There was a time when the only Romanian destination travellers wanted to visit was Transylvania. Stories of blood-thirsty vampires were the reigning draw for tourism, while much of the rest of the country remained relatively unexplored. Today, Transylvania still tends to get the bulk of the fame and glory, but the capital city of Bucharest is emerging as a place to visit, especially for travellers who want something more from their Euro trip than just the standard cities.
We asked traveller and professional couchsurfer Celinne Da Costa to share her thoughts on this underrated destination. Here are some of her favourite findings about the place they call “Little Paris.”
The origins of the “Little Paris” nickname date back to the middle of the 19th century, when Romania was trying to gain independence from the Ottoman Empire. At that point, the empire was weakening and didn’t have enough soldiers for surveillance and exercise control. Bucharest seized this opportunity to unofficially change its aesthetic to look more like a European city — showing to the world that it considered itself European rather than Turkish or Muslim.
Bucharest began revamping its look by inviting many architects from Paris. The French continued to have an influence on the city after the reign of King Carol I. As a result, many wealthy sent their children to Paris to study, who would later return to Bucharest and further infuse Parisian inspiration to the city.
Fun fact that very few people know: the French connection came by way of the Russian army stationed in Bucharest for the Russian-Turkish war. The official language in the tsar’s courts and in the officer corps was French and not Russian, a language considered fit only for the peasants. | Photo by Celinne Da Costa
A view of a small church in the Armenian mahala. Mahalas are small ethnic or trade groups (mostly both) that populate Bucharest, especially before World War II. Bucharest had a heavy presence of Armenian and Jewish mahalas, which has now dissipated.
The Jewish community in Bucharest used to be 11% before World War II and, after the genocide and the Romanian dictator shipped those remaining to Israel, it has been reduced to around 3,000. Armenians, on the other hand, used to be a very powerful community during the Ottoman Empire since Muslims were not allowed to do any type of financing. However, following the fall of the empire, many Armenians left in the beginning of the 20th century.
Over 40% of Bucharest was destroyed after World War II by American and German bombings, leaving these mahalas in a much reduced and damaged condition. | Photo by Celinne Da Costa
A view of Dealul Mitropoliei church, the biggest Orthodox church in Bucharest. I’ve learned that in addition to being religious, Romanians are very superstitious, especially in the countryside. I heard many stories during my visit of popular legends, myths, and beliefs that are still widely practiced today.
Some popular ones include: never go under a ladder, it’s bad luck; if a black cat crosses your way, take three steps back and spit three times; don’t whistle in the house or you will lose money; don’t pay bills on Monday or you will keep paying money for the rest of the week; if you leave home in the morning and realised you left something in the house, don’t turn back otherwise your day will go horribly.
The one I found most interesting was the belief that garlic has magical powers and can cure many ailments, including those that are supernatural. Apparently, some people living in the villages still put big rows of garlic in their homes to protect them from evil spirits like strigoi, which is a combination between a ghost and a vampire. | Photo by Celinne Da Costa
A view of one of the many abandoned houses in Bucharest. Residences in the city were confiscated from the wealthy by the communist regime for 50+ years. Many continue abandoned because original owners could spend as long as 20 years trying to get them back, fighting for them in the courts, only to have them returned completely damaged. It’s illegal to change the facade of the building or tear it down within the city centre without permission from the government since it’s a protected area. And so, some owners have decided to let the houses decompose (even inviting squatters in to accelerate the process) to the point where they need to be demolished — leaving behind very expensive land which they can finally build on or sell. | Photo by Celinne Da Costa
No matter how wealthy or poor you are in Bucharest, “peasant’ food is still considered the best that you have. That is, food that is grown locally by the peasants. Food in Bucharest is surprisingly fresh. Market food especially is organic (since the growers can’t afford to spray chemicals on the food), fresh (usually picked the same day), and local (from nearby farms). Most vegetables come from around Bucharest as the land near the Danube is very good for growing, and the meat comes from Transylvania. | Photo by Celinne Da Costa
A look into the eyes of Sergiu, who was formerly homeless Romanian child turned Urban Adventures guide.The somber and enlightening tour he gave me through Bucharest was unlike any that I experienced. I learned about the harsh realities of homeless people in Bucharest, and how from childhood they are set up for this path.
Conditions in Romanian orphanages are terrible, causing many of the children to run away for a life in the streets. During communism, being homeless was denied, and so anyone who couldn’t or wouldn’t go to work would be punished. Even today, the homeless lack credibility in the eyes of authorities, are poorly treated, even beaten.
Even so, some persevere. As Sergiu eloquently put it: “It depends on you. If you want, you can succeed.” Though love and support is important, it’s not enough: many also need minimum financial support in order to learn how to get out of the street. | Photo by Celinne Da Costa
I found myself in Romania by pure serendipity. As I was looking for people to host me in Europe for my couchsurfing trip around the world, it just so happened that quite a few offered me hospitality in Romania. Out of convenience more than desire, I decided to see what Romania was about.