Go Now: Bucharest

I am back in Denver, slowly digesting the month that I spent in Europe, some of it traveling in France, some visiting Romania.

I left Bucharest 11 years ago and returned to visit each year with great pleasure. This year it was more than great pleasure – I did not want to leave.  Bucharest is where I grew up, where I learned to play, to read, to kiss, to drive, to cook. There, I learned to walk on cobble stone in high heels, to hail a cab, to ride the metro, and to parallel park in impossible conditions.

In the last two or three years, the city has changed – I felt revived magic, spectacular additions, great changes. I cannot wait to go back so to cure my blues I wanted to share some of my favorites. This is by no means comprehensive – it is a teaser of sorts, an insider’s short tip list to be added to an itinerary that celebrates and recognizes the culture, architecture, and art that Bucharest has to offer.

Historic Center. Recently revitalized, the historic center of Bucharest is buzzing every night of the week. About 6 square blocks of wavy cobblestone streets are lined with bars and terraces, cafes and restaurants – all full of locals and tourists enjoying themselves. Walk around and sit just about anywhere for a glass of wine or a cocktail and some spectacular people watching. My personal favorite: Van Gogh, which includes a small boutique hotel on the upper floors.

Dance Clubs. I am not a dance club person – at all. But I have had my fair share of dance club experiences over the years. I can say without a doubt that Bucharest has some of the best clubs in the world. Dig around for yourself or save yourself the time and try BOA (Beat of Angels) – it is an outrageous and worthwhile experience.

The timeless and my all time favorite: Salsa. Some places have fairy dust sprinkled all over them and Salsa is one of them. The original location dates back into the 90‘s and the space it is in now is the 5th iteration of the same concept – a bar and salsa dancing club with understated charm and comfort and a familiarity that is hard to explain. Salsa is like your best friend- reliable, lovable, annoying at times, ready to please you, forgiving to you and demanding of your forgiveness at the same time. There is no fuss here – just great music and a playful atmosphere that breeds good times.

The food, of course. There is no haute cuisine going on here but there is a lot of very good food. I would stick with traditional Romanian food at Hanul lui Manuc, Caru cu Bere, La Mama, but would also give a few other small items a shot – the best street food in Bucharest – the shwarma, the timeless and omnipresent covrig, and the sweetsand pastries that can appease your sweet tooth.

Built in 1808, Hanul lui Manuc has been recently restored and reopened after being returned to descendants of the original owners not long ago. The inn and restaurant is stunning in architecture and the food produced in the kitchen never fails to impress. The hotel (the Dacia) remains closed for the moment but the plan is to have it reopen soon.

For a beer, coffee, a bite to eat or an entire traditional meal head for Caru cu Bere, a beer hall and restaurant dating from 1875. This beerhouse from Stavropoleos Street is a traditional place that beams with life and buzzes with happy customers each day of the week. The interior is beautiful- mural paintings, stained glass and carved cross-beams are distinctive elements of the beerhouse. Go, eat, drink and be merry.

La Mama is a cheaper and reliable alternative to traditional Romanian food in Bucharest. Many locations have popped all over town and each and every one maintains a high standard for food. I always go back there for a bite with friends.

I don’t know how shwarma became such a hit in Bucharest but I know that this is where it is at as far as street food here. The Bucharest version has a traditional side- the meat is cooked on a stand up spit and shavings are cut off the block  for serving with the The shavings are placed in a pita wrap with a variety of non-traditional accoutrements – tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, fried (yes, fries), pickles and garlic sauce. Tip: skip the ketchup.  Many places are great for shwarma now particularly downtown and in the historic center but Dristor Kebap remains my go-to spot.

At nearly every corner in central Bucharest, you will see a small and likely colorful shop baking up Covrigi. A Romanian staple the Covrig is basically the cultural equivalent of a well-celebrated Romanian variation of a pretzel.  Crunchy on the outside and still soft on the inside,  the covrig is best when it is still warm. My favorite kind is the classic salt and poppyseed variety.

Savarina, photo credit @deprinlumeadunate

The Sweets. Bucharest has a long-standing tradition of pastries, patisserie and other sweet confections. Although many of the older “cofetarie” shops have closed in recent years, some remain around making a variety of traditional sweets in house. To get the Romanian experience, try the Savarina and Amandina. Eclairs and fruit tarts are always good choices as well. Three places come to mind for good sweets- Imperial, Cofetaria Maria, Chocolat (more French-leaning – still great).

Enjoy and report back if you make it back to my motherland.

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  • Bogdan

    I’d say you should add on your list of restaurants Locanta Jaristea (www.jaristea.ro). Now THAT is a typical Romanian traditional restaurant & people tend to agree it’s one of the best in the whole country. The food is simply amazing, just as the decor – you have the feeling you’re going back in time, getting in that bohemian atmosphere Bucharest had in the beginning of the 20th century. Moreover, there are live performances every night! What more could you ask for an authentic experience? :)

  • FrenchPressMemo

    I agree- that is a great traditional restaurant. There are actually a few like that now- Terasa Doamnei, Burebista, etc. I tried to keep it less overwhelming but certainly Jaristea is worth a visit.