Bucharest is a city which has always intrigued me ever since I was a little girl. With my family being from the coast of Romania, we often used to fly in to the capital and jump on the train straight to the seaside – meaning Bucharest was a place we didn’t really visit. In recent years, however, I’ve been lucky enough to explore Bucharest and so for anyone interested in discovering a bit more about this unique city – here are some of its highlights.
Compared to other European cities, Bucharest is one of a kind. It’s home to gigantic and frankly awesome parks, an abundance of shopping malls and pretty cool bars & restaurants. One thing which may strike many as they explore Bucharest is the diverse architecture and stories told down every street. In this city, you’ll find historical architecture including the styles of brancovian, neo-Romanian and art deco tucked away. On the other side, you’ll find tall, concrete blocks of apartments which were built during the communist era and are stark reminders of it’s not so long ago past.
I find it a place of two worlds and I think that’s what makes it so exciting and interesting. In my eyes, Bucharest is a city which has worn its heart on their sleeve. You can see some rather sobering signs of its turbulent past amongst the hip and modern sides of the city. It’s what makes Bucharest what it is today. And if you’re looking for a city break to a destination unlike many others, head here – there’s so much to do, see and experience.
Visit the parks – in particular Herăstrău and Cișmigiu
If there’s one thing I love doing while I’m in Bucharest, it’s going for a walk in the park. You see, these aren’t any ordinary parks – oh no. They actually come alive with families, children, couples (both young and old), friends and dogs enjoying time together. Whether it’s a group of babele (old ladies) sitting on the bench and chatting away together or young loves holding hands – it’s such a great place to spend some time.
One of my favourite parks is Herastrau. A few years back, this is where I learnt to rollerskate and suitably embarrass myself in front of Bogdan. How? Well let’s just say I couldn’t quite handle the skates and instead ended up falling to the floor in slow-motion on my bottom. Unfortunately back then, it wasn’t as cushiony as it is today and so I got a few bumps and bruises as a sort-of souvenir.
But enough about my bottom – spread over 187 hectares, the park has a lot to offer everyone. There’s a huge lake which sits in the middle of the park where you can take a boat ride around and spot men fishing for their suppers. Although it gets quite busy on weekends, you are bound to find some secluded areas of the park where you can just chill. I loved seeing people find shade under trees as they cracked open a beer and read a book. For us, we tended to just walk around and watch the world go by.
Should you find yourself a bit peckish or thirsty, Herastrau has plenty of food & drink stalls dotted around its park – as well as trendy bars and restaurants. If you find yourself in Herastrau over a weekend, check out Tete-a-Tete, Funky Lounge, Biutiful by the Lake and Beraria H. We’ve had one too many feasts at Beraria H and if you like smokey sausages and huge food platters this is the place for you.
As for Cișmigiu, it’s a very romantic park to wander through. Nestled in a quiet area of the city centre, it’s the perfect way to escape the hustle and bustle of Bucharest. Here you’ll find a small lake with black swans and leafy avenues leading to secret paths. This was one of our favourite places to visit in the evening – and I don’t mean due to it being romantic. Oh no, mainly due to the fact we ended up playing on the see-saws and sliding down the slide in the children’s play area. That my friends, is time well spent.
Wander through the Old Town
As we were staying at a family friend’s apartment, we were in quite a local neighbourhood far out from the city centre. However what struck me the most was how once we reached the Old Town of Bucharest – we were surrounded by people from the UK, Ireland and America.
The Old Town perhaps wouldn’t be my most favourite parts of Bucharest – mainly because it is quite touristic. However there are little gems to be found away from the main strip of the Old Town. Just a short walk away, you can find the National Bank, Old Princely Court and the Biserica Curtii Domnesti – all beautiful buildings with a lot of unique history to be discovered.
Another favourite haunt of mine near to the Old Town is the aptly called ‘Valley of the Kings’ which is essentially a passageway full of shisha and Middle Eastern bars. Even if you don’t fancy stopping by, it’s a great place to walk through and soak up the atmosphere.
One final place I’d highly recommend should you visit the Old Town is Carturesti Carusel – a whimsical bookshop where you could spend hours of your time. From the outside, it looks rather unassuming but once you enter it is like stepping into a library fairy-tale! Here you can also find a range of lovely gifts for the home and music or book lovers.
Stand in awe at the Palace of the Parliament
The Palace of the Parliament or ‘People’s Palace’ is one of the main hub’s of the city. It’s absolutely gigantic and the sheer size of it takes some time to sink in – it’s actually visible from the moon!
Unfortunately we have yet to take a tour of the Palace and this is something I would be very keen to do – but perhaps we will save this for a rainy day. Despite this, I’d highly recommend visiting and if you can take a tour. While there is a lot of stuff you can read online, I think hearing and actually seeing it in person is an experience you’ll remember.
A standard tour costs 35 lei (approx. £6) with the overview of the city, terrace and underground tours costing slightly extra. I’d suggest if you do decide to visit, splash out on one of the standard tour plus an overview of the city from the terrace and an underground tour for 55 lei (approx. £10). Do note however, you’ll also be charged extra for any photography & filming – more details can be found on the website.
Immerse yourself in history at Revolution Square
Revolution Square is probably the most striking area of Bucharest with a very interesting story. It is here where the building of the former Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party stood, where Nicolae Ceausescu gave his last speech in December 1989 and where he soon after fled by helicopter with his wife.
The Square is also home to the National Museum of Art of Romania, the impressive Atheneum, the University of Bucharest’s Library and the ‘potato on a stick’ better known as the Memorial of Rebirth. Last year we visited the Atheneum and it was such a beautiful building – we were the only ones in it!
Take part in a walking tour of Bucharest
To really get the most out of a visit to Bucharest, I’d recommend taking a guide book to discover more about it – or better still, take part in a walking tour. While we do our own tour where we just wander around the city and stumble upon great finds, I think if you are new to Bucharest this would be a great opportunity to find out more about the city and its history. There are lots of companies online – but I’d recommend the Walkabout Free Walking Tours – they have a couple of different ones and seem to show the hidden gems of this city.
Or create your own walking/metro tour and just get lost!
As with any city we like to visit, our favourite thing to do is to just walk around and get lost to some extent. Bucharest is a large city but it has a fantastic metro where you can really explore further than the main tourist areas. There are some amazing malls, churches, not-so-well-known parks, cool cafes and hip bars across the city all waiting to be discovered.
10 Things to keep in mind
- If you’re feeling peckish and after a midday snack, head to a street bakery (covrigarie or patisserie) for a pretzel or pastry. I only have one rule for this and it’s to pick the less-than-pretty looking ones. Why? For some reason the more rough around the edges the place looks, the better their food tastes!
- If you are staying in the city centre, avoid the main strip of restaurants in the Old Town – a short walk away and you’ll find much better and authentic food. Alternatively, ask your hotel or airbnb for suggestions and make sure you take advantage of the terrace restaurants and rooftop bars!
- Try traditional Romanian food – some of my favourite food includes sarmale (cabbage rolls with minced meat), mititei (street food/barbecued sausages), cârnați afumați (smoked sausages), ciorbă de pui (chicken noodle soup), salată roşii (a basic tomato salad) and last but by no means least papanaşi – basically sweet cheese doughnuts with homemade jam.
- And because food (read: dessert) is really important to me, if you too fancy a papanasi order this with your main meal as it takes a while to prepare a fresh batch.
- While the taxi system is slowly but surely improving in Romania, I’d recommend using an Uber in Bucharest. From the airport however, you can take a taxi using the new ticket-approval system.
- Avoid driving in Bucharest if you can – there are plenty of better and easier ways to get around the city including the metro, taking an Uber or walking.
- Down most streets in Bucharest I guarantee you’ll find a pharmacy, mega image (supermarket), bank and a sala du joc – so if you’re looking for a drink, some plasters to help your feet recover from all the walking or need to withdraw money you won’t struggle finding one any of these amenities.
- During your stay in Bucharest, do check out the Village Museum (Muzeul Satului) – we went a few years ago and it was such a fun afternoon as we explored the various types of housing used across Romania over the years.
- Use Bucharest as a base, but do look into venturing a little further afield to visit Mogosoaia Palace – it’s over 300 years old and is well worth a day trip.
- And finally, a trip to Romania isn’t complete without trying a traditional shot of ţuică or vișinată – it’s hair-raising stuff but a must try!