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To be honest, Bucharest was never on my list of places to visit. I had heard people compare it to Paris, but they say the same things about Montreal, and, as much as I love Montreal, it doesn’t really have anything in common with Paris. The only reason I went to Bucharest this October was to visit a friend of mine. We had been talking about meeting up in Vienna, but it wasn’t quite as easy to organize that, and since Ryanair offers flights to Bucharest from Athens I booked a flight for a long weekend.
The first thing I noticed at the airport was the incredibly long line at… passport control… Yes, you read that right. Now, I like vintage stuff, but something as archaic as passport control doesn't give off that romantic vibe. Unfortunately, they didn’t even have two lines (EU and non-EU), but everyone was grouped together. Europe is not handling the refugee crisis well. After passport control, I had to wait for my bag, so it took me a total of one hour to get from the plane to my friend who was waiting for me. One of the things I like about just bringing hand luggage is that I get off the plane and can immediately leave the airport. This time, however, the flight was fully booked, and Ryanair decided to check in some bags for free due to lack of space.
We took a taxi downtown to grab something to eat. (You can read all about my tips for vegan food in Bucharest here.)
On Saturday we went for a walk in the lovely Cișmigiu park. It is the oldest park in downtown Bucharest and surrounds the artificial Cișmigiu lake.
We left Cișmigiu park to go for breakfast and passed by the lovely Kretzulescu palace, built in the Renaissance style. Bucharest’s architecture is a bizarre mix of beautiful historic buildings and the ugly but functional structures of the Communist era. Wandering along the streets of the city is like traveling into different time periods within seconds. Nothing matches, but this is exactly what gives Bucharest its own character. The green of the parks contrasts with the gray Communist-style buildings and the more colorful historic houses.
What probably makes people compare Bucharest to Paris are the big boulevards. They create a sense of openness and freedom, but under the Communist regime and now, in an age of hopelessness and lack of perspective, they also strangely bring across a sense of isolation and sadness.
We spent the afternoon and early evening at Therme Bucharest which claims to be the largest wellness center in Europe. It has several pools and saunas as well as an area with slides which is more suitable for children and teenagers. Since it was a Saturday, the place was quite busy which doesn’t really help create a feeling of relaxation, but I think the place would be perfect for a weekday because it has different options for everyone, and with fewer people it should be really relaxing and would be a perfect break from the city and from work.
At night we went out in the Old Town, the main tourist attraction in Bucharest. Since it was the weekend before Halloween, many people were wearing costumes, and it was extremely busy. The atmosphere was not to my liking at all. It seemed like a miniature version of Hamburg’s red light district which is where English tourists go to get drunk and visit strip clubs or brothels. The locals go elsewhere to have fun, and, from what I have gathered, it seems to be similar in Bucharest. Drunk foreign tourists go out here because they believe Romanian girls to be easy. There were some cute little bars and nice restaurants in the area, but, in general, it was an area I would usually avoid. As someone who doesn’t drink, it simply didn't do much for me. During the day, the Old Town has more to offer with some beautiful buildings from bygone eras.
Sunday was dedicated to brunch, dessert, and watching The Accountant at Băneasa mall in the northern part of the city. Băneasa mall is one of many malls in Bucharest but the only one that I went to. Malls are not really a thing in Greece, but I can’t say I miss them all that much because they are not as needed as in Montreal where the winter lasts much longer and is much, much colder. Bucharest is colder than Athens, so having some malls is certainly useful when it gets cold so people don’t have to spend too much time outside.
On Monday we went to Herăstrău Park in the northern part of the city. It’s Bucharest’s biggest park, so if you want to see all of it you will need to invest quite a bit of time. Again, due to the cold, we didn’t really want to spend that much time outside. We walked around for a bit and then went to the section that houses the Village Museum which exhibits traditional houses from different Romanian regions.
And, since that wasn’t enough for me, we also went to the Botanical Garden afterwards for some more fall colors.
In the evening, we went to Bucharest’s most beautiful bookstore - Cărturești Carusel. It is located in a 19th-century building in the Old Town and is quite impressive. They carry a decent collection of foreign-language books as well as household decorations and tea pots. The bookstore is absolutely worth a visit for anyone who loves books. They have a cafe on the top floor as well, so you can go up and read your newly purchased books right away.
Overall, fall is definitely not the right season to visit Bucharest. If you’re simply going to visit a friend, like me, it will be nice during any season, but I think the real magic of Bucharest would be more obvious in July and August when you can spend the whole day outside in one of the lovely parks and the flowers that are planted on the sidewalks will add more color to the city. The atmosphere in Bucharest might also be nicer in the summer when people are usually in a better mood. When I was there I felt a bit uneasy as there is an aura of poverty and hopelessness in the city. While Athens might be struggling with the crisis on a more profound level, Bucharest is still recovering from Communism and trying to find its place in the world. Taxi drivers will try to screw you over more than in any other place that I’ve heard of. We’ve had a taxi driver refuse to drive us outside of the city unless we paid double the price, and I’ve been told that at nights taxi drivers charge women more than men because women want to make sure to get home safe, whereas on weekends taxi drivers will refuse shorter distance trips because they will not make a lot of money. These are not just signs of the crisis, but of decades of insecurity and a much-too-quick transition to capitalism. Huge apartment blocks from the Communist era that were supposed to create a sense of community, but really just served as ways of controlling the population and getting neighbors to spy on each other now give you a feeling of uneasiness.
Other travelers describe Bucharest as chaotic and messy, but, traveling there from Athens, it seemed quite clean and organized. The metro works without any sort of problem which is important because while the center is pretty walkable, due to its size, Bucharest is a city that will have you take the metro more than once.
There are many things that we skipped: I saw the parliament from afar, but it doesn’t look all too inviting, despite or because of the fact that it’s the world’s second largest government building. We didn’t visit any churches, and, overall, I was pleasantly surprised to see fewer religious buildings than here in Greece – one of the upsides of Communism was that it removed people’s dependency on religion.
If you want to visit an affordable yet modern Eastern European city, Bucharest is definitely worth a trip if you can get a direct flight with a cheap airline. Like I suspected, it’s not even remotely comparable to Paris, despite its own Arch of Triumph, but it does have a unique identity that would be lovely to check out on a weekend trip in the summer.
Half Bulgarian Turk, half German living life as an expat in Greece.