all of you for why I ended up in Bucharest, and fell in love with this Eastern European capital. After all, many of you filled out my survey and voted on Twitter to help Mr. Valise and I choose our August destination.
The field has been narrowed; it’s time to choose!
Which single country should I visit for 10 days in August? #poll
— Valerie & Valise (@Valerie_Valise) June 29, 2016
It turns out Bucharest – and the other parts of Romania we saw – are truly incredible. Despite this, many people still aren’t sure about visiting, so here’s a guide to everything you need to know about Bucharest to plan your trip.
A Rough Cut Gem of Romania: Bucharest
From our first minutes in Bucharest, I knew we were in for a unique experience. Bucharest is developing rapidly, driven by massively strong technology and tourism sectors. While U.S. citizens may fear the legacy of the Iron Curtain, Europeans are warming quickly to this E.U. but non-Schengen destination.
If you’ve never considered – or even heard of – Bucharest, get ready for a quick history lesson. There’s far more history than Communism, the most common answer I heard when questioning people about their Bucharest knowledge.
Originally settled back in some capacity as far back as Roman times, Bucharest began to gain international prominence in the 15th century. By the 17th century, trade and the influence of the Ottoman empire were major themes, followed by an ongoing series of wars and conflicts between the Romanian territories. In the late 19th century, Romania became a kingdom and roughly 50 years later, Communism rose to prominence as the major political organization. In 1989, Romanians around the country joined a revolution to throw off the Communist regime, and the country has been Democratic since.
What is Bucharest Like Now?
There’s a mish-mash of architecture and infrastructure in Bucharest, unsurprising given the rapid ascent and equally fast fall of Fascist regimes in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many quality public services, like the metro, were bought and paid for by the Romanian people at the cost of comfort, food, and security.
Similarly, there are stunning Baroque and neo-Romanesque buildings throughout the city, now locked up in legal battles about ownership and falling into disrepair. Bucharest has the feel of a rough, dirty Paris with stunning elements and buildings on every street, but many in need of a deep, thorough cleaning.
Bucharest feels like a canvas that has been painted by many artists. There are different styles, and different strokes throughout the city – from the gargantuan neo-Classical Parliament to dismal Soviet housing blocks. What the city needs is a clear-minded artist to come back, remove the layers and colors that aren’t working, and finish designing the masterpiece.
Tourism and Tourists in Bucharest
As I mentioned, Bucharest exists in a unique position from a tourism perspective. The city is increasingly visited by European (and “daring” American) visitors, but hasn’t received the tidal wave of global tourism. Sites like Parliament and the Old Town are still enjoyable to walk through.
At the same time, the Bucharesti government hasn’t yet tapped into the potential of tourism to help them reshape their city. Andreea, our tourism contact who works for a company called Mr. Tripp, told me how their company was helping drive responsible and sustainable tourism in Bucharest and Romania – even as the city ignored the need for basic budgets or social media presence.
There is no greater power for positive progress in a city than tourism – we Americans with our dollars and the Chinese with their Yuan are major drivers of change wherever we visit. Bucharest has yet to define how they will harness that power, and what they will do with it.
I am happy to report that Bucharest is one of the safest cities I’ve visited in Europe. Rather, it did not feel notably less safe than anywhere else I’ve been, and didn’t have the hallmarks of pickpocketing, scams, or destitution one might expect. Most major streets are well lit so walking around at night is a perfectly reasonable prospect, and the more common tourist areas are always full of people.
Food & Drink in Bucharest
If, like me, a major driver of travel is food and drink – you’ll love Bucharest!
Like neighboring Balkan countries, Romanian food is heavy and rich. Though we visited in early August, Mr. Valise and I regularly enjoyed hearty stews and steaming plates of meat and potatoes. The basic premise of goulash (paprika-heavy soup or stew with meat and veggies) is prevalent, and many dishes come with polenta as the starch. This harkens back to leaner times, where cheap polenta worked well as a substitute for other carbs.
Though Romanian food isn’t yet having a gourmet renaissance, there are plenty of delicious places to eat in Bucharest. One of the most popular is Caru’ cu Bere in the Old Town. It’s a bit of a tourist trap but makes up for it with delicious food and nightly entertainment.
The local spirit in Romania is Țuică, part of the Pálinka family of fruit brandies common across Eastern Europe. In Romania, Țuică can be made with only plums, giving it a deep fruity flavor – and a sharp bite of alcohol, at 40-45% ABV.
Craft beer is also having a moment in Bucharest right now, with several small breweries popping up in the last few years. There’s also a Craft Beer Festival every September, a testament to the fact that Bucharesti are beginning to embrace good beer (and cider). This is spreading beyond Bucharest too, as craft beer ‘scenes’ are popping up in many Romanian cities, including Timisoara!
If you can find bottles of Sikaru, Ground Zero, or Zaganu, be sure to give them a try. One of the best restaurants I found with a wide variety of craft beer was Rocca by the Jar. This tiny restaurant is hidden down a residential street north of Parcul Cismigiu but worth seeking out.
Getting To and Around Bucharest
If you’re planning a trip to Bucharest, it’s surprisingly easy to get to the Romanian capital. Many low-cost European carriers now fly to Otopeni airport, including RyanAir, Wizz Air, and the newcomer Blue Airlines. KLM, British Airways, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines and Royal Jordanian also service the airport, though somewhat less frequently. Whichever direction you are arriving from, you can find a route.
If you fly to Bucharest, you will need to arrange an airport transfer, as Otopeni is about 30 minutes outside the city center. While Bucharest has good public transit, it doesn’t connect to the airport very well. There are two bus lines – 780 and 783 – that run from the airport to the city center; the latter runs 24hrs/day.
There are also trains to Bucharest. The primary rail service provider is CFR, or “Societatea Nationale a Cailor Ferate Române,” and their lines link up with other European lines. The most common routes come through Budapest in Hungary, and you can reach Bucharest from Paris, Brussels, and even London by train if you have the time. If you arrive by train, you’re within easy walking distance from Bucharest North (the train station) to the city center (about 3km).
Within Bucharest, walking is the easiest way to get around the central part of the city. There is a good public bus system, and many locals use it; the Bucharest metro is also reasonably good. The M1 metro line is the most useful, circling the city and connecting with the other three lines. To ride the metro you can purchase two-ride tickets for 5 lei (less than $1) or 10-ride tickets for 20 lei (around $3). Riding the bus requires purchasing a special travel card from ticket kiosks.
A Perfect Three Day Itinerary for Bucharest
Here’s a quick three-day itinerary you can save for future reference.
I’d highly recommend booking both your transfers and city tour through Mr. Tripp, as we did. They’re one of the most prominent tour providers in the city, and have expert knowledge of the best sights to see. They are also enthusiastic to meet and work with visitors to create the perfect custom itinerary.
Need a place to stay? Here’s the Airbnb where Mr. Valise and I stayed. Florin’s apartment was perfect for our 2+ weeks in the city, and is easy walking distance from all the major sites.
One Final Note
Bucharest is easily one of my favorite destinations so far on this trip, a place I could picture myself staying for a few months at least. I’m happy to answer questions you have, and am eager to share my love for this city with fellow travelers.
I can’t release the official details yet, but if you’re considering a trip to Bucharest, make sure you stay tuned for my Blogiversary giveaway this year. I’ve got a big, beautiful Bucharest bounty coming up for grabs. You can sign up for my newsletter to stay up-to-date on when the contest goes live.
Many thanks to Mr. Tripp, Gray Line Romania for helping arrange airport transfers and tours during my time in Romania.