I had imagined Bucharest as a kind of transition place…. a couple of days as my jumping-off place to where I really wanted to go in Romania – Transylvania. And as my driver left the airport, we passed a multitude of utilitarian-looking communist bloc apartment buildings, and I felt more-or-less resigned to spending an uneventful transition.
But then the scenery changed to lush green spaces and a more interesting modern city emerged. As we continued on, my melancholy turned to glee as we slowed down and took a turn onto cobblestone streets and pretty neoclassical buildings to rival the old towns of Europe.
Bucharest surprised me! The capital and most prosperous city in Romania, it’s a bustling city, part old-world charm, part cosmopolitan chic. It was formerly known as the “Paris of the East” due to the French influence and Art Nouveau architecture throughout the city. Due to three decades of communist rule and Ceausescu’s efforts toward utilitarianism along with a devastating earthquake in 1977, much of the grandeur was destroyed, particularly in Old Town. But some of the former elegance remained and other buildings have been rebuilt.
Historically, the city has seen its share of trouble under the rule of communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. The Bucharest that emerged and remains today has much diversity to offer. These are the highlights of my fabulous visit to Bucharest with JayWay Travel.
1. Discover Lipscani, Europe’s Newest Old Town
I put this one first because it’s my favorite. The “old towns” in a city are always my favorite. I could (and did) walk for hours along Bucharest’s photographic cobblestone alleys and squares, ducking into shops, stopping in a sidewalk café, and admiring the pretty French-style architecture. Lipscani is the heart of Bucharest. It successfully combines the old with the re-created to define its own uniquely pedestrian-friendly spaces.
2. Tour the Parliament Building
I couldn’t miss the opportunity to take a peek inside the world’s biggest civilian building and second-largest building in the world behind the Pentagon. Another display of former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s megalomania, the “People’s House” is extreme in architectural design (3,000,000 square feet and more than a thousand rooms), engineering, and materials (gold and marble).
Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, were both involved in the design and construction in the 1980s and did not hold back in spite of Romania’s struggling economy. The parliament building was originally intended to house the presidential offices and the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party, but construction was never completed.
A one-hour tour will take you into some of the grand spaces, as well as out onto the balcony for expansive views of the square below.
3. Visit Ceaușescu’s Spring Palace (Palatul Primaveri)
Located on a tree-lined boulevard in a wealthy residential district, the understated exterior of Ceaușescu’s house in Bucharest belies the extravagance within. When the building was finally opened to the public in March 2016, visitors were able to see (via a strictly guided tour) how Nicolae, Elena, and their children lived the last 25 years of their lives. The 80-room residence decorated by Elena spared little expense as seen in the extravagant chandeliers, Iranian carpets, solid gold toilet paper holders, private cinema, and mosaic-tiled indoor pool.
The palace was heavily guarded after the revolution to prevent looting, so you can still see original items such as Elena’s fur coats in her closet. But be aware that you cannot touch or even get too close to anything in the museum-like home…. someone in our group may or may not have gotten reprimanded for trying to open the drapes to get a better photo of the courtyard. It was not me…that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
4. Take a City Walking Tour
University Square is in the very middle of the city and a great place to begin a walking tour. The square was built more than 150 years ago and is a center of frenzy and bustle. The square leads to the other main areas of interest such as Revolution Square, National Theater, hotels, cafés and shops.
One of the most symbolic places in Bucharest is Revolution Square (Piata Revolutiei), previously known as Palace Square. The square was renamed after dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s power over Romania ended here on December 21, 1989, in a coup d’état before a crowd of more than 100,000 spectators. From the balcony of the Central Committee on the square, Ceaușescu gave his last speech and was then forced to flee from a helicopter on the roof, ending his communist reign and changing the course of history in Romania. Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were captured and executed four days later.
Bucharest has many pretty churches spread around the city, but none more striking than the Stavropoleos Monastery. Built in 1724 by the Greek monk, Ioanikie Stratonikeas, the exterior of the Orthodox church displays an exquisitely carved and painted entrance with both Roman and Byzantine features. Inside are beautifully painted frescoes and outside is a small but pretty garden courtyard. Nearby Kretulescu Church, located on one of the busy city streets, is one of the oldest in the city and a well-known landmark.
The Athenaeum Concert Hall is one of the most important buildings in Romania. The 19th-century building, designed by French architect Albert Galleron, is styled like an ancient Greek temple, with a dome and Ionic columns. The interior lobby has a gold-leaf ceiling, numerous balconies, and spiral marble staircases.
5. Peruse Romania’s Prettiest Bookshop
In the heart of Old Town, you’ll undoubtedly come across the Carturesti Caroussel Bookshop, nestled on one of the most famous streets in Bucharest. Upon entering, prepare to be amazed as your eyes are drawn upward by the white balconies on the spacious mezzanine.
6. Find Vlad’s Former Residence (Curtea Veche)
Believed to be the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s fictitious “Dracula,” Vlad Tepes was a pretty scary person in his own right. Known as Vlad the Impaler, the bloodthirsty Wallachian prince, had a penchant for torturing his enemies, his favorite being impaling. In Old Town, next to the Basilica of St. Nicholas, are the ruins of one of his palatial residences. The statue of the infamous Vlad in front makes it easy to find the fortress which was abandoned in the mid-1700s. Because it has withstood four fires and an earthquake, only a small part of the court’s arches, columns and walls remain to be seen.
As you can see from the beautiful flowers, we visited in summer; however, Bucharest in winter is also beautiful.
7. Try Some Street Food
Of all the foodie things to do in Bucharest, sampling a covrigi should top your list. A covrigi is a huge Romanian pretzel. You can buy them piping hot in the pastry shops lining the city streets. They can be filled with sausage, cheese, or fruit, or just plain.
8. Sample the Cheese and Spreads
With a variety of textures, flavors, and recipes, Romanian cheese is one of the most diverse types of food in the world. Most of the cheeses are made from cow or sheep milk. You eat the cheeses as a spread, sliced, or baked in a pie. Do try it all ways – it’s delicious!
9. Check Out the Unique Statues
Bucharest is a fantastic walking city, and along with the history and new vs. old architecture, don’t forget to look for the diverse collection of monuments and statues along the way – some are traditional while others are more unique.
10. Pass Through the Passageway (Pasajul Macca-Vilacrosse)
This gorgeous yellow glass-covered arcade was designed in 1891 when Bucharest enjoyed its label as “Little Paris.” It was designed as a conduit between Calea Victoriei – then the busiest street in the city – and the National Bank. The Passageway also hosted the first Stock Exchange House of Bucharest. Nowadays, the passage is one of the most pleasant places in Bucharest to spend some time browsing in the shops or having a cup of coffee in one of the many cafés and bistros.
11. Have a Drink in the Sky Bar
Although there is no elevator and you’ll have to climb six up flights of stairs to reach it, the Sky Bar is worth the effort. The festive atmosphere and the panoramic views are magnificent, day or night!
INSIDER TIP: Never travel to any foreign country without travel insurance! Random, unplanned things can happen. I was involved in a horrendous car crash in South Africa in 2014.
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of JayWay Travel during her stay in Bucharest, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.
About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. Patti has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.