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Bucharest Practicalities

[December 2014. I wrote most of this in 2002, updated a bit in May 2006, but Bucharest is changing fast. I'm leaving this up here mainly for historical reasons. Do not use this as a guide to present-day Bucharest, though it will still be useful for things like museums and perhaps theaters. Bucharest in Your Pocket is now on line, and they are a consistently good, up-to-date source on the city. Also port.ro has excellent local event listings.]

[December 2014: If you have the money, the new Hotel Epoque is pretty amazing. Beautiful, rather central but on a quiet dead end, 5-star facilities, staff who seem actually to care about making it not just a fine hotel but a great hotel. Unless you need to be dead center, this, rather than the Athenee Palace, is probably the hotel of choice now in Bucharest.]

Some of you have been asking me for more practical advice on Bucharest rather than just travelogue. (On the other hand, if you are looking for travelogue, read my Romania letters.) Here goes, although this is still by no means going to be a comprehensive tourist guide.

Sources of Bucharest information

If anyone has information they believe I should add to this page, please let me know. I'd be especially interested in the URL of a good online guide to the city: so far, I haven't found anything better than going into Google and starting a search on what you are interested in.

Bucharest will be well covered in any guide to Romania. My favorite guide to the country is The Rough Guide to Romania, but you may have different taste in travel guides. I figure that anyone going to Romania has probably traveled enough to have developed a taste in travel guides.

Far and away the best English-language guide to Bucharest itself (so much so that this is not a matter of taste) is Bucharest in Your Pocket, updated every two months (important in this fast-changing city). They recently upgraded their look and raised their price, but it's still an amazing bargain, locally available in Bucharest for 85,000 lei (about US$2.75 [May 2006: still about the same, but in new lei — RON — that's 8.5 lei]). Once you get to Bucharest, you can buy it at many bookstores, hotels, and at some of the larger museums. [May 2006: some hotels have it for free.] It includes a useful map that will probably be sufficient for a short-term visit. Unfortunately, their web site has been down lately (April-May 2002), so there is no point in my providing a link, but you might try a web search and see if they are up again.

More detailed city maps can be generally bought at almost any hotel, bookstore, or news kiosk near the center of the city. Prices run about US$2-5.

Excellent online listings of the performing arts throughout Romania, with an emphasis on Bucharest, can be found in the online edition of Observator Cultural external link. Click on Agenda Culturala, then select the type of event you are interested in. (Opera and ballet will be under "Spectacole".) Listings are strictly in Romanian, but one needn't be Charles Berlitz to understand "Romeo si Julieta de S. Prokofiev". The same people put out an excellent weekly (Romanian language) guide to goings-on [May 2006: they no longer do listings, more just reviews these days, more of an intellectual journal of the arts], available at most Bucharest newsstands, out each Wednesday.

Sapte Seri external link ("Seven Evenings"), available free at most Bucharest hotels and many bars, comes out on Friday and also has good listings of goings-on about town, mostly in Romanian but with seemingly random bits of English. The web edition postdates my time in Bucharest; it looks slicker than the magazine itself and includes more English-language content (try the "English" button at the upper right of their home page). [May 2006: now there is also 24-FUN, with a Bucharest edition B-24-Fun.]

Bucharest has no tourist office worthy of the name. The dozen or two so-called tourist offices are really just undistinguished travel agencies that will try to sell you package tours.

Romania changed its phone numbering scheme June 14, 2002. The country code remains 40. The Bucharest phone code is changed from (0)1 to (0)21. Consequently, any but the most current guidebooks show Bucharest phone numbers beginning with 40 1 for international dialing and 01 for domestic within Romania. Instead, these numbers are now 40 21 for international dialing and 021 for domestic. I haven't made any effort in the following to give a comprehensive list of phone numbers (it shouldn't be hard for you to search down, say, the phone number of a theater on line) but where I do list them I'm using the new international phone numbers.

Quick tourist overview

Obviously, I like Bucharest, or this site wouldn't exist. However, it's not the easiest city to get to know. It's very poor for a European capital. There's more than a little street hassle, and not a lot of tourist infrastructure. Still, it's a European capital, and make no mistake about that. It's a great city for performing arts buffs (theater, opera, ballet), not bad in the visual arts, and once you are oriented (and perhaps re-calibrated: so this is a well-lit street? so this is a high price?) a pretty good place to hang out, especially in May, June, September, and October. It is also a reasonable place to fly to in order to go by train or bus (or if you are really crazy, rental car) to the Black Sea coast or the medieval cities of Transylvania.

Sadly, only a few neighborhoods of Bucharest still live up to its onetime reputation as the "Paris of the East". For simple beauty, it does not rival Budapest, let alone Prague, Bucharest took some damage during World War II and was further marred by the ugly urban planning schemes of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. In the remaining older neighborhoods, many beautiful villas retain their charm intact. Even in the most Orwellian Communist-era neighborhoods you may stumble upon a small, lovely Orthodox church, possibly now in the courtyard of one of the Orwellian apartment buildings.

A Note on Language

Most younger Romanians (and many older Romanians) speak at least rudimentary English. Many are fluent. Older educated Romanians typically know French; they also often know Russian, but they don't like to use it. You might also find German or Italian useful, but probably less so than English or French.

As for the Romanian language itself, it is very much a Romance language, closer to Latin and Italian than to anything else. There are a few unusual letters, which I haven't tried to reproduce here. A "t" with a cedilla under it (a cedilla looks a lot like a comma), is pronounced "ts", an "s" with a cedilla is pronounced "sh". For example, there is a cedilla under the "t" in "piata" (which means "square" or "market"), so it's pronounced "piatsa" -- almost exactly like the Italian "piazza".

Reasonably good online introductions to the Romanian language (usually with some wave files) seem to come and go. Try typing "Romanian language" into your favorite search engine.

Getting in and out of Bucharest

Bucharest is not the easiest town to come and go from. The following tips are intended to prevent your visit from getting off to a miserable start.

Getting in from Otopeni Airport

All international flights in and out of Bucharest come and go from Otopeni Airport external link. Probably the best deal to get into town from Otopeni is Sky Services limos. They have a booth in the arrival hall, or they can be reached at (40 21) 204 10 02, fax (40 21) 232 96 91, email skytransport@yahoo.com. It's US$25 for a private limo, US$10 to share, slightly discounted if you pay for a round trip. If you know Bucharest well, you might cut a better deal with a taxi driver, but if you don't know Bucharest well, a taxi driver will almost certainly sting you for just as much (or more) and provide worse service.

For those on a tiny budget, the number 783 Express (it's just a name, don't get excited) airport bus leaves approximately every 15 minutes from Otopeni and runs from roughly 06:00 to 23:00. It's cheap (round trip is less than US$1; buy a ticket at the RATB ticket booth) but not utterly reliable (nothing comes for 45 minutes, then three come right together, etc.), and occasionally haunted by sneak thieves and pickpockets, so keep an eye on your belongings. Unless you are caught in rush hour traffic, the 783 takes about 35 minutes to the Piata Victoriei and another 10 minutes to the Piata Unirii. Probably you will want to stay on until Unirii, then (depending on where you are going) walk, take the Metrou or take a taxi.

Conversely, for those on a large budget, a correspondent informs me (November 2003): "When traveling to Romania, there is no better way of getting from the airport into town for $50 then with the only real limo company in Bucharest. They have new Lincoln Towncars 9 meters long, with BAR TV and all that California dream stuff in it! I tried it, and its really a cool thing to do, with kids, for business or otherwise. I believe their number is +40 788 326 825." Sounds like his tastes are more expensive than mine (I just want to get into town without hassle), but if you're more that kind of traveller, there you go.

Arriving by train

Bucharest is a long way from Europe's other major cities (12 hours by train to Budapest, 17 hours to Vienna) but the train service is reliable. If you have time on your hands, you might make a few stops between Budapest and Bucharest (or between Istanbul and Bucharest, not to be so Occidentally Eurocentric).

All long distance trains come to the Gara du Nord, which is well served by the very cheap, reasonably well-run Metrou. You can take the Metrou to Piata Victoriei or (transferring once) to Piata Universitate, which is the nearest subway stop to many Bucharest hotels (though, unfortunately, that still means a ten minute walk to the biggest concentration of hotels). Also, there is nothing (except perhaps language barrier) to stop you from calling one of the more reliable taxi companies from the station.

The Gara du Nord itself is considerably cleaner and safer than it was just a few years ago (partly due to a fee of 3000 lei -- about 10 US cents -- to enter the station without a ticket), but the cabbies around the station are mostly not to be trusted (be particularly wary of any who actually approach you inside the station), the buses in and out of the station are the pickpockets' favorites, and the neighborhood, while not actively bad, is not the friendliest part of town to walk around (fine if you already know the city, but a tough place to start). Unless you know what you are up to, take the Metrou or take a taxi from a reliable company.

Getting around town

Bucharest is a compact city. Most of what you will want to see should be within thirty minutes walk of your hotel. Expect to walk a lot.

The Metrou (subway) is cheap (about US$1.25 for a ten-trip ticket) and approximately as reliable as its New York or London counterparts. The only downside is that it was built mainly to get workers to factories, so it doesn't necessarily get you everywhere you might want to go. Buses and trams are equally cheap, but the system for tickets is rather complicated and confusing: tickets are sold from booths (not on the bus/tram itself) and there are over a dozen different tickets and passes. [23 July 03: Mihai from Bucharest says it's not that confusing: trams, "regular" buses and trolleys are all under the umbrella of RATB, and their tickets are interchangeable. However, some buses (like the "Express" buses) are separate. There now, is that simpler?] [May 2006: I used RATB a lot this trip. Get a pass (abonament) and it's a lot simpler thank tickets.]

Taxis are a very mixed lot. The best, such as Cristaxi (tel: 9461), Alfa Taxi (tel: 9488), Perrozzi (tel: 9631), and Cobalescu (tel: 9451), [May 2006: Alfa and seems to be gone, an Perozzi doesn't seem to have many cars on the street; Confort and Taxi 2000 are new and good.] are insanely cheap, running no more than 20 US cents per kilometer, plus an initial fee about the same. The worst will try to charge you ten times as much, or even more. Some of the worst will make up names awfully like the best (e.g. "Cristi Taxi" or "Peroli"). In general, before getting into a taxi on the street, make sure that it has the name of an identifiable company, looks decently maintained, and (most important) has its price per kilometer posted on the front window. [May 2006: prices should now be posted on or near the passenger-side door. Typical good prices now are about 1 RON to start with ("pornire") and about 1 RON per km. A little higher should be no big deal, but some will be higher by a factor of three or four; avoid those.]

You may think that because public transit is difficult, you should rent a car. Think again. Bucharest is a very hard city to drive in (potholes, irregular cobblestones, aggressive drivers, beggars at traffic lights, lack of parking) and it is compact enough that you will probably be on foot most of the time. Leaving the city, it's not a lot better. The highways are not great, and what happens if you break down? If you really need a car, you should at least consider actually hiring a car and driver.

What I like about Bucharest

If you really want to know what I like about Bucharest, read my thirty-plus articles about the city, but here are some highlights:

What I don't like about Bucharest

While Bucharest undoubtedly has a few outlying neighborhoods to avoid (especially to the south), nothing very bad is anywhere near the center of the city or any of the tourist attractions. The neighborhood around the Gara du Nord (the city's main railroad station) is probably the worst central neighborhood, but certainly no worse than the area around the bus or train station in many major American cities.

In general, it is legal to wander into courtyards of residential buildings, but not polite to do so out of mere curiosity. It is especially a bad idea to wander into courtyards that look run down or trashed out. (On the other hand, there is nothing unusual about a Bucharest courtyard containing a church or shops, so there is no hard and fast rule here.)

While we are on the negative side...

So you need somewhere to sleep...

Accommodation in Bucharest can be tricky, unless you are on a Hilton/Marriott budget. Here are some of the best options I know about:

... and I suppose you eat, too

You could do fine in Bucharest on just "street food" (and it would be a cheap, cheap way to go). The city is notable for its many patiserie, where good French- and Hungarian-style pastries can be had for no more than about 50 US cents; covrigarie, selling hot pretzels (covrigi) for about 6 US cents (and they are filling: three makes a lunch); and gogoserie, selling gogosi and langosi (two varieties of doughnut, often with fillings such as apples -- mere -- or chocolate) for about 15-30 US cents. A line at the window is almost always a good sign: Buchuresteans don't line up for bad food.

Also notable are mici, little sausages typically served with mustard and bread, the staple food of the terasa (terrace) bars. Cheap (a meal's worth will usually be under US$2) and (my meat-eating friends tell me) delicious. Of course, you don't really want to know what's in them.

The number one Romanian staple is mamaliga (essentially the same thing as Italian polenta), a preparation of corn with a consistency somewhere between mashed potatoes and oatmeal. It can be served either alone, with smentâtână (sour cream), or covered with a tocana (a simple stew, usually meat-based, although a vegetarian mushroom version exists).

Two other staples are ciorba, a type of sour soup reminiscent of an Italian minestrone soup, although without the noodles (meat-eaters tell me the best is ciorba de burta -- tripe ciorba -- although I can only vouch for ciorba de legume), and sarmale, stuffed cabbage leaves, typically stuffed with meat although vegetarian versions exist.

More elaborate Romanian food runs heavily to game dishes and the like. In general, seafood is not a particular strength at any but the most expensive restaurants, although farm-raised salmon and pike perch (salau) are both commonly available.

There are several local beers. The best is probably Ursus, with Romanian-brewed Stella Artois also a contender. A few of the best bars actually have a Belgian beer or two, arguably the best beers in the world (please don't hate me if you are from Bavaria. I just said "arguably"). And remember that Bucharest is in the part of the world where "Budweiser" means the good stuff from the Czech city of Budwar, not the American beer of the same name.

For those who don't eat meat: people will tell you that it is hard to be a vegetarian in Bucharest. Well, it is relatively hard to be a vegetarian eating at traditional Romanian restaurants, but other than that I think it's not tough at all. Markets have good a selection of produce (though not like what you'd find in a wealthy country); good juices are readily available; there is a (religious) concept of food that is de post, which pretty much means vegan; about half of the street food is vegetarian (although a lot of it does use milk and/or eggs). If you eat cheese, Italian food (especially pizza) is ubiquitous, and it's easy to eat a good meatless Italian meal (although a cheese-less one is harder).

Considering that Bucharest is not a wealthy city, it has a remarkable number of worthwhile bars and restaurants. [May 2006: and far more now. No trouble finding good food in Bucharest anymore.] Rather than list the city's best-known landmark restaurants, here are some lesser-known favorites; nothing here except Golden Falcon should set you back even ten dollars a person:

Bucharest also has a number of fine public markets. The most central is Piata Amzei (Amzei Market), with a good selection of imported and domestic produce, several small supermarkets (one of which is open 24 hours), and a 24-hour flower market. The largest is Piata Obor (Obor Market), an indoor/outdoor market covering several city blocks, with perhaps fifty butchers, twenty fishmongers, several hundred produce vendors, and hundreds of more vendors selling everything from Turkish jeans to tropical fish. Obor Market and the shopping district between the market and the Obor Metrou station (especially the sprawling "Bucur Obor" complex, which fills in the ground floor of half of the block between the metrou station and the Market) are also among the best places to buy CDs and cassettes of Romanian music. Obor is a few kilometers out of the center, near the Metrou station of the same name. It is also on the route of the 66 bus, which comes through the center on B-dul Regina Elisabeta. If you're not ready to contend with public transit, you can get to Obor by taxi. I happen to think it's very worth seeing, but recognize that if central Bucharest itself feels to you like you have left civilization as you know it, Obor feels that way to people from central Bucharest.

Nightlife

Bucharest is not a big nightlife city like Berlin or Madrid, but on the other hand it doesn't exactly go to sleep at sundown. Here are a few places I like, all within a kilometer of the center of town. At any of these, mixed drinks run about US$3, local beer (Ursus, etc.) about half of that.

Bucharest with kids

I don't have a ton of suggestions for doing Bucharest with kids, but here are some thoughts:

Contemporary Romanian music

There is a lot of good contemporary music going on in Romania, mostly in Bucharest itself. There aren't all that many chances to hear bands play live, so take advantage when the opportunity arises. Local recordings are a bargain, with CDs typically running about US$4-5 and cassettes half of that. Some of my favorite contemporary Romanian bands are:

There is also an entire genre called manele, which is essentially something between a lounge music and a rock music reworking of traditional Turkish folk material. It is generally looked down upon by people who are serious about either rock music or folk music, and probably even by anyone who is serious about lounge music, but it can be kind of fun. I have no particular groups to recommend: nothing I heard stood out from the pack.



Originally written: May 9, 2002
Last modified: December 1, 2014

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