E xuberant, cultured Bucharest (pronounced ‘boo koo resht’) clearly enjoys being Romania’s largest city and capital. Once dubbed the ‘the Little Paris’, because of its tree lined boulevards, glorious 20the century architecture and its reputation for the high life, Bucharest is indeed today a bustling metropolis bursting with centuries of architectural creations.
Yet besides the monasteries, theatres and other historic buildings, this eclectic place has beautiful parks, big squares and (for better or for worse) both communist-era concrete structures and gleaming modern shopping malls.
As with its shopping scene, Bucharest’s innumerable eateries, drinking holes and lively clubs depend on the robust university and business population. Today, Bucharest is home to over 50 institutions of higher education. You’ll find international students here representing everywhere from Australia, Italy and Spain to Israel, Greece, and Arab countries – making this little corner of Romania unexpectedly cosmopolitan.
Founded in the 16th century, Bucharest became Romania’s capital in 1859. Over the past 500 years, history, culture and religious life have molded the city’s unique character. Legend has it that the city of Bucharest was founded on the banks of the Dambovita River by a sherpherd named Bucur, whose name literally means „joy”. His flute playing reportedly dazzled the people and his hearty wine from nearby vineyards endeared him to the local traders, who gave his name to the place.
Bucharest boasts an impressive number of important historical/touristic sites to visit, some of which are highlighted below
Calea Victoriei is Bucharest’s oldest and arguably, most charming street. Built in 1692 to link the Old Princely Court to Mogosoaia Palace, it was initially paved with oak beams. The street became Calea Victoriei in 1878, after the Romanian War of Independence victory. Between the two world wars, Calea Victoriei developed into one of the most fashionable streets in the city.
Stroll along this street from Piata Victoriei to Piata Natiunilor Unite to discover some of the most stunning buildings in the city, including the Cantacuzino Palace, the historical Revolution Square, the Military Club, the CEC Headquarters and the National History Museum.
The Arch of Triumph
(Arcul de Triumf)
Piata Arcul de Triumf Initially built of wood in 1922 to honor the bravery of Romanian soldiers who fought in World War I, Bucharest’s very own Arc de Triomphe was finished in Deva granite in 1936. Designed by the architect, Petre Antonescu, the Arc stands 85 feet high. An interior staircase allows visitors to climb to the top for a panoramic view of the city. The sculptures decorating the structure were created by leading Romanian artists, including Ion Jalea, Constantin Medrea and Constantin Baraschi.
The square gained worldwide notoriety when TV stations around the globe broadcasted Nicolae Ceausescu’s final moments in power on December 21, 1989. It was here, at the balcony of the former Communist Party Headquarters, that Ceausescu stared in disbelief as the people gathered in the square below turned on him. He fled the angry crowd in his white helicopter, only to be captured outside of the city a few hours later. The square’s importance stretches back long before the dramatic events of the 1989 Revolution. On the far side of the square stands the former Royal Palace, now home to the National Art Museum, the stunning Romanian Athenaeum and the historic Athenee Palace Hotel. At the south end of the square, you can visit the small, but beautiful, Kretzulescu Church.
Palace of the National Military Circle
(Cercul Militar National)
Standing guard imposingly, this neoclassical masterpiece, designed by Romanian architect Dimitrie Maimaroiu, was built in 1912 to serve the social, cultural and educational needs of the Romanian army. Banquets and official events are still hosted in the ballrooms, while the upstairs area is reserved for the army’s library, as well as offices and classrooms for officer instruction. The main part of the building is off-limits to civilians, but the sumptuous restaurant and summer terrace is open to the public.
The Romanian Athenaeum
The work of French architect Albert Galleron, who also designed the National Bank of Romania, the Athenaeum was completed in 1888, financed almost entirely with money donated by the general public. One of the preeminent public fundraising campaigns ever in Romania, the „Give a penny for the Athenaeum” campaign saved the project after the original patrons ran out of funds. With its high dome and Doric columns, the Athenaeum resembles an ancient temple.
The lobby has a beautifully painted ceiling decorated in gold leaf, while curved balconies cascade in ringlets off a spiral staircase. A ring of pink marble columns is linked by flowing arches where elaborate brass lanterns hang like gems from a necklace. Inside the concert hall, voluptuous frescoes cover the ceiling and walls. Renowned worldwide for its outstanding acoustics, it is Bucharest’s most prestigious concert hall and home of the Romanian George Enescu Philharmonic.
Perhaps the city’s unique charm can be best observed in the area known as Lipscani, which consists of a jumble of streets between Calea Victoriei, Blvd. Bratianu, Blvd. Regina Elisabeta and the Dambovita River. A once-glamorous residential area, the old city centre is now slowly being refashioned into an upscale neighborhood.
At the beginning of 1400s, most merchants and craftsmen – Romanian, Austrian, Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian, Armenian and Jewish – established their stores and shops in this section of the city. Soon, the area became known as Lipscani, named for the many German traders from Lipsca or Leiptzig. Other streets took on the names of various old craft communities and guilds, such as Blanari (furriers), Covaci (blacksmiths), Gabroveni (knife makers) and Cavafii Vechii (shoe-makers). The mix of nationalities and cultures is reflected in the mishmash of architectural styles, from baroque to neoclassical to art nouveau.
Today, the area is home to many art galleries, antique shops and coffeehouses. On a beautiful day, you can stroll down the narrow cobblestone streets and imagine the shopkeepers outside near their stores, encouraging people to buy their merchandise and negotiating prices with them. Don’t forget to stop by Hanul cu Tei, which is a rectangular courtyard between Strada Lipscani and Strada Blanari, home to an array of art and antiques shops.
Built by Communist Party leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, the colossal Parliament Palace (formerly known as the People’s Palace) is the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon. It took 20,000 workers and 700 architects to build. The palace boasts 12 stories, 1,100 rooms, a 328-ft-long lobby and four underground levels, including an enormous nuclear bunker.
When construction started in 1984, the dictator intended it to be the headquarters of his government. Today, it houses Romania’s Parliament and serves as an international conference centre. Built and furnished exclusively with Romanian materials, the building reflects the work of the country’s best artisans. A guided tour takes visitors through a small section of dazzling rooms, huge halls and quarters used by the Senate (when not in session). The interior is a luxurious display of crystal chandeliers, mosaics, oak paneling, marble, gold leaf, stained-glass windows and floors covered in rich carpets.
Set atop one of the city’s few hills, known as Mitropoliei, the Metropolitan Church has been the centerpiece of the Romanian Orthodox faith since the 17th century. The church was built by Constantin Serban Basarab, ruler of the province of Walachia between 1656 and 1658, to a design inspired by the Curtea de Arges monastery. It became the Metropolitan Church in 1668 and the seat of the Romanian Orthodox Church in 1925.
The Byzantine interior, containing the most dazzling of the city’s iconostasis, as well as a couple of exquisitely carved side altars, bestows great beauty on the services presided over by the Romanian Patriarch. A huge crowd gathers here for the Easter midnight service. The outstanding bell-tower at the entrance was built in 1698 and restored in 1958. Next to the church, and closed to the public, is the Patriarchal Palace(1708), residence of the Teoctist, supreme leader of the Romanian Orthodox Church.
The Stavropoleos Church was built in 1724 by the Greek monk Ioanikie Stratonikeas. Featuring a combination of Romanian and Byzantine architecture, it has a beautiful façade and a delicately carved columned entrance. Surrounded by a peaceful garden, it is an architectural jewel, with beautiful frescoes and wood-painted icons. The mass (in Romanian) is worth viewing if you can find room in this small and cozy church.
Old Princely Court & Church
(Palatul si Biserica Curtea Veche)
At the centre of the historic area are the remains of the Old Princely Court (Curtea Veche), built in the 15th century by Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad Dracula. According to local lore, Vlad kept his prisoners in dungeons which commenced beneath the Princely Court and extended under the city. All that remains today are a few walls, arches, tombstones and a Corinthian column.
The Old Court Museum was established in 1972 when an archaeological dig revealed the remains of the fortress, along with Dacian pottery and Roman coins, evidence of Bucharest’s earliest inhabitants. The oldest document attesting to the city’s origin under the name of Bucuresti (Bucharest) was discovered here. It was issued on September 20, 1459 and signed by Prince Vlad Tepes.
Next to the palace stands the Old Court Church (Biserica Curtea Veche), dating from 1559 and considered the oldest in Bucharest. For two centuries, the church served as coronation ground for Romanian princes. Some of the original 16th century frescoes have been preserved.
Cotroceni Palace & Museum
(Muzeul National Cotroceni)
A former royal residence built between 1679 and 1681 by Prince and ruler Serban Cantacuzino, the palace was home to King Carol I, who made important changes in its architecture. At the end of the 19th century, Heir-to-the-Crown Ferdinand ordered the partial demolition of the palace, which was later reconstructed by French architect Paul Gottereau in neoclassical style. In 1977, Nicolae Ceausescu transformed it into an official guesthouse with the addition of a new wing.
After 1990, the old wing of the palace became a museum. The Oriental Hall, the Norwegian Hall and the Queen’s Chamber are almost unchanged from the original design and are worth visiting. Very important collection of medieval art also can be seen here. The new wing serves as the seat of the Romanian Presidency.
National Art Museum
Romania’s leading art museum was founded in 1948 to house the former Royal Collection, which included Romanian and European art dating from the 15th to the 20th century. Located in the neoclassical former Royal Palace, set amid a wealth of historic buildings such as the Romanian Athenaeum, Kretzulescu Church and the Hotel Athenee Palace-Hilton, the museum currently exhibits over 100,000 works divided into two major sections. Its National Gallery features the works of major Romanian artists, including Grigorescu, Aman and Andreescu.
There is also a roomful of early Brancusi sculpture, such as you won’t find anywhere else, demonstrating how he left his master, Rodin, behind in a more advanced form of expression. The European Gallery, comprising some 15 rooms, displays little-known art gems from the likes of El Greco, Monet, Rembrandt, Renoir, Breughels (father and son) Cezanne and Rubens. If you only have time to visit one gallery, make it the Romanian one. It is the most complete collection of Romanian works of art in the country and quite possibly, the world.
Designed in 1845 by the German landscape architect Carl Meyer, the garden opened to the public in 1860. The name, Cismigiu, comes from the Turkishcismea, meaning „public fountain.” More than 30,000 trees and plants were brought from the Romanian mountains, while exotic plants were imported from the botanical gardens in Vienna. Cismigiu is Bucharest’s oldest park and a great place to stroll and enjoy a break from the hectic city. Set amid green lush lawns and winding paths, the park offers a lake with rowboat rentals, a beer garden, a playground for children, a chess area for amateurs and plenty of park benches for relaxing and people-watching.
Founded by royal decree in 1936, this fascinating outdoor museum, the largest in Europe, covers some 30 acres on the shores of Lake Herastrau in Herestrau Park. It features a collection of 50 buildings representing the history and design of Romania’s rural architecture. Steep-roofed peasant homes, thatched barns, log cabins, churches and watermills from all regions of the country were carefully taken apart, shipped to the museum and rebuilt in order to recreate the village setting. Throughout the year, the Village Museum hosts special events where you will have a chance to witness folk artisans demonstrating traditional skills in weaving, pottery and other crafts. Folk arts and crafts are available at the museum gift shop.
Spread over some 400 acres, from the Arch of Triumph to the Baneasa Bridge, the park is home to numerous attractions, including a boat rental complex, tennis courts, and a rather old-fashioned fairground. In the summertime, many terraces open up on the shores of the lake. For an overview of the park, take a ride around the lake on the ferry or rent your own boat. The park is also home to the Village Museum. The area surrounding the park holds even greater treasures. The streets between Bulevardul Mircea Eliade and Soseaua Kisileff contain extraordinarily beautiful houses in architectural styles ranging from 19th century neoclassical to 20th century art nouveau and modern luxury villas. This is where Bucharest’s elite once lived – and still do today.