Bucharest was the last place on our itinerary in Romania, right before heading more east - to the mysterious and least visited capital in Europe - Chisinau (soon I'll write a post about it). Unfortunately, this time we didn't have a chance to make it to the Romania's Black Sea coast and the resort city - Constanta, although we initially had planned to do so.
Having visited somehow fairy tale-like scenery of the medieval towns in Transylvania, Bucharest seemed a lot pretty bleak at first. More rough, grey and heavy. Hundreds of concrete blocks everywhere, the overall landscape filled with brutalist architecture. But there is one place in Bucharest that lets you escape the gloomy, communist atmosphere - the Old Town. And this Old Town is pretty special. Many cities have been called the "Paris of the East". However, Bucharest Old Town is the only one that truly reminds of the French capital the most, in my opinion.
Bucharest - first impressions
After a long way from Transylvania, we entered Bucharest at night. The city looks somehow cozier and more friendly after dark than it did the next morning. There was also one thing that stood out and grabbed my attention. Apart from the ubiquitous concrete blocks, there were beautiful villas squeezed here and there in between the hideous, heavy constructions. Those mansions reflected various architectural styles - from European - typical of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire to more of the oriental design and even, at times they revealed an Ottoman touch. If they were all cut out of this chaotic landscape and put side by side together, they would create a beautiful, elegant district.
Bucharest seems to be a mixture of a few cities in the region: extremely chaotic Skopje, which turned out to be a fascinating combination of various but completely unrelated styles, Belgrade, which had the stark, harsh feeling to it and... Paris or Vienna with their exalted elegance. Yes, having been to cities like Warsaw, Budapest or Beirut (which are all amazing), Bucharest reminded me of Paris the most. If you want to find out more about those cities, click on them - the links lead to my posts describing them.
To be honest, I'm not a big of fan of large, famous and filled with crowds of tourists European capitals such as Paris, London or Milan. Maybe because of this reason and because of the fact that Bucharest had very little of coziness and the unique atmosphere so apparent in the towns that I'd just seen before, I liked it the least from all the destinations traveled in Romania. Nevertheless, as it's still pretty much undiscovered, I enjoyed it way more than the three famous cities I've mentioned above. It all depends on the personal preferences, I guess.
So, if you wish to visit Romania, spend a weekend in Bucharest, but don't limit yourself just to the capital. The country has so much more to offer. I wish I'd also gone to the coast and see it for myself, next time when I'm in Romania I'll definitely go.
What to see in Bucharest
A very good thing about Bucharest is that it's easily walkable and you can see all the places featured here on foot! There's nothing unusual about the modern city - densely packed with concrete high-rise blocks - grey, communist style architecture can be found everywhere. However, if you are a fan of brutalist style, similarly to Skopje, Bucharest will be an unpolished, hidden gem for you. But as I mentioned before, you'll also come across some examples of beautiful mansions strewn here and there contrasting with this vast sea of grey. The villas vary in style, although sometimes neglected, they are an interesting sign indicating that you're just standing in the middle of the intersection between the cultures of the West and East.
The modern city also has the Palace of the Parliament building which boasts quite a few world records (according to Wikipedia):
- World's largest civilian building with an administrative function
- World's most expensive administrative building
- World's heaviest building
The construction began in 1980. It was initiated by the infamous Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu, who had dreamed of rebuilding Bucharest after the 1977 earthquake in the shape of... Pyongyang in North Korea. The building is massive, houses 1100 rooms (!) out of which only around 500 are in use today. It's also a good shelter in case of an extreme disaster - such as a nuclear war - underground, there's an eight-leveled anti-atomic bunker with radiation-proof walls. Wikipedia also states that the building... sinks each year by 6 mm (0.24 inches)!
Having read all those stories about how large and grand this construction is, I expected to be completely overwhelmed by it and anticipated impatiently a kind of shock. And then - when I stood there, right in front, my disappointment was huge. The edifice didn't seem so different from all other government buildings - maybe because of a scale - it's impossible to come too close so from a distance it looked quite ordinary.
The Old Town district in Bucharest is the area that the tourists want to visit the most. Most of the city's attractions are located within this small district. Here, you can feel like you're in Paris for a moment. Of course, a little bit different Paris - more rough, neglected and shabby. But it also has good sides - it gives the city some character, determines and displays the hardship and difficult times it's gone through.
As I said previously, I've been to other places also called "Paris of the East": Warsaw, Beirut or Budapest. All these places were unique and beautiful in their own way, especially Beirut (you can see my post about the Lebanese capital here), but I wouldn't say they resembled Paris much. The old town in Bucharest, however, really does.
Overall, Bucharest, although not a bad place to see, was my least favorite place in Romania, just as in most Balkan countries - the capitals seem not as amazing as the rest. This is caused, probably, by the extremely interesting and unique towns, villages and other attractions that I'd seen before arriving in the capitals. Many people make this mistake - they go only to the capital - don't limit yourself in this way as you will miss what's best!
There are a few landmarks in the Old Town which are remarkably beautiful - you won't even need a map as they are located close to one another - just by strolling the streets up and down, you will eventually come across all of them:
- Stavropoleos Monastery - dating back to the 18th century - a little, colorful church squeezed in between the heavy, tall buildings that don't match its charm - enter its courtyard and you'll be pleasantly surprised how idyllic it is - you'll find yourself in a different world - hard to believe that you're still in an overcrowded city
- CEC Palace - headquarters of Romanian Savings Bank - completed in 1900 in the eclectic style, with impressive domes
- Pasaj Macca-Villacrosse - here you can feel like in Paris or Milan - it's a glass covered street-passage with multiple shops and restaurants
- White, neo-classical building of National Bank of Romania
- National Museum of Romania with the Statue of Trajan and the She-wolf which caused a bit of controversy - as Trajan is naked. It was installed as recently as 2011 - the artist created 3 statues - the other 2 are in Spain and Italy. Local citizens branded it as... "a monument dedicated to stray dogs"
- Curtea Veche - former and real palace of the famous Dracula (Vlad the Impaler) - dating back to the 15th century. It was here where Vlad exercised his ruthless power from (surprisingly, it was not in the Bran castle which is now called Drakula's castle). Also note, that Vlad wasn't born in the modern day Bucharest - he was from the picturesque village of Sighisoara (a must see place to see in Romania - I'll write about it soon)
- Annunciation Church of Saint Anthony - a church belonging to Curtea Verche - the oldest religious monument preserved in its original state in Bucharest
If you liked this article, you can also download it via the GPSmyCity app - you will be able to gain access to the guide, which will direct you to all the attractions described above, even if you're offline. Download it here.
Author: Tom @ Adventurous Travels
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