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If you’ve ever been to Bucharest, you probably didn’t stay there long. Many travellers use Bucharest as a stop-off point from Bucharest Oteopeni airport to Transylvania, leaving the city almost as quickly as they arrive in it. Unlike other capital cities, which are the first port of call and top of the list for anyone visiting the country for the first time, Romania’s capital is often overshadowed by the country’s many other treasures.
If you’ve never been to Bucharest, maybe it’s time to consider it? While I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to head straight to Romania’s beautiful castles and mountainous countryside, its capital is quite possibly one of the most underrated cities in Europe. Bucharest isn’t a city to be overlooked, and you probably won’t regret taking at least a day or two to soak up its unusual character.
I’m not suggesting you’ll love Bucharest as soon as you step foot in its grey streets. In fact, I’d be surprised if you did. It doesn’t have the impressive landmarks of London, the heart-stopping beauty of Tallinn, or the welcoming spirit of Copenhagen. But spend a little time here, and I’m sure you’ll realise it’s hard not to find a little spot in your heart for the “Paris of the East”.
You could easily spend more than 48 hours in Bucharest, but I know most travellers won’t have more than a couple of days. Bucharest is a fairly small city that’s easy to walk around and you could just squeeze all of this into a whistle-stop visit, but I’d recommend spending a little while longer in town if you can.
Bucharest Itinerary: Day 1
8.30am – Breakfast at Caru’ Cu Bere
First things first: no good day of exploring can begin without breakfast!
Luckily, Bucharest is a city that wakes up late so you can enjoy a lie-in. Few restaurants open their doors before 10am – even those advertising breakfast.
Caru’ Cu Bere is one of the only restaurants that opens bright and early – and early morning also happens to be the best time to visit. Apart from the occasional tour group peeking in the door, you’ll be able to enjoy the breathtaking interior of Bucharest’s oldest beer house in relative peace, before the crowds begin to flock here.
The breakfast food isn’t anything special, but the meštešugar baguette (or craftman’s baguette) will set you up for the day.
Read more: Bucharest restaurant guide
10:30am – Join a walking tour
One of the first things I do in every new city is join a walking tour. It’s a great way to feel a little more at home and pick up some local tips while getting your bearings. I’ve even met other travellers that I’ve gone on to explore or grab a beer with after meeting on a walking tour – and even found out one new friend was staying in the same hostel as me – so it’s a great way to meet other non-locals too.
Bucharest’s free Walkabout tour is one of the best walking tours I’ve ever been on (and I promise that has nothing to do with the fact the guide gave out rum cookies on the way round). The tour lasts around 2.5 hours in total and begins by the fountains in Unirii Square Park. Among other things, you’ll see the overly grand presidential palace, the university square where some of Bucharest’s most significant protests took place and an unusual statue of a man and a dog. You’ll learn about Bucharest’s communist struggles, the gory true stories of Dracula and the time Michael Jackson made a major faux pas on a visit to Bucharest.
1pm – Try some Romanian food
Now you’re clued up on Romania’s history, it’s time to experience some of its cuisine. Romanian food isn’t widely known or eaten beyond the borders of eastern Europe, but don’t let that fool you – there are some real delicious dishes to get stuck into.
If you want to eat like a local, get ready for lots of polenta, pork, dumplings or sauerkraut – or some combination of the four. It’s filling food, so set aside a little more time than you think you’ll need to let it all go down.
For a more detailed overview of what and where to eat in Bucharest, check out my guide to Bucharest’s best restaurants to visit.
3pm – Play spot the influence
Did you know they call Bucharest the ‘Paris of the East’? I didn’t, but as soon as you step foot in the city it’s not hard to see why. There’s a certain Parisian vibe to the streets of both downtown Bucharest and the wider city, but that’s not the only way in which this elusive eastern European capital resembles the city of love.
Aside from the French-inspired street names and elegant architecture, Bucharest was literally modelled on Paris. If you fly into Oteopeni airport and take a taxi or bus into the city, one of the first things you’ll see is the Arcul de Triumf – which is an almost identical replica of the famous French arch.
4.30pm – Relax in the Garden of Eden
Bucharest is one of those cities you could easily spend an afternoon walking around. If you have time, it’s well worth escaping the narrow streets of the old town and exploring the rest of the city. There’s just as much architecture to soak up and certainly no shortage of bars and cafés to stop by for a quick break.
Even if you’re not particularly interested in seeing the rest of the city, it’s worth venturing a little way north to find the Garden of Eden (or Gradina EDEN). And when I say “find”, I mean find… this garden bar is tucked away down one of Bucharest’s back street and is hard to find even if you know it’s there. Although you’ll have to hunt a little to find it, you’ll want to spend at least an hour or two sipping in cocktails in a hammock.
7pm – Watch the sunset
A sunset in a city? Yes, you did read that correctly.
Okay, so it’s not quite the same as watching the sun go all the way down over the sea or an open field, but watching the sky change from blue to orange to pink with a pina colada in hand isn’t a bad way to spend an evening, is it?
The best sunset – and probably the best pina coladas – can be found at Pura Vida. Pura Vida is a hostel tucked on the edge of the Old Town, but the sky bar is open to everyone. You’ll have to climb up a few flights of stairs to reach it, but there are plenty of puns to keep you entertained and motivated as you climb to the top.
11pm – People watch in the streets of Old Town Bucharest
Bucharest has every type of nightlife: from karaoke bars and goth-favoured dives to casual pubs and all-night clubs. If you go in a group, it looks like a great night out. If you go as a couple or a pair, you could also have a great night out… but it can be just as fun to watch everyone else having a night out.
To sum it up in one sentence, Bucharest seems like the kind of place where you could see anything. One thing you’ll definitely see is endless rows of bars filled with inanimate man standing in groups of 3-5 while nearly-naked women dance on window podiums, an audience of just one of two. Look a little deeper and you might see some epic fancy dress costumes, dogs on bars or a bride running away from her groom while her bridal party parades the street.
Bucharest Itinerary: Day 2
10am – Visit a local bakery
Just like Paris, Bucharest knows how to do pastry. Unlike Paris, however, the bakeries are a little harder to spot as most of them are tucked away between larger restaurants and administrative buildings. Look out for a little window that looks like it sells only coffee and you’ve probably hit the jackpot.
These windows are a bit like a walk-up drive-thru. You can place your order here but venture inside and you’ll see just how amazing some of Bucharest’s pastries are. If you want to eat like a local pick up something with cherry or sweet cheese – and maybe one of the amazing tiered cakes for a mid-afternoon snack.
11am – Explore Bucharest’s shops
Like any city, Bucharest has its fair share of shops but they’re not as easy to come across as you’d expect. Head to the Unirea Shopping Center just outside the Old Town for a mix of local and international stores as well as a good selection of restaurants. Many of the clothing stores here are cheaper than in Western Europe. If you want something a little different, the road leading up to the mall is full of shops selling one-off pieces and artisan crafts. And if you’re looking for books, gifts or teapots, Carousel in the Old Town is a must – you could spend hours browsing the endless shelves.
1pm – Have a healthy lunch
If you made it to Carousel, don’t leave without venturing up to the top floor. Up here sits a hidden bistro surrounded by glass walls and ceiling. The food is simple but delicious, and fairly affordable, and it was pretty much empty for the hour or so we were there. It also has free WiFi, making it a great place to sit and work.
If Carousel isn’t really your thing, Van Gogh Café is just down the street and serves up healthy options all day long. The only catch is that it’s a tourist favourite, so expect to pay a little more – but it’s totally worth it.
2.30pm – Take a rivercruise
The one thing we really, really wanted to do in Bucharest but didn’t have chance to was a river cruise. Even if you can’t make it to a tour, the river makes a nice afternoon walk, especially if it’s sunny enough to stop in one of the parks on the south side of the river.
4pm – Have a coffee break
When you’re in Bucharest, you can’t help but feel you’re in a real up-and-coming city. And just like every good city experiencing a growth spurt, Bucharest has its fair share of hip coffee spots popping up. We went to Origo, which is the perfect stop off on a stroll down the river.
Origo is clearly run by a fellow coffee-lover, with everything from specialist brews to champagne-infused tea. Oh, and it’s super Instagrammable too. I had a matcha latte and, even though it was on the small side, it was the best matcha latte I’ve ever had.
6pm – Hang out in the Food Hood
Tucked away in the middle of Bucharest’s Old Town is Food Hood, a street food square with rows of tables and trucks serving pizza, burgers and other fast food with a gourmet twist. There’s also a bar serving up a range of beers and other alcoholic beverages, making it a great place to hang out, whether you’re eating or not.
The food at Food Hood is freshly cooked for you and worth the wait, but can take up to 45 minutes to cook at busy times. If you’re hungry, head there a little earlier and grab a beer while you wait.
9pm – Have a visinata night cap
You can’t visit Romania without trying Vișinată, a Romanian beverage made from sour cherries, sugar and alcohol. You drink it from a shot glass but sip it slowly, enjoying the taste.