Bucharest, the heart of Romanian culture
The capital of Romania feels like Paris with a hangover. Wide boulevards, spacious squares and elegant high-rise buildings from the early 20th century give it a French flair.
Those who dare to look under the ruins of the 20th century can still find architectural gems in Bucharest. However, the real jewels of Bucharest are the Romanians. Within the European Union, this is one of the poorest countries. On the other hand, in terms of hospitality and friendliness of the locals, it is one of the wealthiest member states. That is probably the reason that after a couple of days in this city, Bucharest gets under your skin.
A city trip to Bucharest
The hangover stems from the turbulent relationship the city has had with the last communist leader of the country, Nicolae Ceauşescu. Many historic buildings had to make way for Soviet-style grey structures during his reign. Then, finally, an earthquake in 1977 with a magnitude of 7.4 on the Richter scale finished the job.
Communist Politics in Romania
Since there was no place for religion in communist teachings, leaders of the Orthodox Church were given a choice to move their churches to another part of the country or destruction the building. In the first case, the church was put on train tracks and rebuilt somewhere in the corner of Romania.
The alternative was the demolition of the church. About 300 churches in Bucharest made a lucky escape. According to our guide, “only” 17 were ultimately destroyed,
Tourist attractions in the old town of Bucharest
Other buildings and even entire neighbourhoods were less fortunate; they had to give in to the politics of the systematization of Ceauşescu. The most famous, or the notorious result of his policies, is the ‘House of the People or the Casa Poporului.
1. Casa Poporului or Parliament Palace
The Parliament Palace is the third-largest building globally, after the Pentagon in the United States and the Winter Palace in Lhasa. It has over one thousand rooms. All materials used in the construction and decoration are Romanian, with marble from the Carpathians. The silk carpets and giant chandeliers were all made locally.
This megalomaniac brainchild of Ceausescu’s is 350,000 M²; it has twelve floors above and eight below ground. The chandelier in the 600-seat theatre is gigantic. According to our guide, it takes four men to change a light bulb, and no, this is not a joke. The building has 2800 hanging lamps and chandeliers. Everything here is big, bigger and most prominent. Despite the vast empty areas in the building, the atmosphere is oppressive. One can feel the soul of the former Romanian leader still wandering the premises in search of his next victim.
Visit the Parliament Palace
Parts of the palace are open to the public. Some rooms can be rented for events such as conferences and concerts. Tourists can visit the building after handing in their passports, knives and other weapons (I know). The security at the entrance is similar to that of an airport. First, everyone must go through a scanner. Then when the alarm goes off, there is a physical examination. In my case (female), it was performed by a discreet and friendly policeman. The tour takes place in groups with an English-speaking guide. The palace is open daily from 10:00 to 16:00. It is usually jam-packed, so to be sure of a place to make a reservation in advance:
It is forbidden to take pictures; however, for 30 Lei, you can snap freely.
2. Cotroceni Palace
The former Royal Palace Cotroceni is now a national museum with over 20,000 works of art. However, I think the building is more interesting than the art on display. The original building was built between 1679 and 1681 by Prince Şerban Cantacuzino. His successors grew and extended the palace further. Although during the communist period, it was initially used as a training institution, after the 1977 earthquake, it was restored to its former glory as a guest palace.
Visit the Cotroceni Palace
The old wing and the modern Orthodox church (in the courtyard) are open to visitors. The rest of the building is used as presidential areas. This also explains the extreme security measures at the entrance. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm. Given the fuss, making a reservation at least one day in advance by telephone: 021.317.31.07 or by mail is advisable. email@example.com.
Foreigners pay 27 lei for standard entrance (for discounts and the latest information, see the palace’s website). Note filming, and photographers pay extra. You must also hand in your ID/passport at the entrance.
The palace is situated on the Bulevardul Geniului 1.
3. Athenaeum or Ateneul Româ
The Athenaeum is a concert hall in neoclassical style from 1888, designed by a French architect. The interior has romantic elements, marble, and a remarkable fresco (75 by 3 meters) in the concert hall.
Address: 1-3 Franklin Street, Sector 1
4. Carturesti Carusel bookshop
Carturesti Carusel, also named the “Carousel of Light”, is a historic bank building from the 19th century transformed into an architectural gem. The building is located in the centre of Bucharest, lively with cafés, restaurants and luxury shops.
Today the building functions as a bookshop, with six floors with more than 10,000 books. On the top floor is a restaurant, and a multimedia room and a gallery are in the basement. The first floor is dedicated to modern art.
The address of the bookstore is Strada Lipscani 55.
5. St.Nicholas Church
The St. Nicholas Russian Church is a small, picturesque building with seven domes. It is located in the centre of the city, near University Square. The church was built in 1905 on the initiative of the Russian ambassador for Russians in Bucharest. Admission is free. It is forbidden to take pictures inside the temple.
The address is Strada Blănari.
6. Hanul lui Manuc
Hanul Lui Manuc is the oldest inn in town that was until recently used as such. The building dates back to 1808. This was Bucharest’s main commercial complex around the middle of the 19th century, with 15 wholesalers, 23 shops, and 107 rooms for offices and housing. Now it houses several restaurants and cafés.
The complex is still mostly in its original state. And as such, an ideal film location. During my visit, a historical film was recorded (see picture below).
Inside the court, you will find a restaurant (Manuc’s Inn), renovated in the 19th-century atmosphere.
The Address is 62-64 strada Franceza. It is opposite the ruins of the Curtea Veche.
7. Curtea Veche
The first royal court of Bucharest was built in the 15th century, during the reign of Vlad Ţepeş. – Vlad, also known under the name Dracula. He was the one who inspired Bram Stoker to write a book about vampires. It is possible to visit the castle in Transylvania, where the story is set. It is a day trip from Bucharest.
The citadel was once the court of Wallachia province; now, only ruins remain.
Practical information for your city trip to Bucharest
- To get the inside knowledge, book a Bucharest walking tour.
- If you stay for a couple of days and want to make the most out of your money, consider buying the Bucharest Tourist Card, thus saving up to 50% on entrance fees;
- Eating For good food, try The Harbour on Str. Piaţa Amzei 10-22;
- Nightlife: experience a pub crawl in Bucharest for a unique nightlife experience.
- Currency Although Romania is a member of the EU, it still has its own money, the Lei (April 2015). At the time of writing, the exchange rate was around 4.4 Lei for one Euro;
- Transport Taxis are cheap and metered, count on 1:39 lei per kilometre;
- Traffic. The city suffers from traffic congestion. Keep this in mind when planning to go to the airport.
- I stayed (by invitation) at the Intercontinental Hotel Bucharest. This is an excellent four-star hotel in the centre of town.
The Danube Delta is a remote region in Romania where you will meet only a few locals and a handful of foreign tourists. It is, in fact, Romania’s best-kept secret.
The Delta consists of narrow creeks, canals, rivers, lakes, enchanting islands, pearly white sandy beaches and amazing wildlife. On a boat, with a camera at hand, it is easy to imagine that I am the new David Attenborough.
Want to eat honey from a comb or simply leave behind the stresses of the modern world? Then Dobrogea is a good place to start exploring rural Romania.