I love traveling to places I know nothing about. From walking down the streets people watching, to entering a random restaurant for a local meal, everything is a learning experience. You could come into contact with something that you may or may not like, but when you do something new is when the true essence of travel comes about. It’s all about learning!
Last year we traveled to Romania. I can’t really say this is a place I knew nothing about. But after spending almost 2 months in the country, I can firmly admit that my view of Romania was somewhere between stereotypical and ignorant. I’ll tell you more: I think Romania is severely misrepresented internationally. People think they may know a thing or two about Romania and its people (gypsy stereotypes, anyone?!), but chances are they know very little, just like I did.
Bucharest was our point of entry in Romania. It was right there, in the capital city, that I cleaned the slate and started observing local life. In no particular order, these are some of the random things I noticed:
Architectural contrasts dot Bucharest’s cityscape
Roaming around Bucharest, one of the first things anyone will easily notice is the sharp contrast between old and new architecture. In the center of the city, buildings with stereotypical communist looks strike you as even more Soviet, when they’re right next to modern looking constructions. This disparity doesn’t stop in aesthetics. In many aspects, life in Romania seems to swing back and forward between a recent past under the communist regime (which ended by the end of 1989), and a present where democracy and free market rule.
In Bucharest, size matters!
Romania’s capital houses the second largest administrative building in the world, after The Pentagon in the USA. This is The Palace of the Parliament, also known as The People’s House. We have dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu to thank for this remarkable achievement! What to say? Many dictators around the world love to materialize their ego into solid constructions.
Rundown but Upcoming
In Bucharest, it’s not very uncommon to come across buildings which, on the outside, look fairly neglected. On the inside though, many of these are renovated and comfortable! Our Airbnb rental in the city, for example, wasn’t very inviting. If I’m to speak honestly, our building looked kind of shady. Once we crossed the door, equipped with an admission code system, a whole new world awaited us. It wasn’t The Ritz in there, but we sure had all the comforts of the modern era. In this respect, Bucharest reminds me of Lisbon.
Romanians smoke. A LOT!
Talking about Lisbon, the more I immersed myself in Romanian culture, the more I realized that Romanians and Portuguese actually have a lot of things in common. Smoking like crazy happens to be one of them! So much so that, in restaurant menus, you’ll find a section dedicated to cigarettes. When we finally made some Romanian friends, in Cluj, one proudly told us “Do you know that in Romania, recently, we don’t allow smoking indoors, in public places?” Oh, you don’t say?!
There are many Non-stop Shops & Restaurants
When it comes to restaurants in Bucharest, I don’t really enjoy the availability of cigarettes on menus. But I sure am a fan of the 24/7 schedules! With plenty of so-called “non-stop” restaurants and shops, we could say that Bucharest is, too, the city that never sleeps!
Coffee Culture for the Win!
Another thing that Portugal and Romania have in common is the super strong coffee culture! In Bucharest, you’ll come across cafés everywhere. And when I say everywhere, I mean e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e! If a spot is not big enough to house a proper café, you’ll find a kiosk. If the corner is even smaller, you’ll have at least a vending machine dispensing espresso based drinks. Coffee & cigarette breaks are just too easy to do around here!
Where the hell do you eat
Romanian food in Bucharest?
I think it’s odd that you can’t easily find Romanian food in Bucharest. There are several restaurants specializing in local cuisine but, for some reason, you seem to be more likely to run into establishments serving international cuisines, versus the local stuff. A Romanian person told me that they “eat the Romanian stuff at home”, and that is probably the reason why local dishes are not so ready available outside. Romanian restaurants in Bucharest tend to be more expensive than most, as with the food they serve a certain old world charm too.
So.. what do the folks of Bucharest eat?
They eat a lot of Italian food! Pasta and pizza are everywhere – both in Bucharest and in the rest of the country. In fact, you do not need to go to an Italian restaurant to enjoy such a meal. Most Romanian eateries will include at least a few Italian specialties on their menu. Turkish food, doner kebabs and shawarmas are also very common around Bucharest. And, surprisingly, Chinese food is quite beloved too. I’m still trying to understand what the connection here might be. If you have a clue, kindly drop me a comment below.
Romania loves dough…
… and, for this, I love Romania! If I thought Portugal has bakeries and pastry shops at every corner, I am about to pass the gold medal to Romania. This country sure knows how to dough! We’re not talking only quality, but mostly quantity! Small stores selling warm baked goodies to go are ubiquitous in the city! Covrigi, the typical pretzel shaped crusty breads, similar to Turkish simit, are affordable and incredibly delicious. They are always fresh and tend to cost 1 lei – just about 25 cents of USD. In most cases, shops selling these consist of a small baking area and a counter. You get to order over the counter or even through a small window (are they locking the goodies inside so that they remain fresh, I wonder?), and eat as you go. If you’re in a hurry, on a budget, or under a serious case of carbs withdrawal, you can make your tummy happy for a little amount of money.
Democracy brings Capitalism.
Capitalism brings Fast-Food.
In Romania, like in most parts of the world, democracy brought along capitalism. The new system reflects in everyday things such as the abundance of shopping malls. Food courts are central in these mega commercial areas, and locals seems to go gaga over fast food joints. You’ll see all sorts of cuisines being served on a plastic tray here. Even Romanian food. But the lines you can observe during meal times at joints such as KFC or McDonald’s make you almost wonder if they’re giving extra fries for free! I’ll let the picture above speak for itself…
Ayurveda products are well-liked here
Who would have thought, right? The day we entered our Airbnb’s building elevator, we came across an ad for an Indian brand of ayurvedic cosmetics. It only took us a few days roaming around Bucharest, to understand that this wasn’t a coincidence. You’ll easily find ayurvedic products on sale, and brands seem to invest quite a bit into advertising them.
Romanian Beauty Queens
When it comes to making yourself pretty, I think Romanians, and in particular, the ladies, tend to spend quite a bit of money. Only this would explain the enormous amount of beauty salons you see dotting the street sides of Bucharest, and the eye-catching make-up sections of bigger shops.
Torn jeans are trending
I know trends come and go, but ripped jeans seemed to be the thing when we were in Bucharest. I know this fashion isn’t exclusive to Romania, but it did catch my attention so see young girls with organic ventilation in their trousers, while it was raining, storming and even snowing!
Taxis! Taxis everywhere!
People in Bucharest seem to know how to live. Specially young folks! The fact that people like to be out and about probably explains the incredible amount of taxis that populate the streets. Expect to pay 1.39 lei/km, that is, about 30 cents of USD. No need to take Uber – local taxis have, and use, the meter!
Scooters can take you there too…
Non motorized scooters seem to be very popular with both kids and grown-ups alike! These are used not only for fun by the little ones, but also by adults as an actual mode of transportation. It’s a way of being eco-friendly and sometimes faster than public transportation, with a hipster touch!
Bucharest is grey… but also green!
It’s easy to think that Bucharest is a bit grey, specially if it’s raining hard like it was during the first days we visited. After three days in town, the were lucky to have the sun shining down upon us, and the whole place seemed brand new! When the mean Autumn weather finally allowed, we were able to roam around, away from the most obvious parts of town. That’s when we realized that Bucharest actually had a lot of greenery and well-kept parks are plentiful! Not only are they nicely landscaped, they have great playing grounds for kids and sports facilities too. It was a joy to see locals taking advantage of these inviting spaces.
The French love affair
The expression “Paris of the East” has been used to exhaustion to describe cities, obviously, in the East. Beirut, Budapest, Pondicherry, Prague… and, of course, Bucharest! Walking around the capital of Romania you’ll see street name signs that resemble those found in Paris. As if this wasn’t copy-cat enough, Bucharest has a monument that looks just like the Arc De Triomphe!
The old & new folks of Bucharest
It’s interesting to observe how many old people there are in Bucharest, and how different they tend to look when compared to the younger citizens. At least from an aesthetic point of view, there sure seems to be a generation gap going on here! Young individuals tend to look super modern (see torn jeans above!), while older folks sport a much more traditional look. Think ladies wearing skirts below the knees, and a cloth folded into a triangular shape to cover their heads. Around Bucharest, you do see a fair number of old, very old people, begging or selling small items such as religious figures or flowers. I wonder if pensions are really bad, or if these are still consequences of the previous political regime.
On the other hand, you do see a large number of kids too. And, funny enough, a lot of grandma like ladies with their grand-kids too! Romania is living prosperous times as compared to the 80s and, as such, the birth rate has increased since then.
Gypsies are only 8% of the Romanian population
If there has to be one huge misconception associated with Romania, that has to be that this is a country where Gypsies rule. When it comes down to stats, the Gypsy community represent only 8% of the total population. Myths and pre-conceived ideas related with the Roma people would deserve a full in-depth article here on Backpack ME. But just to give you an idea, percentage wise inside Europe, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Slovakia come before Romania regarding the percentage of Romani people that are a part of the country. When it comes to absolute numbers, even Spain has more gypsy people.
So why is Romania called Romania if it’s not full of Romani people? The name Romania comes from the Latin Romanus, that is, Roman – from Rome. It has nothing to do with gypsies or Romani people, but with European people who speak a Romance language.
Bucharest is Vice City
I’m certainly not the best person to ask about the nightlife in Bucharest. I’ve heard it’s pretty crazy, though. But when it comes to all sorts of partying, even during the day, I can tell you that there are plenty of options around the city. Let’s start with the casinos and gambling places all over the city, and end with the abundance of sex shops. Take your pick and have fun!
Parking is where the car is
I’m not sure if this has anything to do with the fact that Bucharesters may be in a hurry to get to the fun places mentioned above, but parking on top of the side walk sure is a thing in this city! In fact, this is a particularity that we kept coming across as we traveled further around the country. No parking space on the street? Who cares! Hop onto the sidewalk and get going!…
Romanians like to get wet!
Last but not least, allow me to make a brief comment on Bucharest’s relationship with water. It’s a weird one, if you ask me! Outdoors, on rainy days, you’ll see a surprising number of people roaming around without an umbrella. Even on those days when you know for sure it is going to rain. Pair that with the ripped jeans mentioned above, and you can picture things getting wet very easily. Behind closed doors, the absence of shower curtains guarantee that bathroom floors get pretty moist too. We experienced this at our Airbnb rental, and further research proved that this is a common situation in hotels around the city too. Go figure!
Thank you for yet another very informative and interesting blog! Bucharest sounds wonderful! What beautiful old buildings! The food situation seems different; very Americanized! I could probably find a good pizza there made right. You can’t find a good pizza where I live in Western Washington State anymore. Sometimes they don’t even put tomato sauce on it!
The torn jeans are stupid like you said! But they are doing it everywhere; especially in the USA!
I enjoyed the picture of the horse drawn carriage at McDonald’s!
Keep up the good work! It’s nice that you find the “real life” aspect of places instead of just the tourist places. My husband and I are in our 70′s plus he has lung cancer. So we don’t travel anymore; except vicariously through entities like your wonderful blog!
It’s an honor to take you guys around the world with us, as much as we can through our blog posts!
Indeed we try to focus on real life when we visit a new place. Visiting touristy sights can get old very quickly. I am glad you read you enjoy this!
All the best for both of you! :)
If there is a thing that Romania doesn’t have is coffee culture. It’s expensive and tasteless, regardless of the coffee shop, restaurant, bar you go! They don’t know how to drink coffee or how to prepare it. Indeed that’s are many Starbucks (as usual in all non-coffee drink countries). Here it is a sign of social status. That’s why people go there!
And regarding smoking, indeed it is forbidden to smoke. It happen because of a major fire in a club. Before the ban the scenario was a 3rd world thing! Now it’s much better. When compared with Portugal (which I really thing is not comparable), here you have tabaco advertisement EVERYWHERE! They sell it EVERYWHERE. I don’t remember this in Portugal. Bakeries?! No comments at all…
I know no Portuguese person will ever approve of a comparison between our country’s coffee culture and anywhere else! ;) Well, maybe Italy would be an exception! I meant to say that Romanians do seem to drink a lot of coffee. Maybe the quality does vary quite a bit.. I’m sure it does, because those vending machines can’t obviously make a proper espresso. But in any case, I did see a lot of coffee being sold around Bucharest.
Hi. Good article, however you have an error in it.
România has 2 populations.
Români or as you said romani is the indigineoua people of Romania.
Roma refers to the gypsies that usually make Romania as their point of entry to Europe and come from Turkey in most cases.
The 2 populations hardly get along.
Thanks so much for the clarification, Saabi!
Haha, you really captured Bucharest well, but allow me to make some observations, as a local (and disagree with the comment above). It’s true, people drink a lot of coffee…but it’s not always of good quality. But there are places that serve excellent coffee, you just have to know where to find them ;)
The law regarding smoking didn’t happen because of the fire in the club (which wasn’t caused by smoking), it was actually in debate for a while before the accident. I’m glad you haven’t visited before the law was in place, it would have been impossible to enjoy a meal.
There are Romanian restaurants in Bucharest, but they’re usually on the more expensive side. In other cities in the country, traditional Romanian food in restaurants is more common. And better tasting. ;) We do love Italian food though. I’m not sure where the craze for Chinese food comes for either, I’m not a big fan of the restaurants you usually find.
I would call the usual “covrigarii” as good as the bakeries in Portugal, here you can only find pretzels that are dry and usually tasteless, while their oder products are questionable at best.
I hate hate the ripped jeans, but it’s always funny to see people wearing them in winter or when it’s raining. #fashion
I highly disagree, Uber is totally necessary in Bucharest, a lot of taxi drivers charge you way more than they’re supposed to, especially if you want to take a taxi at night or from the airport, their favorite thing to do is to say they either don’t go where you want to go because it’s a short trip or charge you an absurd amount. Besides, you can’t pay by card, they don’t always have change and if you don’t tip, they may react violently. Uber is a breath of fresh air in Bucharest at least.
Regarding the parking, thanks to a recent law, it is now illegal to park on sidewalks. People aren’t taking it lightly. The problem is that there are a lot of cars and very few parking spaces. But people still take their car to work every day, because the public transportation is slow and crowded. It’s a vicious circle, really.
It’s awesome to have a local person giving extra insight here.. thanks for your comments, Vlad! :)
man its awesome that you are honest! it helps a`lot and gives us as strangers chance to enjoy bucharest and also taking care of our self. best wishes
Great post – I’d like to go to Bucharest now! Definitely add it to my list of places to visit.. love Croatia and Montenegro so can’t imagine not liking Romania too. The shower curtain bit is just weird though ;) I might pack my own ;)
Pack your own shower curtain?
Hahaha.. it’s easier to flood the bathroom and just let is dry afterwards! ;)
Check put this blog in Portuguese about Bucharest and Romania http://cartasdebucareste.wordpress.com
I’m also portuguese and I’m living in Romania for almost one year and a half, being the last 10 months in Bucharest. I agree with most of what you say but some things you only notice after spending more time in the city. The first thing is the taxis. I only use uber and had quite bad experiences with taxidrivers. They will charge you much more than they should, even with the taximetrist on, which most probably is working wrongly on order to run faster. And if you are a foreigner they sure wiLloyd try to ask you for more money. But this last thing is not only with taxis, it happened to me in bars and street shops as well.
The coffee culture is not comparable with the Portuguese one. Yes, there is coffee everywhere but not only is to expensive but also is in most of the cases with bad taste. Even in specialized places. And I also noticed that they smoke much more than the Portuguese.
Other thing that it could get better would be the people’s behavior on the public transportation and shopping lines. There is no respect at all and they are always trying to go ahead of you. I think that is one of the things that makes me more mad in this city.
But despite from that is a growing city with many places to enjoy. But if one is thinking about visiting Romania I believe that Bucharest should not come first in the cities list. Transylvania and Maramureș regions have much more to offer, are more beautiful, nicer people and you will actually get to know romania and not only its over occidentalized capital.
Thanks for your comment, Susana!
I guess we were lucky when we did use taxi in Bucharest – or we were ripped off and we didn’t even know?! In all fairness, we didn’t take any taxi from the airport or any particularly touristic place.. so I guess that helped! But it’s good to clarify that maybe Uber is just easier for visitors to get around with!
How interesting! I really didn’t know a lot about Budapest before I read this, but now I do. I feel that the way you presented the city was like what I would experience if I actually went there – not just the standard travelogue – so thank you!
And as for torn jeans… well, I’m a 90s kid, so I might need to stay quiet on that one ;)
Hahaaa.. you’d fit right in Bucharest with your torn jeans! ;)
Book me in!!
stupid autocorrect changed “Bucharest” to “Budapest” in my previous comment :(
Romania sounds incredible. The differences between the classic and the contemporary are interesting. It’s always nice to know that there’s a great coffee culture going on here. While traveling I like to get into the local food but it’s always nice to know a good pizza is just around the corner. There’s tons of interesting facts and observations here about the people and the culture. Interesting enough to think about a visit. Thanks again.
Romania is indeed great, Marvin! I hope you do consider a trip there!
And, for me, Bucharest wasn’t even the best part! We also did a road-trip around Transylvania and further north in Maramures.. we’ll be sharing stories from those other adventures soon! ;)
Great article – as an immigrant to Romania (I moved here – from the UK – because I fell in love with the country 4 or 5 years ago), it’s very refreshing to see a perspective from the outside.
Interesting also to see how those perspectives change – a few years earlier, and I can guarantee a mention of the stray dogs would have been in there, or the old town looking like it was about to collapse into the street… Bucharest and Romania are changing, too slowly for many but you can see the progress happening in front of your eyes. It’s an exciting place to live :-).
Oh, and while you were possibly somewhat lucky not to get ripped off by any taxi drivers (some firms, like SpeedTaxi and Cristaxi are scrupulously honest, others much less so) you’re entirely right about one thing – Romanians really cannot park…
Oh boy, oh boy.. after all the comments here, I will certainly refrain myself from saying that taxis are OK. I trust you guys, with way more Bucharest experience than me, when you say that you can easily get ripped off.
Anyway, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment! :)
Wow!This is seeing Romania from a new perspective. It helps change the stereotypical belief that Romania is more of an artifact country than a modern one. I’ll say it’s a country that remembers its heritage as it moves forward. Great article.And Oh, ripped jeans are the trend. Funny picture on that subject too.
Thanks for reading, James!
I think Romania is changing quick.. and that is very palpable, mostly around Bucharest!
Great story & prospective.
I feel ashamed it took me almost one year to find & read your Bucharest article.
Loved it, thank you very much!
With your permission will share it with my SM friends.
Kind regards and gratitude!
It’s never too late! ;)
I’m glad you enjoyed the article and, of course, feel free to share it with your friends!
I want to go to Bucharest, and take a day trip to Brasov.
Such an awesome post! I grew up in Romania (and now live in Canada) and I love to read others’ observations. It sounds like you had a great experience, if very interesting :) I laughed because we absolutely do LOVE our dough. I think it’s ingrained in us at birth. I don’t live there anymore and STILL love my dough… hahaha