Looking to explore the legacies of communism? Sure, Bucharest has some of that, but I also found one of the most thriving cities I’ve had the opportunity to explore. Sure, by most of Western Europe’s standards Bucharest may seem a bit… well different. It does things in a quirky sort of way, partially to say because it’s a city that’s both traditional as well as up and coming. Bucharest is motivated to become someplace special and I have news to bring from my travels — It already is something special.
Bucharest, like much of Romania might seem a bit confusing for the inexperienced traveler. That’s not that it doesn’t have the modern conveniences of other places in Europe (it certainly does), but everything is extremely efficient. Whatever stereotypes you might have about cities released from “the iron curtain” you can leave at the airport gate / train station before you arrive. Get ready for something welcoming, bustling, and most of all, different — There is a reason why some call it the Paris of the east.
In/out: Most travelers arrive by air, in which case you’ll land at Henri Coandă International Airport which is a decent ways out of the city. I simply took a bus to get in. Bus #780 goes to the main train station and #783 to the city center. There is also a shuttle bus to train transfer option, but due to construction I was told this was inconvenient and took longer than simply taking the above buses. I would avoid taxis as scams with these are really really common in Bucharest. Apparently they’ve fixed some of this since I was last in the city by implementing a ticket corresponding to cab system, but I’d ask the information desk at the airport and never get in a cab that’s unmarked. Also make sure the meter works and the rate is around 1.4 lei a km. Anything more than 2 and you’re likely getting ripped off.
If you’re coming in by train, you will probably arrive at Gara De Nord, Bucharest’s main train station. Be aware that this station is often very busy and that you should be very mindful of your belongings. A common scam (this got played on me) is someone official looking approaching and offering to help you on and off the train and find your seat. Don’t let this happen, you can easily find your seat as the cars and seats are clearly labeled. Best case scenario is that they’ll pull what they did on me and lead me to the seat (I didn’t give them my bag) and then ask for a donation to “help the children”. Worse case scenario — they run off with your bag! Overall though, Gara De Nord is nothing to be worried about, just be ready to say no to a few people offering “help”. Also be aware, lots of Roma (Gypsies) run about including their children. It’s part of their culture to be curious, but also out look for people looking “opportunities” at your belongings.
Around: This may come as a surprise to those of you yet to experience Eastern Europe, but the public transportation in Bucharest is very reliable and efficient. Bus service runs all over the city and the metro has frequent stops and is pretty cheap to use. I’d recommend the metro once you’re in the city as it will take you most places you need to get. For everything else: strolling through Bucharest offers a pleasant and fairly straightforward experience. Free pubic transport maps are available and will come in handy. Most ticketing offices have an “English Desk” but keep in mind that the person sitting there, might not actually speak English. See my post on Romania for more on this…
Stay? As per usual, try to stay someplace centrally located and be aware that the hotel/hostel may hold onto your passport for a bit. Be aware that some facilities, especially on the budget end, might not be as modern as some expect and lack elevators. Be ready to schlep your bags up some stairs. If your hotel happens to have an elevator like the one in mine (pictured below), get ready for a… unique experience.
WHAT TO DO?
See Parliament: This was honestly my favorite thing I did in Bucharest, partially because the sense of humor of our guide (that most of the others on the tour didn’t seem to get). If you’re looking for the history of Bucharest including its communist legacy, this is one of the best places in the city to visit. Arriving there, you’ll likely have to walk a bit to find the actual entrance, go in through the more modern looking doors. You’ll know what I mean. Once inside, you’ll have to check in with security, pay the entrance/tour fee, and then surrender your passport for a cross-check. If I remember right, you might not get the passport back until the end of the tour (collateral for who knows what). This building is massive! Supposedly the biggest Parliament in the world, which is most likely because its been many things over the years: A royal residence, the communist party head quarters, and now — where all of the Romanian politics happen (or lacking in the “happening” part according to my guide). Because this place has seen so many different rulers, you can see it in the architecture, which makes for a beautiful and also interesting experience. Also, have your camera ready as you’ll get some great views of the city from the building’s rooftop. I really hope that the tour guide I had is more a representation of their hiring guidelines and not just a rouge tour leader who loved to mix sarcasm in with his explanations. Either way — it’s quite funny that the only Soviet flag that you’ll find in the building is in the basement next to the sewage pipes. As our guide said, “we hung this flag for the tourists”.
The Old Town: This is quintessential Romania and has everything that you’re looking for in the “Paris of the East”. Beautiful cobblestone streets and architecture that very much is reminiscent of the old times. Much of the architecture has been preserved through war and regime controls and now into the modern age of bustling Bucharest. Make sure to hang out at one of the outdoor cafes and have a beer. Most everything here is likely very cheap compared to where you’re traveling from so enjoy it while it lasts.
Admire Bucharest’s Churches: I highly recommend exploring much of the city center by foot as that’s the best way to take in this city. It’s fairly compact and you’re definitely not going to want to miss the churches. Religion, mostly Eastern Orthodox, plays a huge role throughout Romania and Bucharest is no exception. The best part about visiting the churches is that most are fairly close to other attractions so just keep an eye out. Be very observant and respectful of those worshiping around or in churches. It’s customary for believers in the faith to at the very least give a tilt of the head or some acknowledgement of the church as they pass and some may even stop and pray.
Take in the Communist Legacy: There is a lot more to this city than just it’s life under the iron curtain, however if you were to skip over admiring the funky block housing and government buildings of Bucharest, you’d be missing some important “building blocks” (pun very intended) in what makes up Bucharest’s present. The collision of architecture in this city makes it very unique and memorable. Take lots of pictures.
Cismigiu Park: Definitely worth a stroll and easily accessible by train. This is a great place to people watch and enjoy a snack from one of the many vendors.
THINGS TO KNOW:
- There are conflicting posts around the internet about drinking in public, but I never saw anyone with a bottle in hand that wasn’t at a bar or cafe. Keep that in mind and I’d play it safe. Drinking in Romania is very cheap so just go to the pub.
- The most common scam in Bucharest come from Taxis so I’d recommend just not taking them. Between the Metro and your own two feet, getting around is easy and much more fulfilling.
- Although you may be asked to surrender your passport at your hotel / hostel (temporarily) another common scam is for plain clothed “policemen” to as for your passport. Give them a copy and not the actual thing. That should suffice and if they have any issues, request to be taken to the nearest police station. That will throw them off and they’ll leave. I’ve never met anyone who’s had this pulled on them, but it’s something to note.
- Locals can be very helpful and I found myself offered assistance on several occasions. The people here are very hospitable.
- I would dress fairly conservative when walking around in Bucharest. This is partially because of the churches and if visiting them, you’re going to need to have your shoulders / knees covered (women) and no shorts (everyone). Shorts in general are not common in most of Europe so avoid as to not be pegged as a tourist and be a “walking scam target”. Yes I did just coin that.
- Bucharest is safe and has low crime rates – a benefit of it’s communist legacy. Police presence is also quite noticeable so be ready to see them with big guns, especially in the old town.
Enjoy Bucharest, prost!