Once dubbed “Little Paris”, Bucharest has been shaped by multiple historical eras of war, dictatorship and revolution. Its stories are best told by the transcendent architecture found in the city’s Old Town, within the town squares and the snowballing local art scene.
The complex past of Bucharest has been met with a booming modern outlook that continues to drive the city forward while maintaining the byzantine and art nouveau buildings found along charming cobblestone lanes.
Your travels through Bucharest will come with plenty of opportunity to dive into the past, to experience a vibrant culture and unleash your inner foodie.
Visit Palace of the Parliament
Flooded with entrancing architecture of byzantine structures, art nouveau mansions and neoclassical facades, Bucharest wears its history on its sleeve. You can see this through the rich confluence of buildings, one of which is the spectacular Palace of the Parliament. After the Pentagon, the parliament is the largest government building on earth. Its colossal size featuring 3000 rooms and a luxuriousness that has to be seen to be believed.
Built by Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the parliament was constructed over a thirteen-year period from 1985 to 1997. When much of Bucharest was facing poverty, the Palace of the Parliament took 20,000 workers and almost a 1000 architects to install the stunning marble and steel designs along with the gilded facade, much of which was taken from buildings in the Old Town.
Construction was never fully completed, however today you can take a tour of the immense parliament now home to a small part of the country’s administration. The National Museum of Contemporary Art is also within the parliamentary building. Skip the line and enter the palace by booking online.
Stroll the length of Calea Victoriei
Much of your time in Bucharest will be spent picking your jaw off the ground after coming across yet another sightly piece of architecture. To see many of the best designs and a lot of attractions on this list, you can stroll the length of the historic Calea Victoriei. One of the first paved streets in Bucharest, Calea Victoriei, is teeming with history, its many buildings telling the tales of various periods in the city’s journey.
Beginning at Revolution Square, embark on a walk along the aesthetically pleasing street, which has long been home to Bucharest’s elite. Along the way, pass such attractions and masterpieces as the Stavropoleos Church, National Museum of Roman History and National Museum of Art before ending at the striking Romanian Athenaeum.
In between the historic sites are upscale shopping and entertainment offerings from high-end malls, popular restaurants and nightlife venues. Calea Victoriei is 1.7 miles (2.7km) long, making it the perfect length for a morning stroll as you watch Bucharest come to life.
Explore the Old Town
Before reaching the Roman Athenaeum, Calea Victoriei meanders through Bucharest’s Old Town. After getting a glimpse, be sure to carve out plenty of time on the itinerary to fully explore this amazing neighborhood. The Old Town is home to Curtea Veche, an open-air museum featuring excavated medieval ruins. You’ll also find some of the best restaurants in town selling traditional eats out of 19th-century buildings. The Old Town is where local culture and history collide.
As one of the earliest settlements in Bucharest, the Old Town dates back as far as the 1400s. In the centuries since, it has been on a rollercoaster ride as a parliamentary seat for Romanian royalty, a major hub for commerce and trade along with being a popular waypoint for travelers making their way through Europe. Yes, Bucharest was a center for backpackers long before you and I.
While many of the marvels that have been built over the last few hundred years have been masterfully restored to former glory, many remain in waiting to receive their facelift. This contrast offers an insightful look into life under the Ceausescu regime and adds a distinct element to the experience as you wander down the cobblestone streets.
Admire Stavropoleos Church
Captivating churches exist all around Bucharest. In fact, there are four of them alone in downtown, including the Church of Saint Anthony, St. Nicholas Church and Kretzulescu Church. Each one is worth a visit, with something unique to offer. However, the best of the lot is in the Old Town, Stavropoleos Church.
Far from your grand over-sized churches of yore, Stavropoleos is small in stature but bursting with elegance and delicate design. Created by a Greek monk in the early 18th century, the church features in complex entrance of columns and ornate craftwork. With both Romanian and Byzantine influences, the Orthodox church stands out among tough competition thanks to its combination of wood and stone carvings and interior frescoes.
The church is no longer be accompanied by a monastery and an inn. But you can head inside to explore the fascinating library with historic scripts connected to Byzantine music while surrounded by iconostasis, a wall of religious icons.
Walk around the Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum
You can spend a whole day basking in the sun at Herastrau Park (listed below), but one of the best things to do in Bucharest is to head to the west side of Herastrau and explore the Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum. The outdoor museum is, as the name suggests, an enormous village with over 250 authentic buildings that hail from all regions of Romania.
The unique museum is unlike anything you’ve visited before. Established in 1936 by Dimitrie Gusti, a renowned sociologist, the houses in the village were carefully deconstructed and moved to this site where they were put back together and on display. The earliest homes date back to the 1700s, with many made of cob (a combination of clay and straw), wood and stone.
Each home comes with a thorough informational plaque talking about its design and where it came from. You’ll be able to see just how different the designs were around Romania, from the vibrant Danube Delta to the intricate handiwork found in Berbesti.
See the Romanian Athenaeum
In a city of inspiring architecture, no building makes the hearts of locals flutter more than the Romanian Athenaeum. Inspired by the temples of Ancient Greece, Albert Galleron, a French architect, designed a 135ft (41m) high dome and an arcade of six columns across the front porch. Home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra, the esteemed concert hall has a large place in the city’s cultural landscape.
Just like the building, the orchestra began in the 19th century. The auditorium is large enough to seat over 650 guests who can admire the stunning interior and appreciate the Romanian Athenaeum’s incredible acoustics. After making your way through the lush gardens that lead to the building, you’ll be struck by the 230ft (70m) long fresco the has recreated pivotal scenes from the country’s history.
For a relatively affordable night of classical music from Mozart to Haydn, book ahead or pick up tickets from the box office. If you’re in Bucharest during September, experience one of the biggest classic events in Eastern Europe, the George Enescu Festival.
Stroll under the Arcul de Triumf
The Arcul de Triumf is dedicated to both the First World War and the Romanian War of Independence. The city’s arch of victory will feel familiar to those that have traveled through France. While the French version outdated the Romanian one by 130 years, it is no less a striking sight.
The first version of the Arcul de Triumf was built in 1878 after the Romanians broke away from The Ottoman Empire. Built in haste, the monument was replaced by a wooden structure after WWI before the modern day granite arch was intricately designed by Constantin Baraschi.
Standing at 90ft (27m) the arch features a series of adorned sculptures to help commemorate the wartime events. While the arch continues to serve as the nucleus for military parades and national holidays. Next to Herastrau Park and the village museum, combine all three for a packed day of history and sun.
Discover history at Revolution Square
On the 21st of December 1989, over 100,000 people gathered on Calea Victoriei and Palace Square to enforce a coup d’état and ensure that Nicolae Ceausescu dictatorship came to an end. The powerful gathering forced the leader to flee and immediately became a pivotal point in the nation’s history. Overnight, the site became known as Revolutionary Square.
From your spot in the square, you’ll be able to gaze upon the Ministry of Internal Affairs building. Here Nicolae and his wife climbed to the rooftop and escaped via helicopter as thousands of citizens stood below. Four days later, the infamous couple were tried and executed at the military base outside of Bucharest.
Ironically, it was here two decades prior that Nicolae Ceasescu reached the height of of popularity as he renounced the Kremlin and installed a policy of independence. Now, you’ll discover Revolution Square’s monument dedicated to the lives lost in the events of 1989, along with a statue of the Romanian prime minister Iuliu Maniu who was imprisoned by the ascending Communist Party.
To gain further insight into Romania’s communist history, join the Ashes of Communism walking tour. Be led through 45 years of communist history and learn about the pivotal moments in the very spot they occurred.
Make your way to Dracula’s Castle
Two and a half hours north of Bucharest is the town of Brasov, Transylvania. Lined with giant sign towers among old Soviet blocks, the skyline of Brasov is distinctive. Placed around the city are gothic-style guard towers. The entrance to Brasov is still through the medieval gates that have welcomed visitors for centuries. Once you’re on the inside, you’ll find yourself surrounded by breathtaking baroque churches before catching your breath in one of the many cozy cafes that surround the town square, Piata Sfatului.
In Brasov, you can discover the history of Vlad the Impaler, who would inspire the iconic character of Count Dracula. Vlad led raids against merchants right here in town. Brasov is the historical heart of Transylvania and the perfect place to learn about the folklore and mythology that led to Bram Stoker’s famous novel.
Better yet, join a guided tour that will take you to Peels and Bran Castle (Dracula’s Castle) before exploring the ancient walled city of Brasov.
Spend a day at Herastrau Park
A jam-packed itinerary should still leave room for the simple things in life. Whether that be a picnic with friends and family, or tucking into a novel under the shady trees. After a few busy days wandering historic streets and exploring Bucharest’s ornate buildings, reward yourself with a breather and make your way to the biggest park in the city.
Herastrau Park spans 462 acres, over a third of which is the expansive lake. The Herastrau Lake is mostly artificial, having been created after the marshes along the Colentina River were drained almost a century ago. You can explore the edge of the lake on a 3.7 mile (6km) walking trail for beautiful vistas and ample spots to sit and take in the scenery.
The park also features Bucharest’s Japanese Garden. Here, in the spring, the cherry trees bloom, adding a further layer of beauty, further complemented by Rose Island. From Herastrau Park’s main entrance, you can hire a bike for a leisurely ride through the sprawling green space.
Drive the Transfagarasan Road
It’s likely you’ve come across the Tranfagarasen Road, whether you knew it or not. It’s one of the most incredible stretches of road found anywhere on earth. If you’re into road trips, then this one has to be on the bucket list. Meandering up the Fagaras Mountains, the tallest range in Romania, the highway ascends from the valley, with a series of hairpin turns that hug the mountainside.
Along the way, you can catch your breath with stops at Fagaras Fortress, once home to Michael the Brave, the glacial blue waters of Balea Lake and Vidraru Dam. But you’ll quickly have the itch to press on, to continue down what is one of the most epic roads you’ll ever drive.
Around 3 hours north of Bucharest, take your time with an overnight trip. This will allow you the chance to explore Poenari Castle and return via Brasov.
Visit the Curtea Veche
After touring Brasov and seeing Bram Castle, you’ll be inspired to learn more about Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler. Curtea Veche was initially the residence of Wallachian princes. One of the most important figures in Wallachian history, which ended in the 15th century, was Vlad Tepes. Here, you’ll be able to see a statue of the iconic figure among the ruins that include the still-standing walls, columns and arches.
After The Ottoman Empire took over what is now known as Bucharest, Mircea Ciobanul expanded the palace to include the Old Princely Court. The prince played a key role in the development of the surrounding Lispcani (the Old Town). For over 200 years, the court was a place of coronation for succeeding Romanian royalty.
As you explore the archaeological site of Curtea Veche, pop into the Old Court Museum to see historic artifacts that were dug up around the area.
Go chasing food carts
As food trucks continue to show up everywhere, whether that be at your local brewery or public park, Bucharest has their own take on the phenomenon. In the aptly named Food Hood, you’ll find a collection of food carts slinging delicious local eats and international cuisine in a festive atmosphere complemented by live music and regular cultural events.
After arriving to satisfy your cravings for cheap eats, see what random events you stumble upon. Food Hood regularly hosts vintage wear sales, art events, and markets featuring artisanal goods and homegrown creations.
Once you’ve explored the day’s event, sit down on the of the many bean bags or shaded tables, listen to live music and enjoy your treats. But be sure to pair them all with a fresh pint of local craft beer.
Embark on a food tour
Europe is home to several so-called “Food Capitals”. Whether it be Italian, French or Greek, you’ll have no shortage of amazing cuisine to choose from. But the list of culinary cities is not complete without throwing Bucharest into the equation. Home to some of the best restaurants in Romania, serving authentic dishes out of 19th-century buildings, you can discover the diverse history of Bucharest through its cuisine.
For those who have spent time traveling through Hungary and the Czech Republic, you may be familiar with some of the local flavor. But for the most part, the cuisine stands alone. Some of the must try dishes on your travels through Bucharest include the shredded potato meatball creation called chiftele, pickled cabbage rolls called sarmale and budinca de devlecei, a vegetarian quiche that is all about the cheese.
Of course, three dishes barely scratch the surface, which is why you should immerse yourself in the local food scene on this street food tour. Explore various neighborhoods on foot, trying traditional meals, tasty doughnuts and local beer.
Explore the National Museum of Art
Featuring over 100,000 works across the many halls, the National Museum of Art is Romania’s leading art institution. Its thorough array of work is the most complete Romanian collection on earth and covers medieval, Renaissance and contemporary works.
Within the former Royal Palace, the National Museum of Art opened in 1948 and is split up into dozens of halls that showcase local and also international pieces. The Royal Collection, which features art that dates back to the 1400s, is on display along with work by revered Romanian artists, Theodor Aman, Gheorghe Tattarescu and Nicolae Grigorescu. One hall is purely for the creations of the legendary Constantin Brancusi, a leader of modern sculpting.
The 15 rooms showcasing European art is the perfect way to end your time here as you gaze upon the woks of Monet, Rubens and Rembrandt.
Peruse the city markets
As the central point of city life with fresh produce from the countryside, the markets of Bucharest have always played a major role in society. Despite the growth of supermarkets and modern convenience, the many markets around town continue to thrive. There are several markets that sell anything from fresh produce to flowers and handcrafts that are well worth a visit. Here are two.
Piato Obor, the largest market not just in Bucharest but all of Romania, is the city’s unofficial pantry. Here you’ll find everything you need to fill up the fridge or the picnic basket with mushrooms and wild berries from the Transylvanian Mountains, artisanal cheese and fresh meats. After you’ve got the goods, pick up some mititei, Romanian’s grilled sausage and some crazy cheap beer.
The second must visit market is Valea Cascadelor, the biggest flea market in Bucharest. The market translates to Valley of the Waterfalls, where the stalls cascade down to the pavement. You’ll find anything and everything here, from ancient books to clothing, photographs and communist era merchandise.
Tour the National Museum of Romanian History
Once the headquarters of the Romanian postal service, the National Museum of Romanian History has a vast collection of displays and artifacts that date as far back as the fourth century. As you walk towards the museum, you’ll first be greeted by the gorgeous neoclassical facade that is worth a few moments of appreciation. But once inside, you’ll have your work cut out exploring the 60+ rooms full to the brim of Romania’s most fascinating relics.
A highlight of your experience in the National Museum of Romanian History will be the replica Trajan’s Column. The original triumphal column was built in Rome and represents the Roman emperor who defeated the Dacian tribes in ancient Romania. You’ll also come across an incredible collection of Neolithic vestiges in the Romanian Treasury, along with emerald pieces made for the wife of Romanian King Ferdinand.
Pop in to the Carturesti Carousel Bookstore
In the heart of Old Town, the Carturesti Carousel Bookstore is the kind of cultural hub that perfectly complements the slew of history-focused adventures you’ve embarked on. Housed in a restored building from the 1800s, the bookstore covers six-floors with a minimalist design with a gorgeous central skylight. The letter, which beams down, is where the store got its name, “Carousel of Light”.
Across the various floors, you’ll be able to browse through thousands of old albums and DVDs alongside over 10,000 books and manuscripts. One of the most picturesque bookstores in all of Europe, the Carturesti Carousel, also hosts temporary art exhibitions and comes with a top-floor cafe, the perfect spot to begin that new book.
Visit the Romanian Kitsch Museum
To take the cultural experience in a more odd and intriguing direction, spend some time visiting the Romanian Kitsch Museum. Celebrating everything quirky, offbeat and downright strange, the museum is a welcome balance to the fascinating yet serious history museums.
The small, homegrown museum is teeming with eclectic memorabilia. You’ll find a whole section dedicated to the tales of Count Dracula, life under communist rule, along with the influence of the Orthodox Church and Roman culture. The Kitsch Museum offers a lighthearted take on what is often a tragic story of Romanian history. You’ll be both informed and humored throughout.
Wander around Combinatul
Bucharest has a burgeoning art scene that is slowly but surely finding its footing down alley ways and quiet streets or in the many local galleries opening up around the city’s fringes. A great example of this development is Combinatul, an industrial area that has undergone a revitalization as an artists’ district.
The local art scene covers a wide range of genres, so if you aren’t a fan of every piece, you’ll definitely find something that will pique your interest. As you explore the local streets, you’ll come across abstract sculptures, street art, carvings and paintings, along with a lively atmosphere in the nearby cafes and bars. The district is a great opportunity to see thought-provoking local art without having to step foot inside a major gallery.
Eat and drink at Manuc’s Inn
One of the last caravanserais built in Europe, the Manuc Inn is one of the few that also remains in use today. Once a lively place of commerce, travel and socialization, caravanserais were the ancient equivalent of our modern global society, where a whole manner of people would gather and exchange not just goods but customs and traditions.
Manuc Inn opened at the very beginning of the 19th century, set up by an Armenian merchant named Manuc Bei. The caravanserai features a typical layout, with a spacious central courtyard enveloped by two story galleries where goods were stored and lodging was provided to those on the move.
The inn was a commercial hub for a number of decades before falling out of favor. But thanks to restoration, it has regained its stature as a popular place to gather in Bucharest. Here you can find authentic Romanian and Balkan cuisine, with a vibrant nighttime atmosphere of dancing and live music.
Have a day trip to Constanta
Two and a half hours away from Bucharest is the waterfront town of Constanta, on the almost landlocked Black Sea. A popular tourist destination in its own right, Constanta is the oldest city in Romania, dating back 2,600 years. Now home to the largest port in Romania and the third biggest on the Black Sea, the original docks were a trade center for Romans, Greeks, Venetians and the Turks.
Its history is on full-display at Ovid Square and the Roman Mosaic Edifice. The latter home to a wall of mosaics from the 4th century. But there’s more to Constanta that the past. The city has several white sand beaches, perfect for a day at the beach, while being a quieter option than the resort town of Mamaia. Families can also enjoy the local aquarium, planetarium and even a dolphinarium.
Have a picnic at Cismigiu Gardens
The oldest park in Bucharest, Cismigiu Gardens, was created by Carl Meyer, a landscape architect from Germany. Replacing what was once a lakeside winery, Meyer picked out thousands of plant and tree species from the Vienna Botanical Garden and the northern regions of Romania to bring his stunning vision to life.
You can explore Cismigiu Gardens on several walking paths, including the lake, which is gorgeous under the summer light and freezes over in the winter. Depending on your arrival, you can either jump in a rowboat or explore on ice skates.
After finding a place to sit and admire the 19th century creations, lay down your picnic rug, tuck into your local eats and open that bottle of wine.
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