Updated on February 24th, 2020
Bucharest in winter may just be even better than the summertime and especially around Christmas. Imagine long streets glowing with fairy lights, Christmas holograms covering giant communist-style buildings, 3 large Christmas markets and outdoor ice-skating rinks. Along with the usual attractions, allow at least 3 days to see everything here.
When we first arrived in Bucharest after a couple of buses from Plovdiv in Bulgaria, we couldn’t stop staring at how huge the buildings were. On top of their massive size, they were completely covered by holograms of candy canes, Santa hats and holly leaves. I knew I’d arrived in the Christmas city of my dreams.
The strong communist past is apparent with the dominating buildings that go with the era, but these are contrasted with beautiful old palaces and a spiderwebbing old town.
The capital of Romania is quieter than it’s western neighbours but this won’t last for long. Add a weekend getaway to Bucharest in winter now and follow my tips on the best things to do in the city.
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13 Terrific Things to do in Bucharest in the Winter
1. Join a free walking tour
Firstly, begin your stay with a free walking tour to orient yourself in the city and learn about its historic past. While there are a couple of companies, I would recommend the Bucharest Walkabout Free Tours. There are two tour options; ‘The Story of Bucharest Romania’ and ‘The Royal Century’. Both tours run daily in English at 10:30 am and the Story of Bucharest Romania runs in Spanish 3x a week. Check their website for current days.
I choose to do the story tour and met the guide at 10:30 in Piata Unirii Park. (On the way I got surrounded by a gang of 5-year-old’s – no joke. Read more about that experience and more travel highlights). Although it was winter there were still around 40 people in the group. I thought at first that might be a problem, but the guide managed to keep us in a tight circle and there was never a time when I couldn’t hear him.
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I highly recommend this tour to new arrivals – The tour lasts for 2.5 hours and you will learn a lot about the history of the city and also about ‘Dracula’ whose character comes from Vlad the Impaler. The guide was really captivating and if you miss the 10:30 tour there is also one at 3 pm. If you hang around until the end of the tour you will be given a free map of the city and a discount card.
Tip: It’s important to wear warm clothes as there is a lot of standing around listening to the guide.
Another great tour to join is a 3-hour communist history tour. I was blown away by the city’s communist past and wanted to learn as much as I could about it.
2. Admire the Old Town buildings
Without trying, a walk around the city will have you marvelling at the ornate buildings within the small Old Town. The Old Town is all that stands after the city’s tragic past. During World War II Bucarest was devastated by frequent bombings of the city. Afterwards, in the communist-era dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu knocked down a lot of the remaining historical buildings. Prior to this back in the 17th century, Bucharest was a centre for merchant traders and saw many travelling caravans passing through en route to other destinations.
Some points of interest are Manuc’s Inn (Hanul lui Manuc) built in the 1800s by an American grain merchant to house travelling caravans on their trade route. This is a great place for you to see original wooden pavers, just look down as you enter.
I believe the most impressive building is the CEC Palace Bank which is located on Calea Victoriei. Its distinguishing feature is the grand central glass dome on the roof. A French architect designed this and 50 other buildings in Bucharest Romania. Also within the Old Town are many churches which have undergone complete recent restorations. For instance, the Stavropoleos Church with intricately detailed walls and the Biserica Sfântul Anton which is said to be the oldest standing building in Bucharest.
3. Take time to walk around the Palace of the Parliament
The palace of the Parliament was built during the communist rule of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. This building is huge and must be seen in person for the full effect. It is the second-largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon, the heaviest overall and most expensive administrative building (valued at $3 billion USD).
To gain an idea of the size of this building, it would take 45 minutes to walk around it. There are 8 high ceilinged levels below the ground and a carpark which fits 20,000 cars! It is said there are tunnels underground which links all major areas of the city – most of which are kept secret.
If you are interested in learning more about the palace of the parliament there are tours which run through the interior. Within the building, you can find the National Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of the Palace and the Museum of Communist Totalitarianism.
4. Visit the Christmas markets
Now for my most favourite part of Europe in winter; wander through the Bucharest Christmas Markets. It’s the only place in the city where you’ll experience a pleasant sensory overload. From delicious smells like sweet Nutella crepes and baked sugary treats to delectable tastes of traditional Romanian salami and scovearga (traditional pies), warming mulled wine (called vin fiert – so keep an eye out for these signs). The sounds of Christmas carols, children’s laughter and local and renowned Romanian acts on the large stage. Then feast your eyes upon the 23 km of fairy lights erected around the city, buildings with projected Christmas images and Christmas trees taller than houses and you’ll have yourself a very merry Bucharesti Christmas.
Bucharest Christmas markets 2019 dates and times
The main market is located at Constitution Square from November 30th to December 26th and opens from 10 am to 10 pm daily. I visited 3 times during my trip at different times of the day. I love seeing the markets and how they change throughout the day and night. Find out more about the 3 most magical Christmas markets in Romania.
A very magical time is right before sunset when there is still enough light in the sky and all the fairy lights are just being switched on.
For a different kind of market, visit Piata Obor, one of Romania’s oldest produce markets.
5. Go ice-skating
Another of the best parts about Bucharest in winter is the ice-skating rink opens up. Grab some skates and test out your skating ability at one of the 3 outdoor skating rinks. Whatever your age and whether you’ve been skating for years or have never tried before there is something special about getting on an outdoor rink in the cold weather. One is located in the Christmas Markets at Constitution Square, another located in Piata Unirii Park and the largest is in Cismigiu Gardens.
6. Wander through Cismigiu Gardens
I was lucky enough to be staying a couple of streets from the Cismigiu Gardens and detoured through here on my way into the city each day. The gardens are adorned with Christmas decorations during the winter months which light up at night. It is a wonderful place to visit day and night. Long winding paths curve throughout the park with chairs lining the edges to remind you to take a break and keep the pace at a casual meander.
The large lake in winter has been drained but in its place is an ice skating rink. After some time wandering the paths, stop by the restaurant located in the middle overlooking the lake for a bite to eat or a warming coffee.
If you like parks, Bucharest Romania is a beautiful green city. Just check out any map to see how many green sections there are. Herăstrău Park is located 6 km north of the old town and is the largest park in Bucharest. Consequently, there are plenty of walking trails, restaurants and cafes inside.
7. Check out the street art on Arthur Verona Street
Every year in Bucharest the Street Delivery Festival creates a new large artwork on Arthur Verona Street. During the festival, a section of the street gets blocked and food and drink stalls are put up. Grab a beer and watch the artists paint a large side of a building. There are also some smaller pieces on the opposite side of the road. If you are interested in the street art scene in Bucharest check out Street Art 360 and The Occasional Traveller blog for more locations.
8. Visit Carturesti Carusel Bookstore
I love bookstores and libraries. Usually, the older the better but the modern white interior of Carturesti Carusel is beautiful. Bucharest in winter can get cold, so why not pop inside, find a good book and warm-up.
There are three levels of books and two levels of gifts and miscellaneous items in a completely white store. This unique bookstore is well worth a look whether you are after a new novel or not. There are plenty of books in English and the top floor houses a little cafe which has surprisingly affordable prices.
9. Drink delicious coffee
Bucharest has a great coffee scene. As in excellent! After travelling through Turkey and Bulgaria and really needing to search to find a good cup of coffee it was a pleasant change to walk around Bucharest and be confronted with specialty coffee stores on every second corner. I am a big fan of the Bean Hunter app. The first thing I did when I arrived in the city was open my go-to app.
Are you a digital nomad? Pure Wander has created a list of Bucharest’s best cafes that also serve as a great place to do some work.
The top-ranked cafe on the app is The Coffee Factory which is located right next to the Cismigiu Gardens. The second best rated is Origio which turned out to be my favourite. Not too far from the old town, this small cafe is easy to miss if you’re not looking out for it.
The day I visited there were two options for the roast of the day; the rich chocolatey bean or the light fruity option. Most importantly, each coffee is smooth, delicious and creamy and served with a glass of water. Don’t expect to sit and do any work here though as no laptops are allowed inside.
10. See Bucharest’s Arc de Triumf
To the north of the city is Romania’s very own Arc de Triumf. Built for troops to march under after Romania gained independence in 1878, this monument has been restored times over to signify the victorious moments in the countries history. As with the Paris Arc de Triomphe, it has a similar design and is located in the centre of a boulevard.
Fun fact: There are a lot of similarities between the Romanian and the French language. According to my guide on the walking tour, 30% of the Romanian language has been derived from French.
11. Experience the nightlife of Bucharest in winter
As you walk around the old town admiring the buildings you will notice the main streets are a haven for cheap bars and neon signs which resemble a red light district. Bars open during the day, whereas clubs don’t kick off until around midnight. Don’t let the red light district throw you off as that is just a small part of the old town. You can also find typical Irish pubs, rooftop terraces and hipster bars within the area.
If you’re travelling solo and want to find some friends to party with for the night join the Pub Crawl tour. This tour includes free entry to 4 or 5 bars in the old town with a shot in each one.
12. Join a tour in Bucharest
I loved the towns of Sibiu and Brasov. If you have the time, a visit to these cities is well worth a few days out of Bucharest. If you don’t have the time, consider joining the tour to Dracula’s Castle below.
13. Finally, visit the museums
As with most cities, Bucharest has a whole bunch of museums to suit any interest. Whether you’re after art, history, kitsch or something else you are sure to find it within the 60 museums located throughout the city.
A great activity for Bucarest in winter is to see as many of the museums that interest you. Closest to the city centre are the National History Museum, National Bank of Romania and the Art Collectors Museum. Further afield you can find the Peasant Museum, Geology Museum, National Military Museum and the National Technical Museum. For info and a list of the museums visit In Your Pocket.
Where to stay in Bucharest
The best place to stay in Bucharest in winter is close to the Old Town. From here you will be able to walk to most of the top things to do. If you would like something a bit quieter, move outwards from the Old Town a few streets and still be in a central location.
There are some great funky hostels in Bucharest which start at $7 USD for a dorm bed. Although not in the Old Town a friend stayed at Podstel Bucharest and loved it. They organise weekly events, group meals and are a great place for solo travellers. They have a cafe on-site and look really homey. Rated 9.1/10 on Booking. Check current rates here.
If you would like to be in the heart of the Old Town try the Sleep Inn Hostel. Although not rated the best for solo travellers, if you are travelling with someone this hostel could be your best bet. The hostel offers private and dorm rooms. Dorms start at $9 USD per night and get an 8.5/10 on Booking. Check current rates here.
I stayed at The River Studio which is a great little apartment 1km west of the Old Town. For $30 USD/night you have cooking appliances and a living area which looks out over Palace of the Parliament. Only 2 blocks from Cigmigiu Gardens and nearby supermarkets. If you are travelling with someone this is a nice alternative to staying in a hostel.
What else do you need to know about Bucharest?
Planning a trip to Bucharest? Check out this interactive map offered by Romania Tourism which shows hotels, museums and attractions.
Getting around: Bucharest uses uber which is a cheap alternative to taxies. Using uber is a great way of avoiding taxi scammers. Just download the app and put in your destination.
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Have you visited Bucharest in the winter? Let me know your favourite things to do in the comments below.