Bucharest was the final destination during our three city tour of Romania. We drove to Bucharest from Brasov. The route took us through small, industrial mountain towns. The air quality grew increasingly bad as we went. Buildings and homes looked dilapidated. I had the impression that these were impoverished areas.
We continued to pass stray dogs and horse-drawn carts on the road. We stopped and had lunch at a gas station. I will say this, throughout everywhere we’ve driven in Europe, roadside rest stops and gas stations offer meals of much higher quality than you see in the U.S. At this stop we had freshly prepared sandwiches that were quite good, served on actual dishes!
We arrived in Bucharest late in the day. We quickly learned that Bucharest’s “old town” is not very charming. It is mostly restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, and dodgy looking massage parlors. We left the quaint, old-town charm behind us in Sibiu and Brasov. Bucharest has a much different feel. It is a bigger, more modern city, though I use the term “modern” loosely.
In the early 1900’s, the city was known as “Little Paris.” Construction of the city aimed to mimic Paris’s architecture and design. It even has its own replica of the Arch de Triomphe. This is seen as the city’s greatest era, filled with beauty and prosperity. Unfortunately, a lot of the beauty was destroyed by earthquakes, damage in World War II, and redevelopment during Communist rule. You can still see evidence of this former glory in architecture, it’s just covered in pollution, graffiti, and disrepair.
As a city, to me, Bucharest seems to still be figuring out what it is going to become after recent Communist rule. As a traveler, I find places like this fascinating.
What We Did
As I mentioned above, the historic center left a lot to be desired. We did do some souvenir shopping and enjoyed a bazaar across the street from our hotel that had a mix of antiques and local arts and crafts.
Museum of National History of Romania
We walked by the Museum of National History of Romania to see the quirky, naked Statue of Emperor Trajan that we read about, but we were disappointed to find out that he has recently been removed. Apparently, it is undergoing restoration after having been vandalized.
We weren’t planning on going in the museum, but our son seemed interested, so why not? Some of the museum was closed for renovation, but we saw exhibits containing jewels, armor, and other Romanian treasures. The museum also has a complete replica of the Trajan column of Rome.
Near the museum, we passed the Stavropoleos Church. From the 18th century, this beautiful little church and its courtyard area is small, quiet oasis in the middle of the big, busy city.
Palace of Parliament
We walked by the Palace of Parliament, the second largest administrative building in the world. It was former Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu’s grand display of gross excess. We tried but were unable to get tour tickets because it must be done 24 hours in advance (we tried on the morning of), so be sure to buy tickets in advance if you want to go inside!
We went to the Piata Revolutiei, Revolution Square, where events of the revolutionary uprising against Ceausescu’s government took place. There we saw the Rebirth Memorial to the citizens who lost their lives in the uprising, and the Central Committee of the Communist Party building, the building from where Ceausescu gave his final speech and was famously evacuated by helicopter right before his death.
These events took place in 1989. I am old enough to remember hearing about them and Ceausescu’s name, but I was not old enough to truly understand what was going on at the time. Being there in person ignited my interest. When we got back to the hotel that night, I watched Ceausescu’s final speech on YouTube and read a little more about the events of that uprising. Once again, being somewhere in the flesh was the best way for me to learn about it. It is so powerful to see, in person, places where major historical moments in history took place.
I was disappointed to see that the Rebirth Memorial was damaged in many places. There was graffiti and also general disrepair liked cracked stone and rocks. I read that locals did not like the monument’s design when it was first built, but grew to accept it. But this damage still seemed like both disrespect and negligence.
As an American child of the 80’s, triumph over Communism has been ingrained in my mind as a positive thing. It’s hard for me to understand why modern Romanians wouldn’t respect what the revolutionaries did and show that respect through better treatment of this monument. But I am admittedly uneducated on the subject, have an American view of it, and I’m obviously not Romanian, so I’d love to hear a Romanian perspective on this!
While we were there and taking it all in, an older Romanian gentleman stopped us and asked us what we thought of his country. I guess we stood out as tourists pretty obviously! Like the men we met at the National History Museum in Sibiu, he was very proud of his country and happy to hear us say positive things. I regret not asking him about the condition of the memorial. It would have been interesting to hear a local’s take on it. To be honest, I was caught off guard by him approaching us and wasn’t thinking quickly. Also, it seemed like he wanted us to say nice things, so I am not sure if he would have been receptive to questions like that. I’m really kicking myself over having missed out on a potentially interesting and informative conversation though!
The most pleasant thing we did in Bucharest was to take a walk through Cismigiu Gardens, a huge public park with gardens, playgrounds, exercise areas, cafes, ponds, and many, many benches. It was another oasis in the otherwise dirty, stone-hard city. Once again, we found a shining example of Communist government-provided park life in full glory.
What We Ate
We ate our breakfast at our hotel every morning. It had a nice buffet that included a section of local pastries and breads. Like we did in Brasov, we ate lunches from a bakery, bread and covrigi on the go!
Our first dinner in Bucharest was at a barbecue restaurant, R.I.B.S., that had some traditional Romanian dishes, but also seemed to be trying to have American style barbecue and burgers. I tried a Romanian dish of grilled beef and unfortunately my meat was overcooked and tough. My son had a hamburger which was fine. I’m sorry to say we can’t remember what my husband ate. I guess that gives you an idea of what we thought about the meal!
Our second dinner in Bucharest was much better. We got a reservation at Caru’ cu Bere, a popular, traditional beer hall in a beautiful building. Reservations are strongly recommended. We enjoyed schnitzel, sarmale (stuffed cabbage), and traditional Romanian meat dishes for dinner and a nice cream cake for dessert. It was a perfect final meal out in Bucharest before we left the next day. It was topped off with entertainment by traditional Romanian dancers on our way out the door.
Where We Stayed
We stayed in the Hilton Garden Inn Bucharest. It was a beautiful hotel in a great location in the old town area. It was excellent quality, especially for the rates. In general, Romania was a very affordable place to visit.
What We Missed
The Museum of the Romanian Peasant and the National Village Museum both looked like they would be good to visit with a child. It might also have been interesting to see the former Ceausescu residence, but I don’t really regret running out of time for that.
We only stayed one full day in Bucharest and for us, that was probably enough. While it was interesting and educational for me, it wasn’t the most pleasant city to visit. It was the least charming of any of our spots in Romania, but I appreciate it for what it is.
A final piece of knowledge to share about Bucharest is that it has more than one airport. How do I know this and why is it worth mentioning? Because my husband drove us to the wrong one first on our way out of town! That gave our final hours in Bucharest a surge of stress and adrenaline, but fortunately we had given ourselves enough time, so we still got to the correct airport on time and made our flight home.
Romania was a unique country. Some parts were very beautiful, some not so much. The different cities we saw each had their own personality and were distinct from each other. This helped us learn more about the country, its history, and its people.