I admit I had low expectations of Bucharest. I’ve been to many former Soviet bloc countries and there are certain less-than-positive aspects to them all: the ugly over-sized Brutalist architecture (so often built on the site of historic buildings that would be a treasure now), abundant graffiti (which my dad plausibly chalks up to unleashed freedom of expression), and infrastructure and common areas suffering from the financial costs of Communism. Bucharest definitely has those aspects, but it still boasts a wealth of gorgeous French-style architecture, a picturesque old town, and lots of restaurants, cafés and bars (beyond the “drink till you puke” bars and strip clubs that some Eastern European cities use to entice westerners looking for cheap thrills). Despite some streets still holding onto that grubby party vibe and derelict buildings scattered amongst the pristinely restored, Bucharest has the feel of a city moving up and offers many charming streets, elegant boulevards, and cosmopolitan shopping and dining options at great prices.
Our AirBnB apartment was Bucharest in a nutshell: Located steps from the picturesque old town with a view across the river that included the enormous Palace of Parliament, the apartment was spacious and totally modern. To get there, though, we entered through a graffiti-covered front door near a corner where residents had piled trash that was not collected during our 4-night stay. Still, the rest of the sidewalk as well as vast majority of those in the city were very clean, more so, in fact, than many Western European cities. There were grocery stores, shops and cafes in easy walking distance and we never felt unsafe wandering the city. We wanted to spend most of our time in Bucharest just rambling and exploring. Warm, sunny September weather made this a winning plan.
I really didn’t have many must-sees in Bucharest itself other than the Palace of the Parliament (formerly “the People’s House”), the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon. The palace was built on the orders of Nicolae Ceaușescu at a staggering cost, a cruel expense considering the deprivations endured by the populace in that era. Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, were executed before the palace was finished so never got to enjoy the lavish apartments they planned for themselves there. Today, the the building houses the Romanian parliament as well as conventions and diplomatic events, but 70% remains vacant decades after its construction. English language tours are available daily by calling the day before. I tried calling two days before, since we had a day trip planned the following day, and was told it was impossible to book then. The day before means the day before. I guess a little of that strict Communist attitude remains. The tour of the Palace of the Parliament took 2 hours and we only saw a small fraction of the building. Yes, it was a criminal waste of money, but it is a beautiful neo-Classical building nonetheless and showcases materials and craftsmanship from around Romania. Enormous chandeliers, lush carpets, parquet floors and marble cover the vast rooms, hallways and sweeping staircases.
My one big must-see while in Romania was Bran Castle a/k/a Dracula’s Castle. Yes, I knew the connection between Bran Castle and Vlad the Impaler was tenuous. Yes, I knew the interior retained little of Vlad’s time and that its exterior gets all the praise. But, still. It’s “Dracula’s Castle”! And, the Romanian’s are proud of it and the exterior is everything it should be. There are lots of tour companies offering tours of varying sizes to Bran Castle. I did my research and settled on a small mini-van tour with a maximum of 8 guests and an itinerary that included Peleș Castle and the medieval town of Brașov. This itinerary makes for a long day, but all three of these destinations are worth a visit.
Our tour started out fine with our guide, Bogdan, picking us up at 7am as promised in a nice, modern mini-van. He then picked up a Spanish woman and her two adult sons, then headed to pick up the final couple whom he’d tried to pick up before us but couldn’t find. Thus, began a nearly 1h 30 min. frustrating bit of chaos as he tried to find the missing couple. Clearly, there was confusion about the meeting place, but the problem was magnified by the tour company owner’s insistance on acting the middle man between Bogdan and the missing couple. Apparently, the owner refused to give the missing couple’s phone numbers to Bogdan either to safeguard his business from poaching (a ludicrous precaution if so since Bogdan would spend the day with these people) or as some form of protecting the privacy of the clients (again, silly given the situation). After circling through clogged Bucharest traffic, leaving, getting a call from the boss to return, and repeating the same three times, we finally located the pair of equally frustrated Italians and headed out of town. We could have slept another hour and had the same departure time! Oh well, we were on the road at last.
The road turned out to be a wide, modern highway…at least for a portion of the drive. It narrowed to two lanes later, but remained in excellent condition. –EU money at work in Eastern Europe and far cry from the potholes and ox carts that greeted travelers not so long ago. Despite the decent roads, it was still nearly two hours to our first stop, Peleș Castle.
Peleș Castle was built by King Carol I and his wife, queen Elizabeth, in the 1870’s. It was a miracle of modern technology in its time, boasting the first central heating in Romania along with such wonders as electric lighting and an enormous skylight that opened with the push of a button. The palace is gorgeous inside with elaborate carved wood paneling in the German style and beautiful Romanian marble throughout. Peleș (“pelesh”) is beautifully preserved and not to be missed when exploring Romania.
We enjoyed a cheap and tasty pizza and local beer lunch in the palace café before heading on to Bran Castle some 40 minutes away across the Southern Carpathian Mountains and into the Transylvania region of Romania. (Romania consists of three regions: southern Walachia including Bucharest and Sinaia, central Transylvania and northern Moldova.) As promised, the view of Bran Castle from below the rocky promontory on which it sits is imposing and impressive. It’s easy to imagine it as the foreboding abode of Vlad or Dracula. Inside, however, things are a bit different. Dowager Queen Marie remodeled the old castle in the twenties. Later her daughter Princess Ileana ran a hospital there during WWII (and later moved to the U.S. where she became a nun). Nowadays the interior is more homey than spooky; two overstuffed couches and a fireplace warm one large stone room.
For an extra price, Bran Castle offers an exhibit of medieval torture devices, something I’ve seen plenty of and would have skipped if David hadn’t been interested. I have no desire to spend time with memorabilia of man’s inhumanity to man. The exhibit turned out to be uncomfortably warm as well, although less crowded than the narrow and packed castle corridors and roofed battlement walks in the rest of the castle. I ended up feeling nauseous and headed back out only to be blocked by throngs of large, slow-moving tour groups. I finally threaded my way through the crowds and threatened to faint until a stubborn old guard let me exit through the entrance into the blessedly cool mountain air. A few minutes outside and all was well. Oh well, we’d been warned that the interior of Bran was nothing remarkable in the way of castles and I have to agree. Still, I’m glad we made the stop at Bran and enjoyed seeing the imposing castle looming above us like something straight out of Stoker’s book.
Our last stop on this long day was Brașov, a picturesque Transylvanian village which is home to one of the largest churches in Romania, the Black Church, so named after a fire blackened its walls. We wandered the streets admiring the embroidery wares of a peasant woman and stopping for a light meal in one of the many cafes circling the expansive main square. We bought a piping hot kürtős kalács (“chimney cake” or “stovepipe cake”) from a food cart to eat as we walked. The big, hollow croissant-like pastry is similar to trdlo we’ve had in Czechia, but the caramelized exterior of this Romanian version, fragrant with orange peel, was something different and delicious. A stroll through a park past a medieval city gate wrapped up our visit to Brașov.
As the only English speakers, the others invited us to sit up front with Bogdan as we had the easiest time visiting with him. I enjoyed talking about Romania and life philosophies on the two hour ride back to Bucharest as David nodded asleep against the window. Bogdan is twenty-six and has some of that familiar Eastern European mixture of frustration, self-deprecation, and hope that I so often hear there. He was well-spoken, thoughtful, and curious about many things including Protestant Christianity and how it differed from his own Catholicism. It was an interesting conversation as we drove on in the dark, finally arriving back in Bucharest around 9:30pm.
We spent the rest of our Romania time in Bucharest. Visiting the Palace of the Parliament, exploring the streets and parks, churches and restaurants. We had a well-prepared lunch in the large courtyard of the oldest operating inn in Bucharest, Hanu’ lui Manuc (Manduc’s Inn). We put off eating at the well-known but super touristy old beer hall, Caru’ cu Bere, until our last day, then caved after hearing that they really did offer authentic versions of traditional dishes. True to the billing, we enjoyed skinless sausages, cabbage rolls, hunter’s stew, and the local polenta-like corn mash with the house-brewed beer. The beer hall itself is beautiful and the outdoor seating on a cobbled street in Old Town is delightful in good weather. On our last evening, we headed to the charmingly-named Closer to the Moon rooftop bar for a sparkling water before a return visit to Energeia, a restaurant focused on healthy food (and awesome gin-and-tonic craft cocktails) where I could indulge a craving for greens with round two of a huge kale salad. Balkan food is tasty and hearty, but really short on green vegetables!
Find information for booking English-language (and other) tours of the Palace of the Parliament on their website. To guarantee a place, call the day before.
We used One Excellence Tours for our “Transylvania Castles Day Trip” from Bucharest to Peles Castle, Bran Castle and Brasov. The tour is in a minivan with a maximum of 8 persons. The cost was $128.80 US for the two of us not including admission fees which are normally 70 RON pp for both Peleș and Bran, and I booked online with Viator. I used Viator, a Tripadvisor company, both because I trust them and the price was good, and because I could book through Topcashback for a rebate. (I’ve gotten over $800 in rebates from Topcashback on things I’d buy or book anyway just for using their links.) Entry to Peleș Castle is normally 30 RON (lei) ($7 US) per adult, but One Excellence Tours comped our entry as an apology for the confusion and late start. Entrance to Bran Castle is 40 RON (lei) ($9.31 US) per adult. Both castles offer reductions for students and seniors.
We paid a total of $217.28 for four nights in our AirBnB apartment, on the corner of Calea Vitoriei (a main road and a great place to be) and Splaiul Independentei. The apartment was a spacious and modern one-bedroom in an excellent location and run by a responsive host. I’d happily stay there again.
Uber works great in Bucharest, but we did have some issues connecting with our driver when we arrived at the airport. He only spoke a few words of English and while Uber directed us to wait upstairs by Arrivals at the big airport parking lot, he waited downstairs by Departures. We did finally sort things out, but it wasted some time. I read lots of warnings about Bucharest taxis, so was hesitant to use them. We had an early flight when we left and I worried about using Uber since I’ve had them cancel before in the States and couldn’t risk that at such an early hour in a place where we didn’t speak the language. I ended up booking a private ride with Transport Air Bucharest a top-rated company on Tripadvisor. I paid 85.09 RON ($19.81 US) in advance on the Internet and communication with them was excellent. Our driver was waiting with a new, immaculate sedan when we exited our building pre-dawn. The cost was not all that much more (maybe $5) than we would have paid for pre-booking Uber or a taxi.