Pubs, Parks, and... Palm Trees?
Bucharest--easily mixed up with the similar-sounding Budapest--is the capitol city of Romania. Nearly everyone back home, and pretty much everyone we met there after hearing we're all the way from America, has asked us why and how we ended up there, and that's a fair question. Americans generally don't know much about Eastern Europe, to be frank, apart from associating it with the Cold War and a few movie stereotypes.
Of course, we thought that was reason enough to come to Romania: we didn't know hardly anything about it.
But there were also a few other variables at play. While there are plenty of more popular destinations in Europe we haven't been to on this trip yet (Greece, Germany, all of Scandinavia, Budapest...), we have to work within our Schengen visa limitations; there are 26 European countries that are a part of the "Schengen Zone" which is the free travel area, and as Americans we are allowed 90 days within a 180 day period to be in Schengen countries. Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Romania, among others, are not part of the Schengen zone, so we had the perfect excuse to wave goodbye to the overwhelmingly tourist-filled sights and check out the Balkans.
After spending a week each in Timisoara (a small city by the Serbian border) and Brasov (a gorgeous, picturesque city near the mountains), Bucharest was the big-city contrast to help fill out our picture of Romania.
Bucharest has risen and fallen a number of times over the years. It first blossomed under Vlad the Impaler (also the inspiration for the character Dracula) in the 1400's, but has suffered plagues, earthquakes, and attacks in the centuries following. Despite this, it's continued to grow and is now home to almost 2 million of Romania's 19.6 million people.
But what's Bucharest all about? We had no idea what to expect when we showed up, but here is a snapshot of what we found there is to do.
It turns out, these days, Bucharest is a city of nightlife. This is evidenced most by the Old Town, a pedestrian-only section of the city that is entertaining people at pretty much all hours. Our first accommodations, the Little Bucharest Old Town Hostel, was right in the heart of this area, which was convenient for making friends and being social. You've got as many British pubs, strip clubs, karaoke bars, dancing clubs, restaurants, themed-bars and street food establishments as you could ever want, and all of them are packed and bumping loud music. As an American who is used to bars closing at 2am every night, I was baffled when we were out at 7 in the morning and there were still people dancing in the clubs.
One of the places we visited in Old Town was the sky bar associated with our hostel, Pura Vida. It's on the roof of one of the old buildings in the middle of town, and while it's not quite high enough to provide sweeping views of the city, the copper rooftops of the surrounding buildings shine brilliantly at sunset. We were there at sunset on a Saturday evening, and it was quite full, with only barstools around the edge of the terrace and most of the floor open for dancing, so it's not a place we recommend for a drink and a chat with friends, but if dancing on a rooftop sounds like your scene, Pura Vida is the place. You're also likely to meet people there from all over the world, as it's literally upstairs from a hostel.
Pura Vida Sky Bar
While staying in a hostel in a historic building around the noisiest part of the city with lots of young people who want to go out has its drawbacks, it also has its perks. Little Bucharest was a very social place to be, and even travelers who weren't staying the night there would show up to hang out. We definitely made friends. Andrew and I are lucky to be traveling together, but it can still be isolating to travel for a long time, and there's something uniquely enjoyable about sitting around the common room of the hostel, playing "Ten Fingers" with half a dozen people from around the world (sharing a 3.5 liter bottle of beer that was $2 from the corner store). Most of our socializing at night was at the hostel, but we tried a couple local bars and even went to karaoke with people from America, England, Italy, Brazil, and Holland. A different night, Andrew played ping-pong with two Frenchmen and a Romanian, and only lost by a few points!
Parks and Gardens
Romania really blew us away with their city parks, not just in Bucharest. The capitol itself is home to tons of green spaces of all varieties to enjoy in all weather. American cities: take note!
Cismigiu Gardens was a very close walk from our Airbnb just outside of Old Town, and even though it was a rainy day, it was breathtaking. There's a big lake where you can rent rowboats in the summer, and lots of little cafes, terraces, and "refreshment kiosks" so you don't even have to pack a snack. There are a gazillion different plants, many of them identified for you! This was one of our favorites.Nearest the Arcul de Triumf is Herastrau Park, a massive, 462 acre park is full of treasures. The lake is far bigger than Cismigiu, we discovered a little Japanese Garden, there's event spaces, walking paths, the list goes on. According to the Internet, even in the peak of high season, this park is big enough it doesn't feel crowded. We only saw a tiny snippet of it, but on a sunny day, we could imagine lounging there for hours. While we were there, the trees in the Japanese garden were in full bloom.
The Japanese Garden.
The first park we happened upon on our first day, Carol Park was built for the 1906 Romania in the World exhibition and is now home to the "Unknown Soldier" war monument. More beautiful trees, walking paths, and water features are in this park, and we hung out for a good chunk of our first day here. Also massive, there's a big "Youth Park" a little more outside the center that, along with a lake/pond and walking paths and trees and grass everywhere, houses a little amusement park for children. We weren't quite there during high season yet, so not much was open, but I would expect it's quite popular. Beyond the children's area are your usual park attractions, including lots of little (very steep) bridges over the slow-moving river.
What struck us most about the parks there, and honestly the parks in many big European cities, was how common the really big ones are; think almost like Central Park (I suppose slightly smaller) but 4 or 5 to a city. You can really get lost among the trees and flower beds and little lakes, and feel like you've gotten away from the big city a bit.
We were hanging out at our hostel on our second day in Bucharest, and a Romanian woman who was also staying there asked if we planned to visit "Therme." We'd never heard of it. Her accent was quite thick, so we couldn't wrap our minds around what she was describing until she spelled it out and we Googled it. The place almost seemed too good to be true... But then our Airbnb host a week later mentioned it. He said he goes once a month. And then our Uber driver asked if we'd been. And then a couple of American "digital nomads" we made friends with at the hostel. We determined it was worth trying out, if everybody was talking about it. It was a 40 minute drive outside of the city, but a free shuttle service was available at certain hours. A little past the airport, in kind of an empty part of town, loomed a giant glass structure. You could see the palm trees from the far end of the parking lot.
Overlooking Therme's "Palm" Zone.
Therme Buchuresti is Europe's largest "relaxation and wellness center." Most of it is completely indoors and usable all year-round, but there are also outdoor pools/an artificial sand beach/lounge areas/bars. Inside, between three different "zones," you can enjoy a family-friendly waterpark with 16 slides, adults-only pools infused with different minerals, several swim-up bars, steam baths, 10 saunas, a massage center (book in advance!), infrared heat lamps, tons of places to lounge, and more. There are something like 1,500 palm trees. The purpose of Therme is to be an easily-accessible escape from city life for the people of Bucharest, and it definitely felt like a totally different world for the 4.5 hours we were there.
You can take the bus for free to get there and back, and there are multiple packages and special rate times if you're on a tight budget. You pay for your time: 3 hours, 4.5 hours, or all day. You also pay for your zone access. "Galaxy" is the kid-friendly area with the waterslides, and it is quite noisy from all the excitement. "Palm" is the ground floor with all the trees and multiple pools. "Elysium" is upstairs with another small pool, and all the saunas. Once you're checked in, they give you a fancy bracelet with your locker number; the bracelet scans to lock your locker, it scans you into the different zones, you scan it to pay for your drinks at the pool bars, etc. At the end before you leave (and there's lots of security) you return your bracelet and pay your tab. This means you don't have to worry about carrying anything around except your towel!
So anyway. If you can't tell, we had an amazing time at Therme and are so glad we didn't miss it.
Bucharest is over in the southeastern region of Romania, and there are a number of sights you can reach by train if you're looking for a day away from the city.
Bran Castle, for example. We visited "Dracula's Castle" from Brasov, but you can easily make a day trip to see it from Bucharest. It's in the village of Bran, which should be easy enough to remember. Castles are always fun, and Bran Castle provided the kinds of narrow spiral staircases, short doorways, and ornately furnished rooms you expect out of a good castle museum. At one point, while checking out the terrace, we got to watch some farmers and dogs herd a massive flock of sheep down the street in the middle of afternoon traffic.
Bran Castle, aka "Dracula's Castle"
Towards the end of our stay in Bucharest, while we were in a shared Airbnb (we had a private room in a 4 bedroom apartment that housed other guests), we made friends with the two German girls across the hall from us. They had plans to visit the Black Sea on the same day we did, so we decided to all go together. (They were also more prepared and organized than us, so we kind of needed them...they knew which train to take and what time it left and everything.) We had a good time with them, and a good time in the town of Constanta. It's a pretty little historic town with a big, sprawling beach. It's not quite high season, so the beach wasn't packed at all, but we hear it's quite popular in the summer. There was also a big Orthodox cathedral, Roman Catholic cathedral, and historic mosque. We were able to go inside the mosque--a first for both of us--and climb the tower to get a panoramic view.
View from the mosque tower in Constanta.
The train in and out of Bucharest was cheap and easy enough, though on our way home they oversold the train considerably and there were no seats for us. We sat on the floor outside the Hogwarts Express-style train compartments for the two hour ride home. Still, the day trip was worth it.
The Black Sea!
Sights around the city
There's no shortage of beautiful architecture in Bucharest. Some if it seems quite new, but done in and old-fashioned and ornate style, and some has clearly been around for a while. Just wandering the streets of downtown, there's plenty to look at. In different pockets outside of Old Town, you'll find large blocks of massive apartment buildings from the communist era, which are a stark contrast to the French and Austro-Hungarian facades.
Palace of Parliament
Bucharest is home to one of the largest administrative buildings in the world, and it is actually the heaviest building in the world. It's amazing to view from the outside, but they also offer tours of the inside sometimes. You have to request a tour in advance and I'm not sure how much it costs, so it does take some planning, or you can just marvel at it from the outside!
Arcul de Triumf
Like Paris (and a few other cities), Bucharest has an "Arch of Victory." We made the long--almost an hour--walk from our accommodations near Old Town so we could stroll through the parks on the way, but you can also take the Metro there pretty directly. It's a neat structure to see, and it's right next to one of the biggest parks in town so you can fill the rest of your day.
National Museum of Art Romania
In an area with some pretty fantastic architecture all around is the massive art museum. It has a few different museums-within-the-museum, so you'll want to look ahead of time at what kind of ticket you want. We ended up seeing the European Art Gallery, which was a lot of old (religious) art from outside of Romania, and the Romanian National Gallery, with a medieval section and a contemporary section. We particularly enjoyed the modern art of Romania, and the tickets overall were quite cheap compared to what we're used to in the US or even Paris.
A fabulous, 5-level, Instagram-worthy bookstore in the middle of Old Town, Carturesti Carusel could be a quick stop-in or somewhere you spend most of your day. Explore the shelves, fun gift shop items, little art gallery, or just take a book with you upstairs to the bar and cafe. The whimsical wavy balconies and spiral staircases make it a fun atmosphere just to hang out in.
If you've been in the "travel" tags of Instagram lately, you've probably seen a photos of umbrella-covered streets in many different cities. The Umbrella Sky Project is certainly spreading around the world from Portugal where it began! Bucharest has its own, tucked away where you might not expect, but it's worth a peek.
There's also Pasajul Macca-Vilacrosse, a little glass-covered side street with restaurants and shops inside. The air outside was a little too biting when we discovered it to hang out for long, but I imagine in nice weather it's a delightful place to sit down for a while. Fun fact: Pasajul Macca-Vilagrosse housed the first Stock Exchange House of Bucharest (though that's of course not there anymore).
All in all, Bucharest was absolutely a worthwhile place to visit. About two weeks may have been a little longer than totally necessary, but it allowed us to take our time and get a wide variety of activities and sights in, and we were able to make some friends--the kind you hang out with more than just once. These days we've made the big hop back west to England, where we're spending the next week or so before our third Workaway of the trip in Wales. Stay tuned for our coming British adventures!
For more Bucharest tips from another budget-traveler, check out Budget Bucket List!
A light show festival going on around the Easter weekend.