In a city filled with historic monuments and landmarks, it’s hard to imagine that Bucharest is the location of the world’s newest Old Town. You’d never guess that those stones were only laid down in 2011 as you stroll down the cobblestone-paved streets. What is now a hip, nightlife-infused hub of Eastern Europe was a derelict and dangerous district of Romania’s capital at the turn of the 21st century.
The History of the World’s Newest Old Town
The buildings in the historic center of Bucharest, locally known as the Old City, date back hundreds of years. Vlad’s fortress was built in the 14th century, and there is possible evidence that there were structures here before that.
Having emerged from a communistic era in 1989 which saw the demolition of over 10,000 homes in order to build the second-largest administrative building in the world – the Palace of the Parliament – Bucharest is on a campaign to place themselves squarely on the map as the next big tourist destination. And they are succeeding.
One of the first steps of that campaign was the designation of the “Old Town” in the heart Bucharest, essentially commercializing the Old City. Centered around Lipscani Street, dozens of pubs, clubs, cafes and accommodations have opened up just in the past few years.
There’s nothing in the Old Town which would merit a UNESCO designation, such as the Old Town of Sighisoara, Romania. Yet the cobblestone paths are only the beginning. Iron-wrought street lamps line the lanes, cafe terraces which would look right at home in Paris serve delicious espressos, and baroque, art deco and other architecture styles are everywhere.
Carturesti Carusel, where I sit right now writing this blog post, is a fantastically gorgeous bookstore and cafe located in a beautifully restored 19th century building. I never claim to be expert at architecture, but the curvy lines and modern design of this place puts it in the list of my favorite cafes and bookshops in the world.
The newest Old Town is far from complete, and many buildings are either barred from entry due to structural hazards, or have beams holding them up. Several properties are available to purchase, and new restaurants and shops are opening up all the time. Unfortunately, the sushi restaurant across from my hostel closed down just before I arrived. (Sad face)
Food and Lodging
There are dozens of restaurants, cafes, pubs, and clubs to eat at in the Old Town. While not as cheap as Albania, this is still a cheap region of Europe. A good meal and drink will only put you back about $5-7.
The first place I ate at in the Old Town was Food Hood, and it still remains my favorite. Rather than a single restaurant, Food Hood is a collection of street food stalls, ranging from hamburgers, pizzas, and fish and chips. The prices are great, and the ambiance is even better. Choose the small tables to sit at on one side, or the beach setting on the other. On weekend nights, there is a hidden stage off to the side which rocks the open air with local music and dancing. Personal recommendation: Centru double burger at the burger truck.
Next to the Food Hood is a small kebab serving chicken, pork, lamb and falafel sandwiches for only $4 each. The portions are big and the meat is delicious. I’ve been back several times, and I’ve since found that it’s a local favorite. This place always has a line, but it moves quickly. Personal recommendation: lamb kebab.
A friend brought me here, saying they had the best papanasi (Romanian dessert) in town. While I’ve yet to get around to trying the papanasi (since we forgot to order it), I went back the next morning for their breakfast, and stayed for lunch! Their happy hour is from 10 am to 4 pm, and both meals with drinks cost me a whopping $10. The WiFi is great (as it is everywhere in Romania, which has the fastest internet in Europe) and the atmosphere was nice. At night it gets loud as one of the more popular restaurants in the Old Town. Even though they have three large spaces to eat in, we were lucky to get the last available table. Personal recommendation: bacon cheeseburger.
This iconic restaurant is hailed as the oldest restaurant in the Old Town. The building was originally built in 1898 and the lavish interior has been beautifully restored. Locals fill the terrace tables everyday, and at 1:30 pm a string quartet performs in the center of the restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant substantiated the claim several locals gave me regarding the substandard level of hospitality in Romania. In truth, the waiter was terrible. The food wasn’t really anything to write home about and the prices are a little higher than average, but at least you get to say you ate at the oldest restaurant in the world’s newest Old Town. Personal recommendation: none, but the restaurant recommends the pork knuckle. Be warned, it feeds four. Most portions in the restaurant are plenty for two people.
While most of the accommodations in Bucharest are located outside the Old Town, Pura Vida Hostel has two properties located right in the center. With large rooms and friendly staff, the hostel is the perfect location if you’re looking to spend a lot of time in the Old Town. Dorms and private rooms are both available. Spend time lounging on the colorful chairs outside, or watch the sunset from the balcony. Make sure you book in advance, especially for summer weekends. Perhaps you’ll even see me working there this summer!
Aside from food, you can also purchase clothing, books and other items in the Old Town. While a glass-fronted H&M is decidedly out of place, there are many first- and second-hand clothing shops available. Many of side streets have hand-crafted apparel and trinkets, and a lady out front of the Pura Vida hostel is always selling Romanian souvenirs.
Because it deserves it, I have to mention Carturesti Carusel again. Although they are a bit pricey, this bookstore offers far more than just books. The basement is full of CDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays and board games. The ground floor has all kinds of souvenirs, satchels (a Moleskin laptop bag which I’m dying to purchase) and the largest selection of teas I’ve ever seen in one location. The first floor (second to you Americans) has a section of English books if you’re still working on your Romanian, and the second floor has a kids section. I’m still sitting here on the third floor in the cafe with a building-wide skylight and my cup of cappuccino.
There are plenty of things to do in the Old Town. Daily, several tours leave from outside Pura Vida hostel, including the Bucharest Slow Bike Tour and several Urban Adventure walking tours. I always say a walking tour is the first thing you should do in a new city, and Bucharest is no exception.
Pura Vida also puts on several events, in conjunction with Experience Bucharest. My personal favorite is the Saturday Night street party, where you can jump into the traditional Romanian dances, or just go wild with the contemporary hits.
In the southern part of town, you can see an old church, and next to that is the 15th-century medieval fortress of Vlad the Impaler, more commonly known as Dracula.
Or you can simply enjoy all the street musicians who line the streets. Some are really good, but there’s one old guy who has cornered his…corner in one of the squares. He plays an electric violin day after day to the same couple of songs, and he becomes furious if you dare to take a photo without a commensurate donation. See for yourself.
While most European capitals draw tourists due to their longevity as an established cultural hub, Bucharest is the hip, younger sibling. Whether it can still call itself Little Paris or something new, I see the world’s newest Old Town putting Bucharest on the map as a world-class travel destination. Will you be putting it on your itinerary of Europe? I hope you do, and I’ll stick around until the end of the year to welcome you!
Planning to Visit Romania?
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.