Port of Bucharest
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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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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.
Good to Know
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.
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.
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.
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.
Food and Drink
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.
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.