Discover Bucharest: from the University Square to Cotroceni National Museum

After exploring the old center of Bucharest for one or two days, you, the first time visitor, might wonder what else is worth doing besides that. The closest thing (in the immediate vicinity of the old center restaurants and terraces) is the University area, with Piața Universității (University Square). From here, several touristic routes are possible: left, towards Cișmigiu Park, Piața Mihail Kogâlniceanu, Eroilor, Cotroceni; up (North) towards Piața Romană and further to Piața Victoriei; down, accross Dâmbovița river, towards Dealul Patriarhiei, 11 Iunie street and Carol Park and Tineretului Park (plus Bellu cemetery), or right, to the Moșilor area.

In this post, I will talk about the first proposed itinerary.

Assuming you have, maybe, left the old center and walked towards the University square, you will find yourself in a big intersection, having in front of you (across the street) a tall hotel, with a rather old fashioned architecture (the Intercontinental), to your left, a large body of academic buildings (the Bucharest University), to your right, a hat-shaped building with a red roof (the National Theater) …

… and right near you, a nicely decorated, white building (the Șuțu Palace, or Museum of the Municipality of Bucharest). Șuțu Palace might be worth a visit just to see the interior architecture. The collections inside are not fabulous, so don’t expect to be swept away. The building is a 19th century boyar house with Gothic elements that used to host luxurious balls, attended only by the rich and famous.

Make a left after the palace and you will find yourself in the University Square, facing the University Palace, a nice neoclassical building still in use by students and teachers of the Bucharest University.

The University Square is home to four statues (Mihai Viteazul – ruler of Wallachia, Gheorghe Lazăr – founder of the first Romanian language school, Spiru Haret – Romanian-Armenian mathematician, astronomer and politician, and Ion Heliade Rădulescu – famous poet, writer, editor and politician) and two mirrored buildings (the former Industrial Credit Palace and  „Generala” Palace, now headquarters of the Social Democrat Party and BCR Bank).

The square often hosts fairs, festivals or concerts, and in December you will find here the Bucharest Christmas Market.

I will take the opportunity to recommend a nice restaurant in this square, called Caredy Kitchen. It has French / shabby chic décor (despite the fact that it serves Romanian and Hungarian food), the food is quite good and the prices are fair. In the drinks category, you can try one of their special teas, which taste more like hot chocolate or similar.

Universitate 6

Continue walking on Bulevardul Regina Elisabeta, and while doing that, do check the nice old buildings around you, because this is one of the most elegant areas of Bucharest, despite the fact that not all buildings are equally well kept.

When you reach the intersection with Calea Victoriei, you will stumble upon a number of interesting buildings: on the right (your side of the street) is the former Grand Hôtel du Boulevard, one of the oldest hotels in Bucharest (where an attempt to shoot King Carol II was planned in 1984), now renovated but not in use, because the current owner is now under arrest. Some photos from the interior can be seen in this article.

Grand Hotel Boulevard

Opposite the beautiful neoclassic hotel building is the Palace of the National Military Circle (Cercul Militar Național), an imposing building in French neoclassical style. It is built on the foundation of an old monastery (Sărindar Monastery), which gives the name of the small square with a fountain, in front of the building.

From the square you can admire two other old hotel buildings: Hotel Capitol and Hotel Capșa. But I will tell you more about these when talking about another itinerary.

For now, you should continue on Bulevardul Regina Elisabeta. When you reach a crossing point, cross the street to the side with the Military Circle. On this side, you will run into Hotel Cișmigiu, with the Gambrinus beer house at the ground floor (named this way after another beer house, famous in the interwar period because it was owned by Ion Luca Caragiale – an important Romanian playwright- and frequented by many writers of the time). Cișmigiu hotel dates from 1912, when it was called Palace Hotel. It was considered a second-class hotel and had 200 rooms.

The building was later turned into a student dorm space and became notorious in the 90’s, when a young Moldavian student fell in the elevator shaft and lost her life (this incident even inspired a song). Now, the building is a 4-star hotel with nice rooms and conference spaces.

When you reach the entrance to Cișmigiu Park, you will see on the other side of the street the Administrative Palace of Bucharest (former city hall), built between 1906-1910 in traditional Neo-Romanian style.

Cișmigiu Park deserves a larger description, as it is a park with a history. Its name is related to the construction, in 1779, of two drinking fountains, on the orders of the ruler of Wallachia. One of these fountains was found in the side of the park opening towards Știrbei Vodă street, next to Kretzulescu Palace.

Cismigiu 7
Kretzulescu/Creţulescu Palace

It was next to this fountain that Bucharest’s fountain administrator (in Romanian language, this function was called „cișmigiu” from „cișmea” – drinking fountain) took residence. Imagine those times, when drinking water was supplied mostly from Dâmbovița river (which was really dirty), filtered using primitive means, or from fountains, which did not give a much cleaner or tastier water. It was common for water carriers to be walking around selling water from barrels in carts pulled by mules. A waterhole later formed on that spot, and was known for its lack of hygiene. In 1830, the lake was emptied and a public garden was arranged in its place. The garden was expanded in the years to come.

Some interesting items to see in Cișmigiu Park are: the ruins of the old monastery from 1756 (inside of which there was supposed to be a tunnel leading all the way to the shores of Dâmbovița river); the Sissi Stefanidi water spring, with the statue of a bereaved mother pouring water from a jar, was built by the Stefanidi family (former owners of the piece of land where the fountain is placed) to remember their dead daughter; the kiosk at the entrance of the park is the first newspaper kiosk in Bucharest; the Cișmigiu gardens have trees from all over Romania, as well as some trees specific to Austria.

During summer, you can rent a boat or a hydrocycle and paddle around the lake, passing under the beautiful bridges and willow trees and admiring the beauty around you.

After you will have spent some time enjoying the park (maybe you even stopped for lunch at one of the restaurants inside it), you can continue walking up on Bulevardul Regina Elisabeta. Immediately after the park fence ends, you will run into Lazăr Highschool (Colegiul Gheorghe Lazăr), the  second oldest high school in Bucharest (built in 1860).

Keep on walking past the old buildings and you will soon find yourself in a small square with a statue in the middle. This is Piața Mihail Kogâlniceanu (named after Mihail Kogâlniceanu, famous Romanian statesman, lawyer, historian and publicist).

From this point on, the street you are walking on takes the name Bulevardul Mihail Kogâlniceanu. On this street, next to an unfinished building, you will find a relic from the past, a gate which must have been splendid in its time, but now is in a deplorable state,

Walking further on, after a few minutes you will reach the Law Faculty building, built in Art Deco style in 1936. And just a few steps further, you will have reached the Romanian National Opera, with the statue of George Enescu in the small garden stretching in front of it.

In this area, you have two small parks, one on each side of the street: Eroilor Park and the Opera Park. Near Eroilor metro station is the monument dedicated to the sanitary heroes (doctors, nurses, etc.) who have served their country in World War I.

You can continue walking ahead on the street with the monument (Splaiul Independenței, alongside the river or on the opposite side, alongside the park) and then make a left on Șoseaua Cotroceni, or go left from the monument (on Bulevardul Eroilor Sanitari) and reach Parcul Eroilor Sanitari, a very interesting little park. If you chose to walk towards this park, you will get to see the beautiful building of the Carol Davila University of Medicine, the monument in the honor of the discoverer of medicine, and the monument to artillery heroes.

Both routes will take you to Cotroceni Palace and the Botanical Gardens of Bucharest.

If you continue on Splaiul Independenței, in a short while you’ll be arriving at a huge, abandoned building, which may remind you of the People’s Palace in the Piața Constituției area. It is Casa Radio, a building that was supposed to host the National History Museum of the Socialist Republic of Romania during Ceaușescu’s rule. The construction started in 1986 on the spot of the former Bucharest Hippodrome and Ceaușescu inaugurated it before it was completed, to be able to attend the 23 August parade in 1989 (his last one, as the Revolution from December 1989 led to his removal and execution). For a few years, there have been plans to turn it into a huge real estate center, but, due to various problems, the project has been delayed.

On Șoseaua Cotroceni, before arriving to the Botanical Garden (opposite side), crammed right after the ING Bank office at no. 11, you’ll find Cotroceni Vintage House, an antique shop that will make you feel you’ve stepped in another time. It’s worth taking a look inside, if you have time. What’s even better, they serve delicious food as well – which you can take away or have right there, at one of the antique tables.

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In the same area, there are a few more intersting cafes and bars, such as the small colorful cafe immediately after Cotroceni Vintage House, or the Phoenix bar/club across the street.

The Bucharest Botanical Garden is lovely to visit in spring, when there are beautiful flowers everywhere. In summer, it can be a nice place to take a walk with all the green around, and in autumn the colors become nuanced and you can admire the rose bushes in the special rose area. On the premises, there are also greenhouses and a Botanical Museum, and they can be visited separately if desired (the entrance fee for the gardens is separated from the fee for the greenhouse and the one for the museum). You can experience all three for around 2 euro. They might not be spectacular, but are far from boring, so I recommend seeing them if you have time to spare.

Cotroceni Palace is the headquarters and residence of the Romanian president. It is also home to the Cotroceni National Museum, which you can visit, but only if you book your visit at least two days in advance. The history of this place starts at the end of the 17th century, when a monastery was built on Cotroceni Hill, on the orders Șerban Cantacuzino, former ruller of Wallachia. He also builds housing around the monastery, to be used by the royal family. Many years later, after several rulers of Wallachia use and rennovate the royal buildings at Cotroceni, they are given to Charles the 1st on his arrival in Romania, a summer residence during his rule. He is quite horrified by their lack of luxury, and has them refurbished and a new palace built (the one you can still see in front of the Athenaeum). Later, he has the Cotroceni houses demolished and a new palace built instead. This is the building we can still see and visit today. You can read more about Cotroceni Palace in this article.

From the Cotroceni area, you are not very far from the Politehnica student area. You can walk there and take the Metro (Politehnica station) or take a bus from the Cotroceni area, towards your desired part of town.

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