“Stroll through more than 500 years of history from the times of Vlad the Impaler aka Dracula to the “golden era” of communism and the ’89 Revolution and unravel the stories of old and new Bucharest”. – Walkabout Tours, Bucharest
I must confess. I’ve had a hard time grasping how I would write about Bucharest. This fascinating yet often conflicting city has left me utterly dumbfounded on how to best present it. With its tiny treasure trove of charming streets, churches and parks tucked away from huge swaths of historic neighborhoods that were depressingly torn down under Communist rule, I found Bucharest intriguing in its own right as long as I forgot what was once there. An eclectic mix of historic charm, Parisian flair juxtaposed with block after block of notoriously ugly, characterless and stark 80s-style Communist concrete apartments contributed to Bucharest’s confusing feel.
Although Bucharest pales in comparison to the beauty and magic of Prague and some of her eastern neighbors, this city of two million inhabitants has its own unique charm and character particularly if you do not spend a lot of time in the city’s unattractive and somewhat grimy remnants of Communism’s past. However, if you skip this part of town and try to view Bucharest with rose-colored glasses, you will miss a big part of what makes this city so incredibly interesting and will also not understand a big part of Communist Bucharest’s past. A full day or two in Bucharest is enough to give you a sense of the city before heading off to Romania’s beautiful, magical countryside of spectacular villages, castles and of course the mountains.
We arrived in Bucharest early evening after traveling for over 24 hours from the US. We left home on a Saturday morning and didn’t check into our hotel until half past seven on Sunday night. We instantly realized that we would not have a lot of time to explore Bucharest before setting off into the countryside. Given the long distance to get to Romania, we would only have five full days on the ground and we both preferred to spend it in the countryside.
We stayed at the beautiful, historic Athénée Palace Hilton located in the Revolution Square and only a short ten minute walk to Old Town. It was the perfect place to base ourselves for our stay as the upscale neighborhood around the hotel is peaceful, quaint and offers a handful of lovely restaurants and cafes if you prefer something quiet. Our first night in Bucharest, we headed straight to lively Old Town which is filled with street after street of outdoor restaurants, bars and cafes where we enjoyed a casual meal while taking in the electric atmosphere of a summer night out in Bucharest.
The next day, we rose early to take full advantage of our day in Bucharest. With only one full day, we wanted to make the best of it and see as much as possible. We joined a three-hour city tour with Walkabout Tours, a not-for-profit organization that gives free informative walking tours by local guides. It was the perfect way to get the lay of the land while also learning a little history and culture of Romania. We met our enthusiastic, knowledgable guide Anca next to the giant clock in Unirii Square just off the Bulevardul Unirii, a major thoroughfare in the heart of Bucharest that was longtime Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu’s failed attempt at making his own, grander Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris. It was the perfect place to start our walk given the political, historical and symbolic importance of this street.
In ten minutes, our local guide Anca dressed in her bright orange Walkabout Tours t-shirt filled us in on the debilitating 25-year rule of Ceaușescu, with particular focus on the destruction of over 3,500 meters of historical neighborhoods and homes in the early 1980s to build the highly unattractive Bulevardul Victoria Socialismului (Victory of Socialism Boulevard) Thousands of families lost their homes and were forced to reside in tiny, unheated concrete apartment blocs inspired after North Korea.
At the end of the boulevard lies Ceaușescu’s insanely opulent Palace of the Parliament (also called “The People’s Palace”) which is the second largest administrative building in the world behind the Pentagon. This enormous monstrosity is a story in its own but gives you an idea of the size of Ceaușescu’s ego and madness. (Ceaușescu who ruled with an iron fist for 42 years was executed after the 1989 revolution that ended Communism in Romania). You can tour the Palace if you like but we read mixed reviews so decided to skip it.
According to our guide, the People’s Palace and boulevard were part of Ceaușescu’s plans to make Romania world-renown and put it on the map. Yet instead it enraged the people and took away much of Bucharest’s history and charm not to mentions blocks and blocks of neighborhoods and buildings. As we walked down the Bulevardul Unirii, I was shocked by its lack of repair and depressing featureless buildings. Even the grass was dead and the once luxurious stores had cracks in the windows and no customers. It was a painful reminder of Communism’s failure.
The most charming part of Bucharest is the lovely cobblestone streets of Old Town. Legend has it that a shepherd named Bucur came down from the mountains in the 1300s to this very spot and founded a village yet there are no official records. By 1459, a palace and court were constructed in the area by the infamous Vlad Țepeș also known as Vlad the Impaler and the man who inspired Dracula. In the 15th century, the city quickly grew around the palace as it became the heart and soul of Bucharest. Today, Old Town remains the most beautiful part of the city and is the only place you will see remains from the city’s historic past since so much was either destroyed during the wars, earthquakes or Communism.
Old Princely Court (Palatual Curtea Veche)
One of the highlights of the square is Hunul lui Manuc or Manuc’s Inn. It was built where the Royal Palace once stood in the 18th century as a “han”, a place where traveling merchants could stop, eat and spend the night. It was designed with a massive courtyard that could protect the merchandise, horses and carriages of the merchants. Today, it operates as a restaurant serving traditional Romanian food and a hotel. It’s unique wooden roof was constructed in such a mysterious way that only one man can fix it and it has to be replaced every four years.
“The Old Princely Court Church” was founded in 1559 by Mircea Ciobanul and is considered one of the oldest churches in the city. Its beautiful red and cream striped facade in its Neo Gothic style are exquisite as well as it’s dreamy inside.
Old Town was by far my favorite place in Bucharest as it is filled with architectural treasures, fascinating churches, lovely outdoor cafes in various states of renovation and disrepair, and a vibrant, eclectic vibe. Unfortunately this area is not very big especially when compared to the massive size of Old Town in Prague. However, given its small size it can be easily seen within a few hours and of course there are plenty of places to stop for lunch if you are hungry.
There are also several fascinating churches that cannot be missed in Old Town, my favorite being Stavropoleos Monastery with its unique blend of three styles of architecture: Turkey (the arches), Italy (the paintings), and Romanian (the columns).
Built in 1724 this Eastern Orthodox church and monastery is characterized by its stunning stone and wood carvings and its lovely courtyard. It also has a strange display of old tombstones dating back to the 18th century.
During our walking tour, we learned that over 40 historic churches were demolished under the rule of Ceaușescu to make way for his grandiose redevelopment projects during Communism causing an uproar amongst the population. There were eight churches that were moved on train tracks to new locations which was expensive, time consuming yet at least they were saved.
A few more highlights from our walking tour of Bucharest
After an entire morning on our feet, we were starving and had a traditional Romanian lunch at Manuc’s Inn. We spent the rest of the afternoon retracing our footsteps in Old Town and enjoyed a lovely dinner at a quiet Italian restaurant outside our hotel. Unfortunately we would not have enough time to visit some of Bucharest’s immense parks and gardens (there are four large parks dotted around the city that provide peace, tranquility and nature for weary city residents and tourists alike). This would have to wait for another visit. There are also several interesting museums to visit such as the National Museum of Contemporary Art, the National History Museum, and the Jewish History Museum. Quite frankly, with only 24 hours in Bucharest we just didn’t have the time and had to carefully select what we wanted to see and do.
Another day would have been wonderful to explore more of the city’s charms but it just wasn’t in the cards. The following morning we were up early and headed to Brasov, the heart of Transylvania where we would spend the rest of our week in Romania. I could hardly wait.
If you go:
Athénée Palace Hilton is the ideal place to discover Bucharest, right from the heart of the city.
Carru’ cu Bere: Bucharest’s oldest beer house is definitely worth a stop even if only to look inside at its spectacular Belle Epoque interior. Very touristy but definitely worth have a beer there or even a meal.
This article is also available for download on the iTunes app GPSmyCity. You can download by clicking this link. GPSmyCity provides a GPS-assisted downloadable version of this blog post.
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