24 hours in Bucharest solo | A travel itinerary
As I write this, I can hear streams of rap through my open window on a pleasant September night. I am told it is a pop-up party in my neighbourhood. It doesn’t sound particularly musical to me but I can hear a lot of cheering to congratulate the rapper in question, so I’m probably off the mark. I try to settle down more comfortably in my couch, tune the music out, and try yet again, to make sense of this city they call București or Bucharest.
Is it worth making a trip to Bucharest? While several travellers and locals alike feel that Bucharest is probably not worth stopping by, I disagree. No other city in Romania can rightfully demonstrate the impact communism has had on the country. I, for one, thought it was a good introduction to what was to follow. In its earlier glory days, Bucharest was often called ‘ Paris of the East’ and the French influence is easy to spot as soon as you step in. These days though, all that’s past is embellished with loud graffiti, a sign of what plagues the city today. A struggle. A need to express. Bucharest is thus a mish-mash of things, of past tyranny and future hope. It’s a city trying to find its way out of the dark. And it is getting somewhere, for sure.
If you are looking for pretty streets, warm locals, and quaint surroundings, Bucharest is definitely not the place for you. It is busy, noisy, tired and dusty, and the residents can be fairly standoffish (in my experience). But if you’re looking to get the pulse of the urban youth, to understand the country’s past, and get a sense of its future, you should start right here.
Bucharest is the capital city of Romania and its largest. It is located in the South of Romania, in the region of Wallachia. It is a bustling, busy city with a population of 2.5 million people. Bucharest will probably be your landing destination given it is the capital and has an airport. It is also well connected to the neighbouring capitals of Sofia and Belgrade.
I stayed in the city centre and used Uber/ Bolt liberally as they were super cheap. You can walk to all major sights if you stay close to Piața Unirii. I stayed at Central Guesthouse Bucharest which was lovely and had very reasonably priced single rooms.
Locals and tourists are conflicted about public transport. It is quite cheap but can be slow and sporadic. If you want to use public transport, get an Activ Card. More on public transport and Activ cards here.
Currency: 1 euro is 4.73 lei
Now for the one-day itinerary for Bucharest.
The 24-hour itinerary
Morning: Go for a free walking tour
Go with the popular Bucharest.walkaboutfreetours to get your orientation of the city. They run several free tours, but the basic one called ‘The Story of Bucharest’ runs from 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day, from Piata Unirii Park, next to the clock. The tour is 2.5 hours long with a short 15-minute break in between. I went for this one and enjoyed a lot. The only problem was, in a large crowd it sometimes gets harder to hear the guide, as Bucharest is also a very noisy city.
Another option is to do the ‘alternative’ city tour since Bucharest is truly an ‘alternative’ city, what with the amount of graffiti strewn across it. Walkabout and Urban Adventures offer it, but I don’t suppose they are tip-based.
As part of the free walking tour, you will see the old town square, the Patriarchal Cathedral, Stavropoleos Convent, Manuc’s Inn, Victory Boulevard, among others, and hear stories about Vlad the Impaler, the years of communism, the ’89 Revolution, and the building of the Palace of Parliament.
What you should know about Bucharest’s town square is that it is less than ten years old (!), easily the best part of Bucharest, and also beloved to the locals. Unlike old towns in other cities, locals actually hang around here, and not avoid it like the plague because tourists are in it. And if you are lucky to be there on a Sunday morning, you can also be witness to the lovely notes of the morning mass from the Patriarchal Cathedral.
Afternoon: Tour the Palace of the Parliament
If you have come to Bucharest and not seen the Palace of Parliament, the second-largest building in the world (after the Pentagon), you have not seen its glittering gem and inarguably the most controversial edifice. The building was commissioned by communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu to a 28-year-old Anca Petrescu because she had submitted the BIGGEST plan in a competition organized by him. He wanted to create a Champs-Élysées in Bucharest. The 330,000-sq-metre mammoth edifice has over 3000 rooms, only 60% of which is in use today. The estimated cost to build it was 3 billion euros and it takes 6 million euros each year to maintain it. And the hour-long tour merely scratches the surface.
The Palace of Parliament tour is an absolute must-do in your one-day itinerary. You need to call + 40 733 558 102 or +40 733 558 103 one day before between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to reserve a place. (For groups of 10 or more online registration is possible). Don’t forget to take your passport. The tour takes about one hour and costs 45 lei. Also, be sure to go to the right side of the palace. The nearest metro station is Izvor. Cross the Izvor gardens, and there you will be. Cash only.
Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. March to October; 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. November – February
Evening: Stroll through Arthur Verona Street
Grunge meets hip meets art meets boho in this corner of town replete with art galleries, cute cafes, dazzling graffiti, and local designer shops.
Start from the lovely Anglican Church, near Grădina Icoanei, at the intersection of Xenopol Street and Arthur Verona Street (they hold a mass every Sunday in English at 10 a.m.). Walk from there through Arthur Verona Street admiring the resplendent graffiti on both sides. These graffiti are initiatives by Street Delivery. And the purpose? Translated from their website: “Because the city, like poetry, is fully understood when you cross its streets at a pace, with a pen in hand…Let’s not comment on the city anymore! Let’s compose it!” Okay, wow! Good for us and the photo ops. By the way, the graffiti here changes often. So when you go, probably there will be something else.
At the end of the road, you will come to Carturesti Verona: massive, gorgeous, and less populated than its sister store Carturesti Carusel in Strada Lipscani 55. It is weird how many bookstores are there in Bucharest which immediately puts the city on top of my favourites. Carturesti Verona is among the gems. It has 4 outlets in the city, and the ones on Arthur Verona Street and Old Town are amongst the prettiest and the most expansive. Take a breather with coffee or tea at the Carturesti Tea House afterwards. Website.
Stop to shop local designers at Format Lady at Bulevardul General Gheorghe Magheru nr.18. (Timings 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.) Bucharest boutique wear is colourful and as grungy and eclectic as its streets. Prices are not too bad either.
For a respite, walk over to M60 café nearby for some soul food and great coffee.
Other places to try some Instagram worthy snaps are Pasajul Victoria (Umbrella Passage) and the Stavropoleos Monastery. In fact, Bucharest has some gorgeous Orthodox churches, in stark contrast to the dirty, unimpressive communist apartments dotting the city, and all of them provide great photo ops. And if you were fortunate enough to go round on Sunday like I was, you can also hear the beautiful mass.
Night: Beer and soul food
Bucharest has a great nightlife. Your options are to lounge at any of the clubs/ pubs on Strada Smârdanor or Lipscani or head over specifically to Caru cu Bere for some great inexpensive food and beer, which I did.
Caru’ cu Bere is a bar and restaurant on Stavropoleos Street in the Lipscani district of Bucharest. It opened its doors in 1879 but moved to its current location in 1899. The interiors are art nouveau, designed by Austrian architect Siegfried Kofczinsky. It’s a tourist favourite but not a tourist trap. The food is very nice, the prices reasonable, and the service prompt and pleasant. They also serve their own delicious house beer. And it is right at the centre of Bucharest, so there’s no need to go elsewhere to get your food fix.
Timings: Open Sunday to Wednesday 8 a.m. to 12 a.m., Friday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Try visiting in off-peak hours to avoid being ignored.
To know how to move around in Romania solo, read this.
To get the full Romania itinerary, go here.