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!