The VICE Guide to Bucharest 2014
If you're straight and can get past the stray dogs, it's fucking great.
(Photo by Amdraci)
If you’re only visiting the Romanian capital to stare at Communist monuments while shovelling cheap shawarma into your mouth, you’re missing out. Bucharest is a true party city. It’s a place where you can smoke indoors, a bottle of vodka costs a quarter of what it does back home and where the closing time is whenever the last person passes out. So make the most of it.
Jump to sections by using the index below:
– WHERE TO PARTY
– WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH DRUGS?
– POLITICS, PROTESTS AND JUST HOW RACIST IS EVERYONE HERE?
– WHERE TO EAT
– WHAT DO LOCALS EAT?
– WHERE TO DRINK
– WHERE TO STAY
– LGBT BUCHAREST
– WHERE TO HANG OUT WHEN YOU'RE SOBER
– HOW TO AVOID GETTING RIPPED OFF AND BEATEN UP
– HOW NOT TO BE A SHITTY TOURIST
– PEOPLE AND PLACES TO AVOID
– TIPPING AND HANDY PHRASES
– A YOUTUBE PLAYLIST OF QUESTIONABLE LOCAL MUSIC
– VICE CITY MAP
(Photo by Vlad Brateanu)
WHERE TO PARTY
There are four kinds of parties in Bucharest:
If you’re a pill-popping house lover, Bucharest has more than enough ways for you to burn your serotonin reserves into oblivion. For the minimal, tech and deep house junkies among you, we have Studio Martin, where the soundsystem is impeccable and the décor's minimalist simplicity is in tune with the music. If you're the kind of prima donna who only feels comfortable in clubs with lots of shiny surfaces that will reflect your own face, try substantially blingier options Kristal or Gaia.
The College Party
Kulturhaus is the cheapest club in the centre of town, and the DJs pretty much only play 90s indie rock bands, so this is the natural home of Bucharest’s exuberant student population. The basement can get suffocatingly humid, but if you’re worried about overheating you could probably buy everyone in there a drink and still have enough change from €50 for a bathtub of booze. The same goes for Club A, where students have been dancing to pretty much the same playlist for over 40 years, and everyone thinks dubstep is a type of reggae.
The Hipster Party
If your idea of a good night’s entertainment is watching an avant-garde electro duo turning some knobs on a synthesiser, head to Club Control. It’ll be harder to get out of your face than at Studio Martin, but at least the music is a bit more varied.
The After Party
If you’ve got the stamina, there’s a host of late-night after-party places like Traian 42, Guesthouse and Mansarda. These will keep you occupied and out of trouble when you’ve been kicked out of Studio Martin or Club Control but you’re too wired to go to bed and gurning too much to have a conversation with anyone.
(Photo by Lucian Varvaroi)
WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH DRUGS?
Bucharest, like techno music and McDonald’s, is best enjoyed on drugs. The city is a nonsensical architectural stew, so many people say there’s no better way to get a feel for it than roaming the streets at night, tripping balls.
Unfortunately, the Romanian authorities are as progressive towards drugs as they are towards gay people, which is to say we’re lucky they haven’t stoned anyone to death in the last fortnight. Marijuana has not been decriminalised in any way, and among the older generation it’s basically considered on a par with heroin. Getting caught smoking a joint probably won’t land anyone in prison, but it might end up in a criminal record and a fine. Given all that, you won’t spot too many street dealers.
Weed is sold per gram and prices are between 50-60 RON (€11-13). We weren’t kidding about the police, Romanian dealers are really panicky about undercover cops and no-one tends to do anything stupid like sparking up in public unless being kicked half to death in a Romanian prison is their idea of a Kodak moment.
Drugs like MDMA and speed are a regular part of the scene at Bucharest's ravier venues. A gram of MDMA goes for as much as 300 RON (€66) while speed is less than half that and a pill tends to cost about 50 RON (€11).
(Photo by Vlad Petri)
POLITICS, PROTESTS AND JUST HOW RACIST IS EVERYONE HERE?
To the outside observer it may appear that Romania has the usual range of political parties, from conservatives to social democrats, but in fact none of them have an actual doctrine because they were all formed by former Communist Party members. There was no lustration here, which means that the same people who worked under the dictator Ceauşescu are now calling themselves "capitalists". Most of them dislike the West almost as much as they hate Russia and in fact some of the elderly who now find themselves in poverty will tell you things were better under dictatorship. Freedom of expression doesn't put food on the table.
(Photo by Vlad Brateanu)
There is a far-right movement here who are attempting to revive the fascism that existed in Romania before WW2, but their numbers are relatively small. They have an annual march against homosexuality and another against the ethnic Hungarians who live in Romania. Avoid them by avoiding La Copac, where they organise fascist poetry recitals, and metal bars called things like Arseholes and Steal Giant, where you’ll see groups of scary-looking men hanging out with the national flag printed on their T-shirts.
A massive 86.5 percent of the country's population are Orthodox Christian, so unsurprisingly this group contributes its fair share of extremists. It’s thanks to these guys that we wouldn’t recommend being open about it if you’re in a gay relationship.
Along with the far-right movements, we’ve also seen a number of left-wing protests in recent years. We’ve had the whole gamut: union protests, political protests, anti-mining protests, anti-fracking protests, feminist protests and protests for and against euthanising Romania's stray dog population. Usually they only attract a few hundred people, but sometimes 20,000 people show up and all the streets get blocked.
(Photo by Sebastian Nitulescu)
Whatever you do, don't confuse Roma people with Romanians because that's just putting your foot in it. Racism against Roma Gypsies is incredibly common, and they get the blame for everything bad that happens here. Nobody wants to admit that we used them as slaves or that we put them through a Holocaust during WW2, so they act as unfortunate stress balls for the Romanian majority's self-loathing.
(Photo by Mihai Popescu)
WHERE TO EAT
Shawarma kebab is to Bucharest what the hot dog is to New York, and there are literally thousands of places to get it in the city. Be warned: many of them are huge Petri dishes of salmonella that get their meat from medical schools and their “mayonnaise” from the walls of public baths. Fortunately, that’s not the case at Calif in the historical city centre. The respect they show for this cheap-ass fast food is utterly astounding. The meat is properly spiced, the pitta made in-house and the fries and vegetables are fresh. They also specialise in some delicious sauces, like yogurt with mint, curried mustard or aubergine. Plus they do proper veggie options, which is rare in a country of carnivores. The best part is that you’ll only need to spend about 14 RON (€3). Drunk or sober, you’re going to be eating a lot of shawarma, so make sure you get the quality ones.
The banner at the entrance to Toan’s says – without a shred of modesty – that they make the best sandwich in the world. You’ll be sceptical right up until the moment you bite into their banh mi: a fresh bun filled with pork meatballs that have been dipped in fish sauce, cucumber, white radish and fresh coriander. While you're there, why not try the pho soup, too? You can get a whole meal for 12 RON (€2.50) and at any price it makes Romanian Subway equivalents look like a rat wedged between two turds and slapped in a bucket of sick.
Romanians are so proud of themselves that it’s normal to hear people calling mici (grilled minced meat rolls) a national treasure, even though they can be found pretty much everywhere in the Balkans. The best place to get them in Bucharest is La Cocoșatu, which literally means "The Hunchback’s" after the original hunchbacked guy who opened the restaurant. You have to try the mici here and then decide whether you’re part of the 50 percent who think they’re delicious, or the other 50 percent who hate them/hunchbacks.
Latin Pizza & Kebab, at the Corner of I.C. Bratianu and Lipscani Street
While most pizza places have a habit of just stacking salami and mushrooms on top of tasteless dough, Latin Pizza endeavours to create this thing called “flavour”, and they’re kinda smashing it. They do this mouth-watering one with just cherry tomatoes, tomato sauce and a touch of pesto with garlic that will make your face fall off. It’s all 20 RON (€4.50) and it’ll make you want to go and kick an Italian to death (or just question his innate sense of pizza superiority).
(Photo by Mihai Popescu)
WHAT DO LOCALS EAT?
Romanians alternate between our regular diet – which is almost exclusively meat-based – and religious fasts, when we subsist on potatoes, a roundish thing found in the mud. You won't have a hard time finding a traditional restaurant in Bucharest, and when you do, here’s what to order:
We've mentioned these already, but they're really important: rolls of minced mutton spiced with sodium bicarbonate, which are then thrown on a grill and eaten with mustard. They were invented before WW2, when a famous restaurant ran out of sheep guts (total bummer) so they just threw sausage meat on the grill instead. Romanians are so in love with this food that they protested against the EU when they wanted to ban foods made with sodium bicarbonate, the bedrock of any fine meal or bath bomb.
Sarmale are made by rolling cabbage or dough around minced veal meat, rice, tomato sauce and anything spicy you can lay your hands on. They’re based on a traditional Turkish recipe, but never say that to a Romanian because we’ve claimed them as our own and take our food more seriously than our politics. Even though we cook with sodium bicarbonate.
Ciorbă de Burtă
In Communist times, workers were fed beef tripe soup because it was the cheapest part of an animal. Eventually, it became a delicacy and now it's served everywhere in Romania as an expensive soup. Besides minced beef gut, the soup also contains: pork leg, garlic, buttered milk, vinegar and in some rare cases a few minced peppers. It's kind of an acquired taste.
Slana is something you find in every household in Romania. Its literal translation is “fat”. That’s because it is fat. Boiled, smoked pig fat, to be exact (sometimes, if you’re a ponce, you put pieces of garlic in it). It's the Romanian equivalent of bacon, only without the meat. Sometimes they fry it in a pan, in even more pig fat. Some people think it’s a little fatty for them.
(Photo by Lucian Varvaroi)
WHERE TO DRINK
The whole of Bucharest is filled with ancient drinking dens, but everyone ignores those and goes to drink in the Old Town. Especially if they're tourists. That's why the place is filled with knock-off Irish pubs and German beer halls. Avoid those as well and head straight to one of these:
A1 is the bar of choice for arty types. As you’d expect, it's filled with bicycles, jazz music and overpriced local and imported beer. The service is very, very, very laidback but that’s “the point”, apparently, and all this means that A1 fosters a chilled atmosphere. If you’re treating Bucharest like London in rush hour, you’re doing it wrong.
Ştirbei Palace was home to the aristocracy before World War II and is an architectural highlight of downtown Bucharest. Nowadays, the garden has been taken over by Eden, a hip outdoor bar who’ve covered the lawn with tents and hammocks. Get there soon because of course the government want to cover it with a shopping mall because they are twats.
Control doesn't show up in any guidebooks but it’s the first place a Romanian will take you if you visit Bucharest. This is mainly because this is a faithful copy of any generic bar from Western Europe and we’re trying to make you feel at home.
A small outside bar right in the middle of the most famous park in Bucharest, Herăstrău. Baraka is right next door to the largest skate park in the city, so you'll see a lot of skaters hanging out there during the day. At night it slowly morphs into an outdoor rave in the middle of a deserted park, which sounds like the sort of thing people go on holidays for.
Argentin isn't the nicest bar in the Old Town, and you’ll be lucky to find a bartender who understands English, but you have to go if you want to experience an authentic Romanian pub. This is the kind of place where you’ll meet toothless folk singers and mad retired art schoolteachers who’ll try to sell you their paintings. I’ve seen a couple of bar fights there, which is pretty sexy.
(Photo by Mircea Topoleanu)
WHERE TO STAY
If you really want to learn about life in Bucharest, use a site like couchsurfing.org to find a local to stay with. We're the kind of people who are obsessed with impressing foreigners, seeming hospitable and making you booze out of plums, so you’ll be well looked after.
If you’d prefer a hostel, head to the Old Town in the middle of the city. If you just want to hang out, go clubbing, get drunk and get laid we recommend Hostel Little Bucharest (From €12 in a dorm, €17 for a room). It's right in the middle of the eternal party that is the Historical Centre of Bucharest and the only real downside is that you won't get any sleep because the nearby pubs never close.
Further from downtown Bucharest but pretty close to Carol Park is where you can find Doors Hostel, a great Communist obelisk. (From €10.50 in a dorm, €27 for a room.) There’s a large outdoor area where they host all sorts of performances and jazz concerts, but it’s the garden itself that makes this stand above other hostels.
Hotels in Bucharest are expensive, even by international standards, and the conditions are way below what you’d expect from the stars out front. Some of them are cold, spartan buildings left over from Communism, others are cramped and kitschy new builds designed for conferences. If you insist on staying at one, choose the Intercontinental. It's probably the largest building in the middle of Bucharest, a sort of Communist skyscraper, and gives you one of the few vantage points from which the city actually looks nice. It is, though, predictably overpriced (€150 for a room), especially considering that it doesn’t look like they’ve spent any money on redecorating since Stalin died.
(Photo by Sergiu Mihaescu)
Sadly, Bucharest is not a great place to be seen being affectionate to your same-sex lover. As mentioned above, 86.5 percent of the country's population are Christian-Orthodox, including a fair number of extremists, so if you are L, G, B, T and/or Q then we’d suggest it’s probably safer to keep it on the DL.
(Photo by David Holt)
WHERE TO HANG OUT WHEN YOU'RE SOBER
Bucharest’s first and only squat, Carol 53 was established by a crew of young architects who somehow managed to seize control of an old house on Carol Boulevard, ten minutes from University Square. They’ve turned it into an artistic centre where they throw parties, host art exhibitions and put on plays. It’s open for visitors most of the time, so be sure to check it out. The collapsed floor in the middle of one of the rooms doesn’t help shake the impression that the whole building could fall in on itself at any time, but if you’re feeling brave and take a sleeping bag they might even let you crash there.
Romanians don't really like talking about life under Communism, perhaps because our daily lives are filled with enough reminders as it is. That's reason that we don’t have a Communist Museum. However, recently some informal tours have been organised for foreigners so that you can go and hang out in proletariat living rooms that haven’t changed in 20 years and Instagram shots of dead people's misery, like the shallow, spoilt capitalist plank you are. It’s the closest you’ll get to time-travel tourism.
The Communist Obelisk in Carol Park
In Carol Park you’ll find a giant Soviet obelisk made from the most Bolshevik red marble you'll ever clap eyes on. This is the place in Bucharest that feels most like Russia. See it while it lasts, because the Church wants to take it down as they see it as an affront to their faith and a reminder of our country’s painful history. Sometimes you need painful reminders though, like the scar that reminds you not to fall off rooftops while you're drunk, or that STD that reminds you not to trust your ex.
After you’ve seen the People's Palace, the next thing you’ll want to do is enjoy a beer while stood on top of it. The National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC) owns one of the wings of the building and they have a giant terrace on top where you can survey your surroundings and get into the feel of being a dictator. Ceauşescu? Ceauşesme, more like.
The Houses Between Dorobanţi and Aviatorilor Streets
Fans of idiosyncratic architecture will want to check out the streets between the two central boulevards, where you'll see buildings built in every style from Moorish to socialist modernist. You’ll also see EU embassies next door to mobsters’ palaces and safehouses of the former regime, which are still used to this day by the Romanian Secret Service.
The Backyard of the Military History Museum
The highlight of one of Bucharest’s few decent museums is the backyard full of tanks and other weird old Soviet military vehicles. Plus, you can hang out by them unsupervised! Who doesn’t want a tank selfie?
The Matache, Ferentari or Uranus Neighbourhoods
The poor neighbourhoods of Bucharest have something special about them, but you should only visit them during the daytime with someone who knows the area. You’ll be rewarded by all manner of weird sights, like stray dogs shitting on crumbling mansions.
(Photo by Lucian Varvaroi)
HOW TO AVOID GETTING RIPPED OFF AND BEATEN UP
We know a lot of Europeans associate Romania with crime, but actually you're pretty safe here. There are less violent crimes than in places like Budapest, Kiev and Sofia, for example.
Having said that, you do need to keep an eye on your money. This starts from arrival, where the taxi drivers who collect you from the airport have been known to hit a button on the meter to jack up the fare. Keep your eye on what they’re doing and make sure you have a rough grasp of what Romanian currency is worth. Waiters and shopkeepers may also try to swindle you if they sense you have no idea what the exchange rate might be.
There are pickpockets in the town but you’re unlikely to be mugged unless you venture out into the suburbs where all sorts of small-time gangs operate. A more creative scam is for someone to approach you and tell you, in a perfect English accent, that they themselves just got robbed. Then they’ll ask to borrow some money, and may even show you their IDs or hand over a set of car keys as collateral. These will be fake and the scammers will actually be part of the swathe of Romanians who’ve learned fluent English.
(Photo by Mircea Topoleanu)
HOW NOT TO BE A SHITTY TOURIST
It’s a real shame that almost all tourists follow the same itinerary when they’re in Bucharest. It tends to go like this: get drunk in the Old Town, go on a boring tour of the People’s Palace (the current Parliament and Ceaușescu's former seat of power) and then end up at either the underwhelming Peasant's Museum or Village Museum.
Where visitors to Bucharest really go wrong is by spending too long in the city. Transylvania is filled with spectacular castles and forts of German, Hungarian and Romanian origin, so go and check those out instead of just trailing around the same three tourist bars as everyone else. Plus, you know, there's loads of Dracula shit there.
(Photo by Amdraci)
PEOPLE AND PLACES TO AVOID
“Cocalar” is a Romanian word that basically translates as “douchebag”. We use it to refer to the sort of people who wear skin-tight shirts and drive SUVs while listening to very loud, very shit music. There is a good chance they'll take the piss out of you if they find out you’re a foreigner, so just avoid them if you don’t fancy a fight.
Stolen Phone Salesmen
Downtown in Unirii Square, you’ll see people trying to flog all sort of dodgy shit, including cheap cigarettes and stolen mobile phones and caviar. The only good thing about them is you’ll know the first place to look if your caviar goes missing.
Bucharest is filled with thousands of stray dogs. Some of them bite, especially at night and especially children. Don't walk in the parks at night because they gather in packs and become territorial. The biggest fear for any tourist in Romania is that they’ll be savagely attacked by a dog in front of a luxury restaurant.
In Romania, both the pedestrians and the drivers respect the traffic rules, but only when there's a cop around. You'll also notice that the traffic lights are not synced, because that would cost too much and we’re just chill like that.
Anywhere in Winter
Don't visit Bucharest in the winter. It's horrible. The streets are unwalkable. The pavements are blocked with giant piles of snow. It's basically an atomic winter, only without the bunkers and with more Christmas lights.
Bucharest’s public transport network has been devised with the express purpose of confusing tourists. Some of the tube lines on the map don’t actually exist. You won’t be able to find anyone who speaks English to explain how it works or sell you a ticket, so expect to end up travelling illegally. Then get pickpocketed. Then get press ganged into eating some more sodium bicarbonate.
The museums in Bucharest are a joke, but tourists are lured in because they’re inside old palaces that look cool from the street. The exhibits never change and lots of the explanations on the wall are basically just lies that the staff have made up, although none of it is in English anyway so it probably doesn't matter.
(Photo by Lucian Varvaroi)
TIPPING AND HANDY PHRASES
In Bucharest, the standard tipping amount is 10 percent, but it's helpful to have a Romanian friend to hand because the moment you speak to a waiter, bartender or taxi driver in English, they'll be looking to scam you. Also, because you are a foreigner, some waiters may pretend to forget to bring your change back, at which point you should call the manager and try your best to get them sacked – those guys make Romanians look like dicks.
Hello – Salut
Goodbye – Pa
Please – Te rog
Thank you – Mersi
Suck my dick – Sugi pula
I want to fuck your mother's dead relatives [our Romanian office assure us this is a very common insult] – Futu-ţi morţii mă-tii
I'm going to beat you shitless – Te bat de te caci pe tine
A YOUTUBE PLAYLIST OF QUESTIONABLE LOCAL MUSIC
Note: This is not necessarily cool, good or interesting Romanian music. Let's face it, Bucharest is not Berlin. It is however the kind of thing you might end up dancing to in some godforsaken place we didn't recommend.
VICE CITY GUIDE
So there you go, that's our city. Don't be offended if we don't take you out for drinks once you get here!
- The VICE Guide to Europe 2014
- Studio Martin
- club a
- Club Control
- La Cocoșatu
- Ştirbei Palace
- Hostel Little Bucharest
- Carol Park
- Doors Hostel
- Carol 53
- Communist Obelisk
- MNAC Terrace
- Aviatorilor Street
- Dorobanţi Street
- The Matache
- VICE travel guides 2014
- Bucharest travel guide
- what to do in Bucharest