The Very Best Way to See Bucharest

So I’ve been in Bucharest for about a month and a half as this post goes live. I wrote my first impressions of Bucharest shortly after arriving, which noted a number of the city’s pros:

  • one of the cheapest capital cities in Europe
  • getting around is easier than I thought
  • the tap water’s drinkable and the internet’s fast

One of the biggest cons, if you’d like to call it that, is how much of the Communist legacy continues to exist. A tourist to Bucharest can too easily ignore the empty buildings and overgrown lots in favor of the parts of the Old Town that have catered to tourists… If you restrict your travels to the Old Town and the more developed areas of Bucharest, you’ll miss a huge part of the story.

We recently took an excellent “Tour of Communism“, along with a “Jewish Trail” tour, that helps to fill in some of those gaps (full disclosure: I went on these tours for free for reviewing purposes). The tour guide, Marius, is both old enough to remember the Communist era but young enough to have a wonderful, optimistic sense of the country’s future. It covers the complete period of Communism in Romania from its origins in the early 20th century to the revolution in 1989, and also gets into the legacy of Communism.

One of the biggest questions I had (“why are so many buildings abandoned, falling out, or not being developed?”) was also one of the first answers the tour guide offered. In essence, legal battles between the people that lived in the building before the Communists seized the property versus the people that lived in the building during the Communist era. These are ongoing, even years later, and can stretch out even longer. The result is that there’s no incentive to develop or fix up the property until the legal disputes are resolved, which scares off investors expecting a clear title.

The starting point of the tour of Communism in Bucharest

The tour starts at the ‘religious heart of Romania’ as seen above, and this is where you’ll learn about the attack in 1920 that put Communism on the Romanian map. The Orthodox Christian church is the religion in Romania, though finding the genuinely devout is a more challenging mission…

One of the churches on the tour of Communism in Bucharest, Romania.

During the Communist era, a number of churches were set to be demolished to make way for new apartment buildings (or to discourage the practice of religion). This is one that was literally put on train tracks and moved hundreds of meters. It’s still surrounded by those now-decades-old apartment buildings, and there’s a whole story about removing the religion from the public eye was part of the design.

A look at the destruction during the tour of Communism in Bucharest, Romania.

The city of Bucharest, bulldozed or demolished en masse during the Communist era. This was considered the biggest destruction of land during a time of peace.

A shell of a building, seen during the tour of Communism in Bucharest, Romania.

Bucharest has more than a few buildings like this one — apparently abandoned, or with very little inside. The facade has been partially restored, but the funding to continue the project has yet to come. With perhaps thousands of buildings across the city, this is a fairly common story. During the Jewish tour, we also heard about the systematic ways used to ‘encourage’ Jews to leave Romania, and were told that empty lots today were most likely a Jewish house burnt to the ground.

The tour continues with a chance to try some Communist-era snacks, and ultimately concludes at the city’s Revolution Square, near the old town. The history presents some uncomfortable truths that have yet to be truly dealt with, but I cannot recommend this tour highly enough.

Directions and details

The tour of Communism is a three-hour tour, and starts at 2:30pm on Tuesdays and Saturdays from the bell tower of the Patriarchy in the central part of town. For more information, see tourofcommunism.com/

 

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