In all my travels, I usually cover the museums and art in the mornings, time visits to the photography spots to just before or after sunset and leave evenings for the best food and drink. Bucharest was the first city where I discovered that the museums opened only at noon and everything was shut in the mornings. If you are out clubbing till 6 am, I guess it is but natural that art will not be on your mind early mornings.
My first drive into the city reminded me a bit of Moscow – with a lot less people but still with some crazy traffic. There were huge mansions, wide tree lined roads and even a replica of the Arc de Triomphe from Paris. The scenery changed to more run down apartment buildings and dingy shops as we drove closer to the infamous Old Town. The cab driver charged us some 300% higher fare than was expected, but there wasn’t much to argue on- that is what the meter showed – I call it tourist tax. The hotel at the edge of Old Town was actually quite nice and the top floor room had double height ceiling, giving us a very spacious feeling.
The first meal in the city was probably one of the best. The hotel recommended this restaurant Hanu’ lui Manuc about 10 minutes walk away. It was open air seating with thin blankets on each chair, in case you felt cold with some very beautiful local decor. The place served a set lunch for 29 lei and it was absolutely delicious and became even better when we topped it up with some local liquor. Well begun!
We took a stroll around to get a flavor of the city. The Old Town was full of restaurants with street side seating. It seemed (correctly) that the place would be abuzz with activity at night. A little further was the famous parliament building, which is the second largest building in terms of floor space in the world. There is actually a tour of the building open to tourists which we did not take. If you do want to go for it, remember that passports need to be carried.
A stunning structure that peaks at you from behind the Parliament building is the Redemption of the Romanian Nation Cathedral – it is under some serious repair and is closed for visits, but I can imagine that once it does open up, it will be a star attraction.
One of our favorite places in the city was the massive park right next to the Arc de Triomphe. If you are at the Arc, you can’t miss the large blob of greenery and a path taking you inside. It is huge and includes several sculptures, many kids play areas, some themed gardens, a few bars and restaurants, and a very large lake. The place was stunningly beautiful even in the post peak fall color period. I can only imagine what it would have been like a week before we landed.
We hadn’t planned to spend much time inside but ended up walking to the lake and then having a glass of wine with lunch at Restaurant Pescăruș. The restaurant offered beautiful view of the lake and there were many families inside enjoying the view, open areas and great kid friendly food. There are also several stalls around the park selling snacks and munchies. We tried these crepes layered with jam – quite tasty, but very sweet. There were several art installations and statues, including one of Charles de Gaulle. The walk around the lake is lined with beautiful trees and is quite picturesque. We also came across few men fishing and they happily showed us their rich haul for the day. This took up all our planned time for visiting a nearby church and trying to walk to the top of the Arc – that activity was anyway closed for the day. We spent the rest of the afternoon taking a cab to the parliament building and talking a stroll around it – more of a very long walk. One of the highlights of the walk was to come across this very small church – Saint John Chrysostom Church. What it lost in size, it more than made up by its charming decor and beautiful setting. We did walk into the Parliament building but only to see an art exhibition and see the reception point of the full tour – which we never took.
While I wasn’t happy about the museums opening only at noon, it gave me free mornings to walk around and absorb the culture and vibes of the city before landing up at the The National Museum of Art of Romania right at noon. There is a separate European gallery, about 3 floors of Romanian art galleries and a few spaces on the ground floor for temporary exhibitions. I toured only the Romanian art galleries and found the collection quite rich and the descriptions quite informative. The individual descriptions are all in Romanian, but in each room you can pick up a sheet in English describing the history and the themes for that room. The exhibits tell a wonderful story of the art evolving from the medieval ages to its modern forms. The modern collections were a little underwhelming, but they don’t interest me much anyway.
Finally, let’s talk about the old town. It’s a beautiful set of pedestrian streets lined with restaurants and bars with colorful street side seating. Most of the open seating has space heaters and blankets to keep diners warm. There are occasional nightclubs, massage parlors and casinos that provide breaks in the otherwise continuous sets of tables outside. At the evening passes, the town becomes packed with people, though the local masses don’t arrive till past midnight and then hang around till wee hours of the morning. The bars and clubs are usually quite packed and loud with very good music and crowds.
However, the old town also has a different side, that of a tourist trap. Most bars seemed to have a lot of local women hanging around the bar tables who would try talk to visitors and basically encourage them to buy more drinks and even the more expensive ones. Most of the cocktails served across bars are quite terrible and devoid of much alcohol. You are best off sticking to basic recipes or just wine, beer or scotch. Most of the street side seating restaurants have bad food and bad service, just a very good welcome. However, our hotel recommended several places in that area and all of them turned out to be exceptional. I guess it’s best to take some local advice on the food and drink.
Caru’ cu bere was one of the best dining experiences and it was still at the edge of old town. The pork knuckle was absolutely off the charts good and the ambience of the place added to the flavors with a few performers stepping up to fine ball dancing right in the middle of the crowds and also engaging with the more enterprising diners. There was about a 30 minute wait for a table every time, but it was well worth it. Burger si Scoici 41 served really good burgers and one of the more decent cocktails from the trip. Nomad Skybar was one of the better bars in the area but really crowded and nearly impossible to find a place to sit or stand there. So unless you have a group large enough to book a table, it will likely just be a passing by drink. Vatra restaurant was a little off old town, but served outstanding home like food. We were recommended Lacrimi și Sfinți but could not find a table there, and we walked over next door to City Grill which was quite good as well. They very memorably had a Rum and Coke on their menu with one of the ingredients as Pepsi. The country as a whole seemed Pepsi territory and I remember seeing coke only at the airport. On the flip side, St. Patrick Irish bar served some of the crappiest food you can imagine about an hour after we ordered. Some of the other restaurants in the vicinity also took so long to serve even a drink that we chose to walk out. There was a place called Bazaar that we walked past many times, always thought of eating there but never ended up doing it. So if you do end up trying it, please leave me a comment on how it was. Lastly, Cafe Ramana served up some really good sheesha and drink with some very average service.
Most locals will warn you off the Old Town area as being too commercial and unsafe but we did find a lot of hidden gems and intriguing experiences to make the trip way more than worth it. Not sure if Romania is a place I will come back to, but there are very fond memories and experiences that I will retain.