So, you’re thinking of visiting Romania and, naturally, you’re thinking that a trip to the Capital– Bucharest– is the best place to begin. After all, a country’s capital is usually the most significant and beautiful place to visit, a portal into the heart and soul of a country. Except this is Romania, and what applies to the rest of the world most certainly doesn’t apply here.
The truth is, Bucharest is an interesting, bustling, and entertaining city. It is also dirty, vapid, and underwhelming as a tourist destination. Though the city has a rich history, little remains of its past and most of the city is a gray, concrete sprawl, the remnants of a failed communist experiment. To truly appreciate Bucharest, you need to really understand it; and that understanding won’t come over the course of a 3-day stay here.
For travelers coming to Romania for the first time, Bucharest is not worth visiting. I recommend seeing Brasov, Sibiu, Sighisoara, Timisoara, Maramures, Cluj Napoca, and even Iasi before thinking about a trip to the Capital. Authentic Romanian culture and history are tangible and alive in those destinations, unlike in Bucharest.
In this guide, I’ll provide some insight on Bucharest as a travel destination. I’ll detail its shortcomings and why you may want to leave it off of your itinerary. In addition, I’ll run through some of the destination’s perks so that you can make a fair, balanced decision whether or not to visit this city.
Romanian Culture isn’t Accessible Here
Perhaps my biggest gripe with Bucharest is that it doesn’t offer the air of “otherness” that abounds in Romania’s more charming cities. Bucharest is, for the most part, a run-of-the mill European business capital. Unlike other capitals in Europe, though, Bucharest is incredibly monolithic. Bucharest has no Bastilles, no Trastevere, and no Champs Elysees. Bucharest’s neighborhoods look and feel the same, with few exceptions.
It’s this generic quality that makes Bucharest feel like not much of a destination at all. While a visit to Maramures or Sibiu will get you up close and personal with farmers, merchants, storytellers and shepherds, cultural experiences in Bucharest are far and few between. Its citizens are less friendly than in other locales and its cultural offerings are limited to concerts, restaurants, and parks– boring stuff.
It’s Objectively Ugly
Before I continue my tirade on Bucharest, I should probably preface my comments: I actually really like Bucharest. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a place with a lot of great people, great parks, and great energy. I really enjoyed living there and I would gladly move back. For travelers, though, I don’t feel Bucharest is a great place to get to know Romania. Continue.
During Romania’s communist period, Nicolae Ceausescu cleared out many of the city’s traditional neighborhoods in order to build the city’s grand boulevards and tributes to socialism. In the process, Ceausescu managed to erase much of Bucharest’s original beauty and historical architecture. What remains today is a landscape dominated by gray, boxy apartment buildings which house the majority of the city’s population.
Though many of the city’s neighborhoods have launched ambitious renovation projects, the communist-era housing units are presently in complete disarray. They are gray, covered in graffiti, and crumbling. To add to the overall seedy ambiance, stray dogs commonly roam the streets. If this is your first time visiting a country outside of the US or Canada, then you may be a bit shocked.
Of course, that’s not to say that the entire city is a disaster. There are areas of incredible beauty, especially the historic center and the neighborhoods of Herastrau and Cismigiu. Also, many people may find the city’s gray, communistic ambiance quite fascinating. In general, though, don’t visit Bucharest if you’re expecting the manicured streets and buildings of, say, Fifth Avenue or the Upper East Side– Bucharest isn’t that kind of city.
The People are Unfriendly
I’m feeling progressively worse as I pen this article because I don’t want to give the impression that I dislike Bucharest or Romania. That couldn’t be further from the truth. But, I feel like its in the best interest of my readers to present some objective information about each of the cities I travel to and so here goes nothing– the citizens of Bucharest are cold and unfriendly (cringe).
Like any city, Bucharest has some really awesome, friendly people and some not-so-friendly people living there. In general, however, people in Bucharest tend to be cold and insular. While many residents are friendly and helpful towards their neighbors, you’ll find that people here take a long time to open up to foreigners. This mistrust of outsiders is understandable since many of the citizens of Bucharest grew up during communism.
During the Ceausescu years, undercover thought police were ubiquitous and so citizens had to be careful about divulging too much about their personal lives to strangers. It wasn’t uncommon for your neighbors to snitch on you if they believed you were plotting against the regime or consuming western propaganda. It’s this social climate which fostered a coldness and mistrust for others that persists in Romanian society to this day.
There’s Not Much to Do
Aside from a few museums and a small historic district, there’s really not much for tourists to do in Bucharest. Most of the sites here can be seen in a day or two, and even that may be too much time. The city’s best restaurants are all located within the historic district and can be visited in a single evening.
Despite its sub-par activities offerings, Bucharest does have some really impressive parks. If you’re a low maintenance traveler, then you may enjoy taking the time to visit the city’s parks. In particular, Herastrau, Cismigiu, and Tineretului are all incredible parks with really great energy. During the summer evenings, the entire city goes outside to get fresh air and walks around in the cool weather. You’ll find the parks teeming with families and young people, the perfect ambiance to take in the city’s vibe.
Bucharest has Epic Malls
Now that I’m done spewing my offensive opinions on the city of Bucharest I can finally get into the city’s redeeming quality– it has really epic malls.
I know, you’re probably thinking that malls are unoriginal and stale and unworthy of this website. I get it. But malls in Romania aren’t the stale consumer-tailored experience that they are in America.
Going to the mall for Romanians is a form of social posturing. At the mall you’ll see Romania’s upwardly-mobile capitalist class on full display. Young ladies clutch designer purses and the men splurge on expensive watches and sunglasses. The atmosphere buzzes with excitement for Romania’s newfound prosperity and the promise of a brighter future.
What’s more, Bucharest’s malls are really beautiful. In contrast with the city’s gray ambiance, the malls are built in modern styles and each one possesses its own architectural charm. If you find yourself in Bucharest, make it a priority to go to one of the city’s malls; you won’t regret it.
Should You Visit Bucharest
So, should you visit Bucharest? Maybe. Probably Not.
If you have a penchant for all things post-communist (we exist), then you’ll definitely find value and novelty in gray Bucharest. Its socialist palaces and monuments are, after all, impressive feats.
If, however, you’re a normal person who loves to experience foreign ways of life and beautiful places, then Romania has a lot more to offer than its shabby capital. Bucharest is dirty, boring, and unfriendly. Don’t hesitate to drop it from your itinerary and swap it with one of the destinations I mentioned in the opening of this post. You won’t regret it!