So, you’ve come to Bucharest for the weekend, or even a few days, and are uncertain about what you might visit? You’ve read about the Palace of Parliament and the Old Center, and perhaps the Ateheaneum and Herăstrău Park. But other than that, you have little idea of what could be nice to see in the city and will stick to the most touristic areas, bars and restaurants.
Well, as with any city, Bucharest has an advertised side and a hidden one. As someone who has been living here for about 10 years, what I can say is that Bucharest is a city of contrasts. You will often see glamour next to poverty and civilisation next to barbarism, and that might just be the first reason you should visit it.
One thing I really like in Bucharest is discovering, crammed between new, modern constructions, old houses from various periods of time. Although most of the time in neglect, you will find on Bucharest’s streets many houses from the 19th century, and even the 18th century, some embellished with very interesting decorations and motifs.
Another thing you might like is parks and lakes, which are quite a few and quite beautiful. While the most famous is Herăstrău, you will not be disappointed by Cişmigiu (a park with history), Tineretului, Carol or Titan parks. Build around large lakes, these parks can be great recreation places and are often full of people enjoying their walks, bike rides, coffee or food. You can rent bikes or boats or enjoy a fresh drink at one of the many cafes, and sometimes even visit a museum within the area.
Specific to Bucharest at the moment are also the popular theme bars, pubs and restaurants. Meant to be quirky and pretentious and perhaps a bit on the show-off side, these places are interesting to visit at least once, especially if you like colourful thematic decor and less common food or drinks (although the prices might be accordingly high). Besides, they usually also host various events, such as fairs or artistic manifestations (also a bit on the non-conventional side), so they can help beat boredom quite a bit (if you’re not more into classic entertainment, that is).
Last but not least, if you’re an artistic spirit, you might enjoy the many shops and fairs where you can buy handmade and antique/vintage objects, as well as materials for your hobbies.
In this post (or rather series of posts), I’ll try to give you some hints about what you can see and do in Bucharest, based on the city’s neighborhoods and areas. I will tackle well known and less known points of interest and try to give you a deeper perspective.
So let us begin in the old city center, which no tourist will probably ever miss when in town. I have also created a small map (download it here) for you to use, marking most of the spots I will talk about in this post.
One of the first touristic objectives you’ll hear about when you arrive in the old center of Bucharest (Metro Unirea 1 or 2) is the Old Princely Court, or Palace of Vlad Ţepeş (the Impaler, best known as Dracula), whose ruins you can still see, surrounded by a fence. The original complex consisted in the princely court and the „Buna Vestire” Church, which still stands in the present (reconstructed). The princely court is said to have been raised some time at the beginning of the XV century, most probably by Mircea cel Bătrân, one of the first rulers of Wallachia. Vlad the Impaler consolidates the old court and spends six years here during his rule. The ruins you can see now are part of a much larger site which expands under the area of the city center and the greater part of the walls which are now standing have been reconstructed, not being the original walls. You can visit the ruins of the old court for a small entrance fee of less than 1 euro.
Not far from the old court you will find the reconstructed inn of Manuc (Hanul lui Manuc), a building raised in 1808, that used to be a stopping place for merchants, peasants and other travellers, providing food and drinks, as well as rooms to spend the night. The building had an interiour court for carriages and it was described as dirty and noisy because of all the people passing by. Now, the building (which is a reconstruction, as the original building was most probably demolished in the 1960’s and rebuilt at the beginning of the 70’s) hosts a nice Romanian/Lebanese restaurant (of which I recommend the Lebanese restaurant – Levantin – for the delicious food, if not for the good service), a Starbucks and some other restaurants. The interiour court is especially beautiful, with its wooden staircases and porch, and in the summer, on weekends, you can listen to traditional Romanian and Gipsy music while having a drink or something to eat on the terrace.
Stavropoleos Monastery from no. 4 Stavropoleos Street is an Eastern Orthodox monastery for nuns built in Brâncovenesc style in 1724. The monastery choir sings Neobyzantine music and you can check their official website for scheduled concerts. The monastery boasts a collection of icons and other objects, as well as a library with more than 10.000 books, old manuscripts and prints.
Close to Stavropoleos Monastery, you will find Caru’ cu Bere (the „Beer Wagon”), a highly advertisted restaurant and more of a tourist trap than anything else. If you want to go there for food and drinks, make sure to have a reservation and bring enough money, because the prices are…for tourists. The same can be said about the gift shop at the entrace, which sells quite expensive souvenirs. The restaurant does compensate by the nice decor (which, hoever, is Austrian in style – the original owners were from Transylvania and the architect was Austrian – and not traditional Romanian) and the traditional dance shows starting from 20 p.m. The original restaurant and beer house was open in 1879 and moved to the current location in 1899. It seems at the beginning of the 20th century many of the known politicians, writers and artists were usual customers of this brewery.
Slătari or Zlătari Church, not far from Caru‘ cu Bere (on Calea Victoriei) is a small church with an odd history. It holds the relics (hand) of Saint Ciprian, a former wizard turned to Christianism when he was unable to help a young pagan man seduce a beautiful Christian maid, as the legend says. It seems that nowadays very many people come here to pray to have curses, bad luck and witchcraft removed.
The National History Museum of Romania (former Post Office Palace) on Calea Victoriei is a huge, imposing building in Neoclassic style. Museum visitors can see the plaster cast of the entirety of Trajan’s Column, the Romanian Crown Jewels, or the Pietroasele Treasure. A recent addition which stirred some controversy is the staue of a naked emperor Trajan holding the She-Wolf on the outside stairs of the museum. It is supposed to be a monument linking the present to the past, but many have found it to be simply unaesthetic and misplaced. You can find more information about the museum here.
Opposite the National History Museum, you can admire the very beautiful CEC Palace building, designer by Paul Gottereau in eclectic style with XIX century French elements and Renaissance influences. The palace was built to host Romania’s oldest bank, the public savings institution, „Casa de Depuneri, Consemnațiuni și Economie”, later known as C.E.C.
While in the old center, take a nice walk on Lipscani Street. This street, called this way because of the merchants from Leipzig („Lipsca” in Romanian) who came here to open their shops, used to be animated with life, shop keepers and customers of all types and social statuses, and, more recently, it had become the trendiest place for buying a bride’s dress. You will still notice many wedding dress shops on Lipscani, as well as some old shops selling haberdashery, alongside modern clothes shops. The street remains one of the most crowded in the old center area, and you might come to realize that it is quite long, stretching to the West, past Calea Victoriei all the way to Dâmbovița river, in a point from which you have an interesting side view of Ceaușescu’s former palace, and to the East, past Piața Roma towards the Moșilor area, ending in Calea Moșilor.
If you walk to the side of Lipscani leading into Calea Victoriei and go right, after a few steps you will run into the (hidden) Macca-Vilacrosse Passage, a forked street covered with a beautiful yellow glass roof, on the place of the former Câmpineanu Inn. The passage now hosts a number of shops and bars. To find it, look for an entrance between a Romanian souvenir shop (Romartizana) and the former shop Expo Moda. You can also reach the passage from Str. Eugeniu Carada, the small street between Lipscani and Strada Doamnei.
The fork point of the Macca-Vilacrosse Passage opens towards the building of the National Bank of Romania, an imposing palace buit between 1942-44 in neoclassical style.
Back in Lipscani Street, an old building has recently been rented and renovated by Cărtureşti, a big book shop brand, which arranged a gorgeous book shop and bistrot inside (Cărtureşti Carusel), with prices to match.
Lipscani Street ends with Piața Roma, a small square having in the center a Capitoline Wolf statue.
From this point, across the street on the right you can admire the tower of the Bărăția Roman Catholic Church, founded in the mid-19th century on the location of a much older religious establishment.
Also from Lipscani Street, you can visit the art galleries and supply shops on Hanul cu Tei Street, which runs all the way into Blănari Street. „Hanul cu Tei” restaurant is a nice place to go for food and drinks, and turns into a dancing place during the weekend evenings.
Antoher way to get to Blănari Street is through the narrow passage Intrarea Nicolae Șelari, where you will find a collection of bars, clubs and shops.
At the end of the passage is Biserica Sf. Nicolae (St. Nicholas Church) and if you continue walking ahead, past the church, you will find yourself in Strada Doamnei (literally „the Lady’s street”, named after Lady Maria, the wife of Șerban Cantacuzino, who was ruler of Wallachia in 1678-1688), which also holds some points of interest. For instance, at the left, on each side of the street, you will see 2 huge building bodies. The shiny white one with classical columns is the National Bank of Romania Museum, with numismatic collections.
The huge, darker one with an impressively decorated entrance and neoclassical architectural elements is the former Stock Exchange Palace, which now hosts a permanent exhibition of handmade and antique objects. If you have time, do go inside, you will find yourself captivated by the many old objects for sale or the colorful handmade jewelry and decorative objects.
If you take the same street (Strada Doamnei) to the right, you will run into Exlibris, a bookshop selling very interesting editions of classic books, as well as DIY books and manuals (most of them English), guides and DIY toys, and some other gift ideas you can usually find in bookshops. I like to spend quite some time there, going through every funny book, game or toy inside, and rarely leave without buying something. The building is part of a series of spaces which used to host various trades throughout the years.
You can go around the building (make left into the small dead-end street) to check out a nice but very old and unkempt wooden balcony, as well as the back of the Russian Church (now being restored, see below a before and after comparison).
Across the street from the bookshop is the very beautiful, restored building of the former Joseph Göbl printing house.
At the end of Strada Doamnei you will be able to see in front of you the restored building of Colțea Hospital, built at the beginning of the 18th century (1704) as a hospital for the poor, and part of a larger assembly (monastery, school, belfry – which no longer exists – and hospital). In front of the hospital building, you can admire the statue of the hospital’s founder, Mihai Cantacuzino, and on the left you can see the very beautiful Colțea Church, built around 1700, in „Brâncovenesc” style.
So, I’ve told you about some interesting buildings and places to visit, what about places where you can go for food and drinks?
Here, it all depends on what you like, the suggestions I’m going to give will only apply to your taste if you enjoy old school music and décor in the detriment of shinier, more modern places.
On Șelari street, or the barrier area, you can find decent food and service at Dristor Kebap (if you’re a fan of Turkish fast food), Bordello’s Bar (which is also a club and cabaret by night and serves delicious tapas, alongside very good music, and in a very interesting décor) or Old City, a pub serving decent pub food and playing nice music. At end of the street towards Lipscani, on the right side, you will find Bicicleta, a nice concept bar with a bike theme (the furniture and décor is made from old bike parts), where you can enjoy cocktails, beers or wine.
From Șelari street, you can make a left on Covaci street. You will find on the left side Taverna Covaci, a traditional Romanian restaurant, which I do not particularly like for the food. You will find decent service and low prices and the place is well decorated in traditional Romanian popular style, but the food is most of the time not exceptional in any way and, if you arrive when the band is playing, the place becomes too loud to understand each other. But if you’re curious about traditional places, I guess it’s not the worst place you can eat in.
Brown Jazz Pub just across the street is a nice café with chill music, where you can enjoy a large variety of warm drinks and just relax. Boulevard Pub is a quiet little pub with nice music, serving a variety of local and imported special beers, as well as pub food (the burgers are quite tasty). Its almost twin brother, Berăria Nenea Iancu on Covaci 3, has a similar arrangement (small two-story house, with the bar at the first level and some more tables upstairs) and serves the same variety of beers, the difference being in the menu (you will find here some Romanian specialties, as well as tasty pizzas).
La 100 de beri further down Covaci street is one of the two pubs in the old center famous for their huge beer variety and stock. You can try German beer, Belgian beer, British beer and a lot more. Recently, they also added more consistent items on their food menu (burgers, quesadilla), and you can eat here Fridays to Sundays.
Gabroveni street, parallel to Covaci street, is also home to a few interesting bars and restaurants. Right on the corner of the street you will find Gyros Thessaloniki, a Greek specialties fast food with decent food (but not as good as it used to be when they first opened it). Moving along on Gabroveni, you will find Fire Club, one of the most popular pubs in the old center, because of the small prices, the music (rock and similar) and the size (there are two pub rooms and a club room). The menu is varied (salads, sandwiches/hot dogs/burgers + fries, Italian pasta, grilled meat, pizza, etc) and the food comes in large sizes and with good prices (and it’s good food usually). Right in front of Fire Club there is a small street, Zarafi, which runs into Lipscani. It also has a few restaurants, of which I will point out The Elbow Room, because of the good food (especially the foccacia sandwiches with homemade chips, but also the pizzas and the rest of the food). In summer, it’s quite pleasant to eat outside.
The left side of Franceză street is also packed with bars and restaurants. Oktoberfest Pub is a well known sports bar with good prices (it’s mostly a drinking place, the food list is basically made of sausages, fries and pickles :).
Some other places that I could recommend are on Smârdan street: Les Burgeois (for the delicious salads, refined meals and deserts), Black Jack Pub (for the music and the general atmosphere), St Patrick Irish Pub (for the décor and the food, but with unjustified high prices).
This covers the old center area which is mostly known to tourists, but the old center stretches even further, into several areas that I will be describing in upcoming posts.