There’s a glow over the horizon when I start hearing someone tap at my door. It’s a conductor. Snapping out of my dream, I throw some pants on just as he opens the door. “We are almost there,” he says before moving along. I close the door, look out the window of my private cabin and see the landscape vanish, giving way to urbanity with its stocky square buildings, trains, and highways. We roll to a stop at the central station with the white cables of the Basarab Bridge hanging in the background.
It’s 6:30 in the morning and it’s time to see Bucharest.
Things to Do in Bucharest
My expectations for Bucharest were nonexistent. That is to say, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew empires and communism swept through over the centuries before finally establishing itself as the capital of a democratic country. That’s about it. As far as what people eat, drink, and do in Bucharest––I hadn’t a clue.
Fortunately, that was set to change after my visit to Sighet in northern Romania on the Ukrainian border. I flew into Cluj-Napoca for the shorter bus ride to Sighet. But instead of just heading back to Cluj-Napoca, I decided to take advantage of the overnight train to Bucharest and return to Berlin from the capital. Suffice it to say, I’m plenty glad I did.
Technically, I only had one full day in Bucharest. But I feel comfortable calling it two full days since I arrived in Bucharest at 6:30 in the morning on a Friday and flew back Sunday. And in that time, I feel like I actually managed to get a decent taste of Bucharest.
Where to Stay in Bucharest
I stayed at the Hotel Capitol, an upscale hotel on the edge of the pedestrianized city center. Hotel Capitol was built in 1901 and refurbished a century later. The entire building underwent and completed its most recent renovations in 2014.
Rooms and rates were what I was looking for, but I was especially impressed by the morning breakfast. I was partly impressed because although I wasn’t supposed to check-in until the afternoon, they let me show up after my 6:30 am train arrival and check-in early. Not only that, but they let me eat breakfast without charging me extra.
Not only did they let me in early but they gave me a room that overlooked Piața Drapelului with the Sărindar Fountain in all its majesty in front of the National Military Club. I’m hardly a sucker for nationalism, but I am a sucker for large waving flags, so I appreciated the enormous Romanian flag waving above the military building.
Run in Bucharest
After breakfast, I changed clothes and went for a run to get an overview of the city. I also had some Berlin Marathon training to catch up on after taking it easy in Sighet, so I planned a 17-kilometer route south of the city through parks Tineretului Park and Vacaresti Park Nature Reserve.
My route cut quickly around the Old Town to head south alongside the parliament building. It’s a massive communist-looking structure that stopped me in my tracks. Say what you will about the communists, but they know how to make a building that radiates power.
From there I pretty quickly made my way to Parcul Carol, running towards yet another imposing structure–– Mormântul Ostașului Necunoscut or the Nation’s Heroes Memorial. Weaponry sits on the side of a series of steps leading up to the structure. Looking it up later, I learned that it’s actually a communist mausoleum, originally holding the elongated name “Monument of the heroes of the fight for the freedom of the people and the homeland, for socialism.” (Too long, if you ask me.)
It was finished in 1963 and meant to be the resting place of three Romanian communists complete with crypts holding the remains of those who died for the cause. Today, the coffin of communist leader Gheorghe Gh. Dej is gone, replaced with a statue of King Ferdinand and the goddess Nike (from mythology, not the shoe).
I quickly whipped around the building and continued across the tramlines of Calea Șerban Vodă into the much larger Tineretului Park. I followed the paved path around the tiny lake and passed the children’s park on my way back out onto a series of leafy residential streets. Suddenly I found myself running along a busy boulevard full of traffic, crossing in front of a mall while I tried to find my turn into Vacaresti Park Nature Reserve.
I missed my turn and managed to screw up my planned loop around the park. But I knew from some hasty Googling before my run that the park isn’t your typical city park. As far as I could tell, it’s left relatively untouched and is protected as a place of conservation. There are dirt paths, but I completely missed them, running instead along the western rim before starting my way back towards the hotel.
For a second run (not on the same day––I remain somewhat sane), I headed in the opposite direction for Herastrau Park. This felt more like the typical, manicured park I’ve come to expect in European cities. There are lakeside restaurants, runners, and couples out for a stroll, perhaps with a stroller in tow. I made the most of my time and ran around the entirety of the lake, crossing the northern pedestrian bridge to return on the opposite side.
I’d be silly to suggest I know what makes Bucharest tick because of a couple of runs. But after covering 30-some kilometers, I do feel like I can close my eyes and see Bucharest. I can see its block buildings, its weathered apartments with satellites and the occasional air conditioning unit sticking out over the balcony, and the seemingly uncut trees spreading their branches over the narrow sidewalks. I can see that it’s a place I hope to visit again soon.
Bucharest Old Town
One of the main things I love about Europe is that you can pretty reliably find a pedestrianized city center in most major cities. Bucharest is no exception. Even better, Calea Victoriei (the main road outside of my hotel leading to the Old Town) was fortuitously blocked off from traffic. I could walk a good kilometer north, away from the Old Town, in the middle of the street.
But of course, the Old Town is always free of cars. You can cover most of the main streets and alleyways in an afternoon of wandering. I found the architecture to be pretty reliably classic European with various restaurants and pubs shoved into the first floor.
High on my list was a visit to Cărturești Carusel––a bookstore popular, for better or worse, with Instagrammers drawn to the shops three levels of canvas-white columns and spiraling staircases. There is a café at the top that I would’ve loved to patronize so I wouldn’t just be taking pictures and leaving, but it was closed due to the pandemic. I couldn’t justify another book at the moment (I’m already on a cookbook limit), so I went with a postcard to mail to my niece.
Where to Eat in Bucharest
For lunch, I ended up at Caru’ cu bere. It’s the kind of place you’re warned is touristy but worth a visit anyway. It’s traditional Romanian in flair with an interior that reminded me of a grand library complete with stained glass windows. The menu is meat-focused but a vegetarian can find their way around.
After a week in Romania, I was ready to try something different. That’s how I ended up at Aubergine for dinner one night. The menu is focused on lighter Mediterranean / Middle Eastern eats. My guess is that there’s an Israeli involved somewhere based on the Hebrew on the board on the sidewalk (it was just the restaurant’s name in Hebrew) and the shakshuka on the menu.
For one of my last meals, I saw out on the patio of HYGGE. They’ve got a varied menu of soups, brunch, heavier mains (pork chop, pork ribs), and burgers. I went with and was plenty happy with my “Call me Flower” fried cauliflower burger with turmeric yogurt sauce, pickled beetroot, and chipotle sauce.