Never have I visited somewhere that openly displays the past and the present next to each other than in Bucharest, the sixth largest city in the European Union. The modern, shiny, EU new boy is clear to see from one eye, whilst the chaotic, bureaucratic past is still there, lurking in the background. That shouldn’t stop any visitor who comes to the capital of Romania from having a great time though – it’s a city on the up with a sparking future ahead, although a recent Mercer International study reveals it has some work to do, rating its quality of life at 107 out of 215 European cities.
Once you’ve negotiated your way through the taxi bandits as you exit the arrivals hall at Henri Coanda Airport hop on a number 780 or 783 bus (8.70 Lei return – tickets from little hut on right by bus stop). Within the hour you will be drinking 50p beers in the Old Town. It’s hard to make any one recommendation for decent places to visit here as there are so many bars in such a small area – suffice to say that if you walk more than 15 seconds without finding somewhere you have miserably failed. The big bars, such as Vintage or Bound put in special deals of a weekend, whilst if you want to catch a Premier League game live then head for St. Patrick’s. Oktoberfest, despite its name, brews its own beer and is definitely worth a visit. Finally, if you want to try a few local brews, apart from the excellent Ursus, head to Beer O’Clock which has a couple of dozen…and the best bar name in the city. Best avoid the “nightclubs” that promise so much, and rarely deliver anything but a very hefty bar bill.
The city has some stunning architecture, often hidden in the most obscure places. Wide tree-lined perfectly straight boulevards give it a Soviet feel, whilst the huge open space in front of the obscenely large (in fact the second largest building in the world large) Casa Popurolu or Palace of Parliament, once home to the dictatorial rule of the Ceausescu’s smacks of Stalinist influences. You can wander the 12 floors and over 1,000 rooms of the palace today – although it may take longer than 24 to see it all.
The car is certainly the king of the city, with traffic jams at all times of day and some of the worst parking you will ever see anywhere in the world. If there is an inch of pavement spare, a car will try to park on it, leaving no space for pedestrians. Consequently, the pavements are wrecked, and care should be taken when walking around.
Most sights and commercial areas are located close to Piati Unirii, where the 783 airport bus terminates and home to one of the biggest shopping centres in the city, where prices will make your eyes water in a good way – take advantage of the bargains before the Euro takes over in the next few years. Bucharest isn’t exactly a sightseeing city – most of the pleasure comes from looking at the buildings from the outside, rather than exploring what’s inside.
If you fancy splashing out on accommodation then the InterContinental Hotel is a great place to stay. The tallest building in Romania at 22 stories high, with a decent top floor spa and swimming pool plus the biggest casino in town. Alternatively, the Europa Royale on the edge of the Old Town and Paiti Unirii is very reasonable as long as you don’t mind a bit of noise.
Royal Steak, close to Piati Romana serves some of the best steak in town, brought to your table on hot stones and incredibly good value although the numerous small shops that open onto the streets around Unirii provide cheap, plentiful sustenance.
Bucharest is a city of remarkable contrasts. Rich sit side by side to poor. Stunning old buildings squeezed in between Stalinist apartment blocks. Beautiful women waiting for the bus alongside old women wearing their Babushkas. Above all it has that mysterious element of a city becoming a beautiful butterfly, emerging from its dull cocoon. Visit now before its identity becomes blurred by the rules and regulations of the European Union.
If you need more information then download the excellent In Your Pocket guide.