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Why visit Bucharest -18 reasons it’s worth it

Need to know

Closest airport: Otopeni International Airport (OTP), Baneasa Airport is destined mainly for domestic flights
Population:  around 2 million
County/Area: capital of Romania, southern Romania.

Bucharest has been given many names: little Paris, new Berlin, or Eastern Europe’s capital of fun, but we know for sure it is a city of contrasts where refined Belle Epoque buildings intertwine with boulevards of communism, the shape of monarchy meets modern glass architecture, and the good vibes of the Old Town are in love with street art.

Welcome to Bucharest! A vibrant and modern city in constant motion, with lots to see and do, with gourmet and no-frills restaurants alike, and very importantly, lots of free things to see and do (or very cheap)!!!

Bucharest picture; photo: geo_cristea
A French Bakery on Calea Victoriei; the remains of little Paris; photo:@ionut.dobre

I took a trip with my teenage daughters and, as always, I tried to balance sightseeing and cultural things with relaxing activities. So, I tried to organize myself a bit (!?) and gathered the places visited under some categories. Don’t forget, there is a sequel, too, that brings under the same article some activities and tips for relaxation!

If you want to have a better understanding of the capital’s history, read here.

Content

Interactive map
Beautiful old Bucharest within a story
Little Paris in a nutshell

Interactive map

The Google map helps you see some of the capital’s main attractions and their positioning.

 

Beautiful old Bucharest within a story

The Old Town boasts some representative buildings that also hide interesting stories.

Hanul lui Manuc

Manuc’s Inn (Hanul  lui Manuc) is the only caravanserai still functioning in Europe, meaning this was the place where caravans (convoy of vehicles packed with travellers) used to park for the night. By the time it was built, in 1808, people used caravans to travel long distances.

This one was placed strategically by a clever Armenian guy, Manuc, halfway between Leipzig (Germany) and Constantinople (Istanbul today) for the travellers to rest. Manuc’s Inn was initially a fortress that provided safety and a place to rest for the tired traveller that faced all sorts of threats during the long voyage undertaken.

Nowadays, it brings back old times through its restaurant, wine cellar, summer garden, but also hotel services.

Manuc’s Inn

Saint Anthony Church

In the same square you will find the oldest church from Bucharest, Saint Anthony church, the place where famous Romanian rulers prayed. The power of Saint Anthony seems almost limitless if we consider that the statue managed somehow to stay intact despite the numerous fires and earthquakes. If you believe in God and need a miracle in your life (or want to find a partner!), you have to come and pray 9 Tuesdays in a row until your wish comes true, the story goes.

Saint Anthony Church in the left corner, the oldest church in Bucharest

The Old Princely Court

In the vicinity, you can get a glimpse of Vlad the Impaler (ruler of Wallachia) by visiting the remains of the Old Princely Court, a 15th century fortress, where Vlad established his court. Unfortunately, the site was under construction all of 2021. If you want to find out more about Vlad Dracul, click here.

Stavropoleos Monastery

Another religious site situated nearby is Stavropoleos monastery, an iconic church built in brancovenesc style (Romanian baroque). Built in the 18th century, the place is an Eastern Orthodox monastery for nuns. The origin of the name is Greek and it means the city of the cross. Stavropoleos is remarkable not only through its architectural details that have both Oriental and Latin origins, but also through its vast interest in Byzantine music.

Splendid architecture of Stavropoleos monastery
Stavropoleos and the oriental-looking garden; photo: @littlejoys.of.life

Caru’ cu Bere

The Beer Cart (Caru’ cu Bere) is a flagship restaurant in the old town and a genuine recommendation that will leave you speechless. Built in Neo-Gothic style, it is a must for any visitor who crosses Bucharest. This German-style beer cellar is richly decorated with paintings, stained glass, oak panelling and lots of mosaics that make the whole place look more like a church.

The history of the Beer Cart goes back to the second half of the 19th century, when Transylvanian merchants set up the business of selling beer brought to the pub by horse carts, hence the name. The place got famous before World War I when established as meeting place for Transylvanian activists.

Although it has a generous terrace in summer, it is best to book in advance.

…and inside, a pub that looks more like a church; photo: @1000placestoseebeforeyoudie
Beautiful stained glass in the pub

Old Town streets

The old town, a fancy place today, used to be a mercantile place. This is reflected in the names of the streets (no 6 on the map) that represent former activities, just like Sibiu/ Transylvania have the guilds. Visiting the bustling old town is an exercise of imagination knowing that the famous Lipscani street gets the name from the city of Leipzig, where the merchants came from to sell products. Gabroveni name stands for the people who manufactured and sold knives, Șelari street takes us back to the horse saddle producers or Blănari to fur manufacturers, to name just a few.

Busy nightlife in the Bucharest Old Town

Little Paris in a nutshell

The name of Little Paris for Bucharest appeared in the last decades of the 19th century and got stronger at the turn of the century.

For more amazing buildings and their brief stories, check here.

Of course, we can imagine that the name of little Paris comes from the French architecture, but it is only partially true. It is also the people and places that conferred the Romanian capital its nickname. Important Romanian people from the world of art had connections with Paris, and some moved there to create. French became the language of the elite, the standard for upper, but also middle classes, who would always insert a bonjour or mon cher in their conversation. Imitation went as far as clothing, atmosphere, or gestures.

The Arch of Triumph, a Romanian symbol (as well)

It appears that Balkanic merchants gave the name of little Paris to the capital, because in comparison with the surrounding ones, Bucharest had an air of refinement and finesse (since we want to show off with French !)

Architecturally speaking, you can find most of the buildings along Victory Avenue (Calea Victoriei) and downtown. Likewise Paris, Bucharest has its own Arch of Triumph, a symbol of Bucharest used for national manifestations, and Victory Avenue is our version of the Champs-Elysees (it is closed for traffic at the weekend!).

CEC Palace

CEC Palace (Romanian Savings Bank) is a marvellous neoclassical construction situated on Victory Avenue and the oldest Romanian bank. The cornerstone was set in 1897 by King Carol I, first king of Romania, under whose rule Bucharest flourished. The construction was built from the institution’s own funding. Today, the palace hosts the headquarters of the Savings Bank and the CEC Museum.

Stavropoleos monastery in front and CEC building in the background; photo: @anamariamnc
CEC Palace: old and modern side by side

National History Museum

Right across the street lies another imposing building, the National History Museum. It is housed in a famous building, the former Post-Office Palace, based on the palace with the same function from Geneva. The museum is rich in patrimony, and the numerous pieces are organized in some collections: pottery, numismatics, philately, jewels or manuscripts, to name just a few.

Macca-Vilacrosse passage

The Macca-Vilacrosse passage is unique. First, it features an unusual horseshoe shape. Things didn’t go according to the plan, as the builders’ intention was to demolish the hotel in the passage, but it proved too profitable. This explains the shape. Second, this yellow glass covered building has two branches linked to the names of the architects who designed it. Macca was the builder’s brother-in-law, while Xavier Vilacrosse, the chief architect of Bucharest with Catalan origins.

Macca-Vilacrosse Passage

It connects two major streets of Bucharest, at one end you enter Lipscani street and arrive on Victory Avenue. Initially, the passage served as the city’s Stock Exchange, later, fancy shops, and today it hosts mainly eateries (it was the first place after the Revolution where you could smoke shisha).

Upside passage, downside bars; photo: @visual.storiess

The Romanian National Bank

The Romanian National Bank is the most important Romanian bank, a beautiful construction built in the eclectic style of the late 19th century, with some neo-classical elements.

Important building for the Romanian currency

Some interesting facts about the Romanian currency:

  • The name of leu (pl. lei) means lion/s. It comes from the Dutch currency back in the 17th century which was used in Romania because of severe economic recession. Ever since, we kept the name.
  • Ceausescu couple never used money (they had all they needed on premises and never went to restaurants, thus, no need to pay) so they weren’t aware of the bad shape lei banknotes were in. Unfortunately, during communism, banknotes were worn-out.
  • In 2005, the Romanian Bank cut 4 zeros from the banknotes because of high inflation. Thus, the old 10.000 lei becomes 1 leu and the currency now can be seen as RON (the new Romanian leu).
  • Romania’s the only European country with plastic money, more difficult to forge, so they say.

Cercul Militar National

The Palace of the National Military Circle (Cercul Militar National) is another landmark of architecture. Placed on the same Victory Avenue, the building in French neoclassical style was meant to gather under the same umbrella the main representatives of the Army.

Unfortunately, we didn’t go inside, but I heard it is really amazing. It has a terrace and restaurant open to the public.

Just a glimpse of the Military Circle; photo: @corbography.konzept

Casa Capsa

As you stroll along Victory Avenue, look up to see Capsa House (Casa Capsa),  a pub, cake shop and later, ballroom. The fame of Capsa went beyond the Romanian borders because it served delicious cakes and cookies prepared by a gifted pastry chef schooled in Paris. The ladies used to come to Capsa for ice cream, and to emphasise the French lifestyle, they were waiting in the carriage to be served.

Capsa, landmark of culture and good taste

In the interwar period, Capsa was the coffee shop of the writers and artists, who needed to undergo a metaphorical baptism here. Should you wish to experience the atmosphere of old Bucharest, you can accommodate at this elegant hotel and try out the restaurant.

Hotel Novotel

On Calea Victoriei there are many 4 and 5-star hotel chains with luxurious rooms, and many of them are placed in beautifully renovated old buildings (Grand Hotel du Boulevard, Grand Hotel Continental). Hotel Novotel is an outstanding example of modern embracing the old. It is a glass building that proudly displays the façade of the former national theatre, badly damaged during World War II.

I didn’t write about it because we accommodated there, but we loved every minute spent there… and the view.

Novotel, an example of good manners between old and new architecture; photo: @glpsu

Pasajul Victoria

Victoria Passage is another flagship of old Bucharest, as well as new due to the colourful umbrellas. Started as a trick to attract more clients, the owner of the pizzeria transformed this place into one of Bucharest’s most instagrammable streets, and also attained his goal.

Colourful umbrellas in Victory Passage

The English Passage

Just two steps away, the English Passage seems from a different world right in the middle of French Bucharest. The place looks deserted now, but at first it was a hotel, transformed later into a brothel, with healthy and clean girls in high demand. Subscriptions were also available.

The English passage is a residential area where people live (unbelievable, if you visit it!), although it seems in a bad condition and is a hidden gem even for many locals. However, many film companies come to this place to shoot horror movies or commercials.

The creepy English Passage

Biblioteca centrala universitara

The Central University Library (Biblioteca centrala universitara) was created to fulfil the role of university library. Initially, the Central State Library catered for the University’s needs and it was about to change. So, King Carol I who considered education a necessary investment, bought the land, hence the name Carol I University Foundation. The impressive building followed the plans of French architect Paul Gottereau and was completed in 1893.

The Central University Library with the statue of King Carol I

During communism, the name of the institution changed, just as the statue of King Carol I disappeared, considered to put a shadow on communism. It was taken down, melted and reshaped into a Lenin, but when the communist regime ended, a new statue of the king was ordered, which is very similar to the previous one.

Muzeul George Enescu

Enescu Museum or the Cantacuzino Palace (adult 10 lei/around 2 euro, children 5 lei/around 1 euro) is considered one of the most beautiful buildings from the capital. The luxury and refinement met here in a sumptuous building with the most authentic Art Nouveau entrance. Originally built between 1901-1903 for Cantacuzino, former mayor of Bucharest, the palace got in the possession of George Enescu through his marriage to a Cantacuzino princess.

Carefully handcrafted detail from the Enescu museum/Cantacuzino Palace

Enescu is the most important Romanian musician: composer, violinist, conductor and pianist, and today the museum hosts also the union of composers from Romania. Visiting Enescu museum is an architectural imperative even if you are not fond of classical music.

The Cantacuzino Palace

The Romanian Athenaeum

And now, ladies and gentlemen, this building is number 1 on my personal list: the Romanian Athenaeum (adult 10 lei/around 2 euro), a majestic philharmonic hall. We hardly managed to see it, it was our last day in Bucharest and unfortunately they don’t make reservations, but this is how it works: you go there, if there is no rehearsal, you are lucky, if there is a rehearsal going on, you head someplace else. Or, you buy a ticket for a concert, then it’s a sure thing!

The good old circular Athenaeum; photo: @_pia_photography
A glimpse into the Romanian Athenaeum

As soon as we passed through the door, all we could say was wow! With a history that goes back over 130 years, the Athenaeum was built on the place of a former circus, this explains its circular shape. The building was partially erected from private funding, but as soon as the money was scarce, there was a public subscription for raising money that lasted for 28 years under the slogan: Give a penny for the Athenaeum!

The architecture bears the signature of French Albert Galleron who also designed the National Bank of Romania. The Athenaeum is built in neoclassical style with eclectic elements and boasts a marvellous baroque cupola. The ground floor is majestic and refined, with pillars and embroidery, while the main floor is a celebration of Romanian art and history in its most sublime form.

Go upstairs for a breath-taking view

It is the seat of George Enescu philharmonic hall and it hosts annually the international Enescu music festival. The auditorium can seat 800 people and is famous for its outstanding acoustics.

We didn’t get to see Cotroceni Palace, but I include it here as a recommendation, as it seems to be part of the capital’s finest. Hope you can leave me a comment about it.

Old town; photo: @danmihaibalanescu

Recommended by TTF:

  • Several iconic buildings that shaped Bucharest into a capital worth visiting;
  • Landmarks of the Oriental world still visible;
  • French influence and architecture changed the face of Bucharest into Little Paris;
  • Observe Little Paris buildings, orderly aligned on Victory Avenue and Old Town especially;
  • Old Town is a must, an emblematic area rich in history, but also full of life.

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