The capital of Romania, Bucharest was known back in the 1900s as “Little Paris” and with its tree-lined boulevards, Belle Époque buildings (don’t let the odd, austere communist-era building put you off) and buzzing nightlife, it’s a nickname which is just as apt today as it was back in the day!
In fact, Lonely Planet advises would-be visitors that despite its “bad rap” , the city is dynamic, energetic and fun. According to the world famous travel guide: “Many travellers give the city just a night or two before heading off to Transylvania, but that’s clearly not enough. Allow at least a few days to take in the good museums, stroll the parks and hang out at trendy cafes.
The essentials – top five
The gargantuan Palace of Parliament – The largest and heaviest administrative building on the planet used for civilian purposes, this impressive series of buildings (pictured) was Nicolae Ceausescu’s attempt to redesign Bucharest – and show the world just how wealthy and powerful was the Socialist Republic of Romania. And impressive it certainly is, although considered by many Romanians to be a symbol of Ceausescu’s megalomania and the extravagant lives led by the former communist elites. The Palace of Parliaments is open daily between 9am and 5pm, March to October, and from 10am to 4pm, November to February. There are a number of different tours on offer, including the standard tour, panorama tour and underground tour (one episode of Top Gear saw the three presenters driving their cars through the tunnels hidden beneath the Palace of the Parliament. These were designed by Ceausescu so he could get from the building to the airport below ground in case of a Revolution.)
The Arch of Triumph – Situated on Kiseleff Boulevard, the main access route to Bucharest, the arch was initially built of wood in 1878 to honor the Romanian soldiers who won the Independence War. It was rebuilt in 1922 to celebrate the Romanian army’s victories in WWI and the Great Unification of 1918. On the South façade there are two bronze medallions featuring King Ferdinand and Queen Maria. Designed by the architect, Petre Antonescu, the Arch stands 89 feet high with an interior staircase where visitors can climb to the top for a panoramic view of the city.
The Old Town – Known to most locals as “Centru Vechi”, (the Old Centre), the Old Town is more or less all that’s left of pre-World War II Bucharest (what the war didn’t destroy, communism did). This charming quarter has enough sights to keep you occupied for the day and enough bars and clubs to keep you equally (if not more than) busy during the night.
Cantacuzino Palace – One of the city’s most beautiful buildings, the Palace is also home the George Enescu National Museum. It was built between 1901 and 1903 by order of the legendarily wealthy Gheorghe Grigore Cantacuzino (his wealth earned him the nickname of “Nabob”) who wished to have the most elegant residence in Bucharest. The Palace was designed in a neoclassical architectural style with art nouveau elements, including wrought iron balconies, tall arched windows and a porte-cochere (a wrought-iron doorway) flanked by two lions.
Revolution Square – The square gained worldwide notoriety back in December 1989 as the spot beamed to television sets across the world where Nicolae Ceausescu’s final moments where seen. 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. 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.
The Budget or Broke Recommendation (i.e. free)
Victory Way – Calea Victoriei is Bucharest’s oldest street. Designed in 1692 to connect the Old Princely Court to Mogosoaia Palace, the street was originally paved with oak beams. Since then it has 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 Revolution Square, the Military Club, National Savings Bank Palace and the National History Museum.
Looking for something local, then maybe try a little mici. This skinless sausage (yeah, I know, doesn’t sound quite delish but it is) is one of the city’s best street foods. The meat is mixed with secret spices, barbecued for a few minutes, and served piping hot alongside a fresh bread bun, mustard and (if you’re doing it right) a beer. Order two or three as this is a small dish and well worth trying.
Bucharest has a proud history of craftmanship and some local gifts include bead jewellery, hand painted Easter eggs, Romanian wine, glass painted icons and Oltenia Carpets and Rugs
While extensive, Bucharest’s public transport network is far from fit for purpose. Services are few and far between, slow, and as a result most trams, buses and even the metro are notoriously overcrowded throughout the day – and watch put for pickpockets (you have been warned!). Ride-sharing apps Taxify and Uber are well-established in Bucharest and present a good alternative to the city‘s often unreliable, dirty, and rip-off taxis.
To use buses, trams or trolleybuses, you must first purchase an ‘Activ’ card (3.70 lei) from any RATB street kiosk, which you then load with credit that is discharged as you enter the transport vehicles. Trips cost 1.30 lei each, and the minimum amount of credit you can buy is 5 lei.
Metro stations are identified by a large letter ‘M’. To use the metro, buy a magnetic-strip ticket available at ticketing machines or cashiers inside station entrances (have small bills handy). Tickets valid for two journeys cost 5 lei. A 10-trip ticket costs 20 lei. The metro is a speedy way of moving up and down the central north–south corridor from Piaţa Victoriei to Piaţa Unirii, passing through the convenient stations of Piaţa Romană and Universitate.