Once a storied stop on the Orient Express, Bucharest is now infamous for its heavy-handed transformation under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. During his 25-year reign, he nearly ruined the city’s splendor by replacing historic neighborhoods, boulevards, and Ottoman ruins with concrete blocks, highways, and communist monuments. Adults remember and may have participated in the 1989 revolution, but citizens have since endured a mix of communist nostalgia and break-neck capitalism. Though it retains only glimmers of the sophisticated city it once was, life here is now as fascinating as it is frustrating.
Bucharest’s main street changes its name from Bulevard Lascăr Catargiu to Bulevard General Magheru to Bulevard Nicolae Bălcescu to Bulevard I.C. Brătianu as it runs north-south through the city’s four main squares: Piaţa Victoriei, Piaţa Româna, Piaţa Universităţii, and Piaţa Unirii. Another thoroughfare, running parallel, is Calea Victoriei, which crosses Piaţa Revoluţiei. To reach the center from Gara de Nord, take M1 to Pţa. Victoriei, then change to M2 in the direction of Depoul IMGB. Go one stop to Pţa. Româna, two stops to Pţa. Universităţii, or three stops to Pţa. Unirii. It’s a 15 minute walk between each of squares.
Bucharest embodies modern Romania. Visitors to the capital can explore the imposing remnants of Ceauşescu’s rule. Not to mention, highlights of the Romanian Revolution are hidden throughout the city. Don’t forget to take a day trip to the setting of Bram Stoker’s famed novel.
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Restaurants serve a wide range of international cuisine, including American, Chinese, French, Greek, Hungarian, Indian, Italian, and of course Romanian. A meal here will cost you roughly twice what it would anywhere else in the country. Look for the fruit and vegetables all over the city for a fresh treat.
If you’re tired of basic local plum brandy, commonly served in restaurants and touted as the major local drink, you may want to branch out and try the stronger version, palinca. This locally produced moonshine, widely available – but never in stores – is a triple-distilled version of tamer tuica. The alcohol content of palinca often exceeds 60%.
In towns, palinca is usually sold in produce markets along with all the other wholesale farm goods; in the countryside it is sold everywhere. It is commonly dispensed in old plastic drinking water bottles with labels removed. It has a light-color, and its smell is deceptively weaker than one would imagine.
As with any home-brew, a lot of caution is in order. Watch to see if a vendor’s product is popular. If other locals are drinking it, chances are you can too. Still, palinca’s power lies in the fact that it goes down easily and disorients its drinker quite quickly, so know your limits. If you stay in a private home in Romania, especially in the countryside, you’re more than likely to be offered a shot of the powerful pale brandy. If you accept, you’ll be getting a real taste of the local culture – but those who taste too much might regret it in the morning.
A complete Romanian meal includes an appetizer, soup, fish, an entree, and dessert. Lunch includes soup, called supă or ciorbă (the former has noodles or dumplings, the latter is saltier and with vegetables), an entree, and dessert. Clătite (crepes), papanaşi (doughnuts with jam and sour cream), and torts (creamy cakes) are all delicious. In the west, you’ll find as much Hungarian food as Romanian. Some restaurants charge by weight rather than by portion. Although prices may be listed per 50 or 100 grams, the actual serving can be up to 300 grams. Some servers will attempt to charge unsuspecting tourists extra. If the menu is not specific, always ask. Garnituri, the extras that come with a meal, are usually charged separately. This means you’re paying for everything, even a bit of butter or a dollop of mustard. Pork rules in Romania, so keeping kosher is difficult.
Local drinks include țuicǎ, a brandy made from plums and apples, and double-distilled palincǎ, which approaches 70% alcohol. Vișįnatǎ liqueur is made from wild cherries. Always verify that the server brings the exact vintage that was ordered, since some will attempt to substitute a more expensive wine and claim that they ran out of the one you ordered.
Bucharest hosts numerous festivals and rock concerts every summer – Michael Jackson once greeted screaming fans here with “Hello, Bucharest!” Fans of classical arts will appreciate the opera, symphony orchestra, and theater, which are world class and dirt cheap; seasons run September to June. Tickets can be purchased at the on-site box offices; a good rule of thumb is to stop by or phone five to six days before a performance.
Bucharest had countless bars, pubs, and watering holes. The club scene, in particular, is one of the best in Romania. Many venues are in the old town center and in the student district by M1: Grozavesti. Bring cab fare and directions to your hotel written in Romania in case the public transit shuts down late at night.
While the Roman poet Ovid wrote his last works in exile near Constanta, Romanian literature did not flourish until the Vacarescu family invigorated it in the late 1700s: grandfather lenachita wrote the first Romanian grammar: father Alecu wrote poetry, and son Iancu is considered the master of Romanian poetry. Grigore Alexandrescu’s 19th century fables and satires are also well-known. The next generation of writers ushered in a golden age of Romanian literature. Mihai Eminescu, a member of the Romantic movement, is widely considered Romania’s national poet; his face appears on the 500-leu banknote. The end of WWII brought Socialist Realism. Geo Bogza and Mihail Beniuc were prominent adherents whose writings glorified the archetypal worker. Some sought freedom in other lands and languages – absurdist dramatist Eugen Ionescu, scholar of religion Mircea Eliade, writer Elie Wiesel, and father Dada Tristan Tzara are the best known.
Contemporary artists include painter Nicolae Grigorescu, who studied art in France before setting out to immortalize the Romanian countryside. Constantin Brancusi is considered one of the world’s largest Modernist sculptors. Although historically lacking an international audience, edgy, realist Romanian cinema is gaining recognition, especially through the popular Film Festival Cottbus and its dominance at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, at which a Romanian film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, won the top prize.
Dragobete (February 24), known as “the day when the birds are getting engaged,” is a traditional Romanian fertility festival. For Martisor (March 1), locals wear porte-boneurs (good luck charms) and give snow-drop flowers to friends and lovers. During the second weekend in July, Sighisoara hosts a popular medieval festival. Concerts, recitals, exhibitions, and movies are shown in Bucharest’s Piata Revolutiei for the biannual George Enescu International Festival and Competition (September 1-23). At the beginning of September, Cluj-Napoca hosts a competitive international film festival. Romania Day (Dec. 1), commemorates the day in 1918 that Transylvania became a part of Romania.
It is customary not to give small change for purchases; restaurants usually round up to the nearest leu or give candy instead of change. Locals generally don’t tip, but foreigners are expected to tip 5-10% in restaurants. Hotel porters and helpful concierges are generally tipped modestly. It is unnecessary to tip taxis. In all cases, tipping too much is inappropriate. Bargain over taxi fares and accommodations if there is no posted rate. Try for one third off in open-air markets. Romanians take pride in their hospitality. Most will be eager to help and offer to show you around or invite you into their homes. Bring your hostess an odd number of flowers; even-numbered bouquets are only bought to graves. In rural areas, men should wear pants and closed-toed shoes, and women should wear dresses; for those over 30, these guidelines also apply in cities.