If you’re traveling Central Europe as a tourist, digital nomad, or backpacker, then you’ve probably considered visiting Romania or Poland, if not both.
In my opinion, Poland and Romania are similar in that the magic of these countries lies in the smaller towns, and not in their capital cities of Bucharest (Romania) and Warsaw (Poland).
For example, Krakow, Wroclaw, Torun, and Gdansk are all vibrant, cultural Polish cities that you’ll probably find more interesting than Warsaw.
Similarly, Iasi, Cluj, Sibiu, and Brasov, are probably better starting points for getting to know Romania than is Bucharest.
That being said, if you’re a city person and you’re set on visiting Bucharest or Warsaw, then don’t be dissuaded. These are fascinating, bustling, and beautiful cities with a lot to offer, and they’re definitely worth a visit. And, lucky you, I’ve spent time living in both cities; so I’ve got lots to say.
In this comparison guide, I’m going to delve into the differences, both subtle and not-so-subtle, between these destinations. To facilitate my comparison, I’ve decided to compare the cities across 10 categories:
- Public Transit and Walkability
- Parks and Recreation
- Museums, Tours, Activities
- Food and Restaurants
- Digital Nomading
The only rule is no ties allowed, because I hate when comparison articles do that. So, who will win in this match up of two formerly-Communist capitals turned modern European business centers? Let’s find out!
When it comes to architecture, Bucharest and Warsaw both have a lot on offer, but their strengths are very different.
For starters, both cities are quite gray. During WWII and the decades of Communism that ensued, both cities lost a lot of their historical architecture, which was replaced by gray communist apartment blocks.
However, Bucharest was never bombed to the extent that Warsaw was. At one point during the Second World War, Hitler ordered the destruction of Warsaw by bombing, and the city lost over 80% of all its buildings.
So, when you visit Warsaw’s historic center, you’ll see some original buildings that survived the war, but most of what you see is actually a replica of the historic center that existed before the bombings.
Bucharest’s Architecture is Older and More Varied
While, like Warsaw, Bucharest is also gray, its Communist architecture is way cooler. Since Romania’s form of Communism was nationalistic, part of Ceausescu’s agenda in the Romanian Capital included erecting grandiose boulevards and government buildings that loom over the city.
The best example of this is Casa Poporuluiu, which is recognized as the second largest government building in the world. Some people think the building is really ugly, but I actually find it kind of fascinating.
Other amazing displays of Communist architecture in Bucharest include the sprawling Piata Unirii complex and fountains, as well as Splaiul Independentei.
Bucharest also has far greater architectural variety than what you’ll see in Warsaw. The city was once known as Micul Paris (The Little Paris), as Beaux Arts buildings and neo-classical patterns are scattered throughout the city.
Bucharest is known for Brancovenesc/Romanian Revival architecture, a Romanian style of architecture that incorporates elements of Byzantine and Venetian styles.
The most famous example of this style is the Kretzelescu Church in Bucharest’s Old Town, which dates back to 1722.
So, while both cities have amazing architecture, I think Bucharest takes the cake here. The city’s buildings and layout make the city seem more old-worldy and less sparse than what you’ll find in Warsaw.
2. Public Transportation
In both Warsaw and Bucharest, driving is probably a bad idea, and walking is very comfortable. Both cities have modern, safe public transportation systems consisting of subways, light rail lines, and bus networks.
Bucharest is Denser and More Walkable
However, compared to Warsaw, Bucharest has a much better public transportation system. While the two cities are identical in population (1.8m residents each), Bucharest has a greater population density.
As the denser city, there is less distance between destinations in Bucharest. Its streets and neighborhoods tend to be more pedestrian-friendly compared to Warsaw, and it’s easy to walk from place to place.
Not only is it more walkable, Bucharest also has a far superior subway system. Bucharest’s metro opened in 1979, and so much of the city is literally built around metro stations. This makes it extremely easy to travel between popular destinations in the city using only the subway.
By contrast, Warsaw’s metro didn’t begin operations until 1995, so the city isn’t planned around the subway network in the same way. Warsaw’s metro is also smaller, consisting of only 41km of track (39 stations), compared to Bucharest’s 76km of track (62 stations).
Therefore, while you certainly don’t need a car in either city, walking and taking transportation is a better experience in Bucharest than in Warsaw.
3. Parks and Recreation
If you’re a park enjoyer, then Warsaw is a great city to visit. Warsaw has a ton of parks with a lot variety between them.
Parks in Warsaw Offer an Escape From City Life
Something that may surprise you about Warsaw is the number of parks that are actually closer to nature preserves than parks. For example, smack in the heart of the city you’ll find Las Bielanski, a forested preserve full of trees, streams, trails, and even wild boar.
The number of wild parks and preserves in Warsaw make the city unique in that you can escape the bustling city and find yourself surrounded by nature without much effort.
Warsaw also has some very elegant parks, such as the famed Lazienki Krolewskie. In Lazienki, you’ll find beautiful trails, ponds, trees, and palatial residences. It’s a great place to spend the afternoon in Fall, when the trees glow yellow and orange.
To its credit, Bucharest also boasts many great parks, such as Tineretului and Herestrau. Something unique about Bucharest’s parks is that they are very social. In the summer, parks are teeming with people enjoying the sun and the atmosphere is very lively.
But, on the whole, I think Warsaw wins in this category because it has such an impressive variety of parks, which Bucharest lacks.
4. Museums, Tours, Activities
One thing I noticed while living in Warsaw is that Varsovians take their museums very seriously. There is a museum dedicated to nearly every famous Pole you can think of, including Copernicus, Chopin, and Maria Sklodowska-Curie.
If your preference is for visiting gardens and palaces, then Warsaw also has many impressive attractions to choose from. The Zamek Krolewski in the Old Town, Wilanow Palace, and Lazenki Gardens are just a few of the most popular attractions of this kind.
Bucharest’s Museums are Meh
Bucharest, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired in this category. The city does have some very cool museums, such as the outdoor Peasant Museum (muzeul satului), the National Museum of Art, and the George Enescu Museum, but it doesn’t have nearly as much going on as Warsaw.
Bucharest’s Old Town is also not as cultural as Warsaw’s. In fact, the main draw to Bucharest’s Old Town is the nightlife, dining, and shopping. The Old Town is improving with each passing year, but it’s still a bit shabby around the edges and run down.
Warsaw’s Old Town is different. It boasts a very dense selection of museums, churches, and cultural offerings, which are very well maintained. In fact, Warsaw’s entire Old Town district is almost like an open-air museum in its own right, with a breadth of interesting attractions to check out.
All told, I think Warsaw blows Bucharest out of the water in this category.
For starters, if you’re coming from the US, you’ll probably find a lot of similarities between people living in the two cities. Both, in my opinion, can be characterized by a certain coldness and mistrust of outsiders.
Really, this attribute is common in many formerly-communist countries, so if you’ve traveled in this part of the world it won’t take you by surprise.
However, beneath this outward disposition of “coldness”, I’ve found that Poles and Romanians are, indeed, very different (on average!).
In Warsaw, public displays of emotion are shockingly uncommon. It’s quite rare to see someone yelling, laughing loudly, or chatting with a stranger. In fact, as an American, I found Warsaw to be a profoundly quiet city.
Romanians are Warmer Than Poles (ymmv)
Romanians, on the other hand, tend to be more expressive and warm. That isn’t to say they’re exactly friendly, and they’re definitely not “nice” by American standards, but they have a more open disposition than Poles.
Perhaps you could chalk it up to Romanians’ Latin blood and culture. Or maybe it’s the warmer weather and proximity to the sea. I would say Romanians remind me more of Italians or Spaniards, whereas Poles are closer in disposition to Germans.
As a result, Bucharest is more full of life (and chaotic) than Warsaw. If a bus driver is driving too slowly in Bucharest, for example, you might hear someone yell from the back of the bus for the driver to hurry it up. Strangers might join in on the banter, shrugging their shoulders and uttering expressions of disapproval.
Which city you’ll prefer is, of course, a matter of personal preference. Warsaw is a great city for introverts, as people are predictable and tend to leave you alone. Bucharest, on the other hand, has more charm and rhythm to it, which I personally enjoy. So, for me, Bucharest is the winner here.
6. Food and Restaurants
When it comes to food and restaurants, there isn’t a clear winner between the cities.
If you’re from the US, then you’ll likely find Central European cuisine sour and maybe a little strange. In both Romania and Poland, soup plays a huge role in the local diet, as do sausage and fermented foods (especially fermented cabbage).
Getting to Bucharest and Warsaw, specifically, I think Warsaw’s food scene is a bit more focused on “gastro pubs”, “eateries”, and “bistros”. In Warsaw, it’s trendy to go out to eat for burgers, avocado toast, vegetarian, and other imported oddities.
If you’re into that kind of food, then you’ll find a lot to choose from in Warsaw. Personally, I prefer hearty meals and, well, real food.
Uwaga! A big exception is Warsaw’s milk bars, which serve homestyle Polish food at very reasonable prices. These are very cool establishments with amazing food, and if you do visit Warsaw then I highly recommend trying one.
Bucharest Has Delicious Grub, and It’s Everywhere
By contrast, Bucharest has insanely good street food, especially shaormas, gogosi (donuts), and mici (pork sausage). In fact, while I’ve yet to travel Turkey, Bucharest has the best shaorma of any place I’ve ever been, and shaorma stands are ubiquitous.
Like Warsaw, Bucharest also has a huge selection of trendy eateries to choose from. You can find everything from Thai to Italian in Bucharest, and prices are very reasonable. Due to the more accommodating weather, Bucharest also has a lot more patios and terraced restaurants, which I dig.
So, while the cuisine on offer in the two cities is somewhat similar, I think Bucharest’s superior grub and laid back dining environment make it better than Warsaw in this category.
Accommodation is one area where Bucharest easily bests Warsaw. For starters, I’ve found there are far more Airbnb and hotel listings to choose from in Bucharest compared to Warsaw.
There’s More Accommodation to Choose from in Bucharest
In Bucharest, finding accommodation has never been a problem for me. Airbnb rentals are cheap and plentiful. Not only are rentals easier to come by, but Bucharest has more amenity-rich neighborhoods to choose from than what you’ll find in Warsaw.
Compared to Bucharest, Warsaw is a very downtown-centric city. The city’s layout is more radial and centered on a strong downtown, whereas the activity centers in Bucharest are distributed evenly throughout the city.
For example, in Bucharest, you could stay in Aviatiei, Piata Victoriei, Cotroceni, The Old Town, Piata Romana, Militari, or even Obor. In each of these neighborhoods, there are plenty of shops and cafes, and access to transportation is phenomenal.
In Warsaw, on the other hand, I’ve found it can be quite inconvenient to not stay in the city center. Sure, neighborhoods like Mokotov and Zoliborz are well-connected, but the more far-flung neighborhoods like Wilanow and Zacisze aren’t as well-connected as Bucharest’s peripheral neighborhoods.
Bucharest’s accommodation is cheap and plentiful, and there are many travel-friendly neighborhoods to choose from. So, for me, It’s the clear winner in this regard.
8. Safety and Cleanliness
Bucharest and Warsaw are very safe cities. I’ve never felt threatened in either city, and the cities are orderly with a significant police presence. In fact, both cities are highly-rated for safety, beating out other European cities such as Madrid, Stockholm, Oslo and Lisbon.
Of course, there are some exceptions to this. Bucharest has a handful of neighborhoods that I’ve seldom been to, specifically because they’re known for being unsafe.
In particular, Rahova and Ferentari should be totally avoided, as they are pretty much slums in some spots. The area around the train station (gara de nord) is also a bit seedy, and should be avoided at night.
Warsaw, in my experience, doesn’t really have dangerous neighborhoods. Praga Polnoc used to have a reputation for being sketchy, but I’ve stayed and walked around in Praga Polnoc without a problem. The neighborhood is actually growing rapidly and there’s a lot of new construction happening there.
Both Cities are Safe, But Warsaw is Cleaner
When it comes to cleanliness, however, Warsaw is undoubtedly ahead of Bucharest. Bucharest isn’t filthy, but it is definitely lived in. While it’s changing for the better, litter is exceedingly common there, and the buildings are crumbling in many neighborhoods.
Warsaw is, in comparison, well manicured. Its parks are landscaped and many sidewalks have bike paths and landscaping. So, while Warsaw is only slightly safer than Bucharest (both are exceedingly safe), it’s a lot cleaner, making it the winner in this area.
9. Digital Nomading
Warsaw and Bucharest are really incredible cities for living the digital nomad lifestyle. Internet is fast and affordable in the two cities, and there is a culture of young professionals who work remotely.
In fact, in both cities, IT/tech jobs are quite common, as many young people work for international companies in IT roles. Since many of these workers are employed by companies located abroad, it’s not uncommon to meet people whose work schedules are in American/Canadian/British time.
Warsaw Edges Out Bucharest for Digital Nomading
There is also a wide selection of cafes and coworking spaces available in both cities. However, I think Warsaw has a slight edge here, as wifi-equipped cafes meant for working and studying are extremely common in Warsaw.
One of my favorite chains for working in Warsaw is Green Caffe Nero, and they have a location on every corner. The food and beverages are mediocre, but all of the locations are spacious with plenty of wifi. Lots of young people go there to study and work, so you don’t feel awkward posting up for a few hours with your laptop.
In Bucharest, the phenomenon of working on your laptop isn’t quite as common as in Warsaw, so you’ll see fewer people doing it.
I’m not sure why Bucharest isn’t better known for its weather, because it actually has a great climate. While winters in Romania’s North and East can be gray and cold, Bucharest’s proximity to the Black Sea grants it a far milder climate.
For example, Bucharest receives a whopping 2,112 hours of sunshine per year, making it sunnier than Lyon, Istanbul, and Sofia. Winters in Bucharest are also surprisingly bearable, with the average daily high in January sitting at 37°F (3°C).
Warsaw Weather is Gloomy and Cold
Warsaw, unfortunately, isn’t nearly as pleasant as Bucharest in this regard. Since it’s farther north and generally cloudier, Warsaw only gets 1,495 hours of sunshine per year. That’s about 25% less sunshine than Bucharest!
Plus, winters in Warsaw are known for being snowy and dull. The average daily high for Warsaw in January is 33°F (1°C). The sun is out for an hour less during the winter compared to Bucharest.
Summers are hot in both cities, but coming from California, they’re nothing I couldn’t handle. I actually enjoy the summer weather in both cities.
Since I value sunshine, I consider Bucharest to have the superior climate, making it a winner in this aspect.
Should You Visit Warsaw or Bucharest?
Across the categories we looked at in this comparison, Warsaw won 4/10, while Bucharest won 6/10.
Your money will go further in Bucharest, there is more food to choose from, more accommodation available, and getting around is easier, making Bucharest the winner of this matchup.
Still, Warsaw is a beautiful city in its own right with a lot of cultural experiences, manicured parks, and a standard of living that Bucharest can’t compete with.
I hope this guide has helped you come to a decision on which city you’ll be in next. Or, perhaps, you’ve been persuaded to add both cities to your itinerary. Happy travels 🙂