on five days in Bucharest, with a day-trip to Peles and Bran Castles/Brasov,
in October 2003. This was for Southampton FC's game against Steaua
Bucharest - and with 2,200 Saints fans in the city, it was a pretty
good indication of how a Scotland trip would fit together)
Romania is a bit of an eye-opener. The infrastructure is still
pretty Eastern Bloc, and on the streets of Bucharest, you will be
exposed to scenes of poverty at every turn - this is something you
will have to come to terms with. Once you get over the culture shock,
and accept that Bucharest will never be as pretty as Prague, you
can start to appreciate the country for what it is - a very friendly,
There is a very high crime rate in the country, and corruption
(even amongst some officials) is reportedly rife, however we did
not encounter either on our visit. The most prevalent crime is pick-pocketing,
even to the extent of bag-slashing, and the Lonely Planet guide
sincerely warned against back-packs or bum-bags. There have also
been reports from friends who have travelled in the past of muggings
and assaults, but again, we had no problems in this respect. The
one annoyance we did suffer, on a very regular basis, was street-begging.
It would appear that many women have kids specifically for this
purpose, and they actively encourage them to harass westerners on
the street - whether you give or not is up to you (I never would,
personally) - but do not get angry/violent. The police we encountered
(mainly at the game) were very friendly and hands-off.
The country is quite anarchic - get a map, but look on it as more
of a suggestion that fact! We encountered streets that did not exist,
and main roads that had been dug up and all street lights switched
off. The other thing to look out for all over the country, particularly
in Bucharest, and especially around (and to the south of) the People's
Palace, are stray dogs. Released into the wild twenty years ago
when Ceaucescu ripped down the Old Town, these dogs have bred and
formed into highly territorial packs - most are very friendly, but
stay away (you don't want it's scent on you for a start!).
Romania is still very much a "cash" economy. ATM's are
easily accessible (Visa is better than MasterCard), and exchange
houses offering decent rates and no commission abound (many are
24 hour). Do take Euro's or US Dollars, however, not Pounds Sterling,
as you will get much better rates (just don't change too much at
The Romanian language is not slavic but latin in origin. That means
it's closer to Italian or French than is it to Russian or Czech.
This also means that if you learnt a little French (or Italian or
Spanish) at school, you should get the gist of what's going on pretty
quickly. Do learn a few words, as it goes down a treat. "Buna
Seara. Doua beri, va rog. Multumesc" is "Good evening,
two beers please. Thanks" - sorted*!
Alcohol-wise, the local beer is very palatable. Ursus seems to
be the most popular brand, and very crisp it is to. Also expect
to see Bergenbier (nicer from bottles, for some reason) and Silva
(not so great) widely available. Tuica and Palinka, both types of
plum brandy, are the rocket-fuel of choice, but we never dabbled,
and Romanian wine is highly regarded, but very sweet (like Hungarian
stuff) - we had some fresh wine from the barrel in a Romanian restaurant.
(* Thanks to Claudiu-Teodor Burdul for help with
First things first: if you've come for a romantic weekend, you're
not going to be too impressed. Bucharest is no Prague. It is a large,
sprawling, soviet-style planned city with very dusty (i.e. muddy)
streets. A lot of planning went into the wide long boulevards flanked
by soviet-style apartment and office blocks (and loads of balconies
- Romanians have a weakness for balconies, apparently). As for the
"Paris of the East" tag that it was once so proud of,
Bucharest now shares the traffic problems and dog mess with it's
French cousin, but little of the romance, sights or atmosphere.
However... if you accept Bucharest for what it is - a vibrant and
ambitious capital of a reborn nation - then you'll have a much better
time for it, I promise!
Bucharest is served by two airports - the old Baneasa, now reserved
for charter flights; and the shiny, new (but a little small for
the number of people using it) Otopeni airport - both are on the
Ploiesti road, with Baneasa closest to the centre. Bent taxi drivers
abound - a fair fare to the city is around 5$-8$, many will try
to charge 50$ or more. You may want to arrange a transfer through
your hotel/travel agent (see links below - Just Romania can arrange
transfers on their own). You can always chance the bus, a snip at
0.60$ return, and see where it takes you (we opted for the transfer
- three in a car for 15$).
Taxis are dodgy throughout the city - try to use reputable firms
like Cristaxi or Perozzi wherever possible. The metro system's not
too bad - the north-south M2 line is where the money was spent.
M1, M3 and M4 are less frequent (every 10 minutes or so during the
day). There's also buses and trams (which we needed to use to get
back from Steaua's ground), but I've no idea how they work!
The city's very spread out, and there is no discernable centre,
although the Piata Universitatii (where the Intercontinental Hotel
is) is the de facto centre -
and is handy for just about everywhere. Piata Romana to the north
has a lot going on, but lacks importance, whilst the vast Piata
Unirii to the south is just too big and empty. Unirii was intended
to form the new city centre, but never really took off, although
when "downtown Bucharest" is referred to - this is the
place. Piata Revolutiei (where the Hilton hotel is), close to Universitatii,
is another pretty central area. If you're looking for the Old Town,
there's not too much left (Ceaucescu bulldozed almost 20% of the
centre to create space for the new "Civic Centre" - Unirii
and the People's Palace), but you can find the remnants (literally)
between Unirii and Blvd Regina Elisabeta.
There are plenty of accommodation options, spread across the whole
city, but the cheapest are not the most central. Several budget
options, and the TA-staple Ibis, are to be found near the Gara de
Nord train station. The most central (and priciest) are the Intercontinental,
the Majestic and the Hilton - the Marriott bucks the trend by being
the other side of the Palace, but it's managed to generate it's
own wee community (albeit one that is geared towards the expense
account visitor). The Ambassador Hotel is a vast art-deco behemoth
halfway between Romana and Universitatii, and faces the slightly
posher Lido. The Horoscop is on the far side of Piata Unirii, and
right next door to the Harp. With the affordable hotel rooms snaffled
by package operators, and the pricey hotels very pricey indeed,
we opted for the apartment option - we had three apartments between
us, all in central (enough) locations, and paid from 50$-80$ a night
(with three of us in the most expensive apartment, it worked out
at £20 per person, per night).
Bucharest is hardly choc-a-bloc with must see sights, so you may
wish to consider a day-trip. Otherwise (and
we have included football stadia here)...
The People's Palace -
(aka The Palace of Parliament, The House of the People or Casa
Poporului) is the second biggest building in the world (by surface
area), and third by volume. If it matters (and it did to me),
the Pentagon is the biggest, and Cape Canaveral is the second
biggest by volume. So that makes the People's Palace the biggest
outside of America. Come and marvel at the sheer waste of money
it is - built by an egomaniac whilst people starved. Has to be
seen to be believed.
The rest of the Civic Centre
- the "Civic Centre" is the generic name given to the
redevelopment of Southern Bucharest, and includes the People's
Palace, as well as Piata Unirii, Unirii Boulevard, and the government
buildings to the south. Many of these were unfinished by the time
or the 1989 Revolution, and still stand as shells.
Statue of Remus and Romulus
- it's just a wee statue, and it's marooned on a traffic
island at the top of Piata Romana, but it is a potent symbol of
Romanian nationality. A gift from Rome, it celebrates Romania's
The Arcul de Triumf -
Knocked up in the 1930s to celebrate reunification, this is one
of the reasons Bucharest was known as the "Paris of the East".
Not worth a trip in it's own right - you'll see it on your way
in from the airport. See, sightseeing's easy the NATA way!
Stadionul Ghencea (home
of Steaua Bucharest) - This stadium is way, way out - just inside
the city limits of Bucharest, but just outside civilisation! If
going for a match, allow plenty of time, then add on 45 minutes
just to be sure. If going just to see it - are you sure it's worth
it? Tram 32 or 33 (I was drunk, and it was raining) brought us
back to Unirii (an expensive cab took us there). It may look like
walking distance on a map, but it's not a pleasant route! Apparently,
road signs in Ghencea warn about drunks in the road! There were
pubs around, but we didn't venture into any (it was dark, wet
and late, and Saints had just lost). I don't know if there's a
shop at the ground, but there is an official, and woefully under
stocked one, on Strada Ion Brezoianu (near McDonalds on Elisabeta).
Thankfully, the national team no longer play here, as they now
Stadionul National -
not to be confused with FC National Bucharest, who play in a smaller
stadium just north of the Marriott Hotel (which we were going
to visit, but stayed in the pub instead - blame Beckerbrau!).
A big, uncovered bowl shaped ground to the east of the centre
- get a metro to Piata Muncii and walk for 15 minutes away from
the city down Bulevardul Basarbia, past the park. The Stadium
is set back from the road, and has a circular road all around
it (and little else, bar woods and other sports grounds), although
there are a couple of basic bars by the main entrance road, and
a couple of small restaurants along the way.
Dinamo Stadium (home
to Dinamo Bucharest) - home to the Red Dogs, and the small cafe
bar of the same name. Dinamo is everything you should expect of
a communist era stadium - a big uncovered bowl, with a couple
of big statues and a team name mosaic thrown in. The Red Dogs
is at the main gate (along with the well-stocked club shop), but
if you head around the stadium to the left (as you look it) to
the club office building, you'll find a small, shabby pizzeria
that is insanely popular with the locals (even just for beer and
coffee), and is very cheap. The main road running past the ground
also has some drinking options. This ground is an easy walk from
the Romana end of town, and even easier from Stefan Cel Mare metro.
If you're in the area - make sure you pay a visit to Sport Spirit
as well (see below).
Err, that's it! The streets of the old town are interesting enough,
but that's probably where you'll be doing your drinking. The Village
Museum (up near the Arcul de Triumf) is also highly recommended,
but I didn't go, so you'll have to make your own mind up. Well,
after all that sight-seeing,
you'll be needing a drink...
Thankfully, there's no shortage of great pubs in the town. Do be
warned, however, as things do change rapidly. Helen had done her
usual trick of preparing a list off various internet sources, however
one that was only a few years old proved to be woefully out of date.
The moral of this story? Get up to date info (from In
Your Pocket, for example), and remember that this guide was
based on October 2003, and places may have closed/changed. The pubs
listed roughly go from north to south, so you could (theoretically,
anyway) pub-crawl them together. My favourites have been starred:
Red Dogs (Northern City
Centre) - A Dinamo fans bar at the main entrance on Stefan Cel
Mare. Very small, but friendly and with some old team photos on
the wall. Worth a visit if you're already at the ground.
*Sport Spirit (Northern
City Centre) - Imagine a greasy spoon cafe populated by spotty,
hooded youths, with every inch of wall space taken up by sports
memorabilia. Then throw in a loud stereo, four impossibly fit
young women gyrating on the bar in spray-on jeans, and imagine
trying to get a round in by reaching between their legs for a
beer! Can't promise you'll have the same experience (it was Friday
night), but this amazing bar in Str Voda Caragea is well worth
a visit. As is the nearby...
*Barbar (Northern City
Centre) - just around the corner, off Calea Dorobanti, is this
tiny, but very cosy, bar. Hard to find - head down the stairs
and into it's warm embrace.
Bistro Atheneu (Northern
City Centre) - More of a restaurant than a bar, but they were
happy to serve us beer. Opposite the Athenaeum and just along
from the Hilton.
The English Pub (in the
Hilton, Northern City Centre) - we went here to try and get a
quiet drink in familiar surroundings, and found ourselves in the
midst of expense account bores too scared to wander the streets
for a drink. Not recommended.
Cesky Pub (just east
of Piata Universitatii) - a big disappointment. The only Czech
thing about this place is the highly priced bottled Budvar. Trying
to be too trendy - not worth the trek.
*Edgar's Pub (just west
of Piata Universitatii, in Str Edgar Quinet) - A decent enough
wooden affair, with a very good menu. Almost an Irish pub.
*Red Lion (just west
of Piata Universitatii, in Str Academiei, south of Elisabeta)
- Sounds like an English pub, tastes like an Italian pizzeria.
Very friendly staff, and were happy enough just to serve beer
(although the pizza is very good and very cheap).
Jos Palaria (just west
of Piata Universitatii, off Elisabeta - one street in from the
Red Lion) - look out for the huge plastic sombrero (the name means
"Keep it under your hat" or similar). Supposedly the
smallest bar in town - there are a few seats upstairs. Only bottled
beers - we were disappointed with this place.
*Whispers (to the east
of the Old Town, at the bottom of Str Ion Brezoianu) - A very
well done pub/bistro on the edge of the Old Town.
Caru' cu Bere (Str Stavropoleos,
in the Old Town) - More of a restaurant than a pub - we brass-necked
it and they relented and served us beer (but try and push the
beer snacks - we would have but we'd just eaten in Whispers. The
interior is absolutely gorgeous and is over 100 years old. The
name means Wagon Of Beer.
Gara Lipscani (Str Selari,
in the Old Town) - Train themed, this friendly underground bar
is popular for cheap beer and food. Suffers from garish strip
lighting and early closing.
*La Curtea Veche (in
a narrow lane off Str Selari, Old Town) - A small, unassuming
bar with Dinamo Zagreb and FC National Bucharest pictures on the
walls. Very friendly and very down to earth, with a load more
*Amsterdam Grand Cafe
(Old Town) - A very plush, large cafe bar in Str Covaci. Large
menu and attentive service, but on the expensive side. On the
plus side, has Rummikub for late night gaming sessions.
Horoscop Pizzeria (next
to The Harp on the south side of Piata Unirii) - okay, not a pub,
but a hotel pizzeria. Still we did drink (and eat) here.
*Becker Bräu (on
it's own)- my favourite pub in the city, but that may have something
to do with it's oasis-like presence in a desert of shell-like
buildings and packs of roaming wild dogs. To be found due south
of the People's Palace on Calea Rahovei (no 155), in an area you
will not believe a pub could possibly exist. This huge cavernous
German style brew-pub has it's own superb brew on draught, and
a decent sized menu - worth finding (just mind out for the dogs!)
Ones we wanted to go to (but couldn't find or didn't have time),
in no particular order :
Erik The Red - supposedly
on Str Selari, with a viking boat for a bar. No sign of it!
Laptaria Enache (4th
Floor of National Theatre) - Reputation as one of the best bars
in town - we just didn't make time for it.
The Harp/The Dubliner/The White
Horse - A trio of ex-pat haunts. The Harp is at the bottom
of Unirii, the other two are in the northern part of town. With
all the other pubs in town, we didn't see the need.
Die Deutsche Kneipe -
a German owned traditional pub on Calea Victoriei.
La Mama - a chain of
very highly regarded Romanian restaurants, with one on Str Episcopiei
Impaler - Supposedly
built over the tomb of Vlad Tepes - this large place is right
opposite the Amsterdam Grand Cafe, but just wasn't open.
Brit Inn - Supposedly
in the grounds of the British Embassy and only open Thursday evenings.
We just didn' t believe it was possible.
The Green Devil - Absolutely
no sign of this old town pub, supposedly on the 8th Floor of an
apartment block. There was, however, a big hole where an apartment
block may have once stood.
Insomnia - a mythical
Country & Western bar supposedly on Bibescu Voda (behind Unirii)
- not a sniff!
It's quite a long way to go in a day (almost 3 hours each way),
but I really would recommend taking the trip out to Transylvania.
Prices vary enormously - from 50$ to 100$ per person, so do shop
around. Romvision, Watchland
and Just Romania can all
arrange in advance (although several people did manage to find a
tourist office in Bucharest and book that way) - we found Just Romania's
price far and away the best.
From what I can tell, the gist of most Transylvania tours is pretty
similar - drive north to Siniai, where you visit the fairytale Peles
Castle and learn a wee bit about Romanian royalty (more interesting
than it sounds), then further northwards to Bran and Bran
Castle. Bran Castle is "sold" as Dracula's Castle,
but that's a bit of an exaggeration (Vlad "The Impaler"
Tepes may have stayed there. Once.) - it is breathtaking (and that's
just the hike up the path to it). There's loads of traditional souvenirs
for sale at the bottom, including Vampire wine and Dracula vodka.
Most tours also include a lunch, as did ours - a vast three-course
affair washed down with local house wine. We were exceptionally
lucky with our guide - his grandparents were from nearby Brasov,
and he was keen to show us that as well - so we got an extra bit
Brasov is far more prettier
than Bucharest, and has old churches, cobbled streets and merchant
houses ago-go. It's also much more compact, and therefore easier
to see things - we were there for about an hour, and I feel I know
the place already! Most bizarre of all the sights was the "Sheffield
Pub", tucked down a back alley, with the Sheffield United blades
crest for a pub sign. The city did remind a wee bit of Kaunas in
Lithuania, so you can make your own minds up (if you've been to
Kaunas, that is!).
Another trip people made, albeit for a couple of days rather than
a there and back job, was out to Constanta on the black sea coast.
Wouldn't normally do this for a destination, but, Romania can be
a daunting place to travel to...
We booked with BA for around £200 from LHR (obviously extra
if adding connections). Tarom (Romanian state airline) also fly
direct, but the times weren't so convenient. Both these direct options
insisted on a Sat night stay over. If you need to avoid this, try
Altitalia, Swissair or Air France (just check Expedia or Opodo for
options and take it from there).
We booked our apartment online through Romvision,
who were recommended by In Your
Pocket. To be honest, I was very sceptical - they managed to
double book two groups of us into the same apartment, but it did
seem to be a genuine mistake. No money changes hands up front -
we arranged a transfer, which took us to the apartment and we were
shown around before being asked to pay - credit cards are accepted,
but we paid US$ cash. No problems whatsoever - and I would recommend
them to anyone.
Another option is to get a specialist agent (normal travel agents
will do, but they probably don't have the same level of local knowledge)
to take the strain for you. James Greig, a Scotsman based down in
Kent, runs Just Romania -
James sorted out our tour, but can also arrange flights, accommodation