Europe, Romania

A Quick Guide To Bucharest

So many people skip over the capital of Romania, Bucharest, in order to visit the more popular tourist destinations in Transylvania (like Brasov). If I had to pick between the two, I’d definitely pick Brasov and Transylvania. But I am also so glad I also got to spend a few days in Bucharest at the tail end of my big trip.

Resisting the urge to jump in these fountains…

I did struggle in Bucharest though. It was over 100˚F (~38˚C+) every day. I sweated more in Bucharest than perhaps anywhere else I’ve ever traveled. Being outside during the afternoon in the heat of the day was oppressive at best, impossible at worst. I spent extra money on drinks throughout the day, in order to stay properly hydrated. Nowhere seemed to have air conditioning. I’d walk around during the day, relax at the hostel during the afternoon heat, go out again in the evening, then come home, shower, and sweat myself to sleep. I don’t recommend visiting Bucharest in August. Or if you go, make sure you stay somewhere that has air conditioning!

That being said, I did like Bucharest. While it wasn’t my favorite ever destination, I found that the city had a lot more to offer than meets the eye. Bucharest isn’t full of lots of exciting, world-class attractions, like some other European capitals. But there is a lot of beauty and grandeur across the city. And while it may be interspersed with ugly communist architecture, it can still be beautiful and grand. It reminded me a lot of Paris, if Paris had forgotten to take care of itself. There’s a certain look and feel to the city. Here is my quick guide to Bucharest!

What To Do in Bucharest

Palace of Parliament

This is by far Bucharest’s number one attraction, and the one thing you simply must see when visiting the city. It’s the second-largest building in the world (after the Pentagon), the largest administrative building in the world (as the Pentagon is for military, not administrative, use), and has 1100 rooms. It is also the heaviest building in the world.

The Palace of Parliament is also the most expensive building in the world. When the communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, was ousted from power and executed in 1989, the building was still unfinished (despite construction beginning in 1984 with people working 24/7 on it). Because of how much money had been spent on it already, the decision was made to complete the building, and it was finally finished in 1997. In 2006, they estimated building costs to be €3 billion, making it the most expensive administrative building in the world! The cost of heat and electricity for the building is over $6 million per year, as much as the cost for a medium-sized city.

Entrance is only by guided tours, which last a little over an hour. On the tour we walked 1.5km, climbed over 200 stairs, and we still only saw less than 5% of the building. The rooms are massive, beautifully decorated, and the architecture throughout the Palace of Parliament is just stunning.

My favorite part of the tour was seeing the two separate staircases Ceaușescu had built—one for him individually, and one for his wife.

You’ll need to book the tour in advance, something your accommodation might be able to do for you. If not, I showed up in the morning and had to wait about 1.5 hours, until the next English tour. They run tours in English, French, and Spanish I believe, along with Romanian.

There are several different types of tours, but the regular tours will include a tour of the palace, and a visit to the balcony for the view of the city. It cost 18 lei (~£3.50 // $4.70) for students. Make sure to bring your passport, as you will need it in order to go on the tour. The entrance for tours is on the north side of the building.

Bulevardul Unirii

This main boulevard stretches across Bucharest, and is 3500m (3.5km or about 2.17 miles) long! It was modeled on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, which is only 1.9km (about 1.2 miles) in comparison. It starts at the Palace of Parliament (where you get a great view from the balcony).

Wander the “Old Town”

Unlike most European Old Towns, Bucharest’s Old Town doesn’t have very many historic, charming buildings and sights. Instead, it’s mainly bars, cafes, clubs, restaurants, and strip clubs. But I still think you should take a stroll for to experience the grandeur of Bucharest. There are some truly beautiful buildings (such as the CEC Palace, the headquarters of a bank). You’ll stumble across lots of interesting architecture just walking around. If you’re looking for nice views of the city, check out Pura Vida Sky Bar.

Carturesti Carusel Bookstore

This bookstore has become Insta-famous (famous on Instagram) in the past year or so. The pretty lights and light interior beg to be photographed across several floors with spiral staircases. It’s worth a visit just to see as a store itself! And there’s lots of English language books if you want to shop. It’s located on Strada Lipscani in the Old Town.

Pasajul Macca-Villacrosse

This passageway, tucked away off one of the main streets (Calea Victoriei) in the Old Town, hearkens back to Bucharest’s grandeur. Built in 1891, the arcade is full of cafes, restaurants, and bars. It’s stunning (especially the ceilings!) and generally has a yellow hue to the light.

Old Princely Court

Also in the Old Town, the Old Princely Court (or Curtea Veche) is a museum showing the remaining buildings and ruins of the royal court. It was built in 1459 by Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler, of Dracula lore) when he ruled Wallachia. There’s a statue of him at the front.

Caru’ cu Bere Restaurant

You haven’t really been to Bucharest unless you’ve eaten at Caru’ cu Bere, as the story goes. This restaurant does excellent traditional Romanian food, and while it is fairly tourist-oriented, it is still worth a visit. The interior is stunning, with stained glass windows, and there’s sometimes live music as well. It can get quite busy, but luckily I didn’t have to wait for a table outside. It’s located in the Old Town.

Memorial of Rebirth

This memorial commemorates the victims of the Romanian revolution in 1989, which overthrew communism and the dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. It’s commonly called “the Potato” because of the shape of the crown structure on the top. The memorial is very controversial, as lots of people don’t like the design or the way it looks. In 2012 it was vandalized with a splash of red paint, which makes the memorial look like it’s bleeding. The paint is still there today, as it’s in a very inaccessible spot.

Romanian Athenaeum

This beautiful building is a concert hall and a major landmark of the city. It was built in 1888, and underwent extensive restoration work in 1992. There’s a very nice garden and park surrounding the building. The interior also looks amazing—I wish I could have seen it!

Arcul de Triumf

Like Barcelona, Chisinau, and other cities around Europe, Bucharest also has a triumphal arch. The city’s answer to Paris’s Arc de Triomphe is now a war memorial to commemorate those Romanians lost in World War I. An older wooden arch was demolished in 1935 to make way for the current arch—it was unveiled in 1936.

Carol Park

This large, spacious park in the southwest part of Bucharest is easy to explore if you’re staying at Podstel Doors Hostel (see below!). It was named after King Carol I of Romania, and was inaugurated in 1906. The Tomb of the Unknown Solider is located in the park (having previously been moved and replaced), along with several notable statues and the mausoleum (which was originally built in the communist period to honor revolutionary socialist militants).

The Basics

Bucharest is the capital of Romania, with a population of roughly 1.9 million. Romania as a whole has 19.7 million people. Along with Brasov and Transylvania, Bucharest is the other main tourist destination in the country. The currency is Romanian lei, and the language is Romanian (although most people especially in bars/restaurants in Bucharest will speak English). Romania is a member of the European Union, but is not (currently) part of the Schengen zone. Be forewarned, it can get ridiculously hot in summer. Bucharest also has great nightlife (if a bit seedy with strip clubs and prostitutes), and is a popular party destination.

Getting Around

I walked most places and sweated more than I ever have in my life. Most places in the center are walkable, especially in the Old Town. For sites farther away (such as the Arcul de Triumf), Bucharest has an underground Metro system with 4 lines. It costs 5 lei per ride—you’ll buy your ticket beforehand to get through the barriers. Bucharest is easily connected with Brasov by train and bus (BlaBla Car is also popular in Romania), as well as other major cities around the country.

Where I Stayed

I stayed at Podstel Doors Hostel for my trip to Bucharest. This is one of the better hostels I’ve stayed at throughout my travels. Why? It’s a hostel run by travelers, for other travelers. And it’s clear that the owners know what travelers want: a fully-equipped kitchen, large outdoor garden that doubles as a tea house and as an event venue, lots of hostel activities, and excellent staff. They even remembered Adam from his previous stay there 6 months ago, which I think says a lot. I stayed in a 6-bed dorm room that had lockers for valuables, a fan (thank God!!!), and power sockets and individual reading lights for each bed. They also have a dorm room with air conditioning (which I highly recommend looking into if you’re visiting in the summer). It’s a bit away from the city center/Old Town in a quieter, residential neighborhood, but it’s easy to get into the main areas on foot. This is a fantastic place to stay, and I’d absolutely stay here again! Full review coming soon.

Overall, Bucharest was a destination with a lot more substance than I expected. While so many people skip it, I definitely recommend spending a few days here.

Have you ever been to Bucharest? I’d love to hear what you thought in the comments!

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