WHAT TO DO
Bucharest is elegance layered with history. The Romanian capital is fascinating, dynamic and classically beautiful. Many travelers give the city just a night or two before heading off to see Dracula in Transylvania, but that’s not enough time. Allow at least a few days to take in the sites, stroll the parks and hang out at trendy cafes and drinking gardens. While much of the city center is modern and the buildings in various stages of disrepair, you'll find splendid 17th and 18th century Orthodox churches and graceful belle epoque villas tucked away in quiet courtyards. In the early 20th century, Bucharest came to be known as the 'Paris of the East' thanks to its art nouveau architecture and grand municipal buildings, often French designed. This faded grandeur is now mixed with utilitarian buildings left behind from decades of communist rule.
There's no better place to begin your adventure than in and around the Old Town (Lipscani). This district is the historic center of Bucharest and home to several of the city's top attractions. The tiny and lovely Stavropoleos Church is located at strada Stavropoleos 4 and dates back to 1724. It will make a lasting impression with its courtyard filled with tombstones, an ornate wooden interior and carved wooden doors. The patrons of the church are the Saint Archangels Michael and Gabriel. Around the corner at calea Victoriei 12, in front of the National History Museum, is the Statue of Emperor Trajan. This bronze sculpture depicts the Roman leader who expanded the empire into the lands of modern day Romania. Trajan is presented here holding a she wolf, which has significance both to ancient Dacia (modern Romania) and to the founding of Rome. Nearby at strada Franceza is the Old Princely Court Church. It was built in 1559 during the reign of Mircea Ciobanul (Mircea the Shepherd) and is considered to be the oldest religious building in Bucharest. The faded 16th century frescoes next to the altar are originals and the carved stone portal was added in 1715. The church is part of the Old Princely Court (Curtea Veche) - today, not much remains of this princely palace and its grounds other than ruins. But amidst the broken masonry and old stone arches, like a sentinel, the bust of Romania’s most notorious ruler, Vlad III Dracula, keeps watch over the medieval court. Almost 500 years before Irish novelist Bram Stoker immortalized his name, Vlad III Dracula ruled Wallachia, a province of now modern day Romania. A protector against Ottoman Turkish aggression, Vlad was sworn into the Order of the Dragon, an alliance of Christian rulers who fought against the Ottoman invaders. Known for his brutality on and off the battlefield, Vlad earned the name Tepes or 'The Impaler' from the Turks for his preferred method of executing his enemies. Note: the ruins are currently closed for excavation and renovation, but be sure to take some photos in front of the Vlad statue. Before making your way to the next destination, stop in to Carturesti Carusel at strada Lipscani 55. This impressive branch of the Carturesti chain of books and gifts is located in a restored early 20th century shopping outlet in the Old Town. Books are on several levels and there is a decent selection of English language titles. Note: there is another location that I will mention later.
The New St George's Church can be found at strada Lipscani and dates from 1699. It is significant primarily as the burial place of Wallachian prince Constantin Brancoveanu - he was captured by the Turks in 1714 after refusing to take part in the Russo Turkish War (1711). He and his four sons were taken to Istanbul and beheaded. From there, visit the Great Synagogue at strada Adamache 11 - it's hidden on three sides by public housing blocks. This important synagogue dates from the mid 19th century and was established by migrating Polish Jews. The beautiful interior was meticulously restored and the main exhibition details Jewish life and the Holocaust in Romania. Modest displays tell the story of the around 200000 Romanian Jews who were deported to camps in Transdniestria and Ukraine - and the well over 100000 Jews from Transylvania who died at Auschwitz Birkenau. Close by at strada Mamulari 3 is the Jewish History Museum. It is housed in a colorful synagogue that dates from 1836, and exhibits (in English and Romanian) outline Jewish contributions to Romanian history. In 1941, 800000 Jews lived in Romania; today only 10000 remain. Note: you need your passport to enter. Down the street at strada Sfanta Vineri 9 is the Choral Temple. Built in 1857, it is the city's main working synagogue and is visually stunning inside. A memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, erected in 1991, fronts the temple. Along with the Jewish History Museum, you'll need your passport to enter.
Next, stroll down one of Bucharest's major thoroughfares - bulevardul Unirii - as you head west towards the Palace of the Parliament. Before arriving, check out Antim Monastery at strada Antim 29. This beautiful walled complex was built in 1715 by the metropolitan bishop Antim Ivireanu. Today it's hidden by communist era housing blocks. The enormous Palace of Parliament is probably the city's most notorious landmark. It is the world's second largest administrative building (after the Pentagon) and former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's most infamous creation. Started in 1984 (and still unfinished), this just under 4 million square foot building has more than 3000 rooms. Entry is by guided tour only; be sure to book ahead and bring your passport. Note: the entrance is located on the north side of the building - to find it, face the front of the palace from bulevardul Unirii and walk around the edifice to the right. Several types of tours are available, including a 'standard' tour of the main rooms and hallways, and 'complete' tours that combine the standard tour with views of the basement. The standard tour takes around forty five minutes; add an extra fifteen minutes to see the basement. Today, the building houses the country's parliament and a few museums - though much of it remains unused. Originally named the House of the Republic when under its long period of construction, but after the Romanian Revolution in December 1989 it became widely known as The People's House. Located inside the Palace of Parliament is the National Museum of Contemporary Art. It displays temporary, always changing exhibitions of eclectic installations and video art. Note: the museum entrance is on the south side of the building, the opposite end of the palace tour entrance. Check the museum website in advance to make sure something is on during your visit to spare yourself a long walk around the structure. From the palace, head back along bulevardul Unirii and look for the Patriarchal Cathedral at strada Dealul Mitropoliei. This church was built in 1658 and is the home of the Romanian Orthodox faith. It triumphantly rises over once grand housing blocks on bulevardul Unirii designed to 'hide' the city's churches. During the 15th century, a small wooden church surrounded by vineyards occupied this site. None of the interior paintings survived, except the one icon depicting Constantin and Helen - the cathedral's patron saints. Found at bulevardul Geniului 1 is the elegant Cotroceni Palace, the official residence of the Romanian president. Many rooms are open to visitors - guided tours require advanced booking and once again, bring your passport. The palace has an illustrious place in Romanian history, most notably as the former home of Queen Marie, the wife of King Ferdinand I.
It's now time for a leisurely break and there's no better place to chill than at the locally beloved Cismigiu Gardens. This vast park has beautiful fountains, shady walking paths, glorious monuments, an artificial lake, cafes and a ridiculous number of benches on which to sit and stare at Bucharest residents passing by. If you fancy a bite to eat or perhaps want to wet your whistle, the 19th century Gambrinus Brewery serves local beer and traditional food. After some down time, make your way to the National Art Museum at calea Victoriei 49 in Revolution Square. Housed in the 19th century Royal Palace, this massive museum has two permanent galleries: one for National Art and the other for European Masters. The national gallery is particularly strong on ancient and medieval art, while the European gallery includes some 12000 pieces and is laid out by nationality. The Royal Palace itself is a treat - built in 1815 by Prince Dinicu Golescu, the palace became the official royal residence in 1834 during the reign of Prince Alexandru Ghica. Note: the museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Monday and Tuesday. Outside the museum in Revolution Square is the Memorial of Rebirth. This striking monument, respected and reviled in equal measure, marks the dramatic events of 1989 when many people died in this area for their opposition to the Ceausescu regime. The white obelisk piercing a basket like crown stands on an island and represents the victims of the revolution that overthrew Communism. The memorial was designed by Alexandru Ghildus and inaugurated in August 2005. Across the street is the former Central Committee of the Communist Party Building, the scene of Ceausescu's infamous last speech. It was from the balcony that he last spoke to the people on December 21, 1989 - the following day he and his wife escaped the city by helicopter, but were captured a few hours later and shot.
Further up the street from Revolution Square at strada Benjamin Franklin 1 is the exquisite Romanian Athenaeum, the majestic heart of Romania's classical music tradition. Scenes from Romanian history are featured on the interior fresco inside the Big Hall on the first floor. The beautiful dome is 135 feet high. The Athenaeum is home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra and usually only open during concerts, but you can often take a peek inside. The peristyle is adorned with mosaics of five Romanian rulers, including Moldavian prince Vasile Lupu, Wallachian Matei Basarab and King Carol I. It was built in 1888, and Romanian composer George Enescu made his debut here in 1898 - followed five years later by the first performance of his masterpiece, Romanian Rhapsody. Note: the George Enescu Philharmonic is dark during the summer months, June through August. Not far away at strada Pictor Verona 13 is Carturesti Verona, the totally awesome second location of the previously mentioned bookstore chain. This shop is also a music store, tearoom and funky backyard garden. It has a great collection of design, art and architecture books, as well as carefully selected CDs and DVDs - including many classic Romanian films with English subtitles. Conclude your tour of Bucharest with a visit to the Former Ceausescu Residence Museum or the Triumphal Arch. Located at bulevardul Primaverii 50, the Former Ceausescu Residence Museum is the former main residence of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu - who lived here for two decades up until the end in 1989. Everything has been returned to its former luster, including the couple's bedroom and the private apartments of the three Ceausescu children. Highlights include a cinema in the basement, Elena's opulent private chamber, and the back garden and swimming pool. Note: the museum is open from 10a-5p and is closed on Monday. Based on Paris's namesake monument, the Triumphal Arch was built in 1935 to commemorate the reunification of Romania in 1918. Sites of World War I battles are inscribed inside the arch, while King Ferdinand and Queen Marie feature on its southern facade.
WHERE TO EAT
Bucharest has plenty of great places to eat and have a drink. There's an emerging food scene in town and restaurants have a wide range of offerings, usually taking advantage of what’s fresh and seasonal. Begin at Trofic, located next to the Cismigiu Gardens at strada Brezoianu 29. It is one of the best breakfast and brunch spots in town. The coffee is top notch, the cakes are yummy and the baristas are friendly. The place is bright and contemporary and the crowd that has made this joint its regular haunt is hip and trendy. French Revolution can be found at strada Constantin Esarcu 1 - it has the best eclairs in the city and is a pilgrimage site for locals and French expats alike. This stylish pastry shop tantalizes with 16 different flavors (try the choco noir) and also serves some superb coffee. Note: be there at 10a when they open, as your favorite flavor may run out quickly. For the best coffee in town, head to Origo at strada Lipscani 9. It's a cool place to hang in the morning and offers lots of specialty roasts. If you fancy tea, Ceainaria Infinitea at strada Doctor Grigore Romniceanu 7 is your place chap. It is the quintessential tea house - exuding Bucharest bohemia in Cotroceni, a tree lined neighborhood with an impressive array of 19th century art deco, neo Romanian and modernist villas. A true urban oasis, this place is an attraction for its tranquil garden, as well as its tea and cake selection. Note: it opens at 2p Monday through Friday and 12p on Saturday and Sunday.
Another wonderful spot is Gradina Verona, a garden oasis hidden behind the previously mentioned Carturesti Verona bookshop at strada Pictor Verona 13. It serves excellent espresso drinks and some of the most inspired iced tea and lemonade infusions you're likely to find in Romania, such as peony flower, mango and lime - very refreshing. A great place for lunch is Ciorbarie, located at calea Dorobanti 73. This small eatery runs on a simple concept of serving only ciorba, the trademark sour soup Romanian cuisine is known for. Expect several kinds of fresh soup each day, served in generous bowls with quality homemade bread and a spicy green pepper (the way locals eat it). Shift Pub is a solid choice for salads and burgers, as well as numerous beef and pork dishes. It opens at 12p and can be found at strada General Eremia Grigorescu 17 - try to arrive early to grab a coveted table in the tree covered garden. Some additional lunch places that do a mean burger are Modelier and Za Lokal. Modelier is in a residential neighborhood east of the city center at strada Duzilor 12. Along with artisanal burgers, it has some of the city's best fries and homemade lemonade. Za Lokal is at calea Victoriei 214 - the burger menu is impressive and includes choices of beef, pork, lamb and even duck. Be sure to try the beef burger with blue cheese and caramelized onions. There are 2 spots for street food that I especially enjoyed. The first is La Cocosatu, located at strada Neagoe Voda 52. It is the best place in town for Romanian Mititei (mici) - a traditional dish of grilled ground meat rolls made from a mixture of beef, lamb and pork with spices such as garlic, black pepper, thyme and coriander. The skinless sausages are grilled fresh to order and served with mustard and crusty bread. The second spot is Dristor Kebap, found at strada Franceza 17 in the Old Town. This place does the best Doner kebab (seasoned meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie) in town and it's open 24 hours.
For dinner, head to the always exciting Caru' cu Bere at strada Stavropoleos 5 in the heart of the Old Town. Despite a decidedly touristy leaning atmosphere - with peasant girl hostesses and sporadic traditional song and dance numbers - Bucharest's oldest beer house and restaurant (opened in 1879) continues to draw a strong local crowd. The colorful art nouveau interior and stained glass windows dazzle, as does the classic Romanian food. Try the roasted pork knuckle with braised sour cabbage, polenta, horseradish and a chili pepper. Wash it down with a local Ursus draft beer and be sure to sample some of the fine spirits. Tuica is a traditional Romanian spirit prepared only from plums; spirits that are produced from other fruit are called Rakia. Located nearby at strada Franceza 62 is the sister restaurant Hanu' lui Manuc. It also focuses on traditional Romanian cooking in a relaxed wine cellar type setting - if the weather is pleasant, sit outside in the spacious courtyard. Menu highlights include Manuc's Platter (cheese croquettes, lamb meatballs, chicken roulade stuffed with bacon, cheese and mint, pan grilled 'burduf' mature cheese and char grilled vegetables), along with Romanian doughnuts with sour cream and jam for dessert. Once again, be sure to enjoy some of those tasty Romanian spirits. A true destination restaurant in the historic center, Lacrimi si Sfinti takes modern trends such as farm to table freshness and organic sourcing and combines them to old school Romanian recipes. The philosophy extends to the simple, peasant inspired interior where the woodworking and decorative elements come from old farmhouses. To start, try the minced veal and pork meatballs seasoned with coriander and basil, then move on to the traditional cabbage rolls filled with a mix of ground goose, pork and veal. Save room for the plum dumplings, made from locally sourced plums. Note: the restaurant can be found at strada Sepcari 16 and reservations are recommended.
Located at strada Paris 61 in one of the city's poshest sectors, Maize is a must visit for its 'new Romanian cuisine' concept and its exceptional seasonal ingredients, as well as its modern approach to Romanian classics. It has a stunning open space layout with a firewood grill and a lovely terrace. Might I suggest you start with the charcuterie platter in order to sample some of the delicious aged cheese. For your main, you can't go wrong with the perfectly seasoned and grilled steak. My favorite restaurant in town is perhaps the best in the country - the Artist. Located at calea Victoriei 147 in a restored 1880s villa, this is the top fine dining locale in Bucharest thanks to chef Paul Oppenkamp and his approach to modern cuisine with Romanian influences. The menu changes every three months, aside from the now legendary cucumber sorbet. I highly recommend the 'spoon tasting' option - you are served one perfectly presented spoonful of each of the offerings from the menu. There are 12 courses in total, each like small works of art, where you sample everything from trout and sea bass to foie gras, sous vide chicken, jumbo prawns, lamb, Wagyu beef, octopus and more. Note: the restaurant is closed on Monday and reservations are a must. End your evening in Bucharest with a drink or two. Fix serves the best drinks in town and can be found at strada Ion Brezoianu 23. Fabulous gin cocktails under quirky names are a guarantee (Being John Leskovacz and Remedia Amoris) at this botanical bar. With friendly bartenders and a cozy setting, you'll feel right at home. Note: the bar opens at 630p and is closed on Sunday. If you want wine, Paine si Vin is just down the street at strada Ion Brezoianu 4. This stylish wine bar has bottles from all the wine regions of Romania and serves tapas style platters to share - the Romanian platter is a must. The bar is open every day at 5p. If you're looking for a beer joint, Fabrica de Bere Buna at calea Victoriei 91 is your place. This Romanian Craft Beer Bar offers five Zaganu (the pioneers of craft brewing in Romania) beers: blonde, brown, an IPA, a Red Ale and Adonis. Also expect about ten other local craft beers. The bar is open every day at 12p. For drinks with a view, make your way to nearby Linea / Closer to the Moon at calea Victoriei 17. Found at the top of Victoria department store, it's the city's most popular rooftop bar - displaying an ingenious cosmic theme and offering panoramic views. Note: the bar is open every day at 6p; arrive early as it fills up quickly.
WHERE TO STAY
Bucharest offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is the Epoque Hotel, located at intrarea Aurora 17. Featuring an art nouveau exterior and a distinctive mansard roof, this polished all suite hotel is close to the Cismigiu Gardens and a short walk from the Romanian Athenaeum. Sophisticated suites have living rooms decorated in a neo Romanian style, and feature free WiFi, tea and coffeemakers, minibars and flat screen TVs. Additional perks include a complimentary breakfast buffet, an upscale French restaurant, a posh lounge and a seasonal terrace, plus a ritzy spa offering an indoor pool and a sauna.
A second option is Hotel Cismigiu, located at bulevardul Regina Elisabeta 38. Dating from 1912, this art nouveau style hotel is across the street from the Cismigiu Gardens and a brief stroll from the Old Town (Lipscani). The elegant suites and apartments come with flat screen TVs, free WiFi, minibars and sitting areas. The restaurant is set in a brewery and serves traditional Romanian dishes. Other amenities include a gym and a rooftop terrace.
Bucharest has a fascinating history, a dynamic culture, beautiful architecture and delicious cuisine. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.