A Tourist's Practical Guide to Bucharest: city, airport, taxis & public transport

A Tourist's Practical Guide to Bucharest: city, airport, taxis & public transport

Are you planning to visit Bucharest? Booked a flight to Bucharest Otopeni Airport and want to know how to get to city centre? Want to know more about taxis, the metro, public transportation, safety and what Bucharest is like for tourists?

Stop looking somewhere else - you’ll find everything you need in this complete practical guide on how to visit Bucharest made with info and honest tips from locals who live here. And if there’s anything missing just let us know and we’ll tell you :)

This guide has the following parts:

  1. Introduction & why you should visit Bucharest
  2. Quick facts about Bucharest: the city, safety and when to visit
  3. Official tourism in Bucharest
  4. How to plan a trip in Bucharest
  5. Bucharest Otopeni Airport: how to get to the city & back
  6. Bucharest North Train Station - Gara de Nord
  7. Bucharest taxis: costs, tips, safety and apps to use
  8. Bucharest metro & public transport

Besides tons of useful info and local tips, each section has useful links that will make your trip to Bucharest stress free and easier to enjoy.


1. Introduction

Romania’s capital may not have the best reputation. Or any reputation at all, really. It’s still an undiscovered, lesser known travel destination that can seem rough on the edges for first-time visitors worried about tourist scams and safety. I’ll be honest - some of them are true and the city can be a challenge for travellers used to other European capitals. But just like any other major capital in the world, you shouldn’t judge only by its cover, first impressions or others’ opinions on the internet.

Bucharest is a lot more than that - if you know where to look!


It’s a city full of contrasts with a vibe of its own: Oriental influences, Balkan vibe and Western culture, all mixed with communist landscaping, ‘old world’ feeling and an undeniable lust-for-life Latin blood. It’s a combination unlike anything I’ve seen - only in Beirut I’ve seen a stronger cultural-clash of everything. And both have an amazing nightlife!

The hip and modern young generation blends with people who grew up in the communist years. Behind ugly, grey and tall communist building you can find hundred year old churches, steel and glass modern buildings or abandoned architectural beauties that speak of Bucharest’s royal years. Over the past 10 years the city transformed quite a lot so let me tell you how to explore this urban jungle.



2. Quick facts about Bucharest: the city, safety and when to visit

Bucharest is located in the Southern part of the country in the province known historically as Wallachia (Țara Românească). Situated on plains, the city is quite spread out and continuously expanding. It is divided into 6 districts (sectors 1-6) for administrative purposes, but it doesn’t matter where you choose to stay and public transport is not influenced by this. Don’t confuse Bucharest with Hungary’s capital, Budapest - both are equally interesting and worth visiting, but locals are very proud and annoyed when tourists confuse them!

Bucharest is just over 400 years old and has been Romania’s capital since 1859 making it one of the youngest among European capitals. With an official estimated population of 1,9 million (but much larger in reality thanks to students and commuters) it dwarfs the country’s second-largest city of Cluj-Napoca which has around 350,000 inhabitants.

Bucharest was once called Little Paris because it was heavily influenced by French culture and architecture during the 19-20th centuries, much like the rest of Romania’s urban class in those times. That changed when the communist regime came to power in 1948, eliminated the bourgeois class and deeply transformed the city’s layout and social composition.

Entire communist neighbourhoods such as Militari, Crangasi or Berceni were built from the ground up with towering apartment blocks to house factory workers. But even so, you can still find traces of the Little Paris feeling in some parts of Bucharest. Or you can go on a communism tour of Bucharest to find out how an entire neighbourhood was demolished to make space for Ceausescu’s egomaniac project, the Parliament Palace or House of People as he liked to call it, which is Bucharest’s most iconic building.


How safe is Bucharest for tourists? If you’re an informed traveller, generally cautious and not looking for trouble - pretty safe. Besides the usual tourist scams (stay away from anyone ‘offering’ their services or asking for help in an unusual way), pick pockets in crowded areas and rude taxi drivers, there’s nothing in particular seasoned travellers should be worried about. Solo female travellers should also feel safe, except for the occasional odd and long stares. As you will see, locals in Bucharest are very careful about appearances when going out and lots of stares are in fact ‘checking you out’ looks of admiration or curiosity.

Most importantly, there have been no terrorist incidents or threats and violence in the streets is very, very rare. No gun issues either. You may have heard of street protests in the media, but they’re peaceful and directed against our corrupt politicians. Here’s more about safety in Bucharest from this Irish travel blogger:


Weather in Bucharest is generally warm and pleasant. Like the rest of Romania, the climate is temperate-continental and all 4 seasons are still present. The best times to visit are during Spring (March - June) and Autumn (September - October) with averages of 15 - 25 Celsius, just right for walking in the city. Summers can get pretty hot (34 - 40 Celsius) and heatwaves are frequent, which makes air in the city pretty stale and unbearable without AC. Winters are generally frosty (below 0 degrees) and the amount of snow varies from none to a lot, but in December the city is beautifully decorated for Christmas and there’s mulled wine everywhere!


3. Official tourism in Bucharest - don’t count on it!

Local authorities in Bucharest are doing a very poor job at promoting the city, developing tourist infrastructure and making visitors feel welcomed. This is the biggest reason why our capital is not very well-known as a travel destination and why I recommend you should continue reading this article.

There is only one tourist information centre in the underground passage at Piata Universitatii, but last time I checked (August 2017) it was closed during weekends and people didn’t seem very friendly or helpful, although they were giving out free maps of the city and recommendations to the usual spots (like the overly-touristic Caru’ cu Bere). Other than this, there are no other tourist info points. Street maps are scarce and the only one I know of is in front of the Romanian Atheneum. Some major landmarks have an English sign (like Curtea Veche), but most of them don’t.

There is no official city tourist card or ticket with entrances to attractions and sights. Tickets to each attraction are purchased at the door. There is a double-decker tourist bus in Bucharest doing a hop-on hop-off route along major attractions and landmarks (website), but it runs only during May - October. I haven’t tried it but according to reviews on Facebook, it’s not very reliable and service is not always great. Your best option is to hire a guide for a city tour or bring a guide book with you.

Luckily, English in Bucharest is very common among the young generation (under 35) who speak fluently and are very friendly. In restaurants, cafes, bars and tourist areas such as Old Town you won’t have any problems and even the menus are in English. Other languages frequently spoken are French, German, Italian and Spanish, as Romanian is part of the Latin family. So if you need help or directions, you’re better off asking a young person rather than the lady working in the subway ticket office.

I couldn’t find the official Bucharest tourism website (not sure it exists?) and a lot of websites have info that is partially or completely outdated or confusing (including WikiTravel). Luckily you have a Romanian friend to help and, besides, if you’re traveling in Eastern Europe it means you’re looking for some adventure and challenge, right?


4. How to plan a trip in Bucharest

The major attractions, landmarks and sights in Bucharest are located on a North - South line from Herestrau Park to Piata Unirii, easily accessible using the blue metro line (M2). Most tourists flock to Old Town (Centrul Vechi - Lipscani area) where a lot of bars, clubs and restaurants are located. While the area is renowned for its nightlife, it has turned into a full-blown touristy spot (beware!) which locals avoid or hang out on side streets.

In fact, Bucharest is much more than that - Calea Victoriei, the Romanian Atheneum, Revolution Square, museums, parks and boulevards await - you might want to check our full guide on what to do in Bucharest or our Bucharest city break guide. Or you can check some reviews from bloggers who've discovered the city for th first time, like Jurga from Full Suitcase who shares her hidden gems of Bucharest or Lavi from Continent Hop who described in vivid - and funny - details what she experience in our capital!


Travel guides from foreign publications (such as LonelyPlanet or RoughGuides) and TripAdvisor rankings are useful if you want to see the top attractions and places where everyone (aka mostly tourists) go, but none of the locals. Caru’ cu Bere is a good example of this and practically lives on tourists. Over the last 3-5 years the city’s hip and modern urban culture has changed so much that much of the info in those are outdated too, so expect to find a lot of cool and interesting places on your own.

If you’re looking to discover the off-the-beaten-path places in Bucharest, what’s beneath the surface, local history and urban culture - then my honest tips are to

  1. don’t be afraid to wander on side streets and explore on your own and
  2. hire a local guide to show you the parts you’re most interested in - your Romanian Friend picked the most interesting and best tours in Bucharest


5. Bucharest Otopeni Airport: how to get to the city & back

The biggest airport in Romania and closest to Bucharest is Henri Coanda (Otopeni) International Airport (OTP) and is located in the Northern outskirts of the capital in the small town of Otopeni - that’s why the short name is Bucharest Otopeni (official website).

Bucharest Otopeni Airport is 20 km away from the city centre (Piata Universitatii and Old Town) and the ride takes about 30 min - 1 hour, depending on traffic, time of day and choice of transport. There are 2 common ways to get from Bucharest Airport to the city centre: by car or taxi (fastest + convenient) and public bus (cheaper but slower). Here’s a quick rundown on both:

  • using the public bus

RATB (Bucharest’s public transport company) operates 2 public bus lines from Otopeni Airport: 780 heading to North Train Station (Gara de Nord) and 783 heading to the city centre (Piata Unirii) stoping at central locations along the way. Both leave from the ground floor outside the terminal building (international arrivals is at 1st floor) every 15-20 min on regular daily schedule (Mon-Fri 6:00-23:00) and every 20-30 min on weekends and holidays.

A two-way ticket is cheap (7 Lei ~ 2€) and you can buy one from the white RATB stall on your right when you exit the terminal building. Drivers don’t sell tickets. Without getting into too many details about ticket options, just trust me and buy the BLUE card and ask the lady to top it up with 2 bus rides. Validate the card on the orange box when getting on the bus. For more info on these buses’ exact routes and stops check RATB’s website here.

Public transport in Bucharest (except for metro) tends to be unreliable and not in the best conditions (some don’t have AC during summer), so I wouldn’t recommend the bus if you’re in a hurry, arriving/departing during peak rush hours or not incredibly budget-conscious.


  • taxi from Bucharest Airport

Getting a taxi or a hired car from Bucharest Airport to the city centre is quicker, much more convenient and inexpensive (35-45 Lei ~8-10 Euro, with tip) on the standard fare (see section below on Bucharest taxis). A couple of years ago there were significant problems with aggressive taxi divers at the airport waiting to rip off tourists, but authorities have partially fixed this and it’s no longer the case. As a local, I’ve always used taxis to get to and from Bucharest airport because it’s the best way. If you want to get to Bucharest by hired car, follow these local tips:

First, look for these yellow self-order machines on both sides of the international arrivals gate (after baggage claim); use one of them to order a taxi from the pre-authorised companies and you will get a printed ticket with taxi details which you need to hold on to. Walk outside the terminal building (still on 1st floor) and wait for the taxi to come from the left pathway; you will pay in cash (Lei) at the end of the ride; if demand is high, it may take anywhere between 5-15 min to find a car, which means queuing at the machines;

Second, a great alternative to standard taxi services is ordering a car through Uber or Taxify which will (usually) pick you up from the 1st floor of the parking outside the terminal building, just beyond the line of yellow taxis; a 2 Lei surcharge will apply for the airport parking fee and the total price on standard fare should be around 25 - 40 Lei;

Third if you can’t find a car using 1+2, you can walk 10 min to the departures terminal (turn right as you exit baggage claim) and pick up one of the taxis dropping passengers off. A steady flow of reliable and cheap (1.39 Lei/km) taxis from Bucharest should be here eager to return to the city with clients on board;

Safety tips: if anyone approaches you in the airport offering taxi services, refuse; if anyone wants to negotiate the fare, refuse; if taxi drivers outside the terminal building approach you saying that their clients didn’t show up (which is possible), refuse - unless they’re willing to accept the meter fare; when boarding yellow taxis, make sure the driver starts the meter before leaving, otherwise refuse the fare; many taxis have an LPG gas tank in their trunk which means that if you have a big trolley or travelling in a group with a lot of luggage it might not fit.

Private car transfers have to be arranged before arrival. A good and popular service for this is Black Cab which will cost about 75 Lei getting into the city. Car rental companies such as Sixt, Avis or local companies Autonom can be picked up from the airport, but make sure to book in advance. Getting from Bucharest Airport to Brasov (150 km away) is tricky - there used to be a minivan but I don’t know if it still runs or its reliability, so my best advice is to head to North Train Station and catch a train from there.

Getting from Bucharest to Otopeni Airport you have the same choices, but if you have to leave during rush hours (7-10 and 16-19) there are high chances buses will be running late and cars will be stuck in traffic trying to cross the city through the same routes (and there aren’t many to choose from). Be sure to leave in advance and here’s one of my personal hacks of getting to the airport quicker: I take the subway to Aviatorilor Metro Station (blue line), exit on the left corridor from the station’s only one way and take a taxi from there to Bucharest Otopeni. You might still catch some traffic, but it will save you a lot of time getting from the city centre to the Northern part.

  • Local tip #1: sandwiches, drinks and small snacks are outrageously expensive in Otopeni Airport (2-3x times higher) and not even the best quality. Pick up something from the city or from a gas station on your way there. In case you’re hungry and looking for a warm meal, there’s a food court in the duty free area - look for gates 24 – 29.
  • Local tip #2: don’t use exchange offices inside the terminal building for more than 10-20 Euro for taxi fare. Their rates are 10-20% worse than what you can get in the city - and there are plenty of decent exchanges in Bucharest. Outside the arrivals area there are ATMs from local banks which are a better option.

You might hear or read about Bucharest Henri Coanda Expres - it's a train+bus service that's unreliable and not worth talking about. Also, there used to be a second, smaller airport called Bucharest Aurel Vlaicu Baneasa on the Northern outskirts of the city. It was closed for commercial flights several years ago, so don’t confuse it with Bucharest Airport (Otopeni), unless you’re flying private :)

Don’t be scared by Otopeni Airport - while it may not be the friendliest or give you a great ‘welcome to Romania’ experience, being an informed and cautious tourist will save you a lot of headaches.


6. Bucharest North Train Station - Gara de Nord

The main train station in Bucharest is Gara de Nord (translated simply as North Train Station). This is where all national and international trains arrive and depart. If you come across names of other train stations, like Bucharest Baneasa or Basarab, just ignore them - they’re not relevant for you.

Gara de Nord is always bustling with activity and people getting to places and may not look like the friendliest place. There are more pickpockets, scammers and beggars trying to get something out of travellers and locals just forcefully - and cautiously - ignore them. Inside the train station there are many places to get food, sandwiches, drinks and there’s even a supermarket and exchange office.

If you’re looking for info about buying train tickets and navigating Romania by train, check our guide on getting around Romania.

From the train station to the city. When arriving in Gara de Nord look for signs leading to the ‘authorised taxis’ station which is down the very long, wide and tall corridor as you arrive (pictured above). You will be approached by people offering ‘taxi’ services - refuse. Outside the building if taxi drivers first ask where you’re going and then try to negotiate the fare, refuse. If you can’t find a decent taxi, use one of the taxi apps described below.

Getting there. The North Train Station is located in the North-Western part of Bucharest, close to Victory Square (Piata Victoriei). You can get there using the yellow subway line and get off at Gara de Nord station. For a cost of 2-4 Euros, a taxi or an Uber is a better choice than taking the bus and quicker than using the metro.


7. Bucharest taxis: costs, tips, safety and apps

The first piece of honest truth - taxi services in Bucharest should be treated with caution because their reputation is notoriously bad for good and many reasons which I won’t go into much detail. But if you follow my advice below on how to order a taxi in Bucharest like a local you’ll see how easy and safe it can be to use them and avoid bad experiences.

The second honest truth is that taxis and hired cars are a very cheap and convenient way of getting around Bucharest, especially since subway stations don’t cover most tourist sights and some interesting areas of the city. And public transport such as buses and trams are not worth the hassle - read why in the next section.


There are many official licensed taxi companies and their cars are yellow with the name of the company on the hood. Fares and rates are calculated per km: the lowest starts from 1,39 Lei, 1,69 Lei is standard while 3,5 Lei is for premium cars. Cost of rides should not be negotiated as fares are clearly written on both sides of the car and displayed on the meter (which should be visible) before and during the ride. A taxi ride from Bucharest to Otopeni Airport will cost about 30-40 Lei while most rides in the city will cost 10-25 Lei. Paying 10 Lei for a 8 Lei ride is common, as is rounding up or leaving a tip of 10% or 1-3 Lei. To put things into perspective, remember that 1€ = 4,5 Lei.

And now my most important piece of advice: everyone in Bucharest uses smartphone apps to order taxis online, and so should you. They’re easy to use, are tracked based on location and drivers have individual profiles and reviews from clients. Few problems, if any, have been reported, so they should be your go-to choice. Here are the most popular taxi apps I recommend:

  • Uber works in Bucharest since 2015. It’s cheap (1.3 Lei/km) and reliable, with great drivers and clean cars. But because it’s service is so great, it’s very popular and during peak hours there’s a fare surcharge. Even so, it’s still cheap, worth using and my go-to choice.
  • Taxify is the runner-up and is the European version of Uber from Estonia with almost identical features and functionalities. It’s trying to aggressively acquire market share by having even cheaper fares than Uber (1,1 Lei/km). Some drivers use both apps which means clients have more options to choose from - yay!
  • Clever Taxi and Star Taxi are local taxi hailing apps pooling licensed drivers from several pre-authorised companies. Unlike Uber or Taxify, you need to tell your driver your destination when being picked up and you will pay for your ride in cash.

Most of these apps also work in Brasov, Timisoara, or Cluj-Napoca but in all other cities in Romania taxi drivers are decent, polite and safe anyway.

As I'm writing this [January 2017] Bucharest City Hall is considering banning these apps and further regulating taxi services. We’ll keep this post updated as things become clear.

The only taxi companies I would recommend picking up from the streets of Bucharest (without pre-order) are Meridian and Speed. There may be other reliable companies too, but I rarely have to use them with so many apps available. During weekends, especially in the evening when Bucharest nightlife goes full on or on rainy days, taxis will be in very high demand so be patient and use 2-3 apps to find one.

Getting a taxi from Bucharest to other cities such as Brasov, Constanta, Mamaia or Sinaia is something I don’t recommend - you can get better prices and comfort in a train, bus or private transfer services.


Here are my safety tips: make sure the driver turns on the meter when starting the ride and get out if he doesn’t or says it’s not working. Have small notes (1-5-10 Lei) on you to pay for the fare as one of the most often used tricks is drivers saying they don’t have change. Avoid at all costs picking up seemingly waiting taxis waiting in the Old Town/Lipscani area (pictured above) or North Train Station - they're the ones trying to scam tourists most by overcharging. Don’t act like the most obvious tourist and be, as much as possible, informed about your route or at least have Google Maps ready when using a standard taxi.

In case you find yourself in a situation where the driver aggressively demands a higher fare, just give him 50-100 Lei (~10-20 Euro) and get on with your journey and life. I don’t think it’s worth getting into trouble for such a small amount and personal safety is more important even if you are the victim of a small scam. You can call the police at 112 but most of the times they won’t be able to do much unless it’s something serious involving physical violence.

Taxi drivers in Bucharest can be a challenge, like everywhere else in the world, but not if you have a local friend to give you tips :)

8. Bucharest metro & public transport

The subway network of Bucharest (called metrou) is uncomplicated, reliable, easy-to-use and fairly cheap. It’s by far the best way to get around Bucharest followed by taxis, even though it may be very crowded during morning and afternoon peak hours.

There are 4 lines (M1-4) but the ones important for tourists are M1 (yellow) and M2 (blue). Getting on the right metro should be easy as there is only one train running on each line in a single direction. If in doubt, ask locals waiting. All metro stations are underground and are marked with an ‘M’ on a white square.

The city centre is served only by 4 stops and there are some areas of Bucharest with tourist sights not covered at all by the subway. The metro stations around tourist sights are Piata Unirii, Piata Universitatii, Piata Romana, Piata Victoriei (the 4 I mentioned), Izvor and Aviatorilor. Check the full map here. Distances between stations can be quite long (10-20 min walk).

Service is between 5:00-23:00 and trains run every 3-5 minutes during rush hours and 5-10 minutes during off-peak hours and weekends. Tickets are paper-printed and you need to validated them when entering the station, otherwise you can’t get it. A 2-way ride costs 5 Lei (1€) but your best choice is to get the 10 ride ticket for 20 Lei. Extremely cheap compared to anything else in Europe!

The public transport network in Bucharest is made out of hundreds of buses, trolleys and trams, all operated by RATB. For tourists they are very confusing and hard to use, because there are no clear maps, guides, apps or English-speaking people or drivers working for RATB and able to give precise guidance to non-locals.

Buses and trolleys don’t always have a dedicated lane so they get stuck in traffic. Drivers sometimes illegally use tram lines so trams get stuck in traffic too. And overground traffic in Bucharest is already heavy and crowded. So despite being very cheap to use, the hassle of getting on the right one, waiting ages for them to show up and getting stuck in traffic is not worth it. Except for regular commuters, most locals don’t use them so my best advice is to stick to metro and taxis.


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I hope this practical guide was useful and get ready to enjoy Bucharest - there’s much to see and do!

Your Romanian Friend

Marius

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