The capital of Romania is not yet a well-known destination, but it is a city with much to discover that deserves certainly to be in your bucket list. It is a city full of contrasts, where religious symbols blend with the most imposing buildings of Communist architecture. Only in Bucharest, we can find, behind an ugly, grey and tall communist building, a small centenarian church, constructed there unnoticed during the more than 40 years of a communist regime that dominated over this Balkan country.
A very curious phenomenon occurs with the city name. It is commonly confused with Bucharest the capital of Hungary. The name is similar and very curious misunderstandings had happened during the years starting with Michael Jackson, the first pop artist to give a concert in the country after the communist regime fall, to Iron Maiden, Lenny Kravitz, Ozzy Osbourne and Metallica. But my favourite is the 400 Atlético de Bilbao supporters that went to Bucharest to assist a football match of is team that was played…yes you have already had guessed…is Budapest)
Bucharest was once known as the “Little Paris” due to the strong influence it assimilated from French culture and architecture during the 19th and 20th centuries and because it also has an Arch of Triumph that resembles the one of the French capital. Currently, Bucharest seeks to show itself as a modern city that has reborn from the spectrum of communism. In the streets is a willingness to do differently.
Below are the 8 locations in the city that should be part of any visit to Bucharest.
1. Old Town
Probably the youngest Old Town in the world, the heart of Bucharest is all that remains of the pre World War II and from the destruction during the communist period. Most of the town was destroyed to give birth to the huge Ceauşescu. The Dictator nearly devastated a fifth of the total area of the city to give way to the Boulevard Unirii, which intended to rival the Champs Elysées, and the Casa Poporului (the People House). With the end of the communist regime in 1989 the Old Town swift from a forbidden area, with almost nothing to offer, to one of the liveliest entertainment districts of the Romanian capital. Today is the nightlife city centre, with dozens of bars, clubs, cafes and hotels.
2. Parliament’s Palace
The Parliament’s Palace located at the end of Bulevar Unirii is the second largest administrative building in the world following the Pentagon, with 350,000 m² and 12 floors. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it is also the largest civil administrative building in the world, the most expensive and the heaviest. The Palace was originally commissioned and designed, at the end of 1970 by the Nicolae Ceauşescu communist regime to be the centre of all political and administrative power in Romania. The construction began in 1980 and lasted until 1989 when Ceauşescu was deposed. Until then, less than 80% of the building had been built, but the work was interrupted because it was too costly for the Romanian public vaults. Its construction was overseen by 700 architects (initially headed by a young architect who stood out for the ambitious project she presented, Anca Petrescu) and 20,000 workers who ensured all the eccentricity of Ceauşescu and his wife. The building has more than 3000 rooms and includes a mix of different architectural styles to ensure that all the rooms are different. Among the eccentricities, it was included a five-ton chandelier, a rug created by nuns weighing 15 tons, velvet curtains weighing 150 kg and marble stairs that were rebuilt several times until the couple consider that they were perfect to receive large international dignitaries. All the materials (99.9%) used in its construction – from the timber to the marbles of different colours, to the crystals, to the fabrics – are Romanian.
To ensure its construction, as well as the monolithic blocks surrounding it, more than 10,000 houses and hundreds of churches were demolished, at a total cost of 3 billion dollars (at the current value). The surrounding area was devastated, except for some churches that, by faith and superstition of the workers who refused to destroy them, were displaced to other locals in the city.
Why did Ceauşescu, leader of a poor Balkan country, carry out such a venture? Simply because he visits two of the world’s largest communist powers – China and North Korea. It that visit he saw their grandiosity – the avenues, the buildings, the people parade – and he wanted to replicate it in Romania, with one very, very small difference, the money available to implement all these ideas. Ceauşescu Never completed his work, he was deposed and murdered and the first great international personality to use the huge balcony that the dictator had devised to receive ovations from his people was the Pop singer Michael Jackson in 1992.
Since the end of the regime, all the symbols of communism in the building have been withdrawn. Presently it is possible to visit Parliament in guided tours.
3. Stavropoleos Church
The Church Stavropoleos is the oldest Orthodox church in Bucharest. It is extremely peculiar, not only for its location and obscure interior but also by the mixture of architectural styles, Roman (columns), Byzantine (paintings) and Arabic (columns arches). It has a small convent where nuns sing ancient Byzantine songs between 5 a.m. and 6 am.
4. Old Court
It’s the residence of the Wallachia leaders of and was built during the reign of Vlad III, the Impaler, also known as Dracula. The Church of the Ancient Court is part of the historical complex of the old Court and was here where the coronation of the princes of Wallachia take place for several centuries.
The gorgeous Romanian Athenaeum is the city’s grand concert hall and the heart of the country’s classical music tradition. The building is impressive, with its 41m high Dome. It is located at the end of the most important Avenue of Bucharest, Victoria Avenue.
6. Victoria Avenue
It Is the most important avenue of Bucharest, extending over 2 km and address to some of the main historical and cultural monuments of the capital: the National History Museum, the CEC Palace, the Military Palace, the Revolution Square, the National Art Museum, the Athenaeum, the Art Collections Museum, the Cantacuzino Palace and the University Library.
7. Patriarchal Cathedral
The Romanian Orthodox Patriarchal cathedral receives the main religious events of the Romanian capital.
8. Revolution Square
It is here we can find the Renaissance Memorial that commemorates the struggle and victims of the Romanian Revolution of 1989, which brought down communism. The Memorial was inaugurated in August 2005 in the Revolution Square, where the communist dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu, was knocked down on December 21, 1989.
9. Hanul Lui Manuc
Hanul Lui Manuc it was once an inn, inspired by the old Caravansarais (Arabic Inns) and is today a lively restaurant where we can taste the best Romanian food and hear some traditional music.
10. Triumph Arch
Built in timber to celebrate the victory of the Romanian Army at the end of World War I, it is one of the most notable landmarks of the capital and it is considered a symbol of Bucharest.
When to go: Not being yet a highly touristic destination, the spring or summer is the best heights, with more pleasant weather.
Where to stay: Ideally in a small hotel/Hostel of charm in the old area or, in one of the many luxury hotels situated on Victory Avenue.
How to get around: On foot or public transport (underground). The Airport Otopeni is 20 km from the city centre and the course takes about 30 min to 1 hour, depending on traffic, time of day and choice of transportation. There are 2 ways to go to the city centre: by car (faster and more convenient) and by bus (cheaper but slower). By car, I recommend catching an Uber in the airport parking lot – it is about €9.
Planning: If you want to visit the Parliament remember to book in advance and take the Citizen Card/Passport. The opening hours can be found here and the price of the entry is 40 lei/person (about €8.5)
Where to eat: The food is in general very good and there are many interesting restaurants in the Old Town. However, a visit to Bucharest is not completed without a meal in Caru’ cu Bere, a traditional, centennial restaurant where you can taste the best local food and beer.
Currency: Romanian Leu (RON) 1 RON = 0.21467 EUR