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Those layers are most evident in the city’s diverse architecture, a visual narration of the Bucharest story, which dates back to the 15th century. In fact, remnants of those early beginnings still remain in Lipscani, which is being reenvisioned as a pedestrian area. There lies the Old Court Church, which was erected in the mid-1500s. The many churches and temples throughout Bucharest are worth exploring as well, a voyage into the country’s religious and often most beautiful cultural past. Romania is predominantly Eastern Orthodox, and the corresponding churches are filled with gold-plated icons, intricate wood-carved interiors and colorful paintings.
As for the buildings, several Neoclassical structures survived the ruination of communism. Buildings such as the National Savings Bank and the Romanian Atheneum date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the city’s planners emulated Parisian-style architecture. Bucharest is also a showcase for an impressive number of Art Nouveau and Deco buildings, erected during the Thirties and Forties, ranging from public service structures like the looming Telephone Palace, to apartment buildings and hotels with retro geometric details.
But some of the most awe-inspiring and simultaneously off-putting constructions are those of the Communist era. Most impressive in size is the Parliament Palace, or People’s Palace, the largest building in the world by pure mass. Also noteworthy is the ambitious attempt at a fountain-lined network of avenues and boulevards, known as Centrul Civic, extending from the Parliament Palace to Piata Unirii, Bucharest’s version of the Champs-Elysées.
And today, the capital city is abuzz again with the newest wave of construction, a medley of modern development ranging from the creative, such as the glass headquarters of the Romanian Architects’ Association built atop the ruins of the virtually destroyed Securitate building, to the purely commercial. Regardless, the armada of cranes soaring above the city’s skyline is testament to its potential and growth.
As an optimistic Frolu says about his city’s still-fragile future: “Bucharest, in the next 10 years, will be reinvented.”
WHERE TO STAY
The Rembrandt Hotel in the Lipscani area might be one of the only true boutique hotels in the country. With only 16 rooms, the hotel sits in an artfully renovated building that dates to 1925. For the traditionalist, the Athenée Palace Hilton Bucharest also is centrally located just off the historic Piata Revolutiei and has a see-and-be-seen Sunday buffet brunch on the outdoor terrace. For something in between, the Ramada Majestic Bucharest is housed in a historic building with a modern glass facade on one of Bucharest’s main shopping and social drags, Calea Victoriei.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Romanian cuisine is similar to Turkish and Greek fare with crossover dishes such as eggplant spread and Greek salad. But unique to Romanian kitchens, among other things, are standards like meatball and tripe soup; sarmale, or stuffed cabbage; mamaliga, a polenta-like side dish, and mititei, grilled ground beef links. The best place to go in Bucharest for mititei is La Cocosatu, or “hunchback,” after the poor-posture cook bent over the grill. The recently reopened Caru Cu Bere is a more formal setting for traditional Romanian cooking.
At the freshly unveiled La Mandragora, Puiu’s restaurant, chef Paul Kopij gives French and Italian cuisine a nouveau twist. The wine list is one of the best in town. An expat establishment, Barka by Amarjit, has an Indian- and Asian-influenced menu, along with mango mojitos and other cocktails. Bucharest also is cultivating a hip cafe scene, with places such as Charme and Market 8 in the Lipscani area serving up cappuccinos and bistro fare. At night, bars and nightclubs like Amsterdam Grand Café and Club Embryo are where the cool kids go to let loose. If visiting Bucharest in the summer, make sure to trek to the top of the National Theater at Piata Universitatii where the rooftop garden La Matoare serves up beer, bar food and outdoor film screenings.
WHAT TO SEE
Bucharest is a city of contrasts, so visiting is to embrace its schizophrenia. Tour the monstrous Parliament Palace, but make sure to go round back to the glass-encased Bucharest National Museum of Contemporary Art, MNAC. At the Piata Revolutiei, where Ceausescu made his infamous final public speech, pay homage at the memorial to those who lost their lives in the revolution. Then cross the street to the National Art Museum, housed inside the former royal palace, which holds the country’s largest collection of artworks. Journey into the country’s folkloric past at the Romanian Peasant’s Museum, then explore its more recent past at the Communist Iconography Museum in the basement.
For a lighter jaunt, stroll through the city’s sprawling restored parks, such as Cismigiu and Herastrau, or get out of the city entirely for a day trip. Forty-five minutes outside of Bucharest lies Snagov, the famous lake once frequented by Vlad the Impaler (yes, aka Dracula). Take a boat ride to the island where a charming monastery is said to house his tomb. Not far from Bucharest is the Black Sea beach city Constanca, and the Transylvanian towns of Brasov, a mountain ski resort, and historic gems Sibiu and Sigisoara. Visit the Peles Castle, Ceausescu’s onetime vacation retreat, in Sinaia, 78 miles outside of Bucharest. Though Romania has an adequate bus and rail system, the easiest way to get around outside the capital is by rental car. Just watch the potholes.
Str. Smardan 11
Athenée Palace Hilton Bucharest
Str. Episcopiei 1-3
Ramada Majestic Bucharest
Calea Victoriei 38-40
Barka by Amarjit
Str. Sanatescu 1
Str. Mendeleev 29
Str. Neagoe Voda 52A
Caru Cu Bere
Str. Stravropoleos 3-5
12, St. Smardan
8, St. Stavropoleos
Amsterdam Grand Café
6, St. Covaci
3, St. Ion Otetelesanu