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The word on Bucharest is that it's ugly, gritty, grimy -- and parts of it are. But don't make do with first impressions. As our guide aptly put it: "New-old-beautiful-ugly. This is what Bucharest is."
Energetic, hectic and just two decades out of Communist rule, this textured capital city of 2.2 million people is an acquired taste, and it's still in the process of defining itself. Just as Romania has been touted as the New Italy, Bucharest is being hailed as a sophisticated but less pricey alternative to Budapest and Belgrade.
The overarching signature of Bucharest today is the intersection of Communism and capitalism: Buses carrying tourists routinely pull up to the massive Palace of Parliament, built by Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu as a tribute to himself. (More than one-sixth of the city was leveled to accommodate his indulgence.) The endless grey blocks of apartments that rose during Communist times are still in evidence, but so are outlets for Ferrari and Maserati, Hard Rock Cafe, ING, Starbucks and McDonald's. And the national sense of humor that Romanians quietly relied upon to help them survive Ceausescu's dictatorship is out in the open now. Locals, for instance, call the Judicial Ministry "the laundry": where politicians go in dirty and come out clean.
Located between the Carpathian foothills and the Danube River, Bucharest in its golden age -- the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- was known throughout Europe as "Little Paris." Royals ruled at the time, and the city was famous for its elegant architecture, grand thoroughfares and cultural elite. There are still some gorgeous neo-Classical buildings that date back to Bucharest's heyday, but World War II bombings and two earthquakes altered much of the skyline.
A member of the European Union since 2007, modern-day Bucharest is trying hard to regain its fallen stature as a European capital. In a recent travel piece in The Guardian, the British newspaper calls Bucharest "Paris eaten then spat out." Get real. Bucharestians make no apologies for their city -- and they shouldn't. Just like its residents, it's a place with a big personality and a huge heart.
With its elegant, historic city center, emerging cafe society, architectural high points and proximity to lovely Transylvania, Bucharest has a lot to offer tourists. That is why many companies book their Danube River cruise passengers on Bucharest (and nearby Transylvania) pre- or post-trips, even though passengers, depending on their itineraries, will embark or disembark their river ships in Ruse, Bulgaria, a few hours away. Buses transport them between Bucharest and the Danube. Ruse, for its part, has little to recommend it.
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Like any big city, Bucharest has malls and department stores, and you'll find all manner of stores on Calea Victoriei, the historic thoroughfare. But the best selection of Romanian souvenirs -- folk art, religious icons, sheepskin vests, ceramics, woven rugs, embroidered table runners -- can be found at gift shops at the Museum of the Romanian Peasant or the National Village Museum. Romanian wines from the Prahova Valley, widely available in wine shops and grocery stores, are also a great buy.
Romanian, of course. English is not widely understood, although it is spoken in finer hotels and restaurants. It is also taught in schools, so younger folks will be more conversant than their elders.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Even though Romania is a member of the European Union, it still uses the ron, also known as the leu. The plural form is lei. For a currency conversion calculator, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
ATM's, or bancomats, tend to be the least expensive way to obtain local currency. Banks are open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. Avoid private exchange offices, as they tend to be expensive.
Where You're Docked
Bucharest serves as a transfer destination for Danube River cruises. Passengers frequently overnight for one or two nights before journeying across the border to Bulgaria to meet their ships.
As previously mentioned, ships do not dock there.
Bucharest's public transportation system covers the entire city with buses, trams, trolleys and subway services, operating from 5 a.m. to midnight. Tickets can be purchased at kiosks and in every underground Metro station. There is reduced service on Sundays.
As for taxis, you can hire a metered cab by phone, by hailing it on the street or by walking up to a taxi stand. Licensed taxis are yellow and have black and white registration numbers printed on their doors. Legitimate drivers will have photo ID's with prices posted. Recommended companies include Cristaxi, Meridian, 2000, Speed, Cobalcescu and Confort. The customary tip is 10 percent -- or 15 percent for extraordinary service.
Watch Out For
Pickpockets troll the public transportation system during the peak hours of 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 5 p.m., so use caution. Bucharest also has a severe problem with stray dogs -- tens of thousands of them. It's best to steer clear if you happen upon one. Also, Bucharestians joke that there are no traffic rules in the city, only traffic suggestions. Take them at their word when doing something as simple as crossing the street.
A visit to Bucharest would not be complete without a look at the Communist landmarks that make up much of the city's visual signature. Not only do the sites represent a difficult part of history that ended with the 1989 revolution, but the monuments are interesting architecturally. ("Anything that looks weird was built by the Communists," our guide told us. He was right.) Among the sites that mark Ceausescu's 25-year dictatorship: the former Central Committee of the Communist Party building on Revolution Plaza, the scene of Ceausescu's last speech and, across from it, a brick and glass building that headquartered the secret police; the large white obelisk shooting through a symbolic black cloud, a monument known locally as the "impaled potato," which celebrates freedom from Communism; and the Palace of Parliament, one of the largest buildings in the world. Parliament, Ceausescu's greatest folly, has more than 1,000 rooms, an enormous nuclear bunker and a 328-foot-long lobby. It took 20,000 workers and 700 architects to build. Palace of Parliament is located on B-dul Unirii, a boulevard modeled after the Champs-Elysees. Revolution Plaza is roughly nine blocks north of Parliament.
A counterpoint to the Communist landmarks is the lovely Lipscani district, the historical heart of Bucharest. The old city center, now being refashioned into an upscale neighborhood, is a mishmash of architectural styles, from Baroque to neo-Classical to Art Nouveau. This jumble of cobblestone streets and pedestrian walkways houses art galleries, antique shops and coffeehouses. It is also home to the stunning Stavropoleos Church. Built in 1724, this small architectural gem is a mixture of Romanian and Byzantine styles with a beautiful facade, frescoes and wood-painted icons. Many consider it to be Bucharest's finest church.
Bucharest has many museums, but far and away, the two local favorites are the National Village Museum (Sos Kiseleff 28-30), an open-air collection of peasant homesteads transported from across rural Romania, and the Museum of the Romanian Peasant (Sos Kiseleff 3), which houses 18th- and 19th-century collections of weavings, handicrafts, pottery and other folk arts. The latter was named European Museum of the Year in 1996. The museums are closed on Mondays. Another museum, underrated but quite wonderful, is the Museum of Art Collections. Founded in 1978, the museum contains private collections confiscated by the Communists and later recovered. (Note: Some promotional literature about the museum says the art was "donated to the state." Don't believe it!) The artworks -- traditional glass, Transylvanian icons, 19th-century French furniture and works by Romanian masters -- mirror the development of Romanian art in the 19th and 20th centuries and hint at how the nation's avant-garde once lived. The museum, headquartered in a neo-Classical building at Calea Victoriei 111, has sketchy hours, so it's advisable to call first (021-211-1749).
The Arch of Triumph, based on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, is an important city landmark that honors the bravery of Romanian soldiers who fought in World War I. Originally built of wood in 1922, the 85-foot-high arch was finished in granite in 1936. The monument is located on Sos Kiseleff, the same street that houses the National Village Museum and Museum of the Romanian Peasant just a few blocks away. Kiseleff itself is notable because it showcases Bucharest's finest villas, occupied today by diplomats and political parties, among others. During the Communist era, it was reserved strictly for Communist party officials. At the moment, it serves as the street address of the U.S. Ambassador to Romania.
Been There, Done That
Herastrau Park, considered by many to be Bucharest's nicest park, stretches along a manmade lake, and it's a great place to stroll, bike or boat. With a photo ID, you can rent a bike for free. There are open-air cafes, restaurants and nice spots to relax and live like the locals for awhile.
The Dracula legend originated in Romania, and to experience it locally, check out lovely Snagov, a weekend retreat for Bucharestians just 25 miles north of the city. There's a lowland forest, a lake and, notably, an island in the lake that features a 15th-century church that is home to Vlad Tepes' tomb. Tepes was the brutal prince who inspired novelist Bram Stoker's "Dracula." Rowboats, often manned by priests, are available to take visitors to the small stone church. For do-it-yourselfers, there are buses and a shuttle service that travel to Snagov; the concierge at your hotel can fill you in. There are also guided tours.
Romanians joke that when vegetarians ask a waiter for meat-free menu options, they're told: "No problem. We have lamb." This is a country that loves its meats: pork stuffed with ham and cheese; beef stuffed with mushrooms, bacon, peppers and a tomato puree; and mititei, small, skinless grilled sausages made of minced pork, lamb, beef and spices.
Romanians also love soup. A national favorite is the hearty ciorba, a sour soup made from fermented bran, vegetables, parsley, dill and beef or chicken. It's usually served with a bit of sour cream and green or pickled pepper. For the experimental diner, there is ciorba de burta, a tripe soup made with sour cream, vinegar and garlic sauce. (It's good.)
Popular desserts include pastries, usually with a cheese filling. And, by all means, sample Romanian wines. This wine-producing nation is known for its reds and dry and demi-sec whites.
A modest lunch, with wine or beer, costs about 30 lei. The tip is rarely included, except sometimes in large groups. The recommended tip is 5 to 10 percent, depending on the quality of the service.
Beloved by both locals and tourists, Caru'cu bere is a gorgeous restaurant with stained glass and wood carvings that dates back to 1879. Menu favorites include squash stuffed with minced meat; Romanian pork shank served with pan-fried sauerkraut, polenta, horseradish and chili pepper; grilled trout; and grilled mutton sausages. Caru'cu bere means "a beer wagon," and the huge menu includes a number of home-brewed beers. The restaurant is nicely located in the historic Lipscani district, one block from Stavropoleos Church. (Str. Stavropoleos 5. Open from 8 a.m. to midnight.)
For an elegant dining experience, Balthazar on Embassy Row is regarded as one of Bucharest's classiest restaurants. Located in a lovely old villa, it showcases fusion cuisine with a French-Asian flair that will not remind you of ciorba or mititei. Selections include five-spice tuna, beef tournedos, Peking duck blinis, crabmeat tartar and cod salad with wasabi and mango vinaigrette. There is also a sushi menu. (Dumbrava Rosie 2. Opens daily at 12:30 p.m.)
Located just around the corner from the Arch of Triumph, L'esperance is a small family business with a robust menu of Romanian specialties. You can't go wrong with the sampler plate: caviar in quail eggs, foie gras, fried pressed cheese, mititei and grilled pork, veal and lamb. There is also a nice selection of Romanian wines. A favorite of local families and business people alike, L'esperance is the real deal. (Str. Clucerului 86. Opens daily at noon.)
If you're interested in a quick bite, try a kebab shop. Considered better and fresher alternatives to traditional fast-food outlets, the eateries feature grilled chicken or beef with Romanian (by way of Turkey, a one-time occupier of the nation) spices, sauces and garlic. Sides include salads, grilled veggies and Turkish yogurt. Shaorma Dristor, with multiple locations, is a popular choice. Look for its Dristor kebap signs.
Bucharest has a number of fine hotels, including Inter-Continental, Hotel Amzei and Athenee Palace Hilton.
A favorite of cruise lines offering Danube trips is Ramada Plaza, a business hotel with 300 rooms, offering many of the comforts of home: terrycloth robes and booties, coffee makers, hair dryers and wireless Internet access. Built in 1972, the hotel recently underwent a major refurbishment, and it shows with chic rooms and public spaces. There are two complimentary computers in the lobby and free shuttle transfers to the airport. Ramada Plaza is on the northern edge of town, near Herastrau Park and across from the massive Press House, known in Communist times as the "House of Lies."
Local guides recommend the Novotel and Radisson BLU for higher-end hotels that won't break the bank. They are full-service facilities with chi-chi interiors. Best yet, both are located on Calea Victoriei, which puts them within walking distance of the Lipscani district, National Art Museum, Royal Palace and many other attractions.
Staying in Touch
With the advent of smartphones, laptops and tablets, Internet cafes have, for the most part, come and gone in Bucharest. One of the few left standing is Fantasia Club at Str. Caragea Voda, 12. Many cafes, restaurants and hotels do offer wireless access. Additionally, full-service hotels traditionally have computer centers that guests can use for free.
Best for Exploring Bucharest: Because it is so spread out, a highlights tour serves as the best introduction to Bucharest. The half-day ship-sponsored tours typically include a (from the bus) look at Parliament, Revolution Square, the Arch of Triumph and the city's grand thoroughfares. This tour often features a guided walk through the Lipscani district, a visit to Stavropoleos Church and lunch at Caru'cu bere.
Best for Transylvania Fans: Many of the Danube River cruise companies offer terrific pre- or post-trips in Transylvania that last up to three days. It's gorgeous mountain country that houses ski resorts like Sinaia, 80 miles from Bucharest, and the lovely medieval town of Brasov, 100 miles away. The tourism industry has made much ado about Bran Castle because of its so-called association with Dracula. In fact, there is no association, and the castle itself is not all that special and is sparingly furnished. For day-trips, the best bet is to focus on tours that include Brasov, Sinaia Monastery (founded in 1695 and still in use) and the extraordinary Peles Castle. The Peles compound, one of the most visited sites in all of Romania, is stunning architecturally and tells the story (through design, artworks, furnishings and family objects) of Romania's golden age and the royal family that made it so.
Best for Nature-Lovers: This day-long excursion has it all -- the flat plateau of the Bucegi mountains, a cable car ride and a natural reserve, Piatra Craiului National Park, which supports rare species of plants. Lunch is typically served in a chalet in the heart of the park. Arrangements to book the tour can be made via your hotel concierge.
For More Information
On the Web: Bucharest's tourism office
Tourist info: 212-545-8484, Info@RomaniaTourism.com
Cruise Critic Message Boards: River & Canal Cruises Forum
The Independent Traveler: Eastern Europe Forum
--by Ellen Uzelac, a finance and travel writer from Maryland's Eastern Shore