Last updated on February 10th, 2020 at 02:09 pm
As you may have noticed by now, our posts are primarily enthusiastic and positive. The main reason for this is because we always tend to focus on the good memories and forget about the bad ones. Another reason is that we are fond of cultural and natural diversity. We manage to find and appreciate beauty no matter how well it’s hidden. That’s why we have fallen in love with almost every destination we have visited. Bucharest is among the cities that didn’t manage to find its special place in our hearts, though. Sure, we have sweet memories from the time we spent there. But it somehow failed to make us want to go back again soon or to stay a little longer. So, “Why read on?” you may think. Because there are certain things to do in Bucharest that you cannot experience elsewhere.
The capital of Romania is a wide open history book inviting us all to browse through its pages. In Bucharest we didn’t just learn about the city’s past, we actually travelled back in time and immersed ourselves in Romania’s so recent history. That said, we also witnessed the city’s effort to get rid of the ghosts of this very past. Bucharest is a modern European capital trying to find its way to travellers’ bucket lists. And it should. Alongside the wealth of historic knowledge it offers, Bucharest can also be the perfect city break on a budget.
How many days in Bucharest?
We spent exactly 48 hours in Bucharest. It was enough to enjoy the best things to do in Bucharest at a very slow pace. We never felt pressed by time. So much so that we always lingered at bars deciding at the last minute on another round of beers. Our advice would be to plan your Bucharest trip as part of a longer Romania trip rather than just visit the capital and head back home. That’s what we did anyway.
Things to do in Bucharest: Major historical sites
What we loved most about Bucharest is the wealth of its recent history. The events of the past have left their mark not only on the lives of the people who actually experienced them but also on how the city looks even nowadays. To understand this, a visit to some major historical sites is one of the best things to do in Bucharest.
The Palace of the Parliament
This is definitely the most famous attraction in Bucharest. Or should I say infamous? Currently the seat of the Parliament of Romania, The People’s House as it was also known in the past, is the second largest administrative building in the world after the U.S. Pentagon. This enormous construction was part of Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu’s ambitious Project Bucharest. According to this project, a huge part of the historic centre of Bucharest was demolished so as to be replaced by Ceausescu’s own version of Pyongyang. After his visit to North Korea in 1971, Nicolae Ceausescu became obsessed with this project and did everything in his power to make it happen.
The Palace of the Parliament was built from 1984 to 1997. Yet, it remains unfinished to this day. It took 700 architects and more than 28000 workers to build its 1100 rooms under the supervision of chief architect Anca Petrescu. Its size is inconceivable and it’s hard to believe that a building of such dimensions actually exists. From the outside it’s like an optical illusion. Once inside, things get even more impressive. The rooms are massive and extravagantly decorated. There are conference rooms as well as a luxurious theatre. Elaborate chandeliers weighing a few tons adorn its high ceilings while enormous handmade carpets cover many of its floors.
You can visit the Palace of the Parliament by guided tour only which must be booked 24 hours in advance. Remember that you cannot even enter the Palace of the Parliament without a valid ID or passport. There is also an Underground Tour, as the building has eight underground levels. Unfortunately, this tour wasn’t available when we visited due to maintenance works. However, we believe that it must be really worth it, so don’t miss it. For opening times, ticket prices, available tours and other information you can visit the official website.
The Palace of the Parliament provides insight into Nicolae Ceausescu’s personality as a political figure. However, to fully understand the history behind the notorious Communist leader, a visit to where he and his family spent their lives for 24 years is a must. Although overlooked by some guides, we consider it one of the top things to do in Bucharest. Read all about our visit to the former Ceausescu residence here.
Join a walking tour
Bucharest is packed with sites that breathe recent history. The best way to explore the city is by joining a walking tour, which is definitely one of the top things to do in Bucharest. There are several available, both free and paid ones. Intrigued as we were to learn as much about Romania’s troubled past as possible, we chose a Tour of Communism and we can’t recommend it enough.
Things to do in Bucharest: Parks
Among the best things to do in Bucharest, or any other big city for that matter, is to spend some quiet time in a park. During our short trip to the Romanian capital, we had the chance to visit two of its most popular parks.
Herastrau Park, situated in the northern part of Bucharest, is the largest park in the city. It is so big that it never feels crowded although it attracts lots of people during sunny days. The park’s highlight for us was the enormous Herastrau Lake where you can enjoy a ferry ride or even rent a boat. The park is ideal for long walks among lush greenery. Cycling lovers can rent a bicycle at the park’s entrances. Herastrau Park is also home to popular Village Museum, the largest outdoor museum in Europe. It houses a collection of buildings representing the rural architecture from all regions in Romania. We didn’t visit the Village Museum and decided to relax at the lakeshore instead, as we had already enjoyed many actual villages during our Transylvania road trip.
Strolling around the streets surrounding Herastrau Park is also one of the best things to do in Bucharest. This area is filled with beautiful architecture varying from 19th century neoclassical residences to modern villas. Among them, the Spring Palace which houses Ceausescu’s former residence we talked about earlier. We suggest you visit Casa Ceausescu first and then walk to Herastrau Park just like we did. On your way to the park or upon exiting it, make sure to check out Bucharest’s very own Arch of Triumph as well.
Smaller than Herastrau Park but a lot cosier is Cismigiu Garden, Bucharest’s oldest park. Situated right in the heart of the city, Cismigiu Garden also boasts its very own lake where you can rent a rowboat or a pedal boat. For us though, the park’s absolute highlight was the unbelievably great number of benches available. Back home in Greece, Katerina and I always lament the rarity of benches in public spaces so we were thrilled with Cismigiu Garden.
The city centre
Most of the best things to do in Bucharest are spread across the city centre. We could say that the latter is loosely divided into two parts, the Old Town and the area around Piata Romana.
The Old Town
While planning our trip to Bucharest, all articles we stumbled upon were raving about the charms of Bucharest’s Old Town. So we were looking forward to experiencing it ourselves. It turns out we failed to share this enthusiasm. Sure, there was a certain cheerful vibe along its cobblestone streets and we did see some really beautiful buildings as we wandered around. Yet we felt that cafes and bars lacked character and somehow spoiled the overall image of this area. Moreover, the tasteless neon massage signs covering almost each and every otherwise interesting building added to the negative impression the Old Town made on us.
That said, the Old Town is where the heart of the city beats. If you are wondering what to do in Bucharest in the evening, you’ll most likely head to that part of the city. The majority of restaurants, pubs and clubs are there. On a rainy day, go to Pasajul Macca Vilacrosse, a covered arcaded street full of cafes and lively atmosphere.
Don’t miss dinner in Caru’ cu bere, Bucharest’s most famous restaurant dating back to 1879. Most travel guides consider it one of the top things to do in Bucharest. It turns out we agree. Yes, it’s touristy. Brace yourselves for folk dance performances alternating with tango sessions. However, its interior is marvellous, the value-for-money food delicious and the ambience cheerful. Upon reservation, which is necessary, ask for a table inside. Once there, expect crowds and very loud music. If you order papanasi, Romania’s typical mouthwatering dessert, be prepared to wait for it for at least 30′. We had to wait for more than an hour for ours.
For our second evening in Bucharest, we chose Food Hood and we liked it a lot. It provides outdoor seating and you can taste street food and local beers at very reasonable prices from the various food trucks. We loved its alternative touch and laid-back feeling. Our guess is that this place is not open during winter but we can’t tell for sure.
The area between Romana Square and Revolution Square is our favourite in Bucharest. Strolling around its streets, we realised why Bucharest was once called Little Paris. Buildings of beautiful architecture alongside smartly decorated bars and restaurants made us see the Bucharest we were longing to see at last. Bucharest’s main concert hall and one of its major attractions, the Romanian Athenaeum, is also in this area.
However, what you don’t want to miss in this area, is Piata Revolutiei, the square where the Romanian Revolution peaked in 1989. The building of the former Communist Party Headquarters is situated in this square and you can see the very balcony where Nicolae Ceausescu made his desperate final attempt to reach out to the Romanian people. Failing to do this, he and his wife fled Bucharest in a helicopter which took off from the building’s rooftop. Nowadays, the controversial Memorial of Rebirth, built to commemorate the victims of the 1989 revolution, predominates in the square.
Don’t miss the chance to enjoy a glass of beer or a meal at Gradina Verona, a beautiful and tranquil garden in the heart of the city. We also loved The M60 Space, an outdoor bar where we had a beer or three while sitting on comfortable sun chairs.
Now if you, like us, want to check out the colourful hanging umbrellas that have taken over Instagram, head to Pasajul Victoria. It is located almost halfway between the Old Town and the Piata Romana area. Don’t expect much though, as, umbrellas aside, there wasn’t much to see or do there.
Where to stay in Bucharest
Most of the best things to do in Bucharest are in the city centre. Also, public means of transportation connect the city centre to pretty much everywhere else. So choosing central accommodation is imperative. Either in the Old Town or in the Piata Romana area. We stayed in One Love Central Studio II in the heart of the Old Town for less than 40€/night. We loved the apartment itself and we felt perfectly safe as there was a 24-hour concierge in the building. However, perhaps we would opt for accommodation closer to the Romanian Athenaeum next time.
- Bucharest has an extensive network of public transport which includes four metro lines, buses, trams and trolley buses. Tickets are cheap and you must buy and validate them before boarding any of the above. Buy your metro tickets from automatic ticket machines at the stations. For bus, tram and trolley bus tickets, look for kiosks with the RATB logo. Bear in mind that employees at said kiosks probably won’t speak English though. Taxi is another option in Bucharest as it is very cheap. Download and use the CleverTaxi app just to be on the safe side. We also took a taxi to Henri Coanda International Airport which is in Otopeni, just 18 km north of Bucharest.
- Weather in Bucharest can range from very cold in the winter to unbearably hot in the summer. We visited in July and we almost couldn’t believe how hot and humid it was. It also rained a lot on our second day there. Spring or autumn may be your best shot, as always.
- Romania’s currency is Leu (plural: Lei, code: RON). Hotels, restaurants, large stores etc accept all major credit cards. In some cases, you can also pay in Euro. We did so for our accommodation in Bucharest and elsewhere in Romania.
I started this post by making it clear that we didn’t exactly fall in love with Bucharest. However, looking back at our trip, under no means do we regret visiting the Romanian capital. It may not be the prettiest European capital we’ve laid eyes on. Yet there are way too many interesting things to do in Bucharest. Not to mention that it is an extremely affordable destination. Most of all, we should always keep in mind that Bucharest is a city still recovering from the deep wounds of its recent past. In time, Bucharest will inevitably flourish into the vibrant European city it was always meant to be.
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