A Tale of Two Capitals: Bucharest and Sofia

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Sometimes while traveling, you visit a city that is so beautiful, so charming, or so alive with culture and atmosphere that you can't help being fascinated by it. It's the sort of city that makes you daydream about uprooting your life back home and moving halfway around the world; the type of city that you can't stop telling people about.

It's the kind of city that you fall instantly in love with.

Well, neither Bucharest, Romania nor Sofia, Bulgaria are that kind of city.

Bucharest, Romania

Neither one of these former-East Bloc capitals is likely to win any beauty contests. They probably have no prayer of getting that Miss Congeniality award, either.

In fact, upon first glance, Bucharest and Sofia are downright ugly cities.

Bucharest, Romania
A street in Bucharest.

Crumbling Communist-era buildings tower over shadowy streets. Gaudy palaces and cathedrals glint in the harsh summer sunlight. And the grey-beige color scheme? Let's not even go there.

In short, these are not the cities that you are likely to fall instantly in love with.

Sofia, Bulgaria
Even this guard in Sofia seems less than enthused.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that you should completely write Bucharest and Sofia off.

Instead, you just have to give them a little time to show you their true colors.

Bucharest and Sofia are kind of like strong wine or cheese — they're an acquired taste that not many people like immediately after the first try. But, underneath that initial unpleasantness, there are interesting flavors and notes to discover and enjoy.

Visiting Bucharest, Romania

Bucharest was an assault on the senses — mostly my senses dealing with heat and humidity. We arrived in Romania's capital in the late morning, and the city was already BOILING. It only got worse after lunch, and I was drenched in sweat by the time we made it to the Palace of the Parliament — Nicolae Ceausescu's gaudy palace that was never finished in his lifetime.

Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest, Romania
Ugliest building ever? Possibly.

I was already disliking Bucharest, and wasn't sure it could be redeemed.

But then I took a stroll through shady Cismigiu Gardens, where people were renting canoes and paddle boats and kids were bouncing around on a new playground. And then I took a walk around the city's revived Old Town, with its never-ending string of cute cafes and bustling evening atmosphere.

Bucharest, Romania

And by the time I'd met up with a friend for dinner at a nice (and cheap) restaurant that evening, I was starting to regret judging Bucharest too hastily.

Bucharest, Romania

The next morning, during a 3-hour walking tour of Bucharest with Walkabout Free Tours, our young local guide succeeded in convincing me that Bucharest did indeed deserve a second chance. Yes, the Palace of the Parliament is ugly. And yes, traces of Romania's communist days are still painfully present. But there's more to Bucharest than just Revolution Square.

Bucharest, Romania

Like the revitalized Old Town.

Bucharest, Romania

Or a beautiful monastery in the middle of the city.

Bucharest, Romania

Or a modern transport system waiting and ready to serve tourists.

Bucharest, Romania

And yes, there's Revolution Square, too, as well as the history related to it. I can't claim to be an expert on the fall of communism in Romania (and, in fact, many say it hasn't truly fallen at all), but I will say that I learned a lot as our guide shared his recollections and opinions of the events of 1989 with us.

I left Bucharest understanding how one could grow to love it — or at least like it quite a bit.

Bucharest, Romania
It's not ALL ugly.

Visiting Sofia, Bulgaria

After my experience in Bucharest, I went into Sofia with less reservations. Yes, this was another post-communist capital in an even poorer country. But, if Bucharest taught me anything, it's that you really can't judge a city by its exterior, or by its past.

And Sofia turned out to be better than I was expecting.

Sofia, Bulgaria

Yes, it was still ridiculously hot. And no, Sofia isn't a particularly wow-inducing or pretty city, either. But with free walking tours, a lot of Roman history, and some delicious food, I found myself warming to Sofia nonetheless.

I loved the gorgeous Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and its impressive collection of religious icons.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria

The Archaeological Museum was fascinating, too, detailing Bulgaria's long and rich history.

Sofia, Bulgaria

And who doesn't love a pretty theater in the middle of a big, green park?

Sofia, Bulgaria

It's easy to understand how these cities have developed their drab stereotypes. And, to some extent, the stereotypes ARE true.

But, just like with any destination, a stereotype is just that — a stereotype, and not necessarily the complete truth.

Thankfully, I got a glimpse behind the grey exteriors of Bucharest and Sofia.

And you know what? They aren't half bad.

Have you visited any post-communist capitals? If so, what were your impressions? If not, would you want to visit?

 

 

*Note: I visited both of these cities as part of a complimentary 18-day “Explore Eastern Europe” tour with Intrepid Travel. But all opinions, as always, are entirely my own.

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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48 Comments on “A Tale of Two Capitals: Bucharest and Sofia

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  1. Rīga, Latvia. I think the Baltics have escaped the Soviet drabness, the old town is fabulously restored, and the city seemingly has it all – beach, architecture, history, public transportation, culture… Maybe a warmer winter might help?

      I haven’t been to Riga myself, though I’ve heard good things! You certainly make it seem appealing.

      You can’t compare small (almost village-like) capitals such as Riga with Bucharest which is a big city that has more than 2 million people (more than the entire population of Latvia). A lot of money and time are needed to improve the infrastructure of such city. So give it some time!

    I loved both the cities from what little I have seen or read on your blog!! Even the buildings and the streets dont seem to be so bad!!
    Have a wonderful day Amanda 🙂

      I’m glad you feel that way, Arti!

      Then again, I’m always able to find SOMEthing good about nearly every place I travel.

    This is an awesome article Amanda. I’ve been to Bulgaria but only on the Black Sea coast. Always wanted to do Sofia. Bucharest is on my list as well. Looks like you had a splendid time. Keep up the good work!

    Karthik

      The Black Sea coast was the only part of Bulgaria I DIDN’T get to see! You should definitely go inland, too – Sofia, Plovdiv, Bansko… lots of places to see that aren’t on the coast!

    I was really underwhelmed by Bucharest the first couple of days I spent there (staying out near the train station didn’t help), but staying in a much nicer hostel close to the old town a few days later helped a lot. It’s not going to make it into my ‘favourite cities in the world’ list any time soon, but by the time I left, I actually kinda liked it!

      And I think that’s just the kind of city it is – it’s not likely to wow anyone at first glance, but, once you get to know it a bit, it’s actually kind of cool!

        Yes,Riga Old Town was a charming spot and was the only spot I visited there.

    I spent time in both cities in the early 1990s on a train trip from Warsaw to Istanbul. I had similar experiences; I needed a little time for both cities to grow on me. I ended up liking Sofia better, but that may have had a lot to do with an amazing meal we had there after coming across a restaurant with great food and lovely outdoor seating. (I wish I remembered the restaurant’s name.)

      A train trip from Warsaw to Istanbul sounds amazing!

      And glad to hear you had similar experiences in both cities.

    This post is great because sometimes it does take a little longer to find the beauty that lies in any city. I have to say, your pictures show both as beautiful! When I go, I won’t have my expectations so high and will probably love them both.

      I think keeping expectations low would definitely be a good idea with these kinds of cities. That way, you can be pleasantly surprised!

        That’s my thought,I won’t expect much from Bucharest & probably be pleasantly surprised.

    If you think those building’s are ugly, you should come to Korea! Many of the buildings here were built in the 70’s and all look the same–plain, gray, blocks of concrete. Comparatively, most of the buildings in your post are quiet beautiful!

      I definitely was drawn to the more interesting buildings, as opposed to the dull, boring, gray ones like the ones I’m sure you’re talking about in Korea. (There are plenty of those still around in Bucharest and Sofia, too!) But yes, in this post I wanted to prove that these cities CAN actually be kind of pretty!

    I visited Vilnius in February this year. The centre of the city and the old town are gorgeous but the residential areas? Boy are they ugly (although surprisingly nice on the inside). I’m heading to Romania next year and was unsure as to whether or not I should give Bucharest any time – your post has convinced me that I should give it a chance.

    Loving the pictures of Sofia by the way, especially the close up shot of the cathedral 🙂

      I would definitely recommend giving Bucharest a shot – just don’t get your hopes up too high! 🙂

      I got to Vilnius on a Sunday morning & followed the crowd to church.Being a bit late hadda stand in back with the old guys & dogs.But it was a great day & all I needed from
      Lithuania.

    Glad to hear you changed your opinion about Bucharest in the end and I think this is a good example of why it’s difficult for travelers to really know a place after just a 1 or 2 day visit.

    There is always so much to see and so much to discover in every destination but it often takes time to uncover such places…I’ve found over the years that just about every destination on the planet is enjoyable once you stay for a while and you’re able to see what the place is really about!

      Yes, I agree! A few days in a place usually isn’t enough time to really get to know it. Unless you love somewhere at first sight, most places require a bit longer!

    It’s so crazy to me to hear this part of the world was boiling hot! I remember when I was all set to head to Romania in January, but they had horrible weather so I couldn’t cross the mountains. I traveled throughout other cities in eastern Europe and it was hard to see their redeeming qualities as it was even too cold to be outside. I definitely want to head back, in the warmer months, and see cities like Bucharest and Sofia. That monastery looks gorgeous.

      Eastern Europe definitely has some pretty extreme weather! Not unlike where I’m from, actually. But yes… SO hot in the summer! I’d recommend a compromise, and perhaps visit in the spring or autumn!

        Warsaw has the”ugliest building in the world”reputedly,reminds me of Bucharest’s best.

    I would say that this text is very close to the truth… as if it is written by a romanian or bulgarian. Indeed Sofia and Bucharest can’t be compared with western capitals and most of the beautiful cities in Central Europe. Still they have their own charm and they’re worth visiting – you’ll see interesting sites and acquire some interesting historical data. Never forget communism in these countries lasted only 45 years and although it left some signs that can still be felt, we’re talking about cities with incredibly long history so obviously a single period cannot affect them entirely. In Sofia you can find roman buildings, turkish buildings, royal bulgarian buildings, communist buildings, modern era buildings – heck i wouldn’t say it’s gray. Sometimes it’s even way too colorful. In Bucharest you can find many preserved buildings in Baroque style and it’s needless to say how beautiful they are. So once again – worth visiting.

      Thanks for the comment, Petar! I agree – both cities are worth visiting, so long as you know you need to put in a little effort to see the “real” side to each of them.

    And one more thing – if you really want to see these cities – find a good guide. Cause there is stuff to see, but the guide has to know what he’s doing. Otherwise you won’t see the beauties and you’ll be left with your initial impression which might not be so good 🙂

    […] it’s true that the ride from Sofia to Rila Monastery was less than pleasant. In fact, it probably ranks up there as one of the worst […]

    I’ve been trying to decide whether to travel through Bucharest or Sofia on a trip next summer – we will only have a day plus an overnight in either place. When I heard about the abundance of stray dogs and drugged homeless children in Bucharest, I began to think that the helplessness of a tourist to correct these situations might prove too painful, so I’m now leaning toward Sofia. What do you think? How much did these factors affect your travels through Bucharest? Are there similar factors to consider in Sofia?

      Honestly I didn’t really notice either of those things in Bucharest, though I have read about them, too. I liked Sofia a tad bit better then Bucharest personally, but it’s really up to you and what fits into your itinerary best! Bucharest is changing and changing fast, though.

    Bucharest. I left Bucharest over 6 years ago, for New York City. Little did I know Bucharest was going to change so much with its inclusion in the EU. There was a construction and renovation boom that is still going on strong. When I left there was no Subway, no Luis Vuitton, Guess, Oracle, Microsoft, Google (talking about building offices), no HDTV, no AFI Palace mall, Baneasa mall, new subway stops, new public library, Old Town was under construction, so it wasn’t even there, no Starbucks, Hard Rock Cafe, no Aqua restaurant in Herestrau Park, no MANY FREAKING THINGS.

    There’s malls like I haven’t seen in New York, Maryland, Massachussets and New Jersey yet, there’s clubs that rival any in the world in luxury but not in pricing, there’s pubs and bars and lounges and restaurants that rival those of Paris.

    Is there much more to be done? Yes. Plenty. But things are indeed moving fast. Countless places have been opened and renovated, it’s still going strong and, miss, The Palace of Parliament might be a love it or hate it building which I would love to see restored on the outside in a brighter color, but it’s none the less impressive, the inside is marvelous, and it’s the biggest government building in the world, also the 2nd biggest after the Pentagon, yet it looks much nicer from street level than the Pentagon does. That crap only looks nice from an Aerial view, I’ve been.

    I cannot say anything about Sofia as I have never been, although it looks maybe a little bit cleaner than Bucharest, and it might not suffer from the horrible problem that still plagues Bucharest, shamelessly, to this day, which is stray dogs. Also the subway system, although short for a city twice the size of Bucharest almost (although with less of a population) looks amazing, as it’s all new, first line being put in use in 1998. Yet the subway trains, trams and buses are less nice and new than those found in Bucharest, which also boasts 49 stops vs 27, and Sofia is bigger. Also, these two cities have more malls than cities like Rome or Stockholm. Why? I do not know, but I love it. Now I would love to compile a gallery of photos of Bucharest of places that probably you didn’t even know existed, but I do not have the time right now. However, for people interested, please indulge in this facebook page that takes pictures all over Bucharest. https://www.facebook.com/BucurestiOptimist/photos_stream ENJOY! Also, I cannot comment on Bulgarian food, but I do love Romanian food, and want to say that hypermarkets such as Auchan or Real in Bucharest offer a much wider variety than absolutely any of the dozens of chains of supermarkets and such I have visited in both New York and New Jersey. There is no comparison, they are very limited in their offerings here, opposite to popular belief in Romania at the time of my departure.

      Thanks for the comment. It certainly is changing fast.

    Also, I have to add, the very first picture of this article is of a street found in Old Town Bucharest back in 2005-2006, before renovations had even started. The very first street today is bustling with cafes, pubs, terraces and people + music.

      Actually, that photo was taken by me personally last summer (July 2012). So, no, it’s not from years ago. The area may be undergoing renovations, but this street was not as of last year.

    Well, I sure hope they get it renovated soon, it looks like the ones that got the redo, before they did. Sadly there’s still plenty of work to be done still. Also, I checked out this thread of Sofia’s projects that are under construction or planned, and boy was I wowed. A lot of modernism this city is seeing. Take a look. http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=928344&page=14 Also the hills on the outskirts help give it a sweet look. I am quite envious at them now :)) That language and cyrilic crappy alphabet kills Sofia for me though, I would visit once though.

      Yes, definitely a lot happening in Sofia! You should check it out someday if you get the chance.

      Been to Sofia several times. I’ve not been to Bucharest but it sounds pretty similar. Stray dogs are a problem in Sofia too, as is ordinance left over from the communist era, but not maintained. A couple of years ago they had to close the airport as a nearby ordinance depot blew up. No-one injured, luckily, but the infrastructure still leaves a lot to be desired. By the way, an hour spent learning the cyrillic alphabet before you go – there are plenty of free online courses – is well worth while, especially if you plan on having a car or just not getting lost.

        Yes, I definitely second the tip to take some time to learn the cyrillic alphabet!

    I never been in Sofia (i’ve been in Bulgaria only to Balcik, Varna, Nessebar – so, only Black Sea coast). So I have no personal impression about Sofia! But I heard good things about the cultural and party life around the Uni campus. I know also about some good music festivals and, yes, about the mountains around :)) Bucharest, on the other hand, I know quite good. I’d say u r right! Is not a city that would be seducing u from the first blink! In fact, despite some political and administrative declarations, Bucharest doesn’t seem to care much about tourism. It’s touristical infrastructure is minimal! But, hey, this could be a good aspect, too! We don’t travel in order to find tourists like us everywhere, we travel to find other people, other culture & stuff. And Bucharest could look unfriendly with travelers, only until that point when u r really walking through. Not only the recentely renovated Old Center, but also, behind the gray blocks there are a lot of old, green streets, with beautiful houses and places to hang out. In fact, people in Bucharest are in love with more “secret” places, chill music, underground culture as it seems like from a touristical point of view. Not so far from Parliament u have Antim Monastery (pushed back by the blocks) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antim_Monastery . 10 min away u can find the Patriarchy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dealul_Mitropoliei . Cotroceni area is close also (u have there the Botanical Garden). There also many big and beautiful parks in Bucharest, where u can try for free a ride on the bike, and where are a lot of places for kids. Well, true, all of this are not quite visible for a tourist walking around, without help, for several days. But this ar for facts, the beauty of Bucharest. It’s life style mostly, verry dinamic and more complex every year. I supose someone should look after this kind of details, in Bucharest or Sofia. :))) PS sorry for my English!

    I lived in Vilnius for 10 months and been to other Baltic capitals Riga and Tallinn. Their old towns are very beautiful. Residential areas are ugly as in other post-communist cities. I have also been to Warsaw, Budapest, Ljubljana and now I am living in Prague for the last two years. If you want to learn more about World War 2, go to Warsaw but it is not a lovely city/ Budapest and Ljubljana are worth to see. Prague is the star among all of them. The beauty of the architecture, great public transportation, cafes, restaurants and safety of the city are all pluses. And also it is my home now 🙂 I’m thinking to visit Bucharest or Sofia at the end of March. While searching on the net I came across to your blog. I know I should not expect so much beauty from a post communist city but at least I want to feel safe, find my way easily, see some history and able to eat nice food. I feel like Bucharest will be a better choice for me. Do not wan to deal with Cyrillic alphabet. Actually I learnt to read it before going to Russia a few years ago but forgot it already and not eager to learn again these days.

      I’ve been to all the cities you’ve mentioned – and actually Warsaw and Budapest are two of my favorites!! Bucharest would probably be a good choice for you – there are plenty of ugly parts, yes, but also some nicer parts and interesting things to see.

    Hey Amanda,

    I love how you describe places, it feels like I’m walking the streets with you!

    Sounds like you picked the wrong season for visiting Eastern Europe, though, especially the capital cities. You should come in spring or early autumn, that’s when they’re most beautiful and the vibe is incredible.

    Love reading your blog, even when it’s about places I’ve visited, it’s always interesting to hear another traveller’s unbiased perspective. As for Sofia, I was born and raised here, so it’s definitely a pleasure to hear that you had a positive experience 🙂

    Thanks for the great post and happy travels!

    Cheers,
    Naddya

      Yes, mid-summer really wasn’t the best time to visit – especially since I’m not one of those people who loves the heat!

    Thanks for your tale of two capitals. If your were to write off one of them from your travel list, which on would you still go?

      That’s tough, because there are interesting things to see in both cities! The Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest is fascinating, while I also loved Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the Archaeological Museum in Sofia!

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