As this post goes live, we’ve been in Bucharest for just under a week. We’ve settled into our Airbnb, meandered through the Old Town a couple of times, and figured out the local grocery stores. That means one thing: we’re ready to rock Romania.
Some first impressions of Bucharest coming right up!
We ain’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.
Bucharest is the sixth-largest city in the EU (behind London, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, and Paris), and with almost two million residents, there’s a lot going on. There definitely looks to be plenty of events and nightlife are around to keep people drinking until dawn (or at least out late).
Bucharest feels like a European had a drunken threesome with Bangkok and Bogota.
It’s occasionally chaotic, rarely quiet, and a city of two worlds. You can go from a modern, first-world mall full of classy clothes to a borderline-squalid decades-old tram stop in a couple of hundred meters. There’s even a full-on Kitsch Museum in Old Town where you too can walk on a rug that looks like the Last Supper.
Getting around is easier than I thought… once you know what to look for.
Zagreb was straightforward — trams (and trams only) in the central downtown area, buses across the rest of the city. There are places where buses meet trams, but even then it’s pretty straightforward. You’re always looking for the standard shelter-style of bus stop, often (but not always) with a map inside.
Bucharest has buses. And trams. And buses that get electricity from the overhead tram lines. And a four-line metro. And bike paths. And a crapton of cars.
The bad news: navigating without Google Maps (or your preferred source of maps) is bound to cause tears. Your first step will be to spot a small roadside sign like this hanging above eye level, or the fading yellow road markers indicating a bus stop. I have yet to see a bus map at any stop.
The good news: it’s all on Google Maps, which is great. The better news: rides are really cheap (1.3 lei apiece), which goes into the next point.
Bucharest is one of the cheapest capital cities in Europe.
1 US dollar buys about 4 Romanian new lei, while 1 Euro buys about 4.5 lei (it’s abbreviated RON, and uses ‘leu’ as the singular). That’ll buy you three rides on a local bus or a 0.5 liter bottle of Coke. We had a satisfying lunch of gyros and falafels in Bucharest’s old town the other day for less than 10 USD — and this is considered one of the more expensive sides of town. It isn’t Thailand cheap, but it’s close.
(As a sidebar: the ‘old lei’ became the ‘new lei’ in 2005. We read that some tourists might be confused by seeing two pricing systems, when 10,000 ‘old lei’ became 1 ‘new lei’. As of our time here in Bucharest in May 2017, I’ve yet to see any mentions of the ‘old lei’ in any stores. It might be a different story in the countryside, but people have had well over a decade to get used to the ‘new’ lei.)
There’s not a lot of English around.
As usual, the younger generations are learning English and able to communicate. As a Romance language, Romanian reads vaguely like Italian and Latin to my admittedly monolingual mind.
The communist legacy will be around for decades to come.
Communism fell in 1989, and the patchwork ingenuity needed to survive a communist regime has slowly given way to decades of capitalism. What looks like a rather depressing bloc of unpainted Communist-era apartment buildings can just as easily open up into renovated apartments and modern spaces. It can be a bleak display… but then there’s that old saying about not judging a book by its cover…
The old town? Worthy, but needs to keep its momentum up
After Communism tightened its hold on the country, the old town was deemed ‘bourgeois’, and the property owners were arrested. Gypsies squatted on the land as the property was left to rot. Like almost everywhere else in the country, the old town changed dramatically after Communism fell in 1989. It was considered a no-go area for awhile, but rapid ad-hoc development during the late 2000’s helped to establish an active, vibrant atmosphere of food and music.
It’s considered ‘endangered’ by the World Monuments Watch as of 2016, however, and the creep of modern stores and restaurants has done little to preserve the legacies contained there. A fire that killed dozens at a club in October 2015 brought the issue to a head, and a law was passed forbidding commercial activity in buildings deemed earthquake risks. (A silver lining: smoking indoors was banned as a result — my lungs have already thanked Bucharest for the change!)
The tap water’s drinkable and the internet’s fast.
With respect to the locals that prefer bottled water, the tap water in Bucharest is generally safe to drink. Older buildings run the risk of having contaminants in the pipes, and I’ve read it’s more suspect in rural Romania. Thus far, no problems personally.
As for the internet, Akamai’s State of the Internet for 2016’s 4th quarter puts Romania in 17th place worldwide, between the United Kingdom and Belgium with an average speed of 16.1 Mbps. (I’m getting between 25-29 Mbps at our Airbnb in Bucharest, so score!)
I’m looking forward to finding the weird side of Bucharest and Romania… but naturally I haven’t come close to writing about previous travels! Look for posts on Florida, Croatia, and plenty more in the coming months.
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Also published on Medium.