Exploring Bucharest unravels the contrasts that define its charm. Amidst the snow, it became clear why the Romanian capital is one of Europe’s most up-and-coming city breaks.
My first visit to Romania took me to another corner of the country in 2009, the city of Iasi. I had my first taste of Romanian food, nature, culture and learned that I could read Romanian – a Latin language.
I vowed I’d make it back to see the capital. Finally, eight years later I found myself in Bucharest during a special week in my life… my birthday.
In Bucharest: History, Charm and Grit
Being in Bucharest, in many ways, reminded me of Athens. Cities of dramatic contrasts.
Bucharest is charming in its own right, where touches of amazing history merge with a modern identity. Here, splendid 18th-century Orthodox churches, Byzantine buildings and elegant art nouveau mansions dot the Old City district.
What makes Bucharest’s façade even more unique, like much of Eastern Europe, is its remnants of communist influences which now merge with the face of capitalism.
Place that all together with a heaping of white snow (later a layer of slush) and it was a city break experience that kept me on my chilly toes and totally in awe.
Getting lost and found on the streets of Bucharest inspired this post, my latest installment for introducing inspirational European city breaks. This post is also my official entry in the #travellessons travel blog competition, a competition that focuses on those lessons we learn while traveling. Fitting, isn’t it? Let’s go to Bucharest…
15 Things I Learned About Bucharest in 5 Days
1) Incredible Churches in Bucharest
The city’s many historic churches seem to have been dropped in the urban landscape from another era. The fact is they have survived devastating earthquakes, war and communism.
One of the most visited and owning a sense of peace about it is the Stavropoleos Church in the Old City.
2) Walkable Downtown
I highly recommend staying within close range of the Old City. We stayed at the Radisson Blu Bucharest on a main street called Calea Victoriei. It was an easy walk to where all the action happens from great museums, shopping, casinos and historic sights.
3) Bucharest is Beautiful in the Snow
In Bucharest, I learned I need to invest in better snow ready boots if I am going to keep traveling through a freezing European winter.
What made up for my not-so-snow-ready boots getting a daily dose of the elements was the sheer beauty of the city’s statues, landmarks and streets semi-cloaked in sheets of snow.
Yes, warm weather is always great but when a city is embraced in white, another face shows. If you don’t mind freezing temps – Bucharest is a perfect European winter city break. The delicious soups, warm indoor venues also make it all the better and that much more atmospheric.
4) Fantastic Art Museum
I wasn’t expecting to come to this conclusion, and I am so glad I did. The National Museum of Art Romania now tops my list of one of the best art museums I have visited in all of my European travels. Located in the former early 19th-century royal palace, it houses the country’s largest and most impressive art collections.
We spent the hours there enjoying analyzing the art and in awe of the sheer talent the Romania’s best painters. Time just flew by as we admired the amazing works that portrayed so much depth and history.
Entrance Fee: 10 lei (2.5 Euro)
For more information on opening times, visit the website for The National Museum of Art.
Tip: The Gallery of European Art is next door and you can purchase a combo ticket for both museums for 15 lei (3.5 Euro).
5) Amazing Soups and Hearty Food
I love soup. All kinds. Especially in winter. My Romanian friend, Stefania, who lives in Athens, advised me of her country’s soup culture before I departed for Bucharest.
“Everything begins with soup.”
Who could argue with that statement? So, of course, I had to try them all! There was chicken, meatball and vegetable soup to chose from.
These “sour” soups were so satisfying and tasteful. In general, everything we ate was deliciously filling – a lot of pork and red meat dishes. My favorite was sarmale which are traditional meat filled cabbage rolls. They were served with a side of creamy polenta topped with thick sour cream. Another must try dish are the chicken livers pan fried in garlic and white wine.
6. Nice Romanian Wines
If you didn’t know, Romania is one of the top European wine producing countries. I particularly loved the Corcova labels, a wine producer from southwestern Romania. Several city wine bars dot the capital, too.
7) Cozy Cafes and Bookshops Galore in Bucharest
Bucharest boasts some pretty charming bookshops. I absolutely loved the elegant bright and welcoming layout of the famous Cărturești Carusel. The name fittingly translates to Carousel of Light. With its fantastic architecture, café area, trendy gift section and book lover lounging spaces – the bookshop is a must for any writer or book lover.
With freezing temps, a coffee break at one of the bookshops or a cozy café is a necessary local experience to have in the winter. The recommended Obrigo, a tiny coffee shop in the city center, was packed on arrival. We then headed to Van Gogh Café in the Old City which fit the bill.
8) Vintage Clocks in Bucharest
A city that loves coffee, books – and vintage clocks! Steal my heart. I noticed these great vintage pieces around town. Gotta love a city that values keeping up their own elegant public timepieces.
9) Wow: The Palace of the Parliament
With a mutual love of panoramic city view photos, Elena and I had hoped to go on a Palace of the Parliament tour which would take us to a high-level floor for a view of the city.
In the end, there was no tour scheduled when we could make it so, we simply approached it. Approaching this gargantuan building is an experience too. It happens to be the second largest administrative building in the world, after the Pentagon in the U.S.
The history is fascinating. It was meant to be the crowning achievement communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu but is arguably a very controversial building because of its immense physical, psychic and historic stature. As a local explained, much of it isn’t even used today. And to think just to build it, Ceausescu razed one-fifth of the city including whole districts, important places of worship including churches and synagogues and tens of thousands of homes. Wow. Wow!
Tip: To ensure a space, book in advance. Visit the Palace of Parliament website for more details.
10) Bucharest’s Lovely Parks
We were advised by a frequent Bucharest traveler that the city parks can rival New York’s. I didn’t get a chance to really experience them due to the heavy snowfall but it was easy to see Bucharest is blessed with some fantastic public parks including Herastrau Park, Cismigiu Park and Tineretului Park.
Highly recommended to me by all of my Romanian acquaintances, I regret that we didn’t visit Herastrau Park’s outdoor Village Museum. I just admired it – from afar – as it sat under a layer of thick snow. The museum consists of lanes of the actual dwellings from all over Romania, recreating rural life between the 17th and 20th centuries.
11) A “Little Paris”
Once upon a time Bucharest’s noble and elegant architecture and educated sophisticated social circles earned it the nickname of “Little Paris.”
Much of that era doesn’t exist, but with a second glance you can admire the buildings and facades that managed to survive after communist restructuring and a terrible 1977 earthquake. The most apparent ode to Little Paris era is the city’s impressive Piața Arcul de Triumf or Arc de Triomphe (Arch of Triumph).
12) Bucharest Casinos
Another thing I learned is that Bucharest is hopping with casino tourists who fly in to try their luck on the weekends. All of the major Bucharest hotels have casinos.
Inspired by that one time I won $200 dollars at a slot machine in Tri-Cities, Washington – after my first turn of the slot handle 😉 – I tried a little of my birthday luck. So did Elena, who was feeling lucky. As the story goes, we tried to become millionaires but alas, it wasn’t meant to be!
13) Friendly Local People
As we looked in puzzlement at our iPhone maps, a local stopped to ask if we needed help or advice on where to go.
Also, a friendly guy named Vlad, who was working at the Tourist and Volunteer Info Center in the Old City gave us great advice. We even bumped into him – by accident – later and he was a great help. Our tour guides with Travelmaker Romania were enthusiastic about telling us about the history, culture and the rise of tourism in their country. Everyone we encountered spoke excellent English, too.
14) The Classic: Romanian Atheneum
I fell in love with the Romanian Atheneum. Built in 1888, the concert hall home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra. We passed it its stately – yet romantic – columned exterior every day.
However, a tour of the interior on our last day introduced us to its special level of interior detail, including a ceiling intricately inspired by Romanian folk tales and a fantastic fresco that illustrates Romania’s history.
Every year, it is the central venue for the Enescu Festival – now on my list of experiences for the future!
15) Day Trips to Fantastic Romanian Castles
Is Romania Dracula’s land? Take a Travelmaker Romania tour to Transylvania region castles to learn more. On a day trip to Peles and Bran (Dracula’s) castles, I walked right into some fairy tale moments.
If you love castles, thrilling stories, royal family drama, storied architecture and all kinds of creative inspiration – the Romanian countryside and its castles await. It’s all very accessible from Bucharest.
I also learned five days wasn’t enough. I hope to return soon. I’ll experience Bucharest in the sunshine next time and stroll those parks and more.
How to Get to Bucharest
The main airport is Henri Coanda Otopeni International Airport which is 17 km from the center of Bucharest, about a half-hour drive.
Many major European cities have direct flights into Bucharest. Flights from Athens are 1.5 hours direct. Return tickets with Ryan Air can be as low as 26 Euro!
- How to Get to the City Center from the Airport
The taxi fare to the city center is about 50 lei (approximately 12 Euro). Avoid drivers that approach you inside the terminal!
The 783 Express line connects the airport with the city center in 45 minutes. Don’t confuse this line with the 780 that heads to the rail station. Buy the ticket (10 lei or 2.5 Euro) at the vending booth next to the bus stop in front of the airport building exit.
Where to Stay in Bucharest
I highly recommend the centrally located Radisson Blu Bucharest on Calea Victoriei. The breakfast was fantastic and the service was impressive. For my full review, check out my post Radisson Blu Bucharest: Five-Star Luxury.
Where to Eat in Bucharest
If you eat at one place eat at Carul Cu Bere (the Beer Wagon). This restaurant has been going strong since 1887 – a favorite among locals – offering excellent traditional Romanian cuisine at excellent prices in beautiful art nouveau interiors. Located in the Old City.
What to Do in Bucharest
I hope you garnered some ideas from this post. Stay tuned for future posts about the top things to do and more about those fantastic Transylvanian castles. You can sign up for my newsletter here.
Oh, and wish me luck in the #travellessons competition!
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Have you ever been to Bucharest? What did you learn during your visit? Feel free to comment in the comment boxes below! I’d love to hear about your experiences.