As Western Europe becomes ever more orderly, ballsy Bucharest remains one of the roguish cowboys of the wild wild East. Long time city chronicler, Craig Turp, offers his tips for riding the Romanian rodeo…
Few cities in Europe do chaos as well as the Romanian capital. The thousands of identikit, communist-era apartment blocks that house the vast majority of the population may suggest order and planning but just a few minutes on Bucharest’s dangerously mad streets – either as a driver, passenger or pedestrian – will be enough to convince any visitor that this is a city where the law is merely an obstacle to be overcome, and no real impediment to getting anything done (it remains to be seen, in the light of the 2015 nightclub fire tragedy, if this will change). In Bucharest urban decay is worn as a badge of honour, a place where even the most visited part of the city, the Old Town, is a collection of pubs, restaurants and shops wedged awkwardly into the ground floors of crumbling, often derelict buildings unlikely to be renovated any time soon.
And yet does anybody care? Not one bit. Bucharest might be a bit of a dump but that’s the way we like it. Besides, the city is on the up. The vicious stray dogs of yore which attacked – and on more than one occasion killed – passers-by are gone (few ask where: again, nobody cares) and you can now explore the city on foot, unharassed by rabid mutts. You might even see the odd brave local on a bike: unthinkable not a couple of years ago.
Then there’s the nightlife: which is what most visitors come for. This is a hedonistic city that stays open all night and offers as much debauchery as you can handle. Some of its clubs are approaching legendary status, and while high-rollers who want to consume conspicuously will be able to do just that, those watching the pennies will be equally chuffed with Bucharest, which remains a ridiculously cheap city to explore by day or night.
Best of the Beaten Track
Fittingly begun in 1984, Casa Poporului (officially Palatul Parlamentului) remains Bucharest’s most visited (and Europe’s largest) building, yet while impressive in a ‘it’s big’ kind of way the stilted nature of the commentary on the guided tour (the only way you can see the building) becomes repetitive after a while. Far more satisfying (and a far better representation of Romania) is the Village Museum in Herastrau Park, where you will find more than 60 original houses, farmsteads, windmills, watermills and churches brought here (and then reassembled) from all of Romania’s historic regions. The museum has a great shop and during the summer hosts some kind of folk-related event every weekend. Similarly, the equally fascinating Peasant Museum hosts a craft market most summer weekends.
For the past decade or so the Old Town has been something of ground zero for visitors in Bucharest, for while it is best known as an entertainment district there is also plenty to see, not least the St. Nicholas Students’ Church (known colloquially as the Russian Church – you will soon realise why), a stunning Orthodox church complete with golden, onion-shaped domes. No less impressive is the nearby Stavropoleos Church: a quiet, tranquil and holy alternative to the Sodom and Gomorrah that surrounds it. On the same street is Bucharest’s most celebrated restaurant, Caru cu Bere. Though there are many, many better restaurants in the city, few have the draw of this place, which dates from the 19th century and whose painted ceilings (and general stunning decor) are far more satisfactory than the serviceable yet hardly ground-breaking food.
Other mainstream sights well worth at least a cursory look include the National Art Museum (the floor devoted to religious relics is outstanding); the building itself was formerly the Romanian Royal Palace. Opposite is the Atheneum, a concert hall of some renown, and next to that is the Athenee Palace Hotel. Owned by Hilton, the palace hosted a seething nest of spies of all allegiances during WWII and its English Bar was made (in)famous by Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy novels.
A year or two ago the Old Town served as Bucharest’s Hipsterville: now it’s far too mainstream for that, although a couple of more offbeat venues such as Bicicleta and Shoteria still attract a good crowd. Instead, the Floreasca area in the north of the city is quietly taking over as the home of Bucharest’s avant garde. Clubs such as E3, restaurants like Vacamuu and quirky deck Gradina Floreasca (which also has a pool open during the day) cater to a cashed-up, mainly local crowd.
Other hipster hangouts worth your time include Gradina Eden, Cafe Verona, the rather elegant Camera din Fata and Origo cafe. The undisputed number one hipsters’ joint in Bucharest however remains A1, an all day and all night bar and coffee shop on Piata Amzei, close to the city centre. You’ll find everyone from young parents with kids to Romanian supermodels hanging out here.
For more ideas check out the Editor’s report on the the best book stores in town, many of which (such as the aforementioned Cafe Verona) have successfully crossed over into the cafe and culture scene.
Experience & Events
Bucharest struggles to attract big name music acts, which means that most events carry a local flavour. The most prestigious regular event is the bi-annual George Enescu Festival, although tickets usually sell out months in advance, and visitors have little chance of getting their hands on any. If you do have a pang for a bit of culture, then the Romanian National Opera is good and cheap.
Fans of live music have a decent choice of venues to choose from, of which the best are Control and the Hard Rock Cafe (yes, it might be a bit naff where you come from, but in this city it attracts good local bands).
Each year (in June) Street Delivery brings contemporary art and music to the streets (Strada Artur Verona is closed to traffic for the weekend), while in September Zilele Bucurestiului is a three or four day festival of culture held in and around the Old Town to celebrate Bucharest’s founding as a city in 1459. Sneaker freaks and other trendsetters might want to pop along to the biannual Sole & Shape expo, where the latest in vintage, recycled and upcycled streetwear and accessories are showcased and sold.
Steaua Bucharest won the European Cup in 1986, but Romanian football today is utter rubbish. That said, local derbies between Steaua and Dinamo – Bucharest’s other major club – still attract big crowds to the national stadium (the splendid National Arena) and the atmosphere is usually electric and not for the faint of heart. Tickets are cheap.
Bucharest offers a decent range of places to rest your head, from top-of-the-range digs at the Hilton, Radisson and InterContinental, to hostels, of which the best are the Pura Vida Sky Bar & Hostel in the Old Town and the X Hostel in the city centre. Other places worth considering are the Rembrandt Hotel, the cheap-as-chips Hello Hotel near the city’s main railway station and the rather secluded, exquisite Epoque (lottery-winners only). For a wider choice check the 1,000+ properties on Booking.com and filter according to reviews and price. They also have apartments, b&bs and hostels, so you should find a good deal.
The city’s best restaurant is The Artist, about as close to culinary perfection as Romania gets. You will pay a lot for the privilege of eating here, however, although few would grumble that you do not get value for money: it’s that good. Less elevated yet no less tasty food can be had at an increasingly large number of slow food bistros offering fine grub, almost always made using only local, seasonal ingredients. The London Street Atelier, Metuka and Beca’s are three of the best.
Local food is decent, if hardly progressive. Ciorba – sour soup – is invariably good, while Romanian pork (served in any number of ways) is usually exceptional. Likewise, local vegetables are good, and Romanian tomatoes are as tasty as any you’ve eaten. Tried and trusted Romanian restaurants worth your time include Crama Domneasca, elegant Casa Doina and our favourite Lacrimi si sfinti, one place which is genuinely trying to take Romanian cuisine forward.
Street food in Bucharest is limited: it’s just not a thing in these parts. Look out though (especially in the morning) for people selling covrigi (pretzels). If you find a warm one you will swear its the tastiest bread you’ve ever eaten.
Old Town is the main nightlife area of Bucharest, although its star is waning. That said, on a Friday or Saturday night the area is as lively as you could possibly want – perhaps even too lively for some. Every street in the Old Town is lined with bars, pubs, restaurants and clubs. Making individual recommendations is difficult given the sheer number and variety, although we have to admit to having a soft spot for Beer O’Clock and Old City.
Outside of the Old Town Shift is a good alternative for people who want to go clubbing but don’t like clubs, while for the serious party people the uberclubs are where to head: Player, BOA and Fratelli host outrageous parties every Friday and Saturday night.
Getting There & Around
British Airways, Tarom, Ryan Air, Blue Air and Wizz Air fly to Bucharest from the UK and most other major European cities. Getting into town form the airport is relatively easy: taxis are plentiful and cheap, costing no more than 40 lei (around €9). Just make sure you get into an honest taxi: use the automatic machines you will find in the arrivals hall to order a one. Public transport in Bucharest is cheap although not all that useful for visitors. The metro links the station (Gara de Nord) with the city centre. If you stay in the city centre or Old Town, most sights and venues are accessible on foot. If you’re travelling around the rest of Romania, you can get to the likes of Brasov, Cluj-Napoca and Timisoara by train or bus, but be warned it’s a big ol’ country.
Decent sources of information include the ticket resellers myticket.ro, especially for details of upcoming events and concerts. If you can handle Romanian, Metropotam is an excellent guide to the city, while Bucharest Life is an often amusing and always opinionated English-language blog dedicated to the Romanian capital (we would say that, we write it).
Bucharest In Your Pocket is published every two months and is the best English-language resource for bars, pubs, clubs, restaurants, cafes, sights and events. It is free from most hotels (ask at reception: they should have a copy if you do not find one in your room). You can download a PDF copy from the inyourpocket.com website. As for fiction, try the aforementioned Balkan Trilogy, a World War II epic that takes you on a tumultous ride from Bucharest to Cairo.
Romanian new wave cinema is much heralded in film circles and you will be ready to engage in intelligent conversation with the locals if you’ve watched one or two of the following, which scooped up multiple awards between them: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, a black comedy set in the capital, 12:08 East of Bucharest, a sardonic look back at the events of the Romanian revolution in 1989 that heralded the end of Communism, 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, a harrowing account of two girls’ attempt to secure an illegal abortion in the final years of the Nicolae Ceaușescu era, and Tuesday, After Christmas, the story of man caught in a love triangle (of his own making) in modern day Romania.
Soundtrack to the City
Wait, don’t go yet! We chose Bucharest as one of our favourite affordable European cities for a weekend away, so read the article to see which other city breaks made the list!