How well prepared is Bucharest to welcome foreign visitors?

Last week we were in Tbilisi as guests of Tbilisi City Hall and the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.

We were asked to perform a simple task: visit the city for two days, and then report to an audience of local travel-industry professionals on what kind of problems a first-time visitor to Tbilisi might face.

In brief, we discovered that foreign visitors to Tbilisi face three immediate problems: (i) finding decent, up-to-date visitor information; (ii) navigating a city where every street sign, bus stop, metro station etc. is written only in Georgia’s impenetrable alphabet; (iii) crossing the street in a place where city-centre traffic lights are few and far between and where drivers are as indisciplined as Bucharest’s, only at far greater speed.

Why did Tbilisi City Hall ask us to carry out such a task?

Certainly not because we have all the answers to a city’s questions – far from it – but simply because the company we represent when we are not wasting our time here at Bucharest Life has a half-decent track record of publishing visitor information in cities not unlike Tbilisi.

Anyway, on the plane on the way home (a plane which departed achingly early: this is another problem Tbilisi faces. Most flights to and from Tbilisi depart or arrive at Silly O’Clock. Our flight from Munich landed at 03.05, the return flight took off at 04:00) we got to wondering about how the question ‘How prepared is Tbilisi to welcome foreign visitors?‘ would be answered were it applied to Bucharest?

Firstly, we should point out that we are probably not the best people in the world to answer that question. Though we publish that most handy of all the city’s visitor guides, Bucharest In Your Pocket, we have been here an awfully long time and are both jaundiced and chippy when it comes to the city.

So we would value input from others on this one: especially from those who are new to the city or who have visited just once or twice.

Our own early thoughts, for what they are worth, are as follows:

First, the things Bucharest does well from a visitor’s point of view.

  • Street-signage is now excellent (even if the fact that the design of them was copied direct from Paris is an embarrassment). Signage on public transport (especially the metro) has also improved of late.
  • Taxis are cheap and rogue drivers are few and far between these days.
  • There are plenty of print city guides (although we should point out that ours is by far and away the best), which makes up for the lack of a proper Tourist Information Office.

This brings us to the potential problems a visitor might face.

  • Bucharest still lacks a decent, central Tourist Information Office. One is about to open in the Piata Universitatii underpass, but it remains to be seen what it will be offering in terms of information, how the staff will treat visitors, and whether they will add value to the visitor experience. We have our doubts.
  • Bucharest could use a few more classic tour guides: people who will take visitors around the city centre (on foot – not in a bus or a black Mercedes) and who will enhance with local knowledge what the visitor can see for him or herself.
  • The handouts and flyers produced by Bucharest’s attractions (especially its museums) need to be vastly improved. Some places offer nothing. In our experience visitors to good museums are prepared to part with cash for a decent printed guide. An opportunity is being lost here.

These are not definitive lists, and as we say, we welcome the thoughts of those new to Bucharest, or less frequent visitors who face the problems we do not:

We know how to avoid expensive taxis at Bucharest’s Otopeni airport.

But what do others without a copy of Bucharest In Your Pocket to hand do?

13 thoughts on “How well prepared is Bucharest to welcome foreign visitors?

  1. I’ve visited Bucharest twice and my main memories of severe headaches in trying to have an enjoyable trip was using the public transport. Terrible metro system (does it take you anywhere useful at all?) and somebody tried to feel me up in the sweaty bus (probably looking for my purse) which as it turned out also didn’t take me anywhere useful at all.

    The other big problem with Bucharest is the citizens. Very few of them actually like their city, which is a bit discouraging when you’ve spent the time and money to get there, only to be told by a native that it was a waste. ‘How about hope you’re enjoying your holiday!’ Instead of ‘I bet you’re having a terrible time here aren’t you?’ Few things worse for a tourist than basically being told; welcome to hell…

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    1. Well… it depends… if you never seen hell before you might enjoy it as a tourist. You might not enjoy it as a local though… :))
      Personally I enjoy the city. And I’m a local.
      I do (of course) know some of its secrets and precious resources: the best mititei in town, the best papanasi in town, pizza delivery at night, what are the best hours to drive around the city, how to minimize various spendings, what areas and people to avoid, where I can have some [more or less legal] fun etc…
      I think the city would be dead without its small secrets. Obviously as a visitor you can’t find them written anywhere so you might not enjoy your visit :))

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    2. The metro is almost useless for visitors, but the rest of the public transport system has improved a lot. It can still be very crowded in rush hour but at other times it is a good way of getting around. There is even a map of all routes now, posted at most main stops.

      As for Bucharest’s wonderful people not liking their city… very few of the people who live here are actually from Bucharest. Many are from the provinces and come with all sorts of baggage and prejudice.

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  2. Avoiding the expensive taxis at Otopeni airport is similar to avoiding the guys who [used to] sell Gulu-Gulu and Coca Cola priced 6 times more expensive than in the supermarket, unde the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
    Not sure if they still sell today but 10 years ago they used to sell :))
    Anyone knows if you can still buy Gulu-Gulu from the guys under the Eiffel Tower in Paris?

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  3. Bucharest should be visited in springtime, in order to avoid a) the dirtly melted snow and freezing cold of the six-month winters and b) the sweaty& dusty summers when 1/4 of the population could use some soap.
    Blooming trees and chirping birds might distract visitors of all sorts, foreign or not, and encourage them to believe this is actually a nice city, with nice people, with lots to offer…

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  4. I am in Budapest for a multi-day corporate photo shoot and let’s just say that Budapest is not Bucharest. Neighbors they may be, but something went wrong in Bucharest circa 1984 when Ceausescu leveled the historic center of Bucharest. Correct me if I am wrong, but Bucharest is usually an off the beaten path location. I mean I never expected an easy ride when I decided to move the city. It is not the West, so visitors should expect an adventure, not a globalized Western or even Central European city. Bucharest is about the challenge, not about feeling at home. If you want to experience old Europe but feel safe and comfortable, then go to Poland and the Czech Republic.

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      1. To quote a famous dead paedophile: “Hello Budapest!”

        They sound a bit similar so people get them mixed up. I have even heard stories of people flying to the wrong one having got snarled up in some cheap flight website. Which would be a wonderful surprise if you were heading to Bucharest and had done a bit of advance reading about it.

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  5. Despite being an old article, I find it very interesting, simply because I can recap how many things have improved since it was written. Now, we have a tourist office in the Universitate underground passage (granted, it’s closed on week-ends, which is a shame), we got rid of rogue taxis even at Gara de Nord (the main train station), and locals have started doing walking tours (disclaimer: I’m one of them). The metro system is improving and is actually expanding as we speak. Personally, I find it to be the most convenient way to get around Bucharest, but it does have a bit of learning curve (as with all other transportation systems in major cities).
    Louise’s comment struck me in particular, and unfortunately it is still true today: many of Bucharest’s inhabitants deeply hate their city (and do not understand it — usually because they’ve just moved to it from somewhere else). I think this is why Bucharest looks the way it looks and it treats tourists the way it does. Curiously, the minority of people who truly love their city are people who have lived abroad and have decided to come back. I’m one of them.

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    1. My family has lived in Bucharest for several generations. I’m pretty sure I’m among a minority of Bucharesters that can honestly say they have grandparents and even great-grandparents which were born and/or lived here.

      Growing up I used to hear a lot of stories about Bucharest and life here throughout most of the previous century. The horse-drawn streetcars that still existed 80-90 years ago. How the king’s day parades looked to my then teenage grandmother. The 1940 earthquake and how the Carlton building fell. The World War 2 bombings; the roar of the quad-engined American bombers and howl of German Stukas. Soviet troops marching into the city. My grandfather, the Bucharest police officer. My grandparents’ flower farm in Vacaresti. Growing up in 60s Bucharest. The ‘tea parties’ (ceaiuri) of the 70s. How my mom had no idea the ’77 earthquake happened until she got home because she was in a tram at the time of the quake and didn’t feel a thing. The place where my parents first met. The dark 80s. The ’89 Revolution or whatever that was; hearing Ceausescu’s final speech from the Palace Square (now the Revolution Square). The ‘terrorist’ threat. The 1990 University Square protests and the subsequent ‘mineriad’. My own memories of exploring a city that seemed like a huge playground to the 8 or 9 year old me.

      It’s where I was born. It’s where I grew up. It’s where I fell in love for the first time. It’s where I kissed a girl for the first time. It’s where my family has buried its dead for generations.

      I’m sure this city would be far better if more people loved it at least as much as I do. Unfortunately a great deal of its inhabitants take an almost sadistic pleasure in espousing hatred at the very city they live in while making absolutely no effort to make it a better place to live in or, at the very least, not make it worse.

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