There are a number of countries where it’s recommended to arrive in the capital city and then get out as soon as possible.
The Philippines? Yeah, I’d get on board with that. I find Manila vile, but the rest of the country is lovely.
Nicaragua? Agreed. Managua has nothing to offer — you’re best off skipping town and heading to nearby Granada.
But what about Romania? Well, lots of travelers treat Bucharest, Romania’s capital, the same way, only passing through briefly before heading to the towns of Transylvania. But they really shouldn’t do that.
And this is where I raise my hand and admit that I’m guilty, too. Back in 2013, I found cheap flights from Istanbul to Skopje and, two weeks later, from Bucharest to Dubai, so I planned a big Macedonia-Kosovo-Bulgaria trip and only planned to arrive in Bucharest the night before my flight.
So what did I do on that first trip to Bucharest? I arrived off the train ride from hell, took a shower, got some pizza, slept in a dorm, and shared a taxi to the airport the next day. Not exactly hardcore tourism.
For years, I hated the fact that I counted Romania as a visited country but hadn’t done anything of value in Bucharest. But then I got a perfect opportunity to make up for that.
#ExperienceBucharest: A New Kind of Travel Influencer Campaign
Earlier this spring, my friend Monica told me about a new campaign taking place in May: #ExperienceBucharest. Several bloggers would be invited to a conference and event to show off the city.
Now, this was different than other blog trips. Most of the time, a PR agency rakes in the big bucks while the bloggers, the people who create the actual content, are undercompensated. In this circumstance, however, #ExperienceBucharest was put together by a team of volunteers who work in the travel industry in Bucharest.
This major campaign was put together by volunteers. They worked their asses off and made no money doing it — they just wanted to share Bucharest with the world and get more people to travel here.
They did it for love of their city.
When I heard that, I knew I wanted to be part of this campaign. And not only because it would give me a chance to visit some new Eastern European countries. I really enjoy trying to find the nicer places in less-appreciated cities like Colombo and Johannesburg.
So did this trip pay off? Did it ever.
Bucharest is an awesome city.
Bucharest is like Berlin. Alternative and gritty with epic nightlife.
Bucharest is like Paris. Grand and elegant and pulsating with style.
Bucharest is like Budapest. Weathered and proud and cultured.
And on top of that, Bucharest is a very affordable European city, it’s well-connected in terms of flights, the food is delicious, and the people are absolutely lovely.
I found the defining aspect of Bucharest to be its look — so many beautiful and elegant buildings, only they were interspersed with ugly communist architecture and covered in graffiti. At one point, I turned to my friend and said, “Bucharest feels like Paris if they neglected themselves.”
I don’t mean that as an insult — just an observation. I saw pictures of Bucharest from the late 19th century and it looked just like Paris. Maybe they didn’t prioritize their beauty; maybe it was simply bad luck and having to prioritize safety over beauty in times of upheaval.
But that look isn’t everything.
Bucharest has alleys that turn into elegant arcades.
Bucharest has traditional restaurants with stained glass.
Bucharest knows how to peekaboo.
Bucharest has murals all over the place.
Bucharest hides cheese in its tomato soup.
Bucharest is very gray.
But Bucharest can be gold, too.
Like elsewhere in Central Europe, Bucharest is all about the cafes. You go in the morning or afternoon for coffee, and by nightfall, people have switched to beer and wine.
One that I loved in particular is a little place called Artichoke Coffee Shop. It’s got plants perched on spiral staircases, water served in gin bottles, chunky chocolate chip cookies, and smooth flat whites that transport you straight to Australia. In other words, it’s Instagrammable as hell but with the delicious goods to back it up.
Bucharest is covered with parks — something that I didn’t expect in an Eastern European city. But Bucharest is actually one of the greenest cities in Europe.
I went to see Mogosoaia Palace on the outskirts of the city. It’s actually a pretty small palace, so don’t devote a whole day to it, but it’s a really nice place to stroll around and experience the greenery of the city.
May happened to be an excellent time to visit — I’ve never seen so many irises in bloom in my life!
If you feel like drinking on a rooftop in Bucharest, you’re in luck: Pura Vida Sky Bar has excellent views in the heart of the Old Town. The cocktails are fabulous, too.
Yeah, you’ll have to walk up five flights of stairs, but trust me, it’s worth it.
The nightlife in Bucharest is pretty insane — Romanians like to party hard. Do yourself a favor and stay away from the bars catering to British stag dos and instead head up to Pura Vida for an Aperol spritz or some blue wine.
Want something crazier? Head to the Player Club to dance all night long with Romanians dressed to the nines.
Seeing Bucharest Through the Eyes of the Homeless
One activity in Bucharest that interested me the most was the Outcast Bucharest Tour from Urban Adventures, which is led by a guide who was once homeless in Bucharest.
Our guide Sergiu, dark and thin and in his late twenties, lived on the streets of Bucharest for years. He was an addict. He lost many loved ones to drugs. He did everything he could to survive. And eventually an NGO helped him climb out of homelessness and build a life for himself. Today he lives in an apartment and has a job.
A lot of poverty-focused tours, like slum tours and visits to impoverished villages, can venture into exploitative territory, but this one does everything the right way. It treats the homeless with dignity and respect, it’s not remotely voyeuristic, it creates jobs for the formerly homeless, and all net proceeds go to the Parada Foundation, a local NGO that gets children off the streets.
Sergiu’s story moved me deeply, and I’m so grateful that he’s getting his life together.
If you want to have an unforgettable experience in Bucharest, please go on this tour. You’ll never forget it.
The World’s Largest Collection of Irons
I love a few quirks in a city, and the best one I found in Bucharest was at the Museum of Romanian Records. They are home to the world’s largest collection of irons.
I love crazy things like this — the weirder, the better. There are more irons there than you have ever seen in your life (well, I guess by being the world’s largest collection, that’s kind of obvious) — just when you think you’ve seen them all, they keep on going!
Get your mind out of the gutter. Those torpedo-shaped irons are for shaping collars and hats.
The Loveliest Chill-Out Spot in Town
On my final night in Bucharest, we had a going-away party at Podstel/Ceainaria 5, a combination hostel, tea house, and community meeting space. I had the most wonderful time here, and if you’re visiting Bucharest, you need to drop by.
I spent my time getting to know the owners and not only are they awesome people, but they were so smart in creating a hostel that ticks all the boxes. Not only did they optimize the (beautiful and modern) hostel itself, it was also important to them to have community.
So they have donation-based group dinners once a week. They have board game nights. Local musicians perform. There are yoga classes and all kinds of workshops. If you’re looking to meet people while traveling in Bucharest, I can’t imagine a better place to come than here.
In an age where hostels have gone from social gathering spots to places where people sit with their faces in their phones, it’s nice that Podstel is trying to bring back the community part of backpacking.
I think Podstel was my favorite place I discovered in Bucharest. So if you want to stay at a hostel, I encourage you to stay there. If you’re not into hostels, at least drop by for some tea (they have dozens of varieties) and a chance to hang out in that comfy outdoor room. Tell the guys that I say hi!
I had such a nice time in Bucharest — an even better time than I was expecting.
I also feel like I didn’t see a fraction of what the city had to offer. Several of my friends arrived earlier and stayed later and got to take in a lot more — racecar driving, architecture photo hunts, communism tours, dance parties, dinners where a whole lamb was roasted on a spit.
A lot of people skip Bucharest in favor of other Romanian destinations, but now that I’ve experienced it, I hope that more people get the chance to explore Bucharest. If the rumblings are true, perhaps some of us will be back for an #ExperienceRomania trip next!
Essential Info: In Bucharest I stayed at the Radisson Blu. I absolutely loved this hotel, its design its luxurious touches, and the business areas. It’s also in a central location near the Old Town. If you’re looking for something on the luxury end but still surprisingly affordable, this is a great choice. Rates from 89 EUR ($100 USD). Just know that they put a hold of 89 EUR per night on your card until you check out — that’s the most I’ve ever had held by a hotel and it gave me a brief heart attack when I saw nearly $500 withdrawn on my bank statement!
Rates at Podstel start at 12 EUR ($14) per night. Thanks to Podstel for letting me use their photos of their property in this post.
The Outcast Bucharest Tour from Urban Adventures costs $47.38 per person.
Don’t visit Bucharest without travel insurance. Whether you get appendicitis and need to be hospitalized, or your phone gets stolen, or an injury means you need to cancel all or part of your trip, travel insurance will help you out. I use and recommend World Nomads as travel insurance for trips to Romania.
Many thanks to the #ExperienceBucharest team for hosting me in Bucharest. They covered my flights to Bucharest, accommodation, tours, and most meals and drinks. All opinions, as always, are my own.