In spite of the lost years, demolished heritage and fight for freedom which characterise the post-WWII history of Romania’s capital Bucharest, the once Soviet Union country and its major city are now enjoying a revival and reinvention second to none in the former Communist satellite states. Once famous as ‘Little Paris’ in the period between WWI and WWII, the historic 600-year old city founded by the infamous Vlad the Impaler – Prince Vlad Tepes – is on its heritage feet again and reaching for the stars. In spite of hated dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s worst efforts to turn the city into a copy of North Korea’s concrete wasteland, many glorious heritage buildings, iconic Orthodox churches and grand civic mansions have survived, both in the old city, Lipscani and other districts.
To understand the city and its revival, visitors should perhaps visit Revolution Square before setting out on other explorations. The square is always busy, but its sombre atmosphere is a constant reminder of the hardships endured by Romanians during Ceausescu’s deluded and disastrous rule. The statue of a headless freedom fighter set in the wide open space commemorates the revolutionaries who died during the country’s struggle for freedom of expression, culture and religion. It’s thought-provoking and also a link between the great pre-WWII years and the triumphal future planned for the expanding city.
Fortunately, the mass destruction of beautiful buildings and entire districts during the Communist era missed out the oldest part of the city, leaving most of its grand public buildings untouched and keeping the stark Soviet-style blocks at a distance. Possibly the ugliest and certainly the largest building in Europe, Ceausescu’s massive Palace of Parliament, is an exception proving the rule as it’s now a visitor attraction. Guided tours reveal the lavish, marbled halls and state rooms with their magnificent tinkling chandeliers, all in dramatic contrast with the stark exterior of the edifice seen by the city’s population during the Communist years.
The culture of the city and rural Romania is preserved and enhanced in Bucharest’s 37 museums, many set in splendid neoclassical building, and in its musical life as well as its art galleries and traditional districts. Visitors will find their Bucharest city centre hotel is within a short walk through charming streets to many cultural destinations such as the National History Museum, the Opera House, Bucharest’s magnificent theatre, the National Museum of Art in the former Royal Palace and the imposing public buildings housing the Post Office, the Savings Bank and the Bank of Romania. Its oldest building, another royal palace, was built for Prince Vlad Tepes in the 15th century and holds a lovely, small Romanian Orthodox church.
A number of magnificent churches somehow survived Communism, as did tiny monasteries tucked away in city back streets and larger religious foundations in the countryside around the city. Two of the loveliest, with their gilded interiors covered in frescoes and icons, are the Stavropoleos Church and the 17th century Patriarchate Orthodox Church. The most spectacular monastery outside the city is towering Snagov Monastery, set in a forest overlooking a lake and easily reached from downtown.
No holiday is complete without great dining and shopping opportunities, and Bucharest has plenty of both at great prices. Restaurants here serve the traditional local cuisine, including meat-rich stews with grilled beef, chicken or pork and delicious, high-calorie pastries for dessert. Romanian wines are already popular in Europe and the local plum brandy is served here as an appetiser. For shopaholics, Bucharest now boasts an American-style shopping mall, but the best and most representative bargains are found in the tiny shops around the back streets behind Strada Lipscani and in the Sunday flea market on the banks of the Dambotiva River. Best buys here are pottery, glassware, antiques, crafts including traditional wood carvings and linens and even more plum brandy.
Lek Boonlert is an editor and content reviewer at DirectRooms and is responsible for all Bucharest City Centre Hotels content.