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We recently enjoyed a week in Bucharest, a city that pleasantly surprised us. While the Romanian capital is not among the first cities people think of when visiting Europe, we found it quite charming and extremely affordable. Initially we looked for enough activities to spend a week in Bucharest but ended up enjoying it so much we extended the stay.
Romania provides an authentic European travel experience at low prices that we haven’t enjoyed in decades. Part of that value is due to the strong dollar but part of it is also the fact that central and eastern Europe still provides many bargains. Those who treasure their old copies of Europe on $25 a Day would feel right at home here.
During the late 19th century Bucharest was known as “Little Paris” and in certain sections, despite decades of an authoritarian regime that razed parts of the city, it actually does feel like Paris of times gone by, with a bit of Middle Eastern influences sprinkled in.
Avenues are lined with ornate domed buildings. Cafes with wicker chairs and tables sprout from wide sidewalks on sunny days while bakeries selling Turkish-style breads populate virtually every block.
Don’t miss the covrigi (sunflower and poppy seed studded pretzels); in keeping with Romania’s good tourist value they sell for only 25 cents.
Try to decipher Romania’s long and complicated history at the National Museum of Old Maps and Books; located in an old mansion at 39 Strada Londra in a quiet leafy neighborhood. Atlases and maps from the 16th through 20th centuries demonstrate graphically how the size and borders of Romania have transformed over the years as competing empires claimed parts of the strategically located country and also influenced its architecture, food and culture.
Bucharest’s orchestra hall, the circa-1880s French-designed Romanian Athenaeum, is an outstanding example of neoclassical architecture that is also a tribute to philosophy and culture. Names of great minds are chiseled in stone at the base of its dome: Moliere, Beethoven and others, along with our fair city of Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Franklin.
The best way to view the Athenaeum is during a concert. During our visit to Bucharest the biennial George Enescu Festival was taking place. While enjoying a chamber orchestra concert we were able to appreciate the interiors many murals making up the “Great Fresco”: 25 scenes related to Romanian history that ring the circular auditorium.
A few blocks away the Old Town section of Bucharest offers a pedestrian-friendly area of cobblestoned streets full of boutiques, restaurants and bars. The neighborhood is not yet inundated with the weekend party-seekers that have turned other cities’ historic sections into interchangeable outposts of faux Irish pubs and chain restaurants.
The funky Left Bank atmosphere attracts primarily locals—unlike similar neighborhoods in Prague or Paris where English and German speakers dominate—Romanian is the language most often overheard. As the city sees increased international tourism in the next few years this vibe may disappear, but for now it still feels like visiting “Old World” Europe.
Four decades of communist rule left an indelible mark on the city, yet Bucharest is assimilating that part of its past into the capitalist present. It is impossible to miss the Parliament Building, a brooding hulk of marble perched imposingly on a hill at the western end tip of Bulevardul Unirii (Reunification Boulevard).
Ceaușescu’s massive monument to the glory of the party (and himself) was still unfinished at the time of his overthrow in 1989. It now is famous as the “world’s heaviest building.” Unfinished at the time of Ceaușescu’s death, Romania’s central government now occupies it.
Venture two blocks from the Athenaeum to Revolution Square (formerly Palace Square) to witness the site of Ceaușescu’s downfall. In December 1989 Ceaușescu delivered his final speech from the balcony of the building fronting the square that housed the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party. Encouraged by the fall of the Berlin Wall, change was coming quickly to Romania. During the speech the crowd turned on the dictator, leading to protests that were met by government gunfire into the square. The resulting revolution was brief but bloody: over 1,000 civilians killed and a fleeing Ceaușescu and his wife executed within days.
Today the space is peaceful with the pylon of the Memorial of Rebirth honoring the fallen piercing the sky. Rotating art exhibits fill the square while the Royal Palace across the street is now the National Museum of Art of Romania featuring Romanian artists along with Old Masters like El Greco, Rembrandt and Rubens.
Ateneuli Park, a small wooded space sandwiched between the Athenaeum and Revolution Square, is a perfect spot for an impromptu dessert picnic of a salted caramel éclair from the nearby French Revolution bakery. Like the fresco in the Athenaeum’s rotunda, Bucharest has come full-circle and “Little Paris,” with a few 21st-century twists, has returned.
For a tasty look at Romania check out our story on Romanian pastries.
Visitor Information for a week in Bucharest:
- There are no direct flights from the U.S. to Bucharest, however there are airline alliance connections through many European gateway cities.
- The unit of currency is the leu (plural lei, pronounced “lay”). The exchange rate is around 4 lei to $1.00.
- The language is Romanian, although most Romanians in Bucharest speak at least some English. Romanian has its roots in Latin; anyone familiar with French, Spanish or Italian will notice similarities.
- Bucharest in Your Pocket is a free online guide that offers helpful, up-to-date tourist information http://www.inyourpocket.com/bucharest.
- Our top travel guides for visiting Bucharest.
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