I don't know about you, but doesn't flying in a turbo prop sound edgy and a bit dangerous, as though you might be traveling somewhere remote and forbidden? If I close my eyes, I can almost conjure up images of The English Patient and Out of Africa.
Unfortunately, there is little romance in flying Air Serbia to Bucharest. Yes, it was cheap and we got there quickly, but by the time we landed my ears were buzzing, my clothes smelled like fuel and I still haven't figured out what that sticky crap was that I sat in.
Inside Bucharest International Airport, things began to perk up. I was pleasantly surprised at how relatively modern and clean it was, and my hopes for this city of 2 million inhabitants were running high.
Mental note to self. Stop setting the bar so high.
It probably had no chance of living up to expectations. I had read that Bucharest strikes some Parisian-esque comparisons (it was known as 'Little Paris' between WWI and II) but what city can live up to the City of Light? Also, we had just come from Belgrade, a place that wowed me with its surprising sophistication and NYC-style neighborhoods. A little rough around the edges, but it was a culturally exciting city. Bucharest just had a 'times are tough' resignation with no gritty spirit.
So, it's not that I can't do rough, but this is Europe, so something has to balance it out. While Bucharest will not be my favorite city anytime soon, there are things to do and enjoy and I think it would make for an interesting (and inexpensive) city break weekend. Just don't spend a week like we did. If you have that kind of time, head up to Brasov and explore Transylvania.
I realize that is not a glowing introduction but I think plenty of people get a secret thrill from the seedy underbelly of life. If you do, then you are going to LOVE Bucharest.
We stayed on Strada Eforie near Old Town, which normally is a good call as you can be near the main sights and not waste a lot of time commuting. Bucharest's Old Town, in addition to being a popular tourist attraction itself, is near many other key sights including Revolution Plaza, Palace of the Parliament and Cismigiu Gardens.
However, the neighborhoods surrounding Old Town are a bit ragged, so just prepare yourself.
The Old Town offers less magic than other historic centers we've visited, and the cover of dark smoothes out some of the harsh edges visible during the day. Admittedly, the humid 90F weather contributed to my less-than-cheerful disposition.
Nearby Cismigiu Gardens, while not stunningly pretty, is a pleasant enough diversion with row boats for rent on the small lake and a large childrens' playground. If you are seeking more park-like beauty and a place to take a long stroll, I recommend heading north to Herastrau Park.
A short stroll from Cismigiu Gardens, down Calea Victorei is Revolution Plaza with the strange Memorial of Rebirth monument, commemorating the Romanian Revolution of 1989 which overthrew Communism. It looks like an impaled basket that is bleeding. Meh.
But the star of all sights in Bucharest is Palace of the Parliament, a gobsmackingly audacious behemoth that was the brainchild of infamous dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who ruled for decades before being executed by firing squad in 1989. EEK.
With 1,100 rooms, it is the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon. So enormous, the size is difficult to convey but one needs to stand nearly half a mile away to fit the whole thing into a picture.
We visited on a warm morning and were surprised how most of the rooms are not air conditioned (or heated) due to cost. Despite being built in the late 80's/early 90's, much of the place is shockingly run down as no updates appear to have been made. It's like going into a time capsule from 1989. Despite this, it's truly the one 'must see' if you visit Bucharest. Nothing will really blow you away, but this is as close it gets. Sorry.
While the sights didn't wow us, we did enjoy a few nice meals in the Old Town aka Lipscani district including the urban and hip Energiea, local favorite City Grill and touristy, but must-see Caru' Cu Bere.
Even our favorite activity of city walking left us depressed. While there is an abundance of neoclassical architecture and statue-filled squares (see photos below), the visual relief is not nearly enough to compensate for the overwhelmingly down-trodden appearance of everything else. The presence of many homeless people and Roma sifting through garbage bins adds to the 'hard times' atmosphere.
Here are a few of the prettier bits.
You may think I'm being picky and overly harsh, but I'm actually being quite nice. Our visit to the train station truly solidified it in our Top Ten 'Beat Down' Cities list.
We needed to figure out train tickets to Brasov, so decided to walk the three miles and get some exercise. We thought our neighborhood was crusty, but the area surrounding the train station is downright awful with condemned buildings and piles of garbage dumped unceremoniously on sidewalks.
Inside the train station ticket office, it was a scene post nuclear fallout. The paint on the walls was peeling. Electrical cords were hanging from the ceiling. The whole area was a frantic scrum with no orderly lines and air of desperation. But what freaked me out the most were the timetables in the ticket office that were handwritten on tarps. OK, the signs in the main terminal aren't handwritten, but still.
This is a modern capital city of two million people and the 6th largest in Europe. Apparently, they tapped out all their resources at the airport.
Luckily, there was Herastrau Park, our favorite place in Bucharest. This fresh and beautiful green space in the northern part of the city, contains a large recreational lake plus many statue-lined walking trails and the enormous (in size and popularity) bar restaurant Beraria H. Also, Herastrau borders Bucharest's toniest neighborhoods Dorobanti and Primaverii, as well as the upscale shopping center Promenade.
We enjoyed this area so much that we went back several times. In retrospect, I wish we had stayed near Herastrau and visited the Old Town and other sites by the competent, if not worn, underground metro trains.
But there is one part of Bucharest that did not disappoint. They have a cat cafe. On our last day, we sought out Miau, more animal shelter than commercially-minded cafe, where we had the whole place to ourselves and twelve new feline friends.
Over vegan coffee (!), we chatted with the owner who informed us that they don't turn away any cats (people bring them off the streets) and all donations go towards supporting the cats' needs. We noticed a three-legged cat and a few deformed tails, but overall they were healthy, friendly and happy.
It was our last day in Bucharest and despite the city's inability to impress, suddenly some affection for it began to seep in. I was the Grinch watching Whoville celebrate without all the trappings of Christmas. My heart grew three sizes that day.
I guess cats just make any place better.