You Need to Visit (or Move!) to Romania This Year. Here’s Why
You’ve heard of Transylvania, right? Home of Dracula? In reality, Transylvania is a region in Romania, where almost no one heard of Dracula – a novel imported from the UK – until Communism fell in 1989. Today in Romania you can find vampire tours, but this country of medieval villages and cobblestone streets has a lot more to offer.
On the Postcard Academy podcast, Debbie Stowe, a British journalist and author of the Culture Smart! Essential Guide to Romania, talks about why you should visit – or maybe even move to – Romania this year. She’s lived in Bucharest, the capital, since 2002, and shares her insider tips on the best places to eat, and fun things to do, when visiting the ‘Paris of the East’ and beyond. Subscribe to the podcast to hear the whole story (Apple podcasts | Stitcher | Google Play).
Where is Romania?
Romania is in Southeastern Europe, surrounded by Bulgaria, Hungary, Moldova, Ukraine, Serbia, and the Black Sea. Americans know little about this country or associate it with Olympic gold medalist Nadia Comăneci. Europeans, at least in the U.K., tend to look down on this former communist state (read why here).
So why is Romania the next big thing for expats and travelers wanting to get off the beaten path?
• You can live well for $1,000 a month. This could mean living in the heart of Bucharest, taking taxis when you want, eating out regularly. The average salary is $500 a month, so if you’re digital-nomading it from a wealthier country you could live quite high here.
• Romania has a strong tech scene. Interestingly, communism contributed to this. The former regime didn’t want critical thinkers who might revolt, so education focused on science and math. Women had to work in Communist Romania, and, as a result, today more girls study IT or a related field in Romania than any other European country, and women hold 1/3 of the tech jobs.
• Bucharest is buzzing. Many cities have been called the ‘Paris of the East.’ Bucharest earned this title after King Carol brought over French architects to beautify the city between the World Wars. Unfortunately, during the Communist years, dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu destroyed a good percent of the old town on a building frenzy that starved his people. Bucharest fell into ruin for decades, but integration into the E.U. has given it a massive overhaul. Business is booming and you’ll find a great nightlife and cultural scene here.
• The landscape offers something for everyone. Beaches, mountains – what’s your pleasure? History buffs will love the castles and UNESCO sites scattered about the country.
What to do in Bucharest
The Little Paris of the East is a walkable city, so you don’t need a car, and cultural fun is cheap or free. “This is one of the best things about living there,” Debbie says. “The cinema, the opera, the theater, they’re all so affordable and accessible. I think in the West sometimes things like theater and opera are seen as elitist pursuits. But in Romania, there’s not really a class system that’s comparable because of how the country’s developed, so these things are just seen as open to everyone and they’re quite affordable.” Check out:
• The People’s Palace. A visit to North Korea inspired Ceauşescu to build this insane vanity project, which contributed to the Romanian Revolution that ended with his execution on Christmas Day. Only the Pentagon is larger than this Pyongyang-esque building, which today houses parliament and a few museums. But the majority of its 1,000+ rooms are empty. Tours are available.
• The Athenaeum. While the People’s Palace is the symbol of Bucharest, many Romanians hate its history and would prefer that this neoclassical concert hall represent their home. “It’s the most beautiful public building in the city and there are concerts there every week,” Debbie says. “Again, it’s very affordable and worth going in because the concert hall has these great murals and it’s just lovely and plush and historical.”
• The architecture. “Because of how the city developed – the old city was partly raised by Ceausescu to build blocks of flats – you’ll find an ugly Communist block next to a beautiful art deco villa that survived, and that could be next to a beautiful church and then another awful Communist monstrosity,” Debbie says. “The whole city is a bit of a mishmash.”
• The Village Museum. Located near Herastrau Park, this museum has brought together a collection of houses from all over Romania. “They put them in this huge open-air site adjacent to the park,” Debbie says. “It’s as if you’re walking through a Romanian village and you can see how the architectural styles differ in nearby periods and by region.”
• Live music. In the summer, you’ll find festivals and classical music outdoors. If you like jazz, check out Jazz Book and Green Hours. “And then another place that is very popular with expats is MoJo's, which is a big pub in the old town,” Debbie says. “They have a pub quiz, comedy nights in English, and live music and karaoke.”
• Theater. Historically, it’s been a challenge for non-Romanian speakers to enjoy plays because of the language barrier. However, some theaters, like the Odeon, can offer subtitles in English if you give a few days notice.
What other towns should I visit in Romania?
Romania is made up of three principalities that came together about 100 years ago. Once part of Hungary, Transylvania is now a region of Romania. There’s a separatist movement in some areas, where you’ll only hear the Hungarian language spoken. And then there is the beauty of the cultivated landscapes, which the rest of the world can learn from, according to Prince Charles, who owns property here. “They have a spiritual but also social, economical and ecological significance. Does this thing matter, in today’s cynical times, when there is the so-called obsession of efficiency and convenience? Yes, it does matter, because the essential is in these landscapes where man still lives in harmony with nature.”
Leaving from Bucharest, your first major stop in Transylvania is Brasov, a beautiful mountain city in the Southern Carpathians. “Bucharest is very flat, so it’s a total change of scenery and there are cobblestones and medieval architecture,” Debbie says. “It’s just a really nice city for a walking around and café culture.” If you want to eat there, try long-time favorite Bella Muzica, which is in the cellar of a hotel. “You could also try, La Ceaun which is good in winter because the soups and the stews and the pies are very good,” Debbie says.
Make the day trip to Bran Castle, because how can you not go to Dracula's castle? Then head further into Transylvania past Brasov to Sighișoara, a medieval fortified city and UNESCO World Heritage Site. From there, you can head to Mediaș, which has one of the most well-preserved historical centers in Romania. If you have time and you want to go further north, there’s Maramures Bucovina, famous for churches and monasteries.
An hour from Mediaș, you’ll find yourself in Sibiu, the 2007 European Capital of Culture. “So it had a lot of investments and there was a lot of cultural activity there,” Debbie says. “It’s also home to some 45 churches on the UNESCO list.”
From Bucharest, if you head east instead of heading to Brasov, you’ll head to the Danube Delta, another World Heritage Site and the best preserved delta in Europe. So get the binoculars ready all you birdwatchers!
The Black Sea coast has its charms but, “a lot of Romanians would prefer to go to the Black Sea coast in Bulgaria because they think you get better service there and it’s cheaper. But if you’re there for a week and it’s summer, then you might want to see how Romanians party. If it’s winter, then the Prahova Valley is great for skiing.”
What to eat in Romania
Debbie has a vivid memory of the Christmas pig roast she attended in the village of Sibiel. “They take the skin off and then they roast it very lightly, and then you eat it straight away. It has been a poor country, so peasant cuisine is quite dominant, it’s quite meaty.”
The former Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires have influenced Romanian cuisine, which, thankfully for us vegetarians, also includes fresh vegetables. Here are some foods you should try while in Romania:
• Salata de vinete – Eggplant (aubergine) salad. “A westerner would probably eat it on toast, it’s a sort of sandwich paste and really, really tasty.” Zacuscă is a similar vegetarian sandwich spread made of vegetables.
• Ciorbă de burtă – Tripe soup. “It’s offal – the animal’s innards. Some Romanians swear by it, and apparently it’s a good hangover cure, but I'm not sure about that.
• Mămăligă – Polenta. “That goes with most things as a sort of starchy a compliment.”
• Covrigii – A pretzel-like bagel snack. Vendors sell them from kiosks in the morning. “They’re very warm, and they’re doughy. You can have them with seeds on it or sometimes with fillings, and it is just a really great street food.”
The food is fresh and organic in Romania, even if it’s not labeled as such.
Romanians like to drink, but they don’t get obviously drunk like they do in the UK, Debbie says (check out Culture Shock! A Brit in Romania).
During family celebrations, people toast with the national drink ţuică, a plum brandy. When it comes to everyday drinking, Romanians choose beer or wine, a growing industry in a country that has a terroir similar to France. “The industry was heavily affected by communism, when the land was the collectivized and parceled off. That was a really big problem for the industry to recover from afterwards, so it's still developing, but there is a culture of people making their own wine.”
Check out the wineries in Prahova Valley.
Where can I shop in Bucharest?
Debbie compared the main shopping streets to London’s Oxford and Bond streets.
“Migeru, that's the Oxford Street, so that’s the mainstream, quite affordable shops, and there are clothes shops and knick-knacks, and bric-a-brac, and makeups shops, and all that sort of thing. Calea Victoriei is like Bond Street, so that's your high-end boutiques, jewelry stores and really fancy clothes shops that might sell just like one rack of clothes.”
For quirky shops that survived gentrification, explore the Lipscani district in the historical center. If markets are your thing, check out Obor market. Love books? Head to one of the Carturesti locations, which have foreign selections and cozy cafes.
Do they tip in Romania?
Yes, more so than in the U.K., less so than the U.S. (Why can’t the world get rid of tipping already and end this global confusion?). “So you would tip in restaurants, you tip in a taxi. Sometimes you might even leave the change if it’s a small amount in a supermarket, which in the UK you wouldn't think of doing,” Debbie says. “Round up, so if your taxi fare is 7 lei, you you probably need 10 lei. You probably wouldn't leave less than 10-15%.”
What currency do they use in Romania?
They use the Romanian leu (plural lei).
What culture tips should I know before going to Romania?
If you go into someone’s house, take off your shoes but feel free to light a cigarette. If you give flowers, don’t give an odd number because that’s what you take to a funeral. Romanians speak bluntly, don’t say please and thank you quite as much as Westerners, and tend to speak loudly. It doesn’t mean they're being aggressive toward you. Have fun!!
If you found this article useful, please share it, and subscribe to the Postcard Academy podcast. Each week, expats and adventurers share their insider travel tips on the best food, nightlife, and cultural experiences in the most interesting places around the globe. I’m your host, Sarah Mikutel, an American who's spent the last 7 years living in, and traveling around, Europe.