At first glance, Bucharest may be hard to define. The enormous Palace of Parliament gets the most attention as the second-largest administrative building in the world, but it’s far from what constitutes the everyday local life. Dig a little deeper in Bucharest’s walkable neighbourhoods, with their period architecture and pockets of hidden glory, and you’ll find an eclectic mix of old and new, arts initiatives aplenty and an ever-growing foodie scene.
Fresh off an urban facelift and in continuous renewal, the historic centre is where you should begin. Start with the Old Princely Court on Strada Franceză (the oldest street in town), dating from the 15th century and once home to Vlad the Impaler, the ruler of Wallachia that inspired Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Directly across it lies Hanu’ lui Manuc, the oldest inn in Bucharest. Wander about the cobblestone streets until you reach Stavropoleos Church, the city’s most picturesque church with an exquisite, tranquil courtyard. Right next to it, Bucharest’s oldest brewery Caru’ cu Bere is a must-stop (though ultra-touristy) for its timeless decor, hearty Romanian food and a pint of house beer. At the end of the street facing Calea Victoriei, the grandiose CEC Bank Palace (Romanian Savings Bank) is worth the trip alone.
Rowdy bars and atmospheric cafes come by the dozen on and around Lipscani – once a popular merchant street – but so does a slew of new, chic wine bars. Don’t miss Lipscani’s most frequented address, Cărturești Carusel, a restored six-floor villa from the early 20th century now housing one the world’s most beautiful bookstores.
Continue on Lipscani street past Calea Victoriei until you reach Origo, one of the pioneers of Bucharest’s specialty-coffee scene. For some of the best panoramic views (and igloos set up during winter), look no further than Linea / Closer to the Moon, Bucharest’s most beautiful rooftop. Wine lovers can dive straight in at the rustic, sleek Pâine și Vin, to find out how Romania fares as Europe’s sixth-biggest wine producer.
With a selection of hip bars, local shops and cultural hubs, the Cișmigiu district has become the official Creative Quarter of Bucharest. It’s also home to Cișmigiu Garden, the oldest public park in town and one of its most scenic. As Lipscani street intersects Ion Brezoianu, the creative venues multiply. Past the striking art nouveau Hotel Cișmigiu, you’ll soon find yourself by Palatul Universul, a former printing house brought back to life as a creative hub. Inside, FIX serves fantastic ‘botanical’ cocktails, while Apollo 111 hosts all sorts of quirky events and runs an independent theatre. Also worth checking out is the stylish Beans & Dots specialty coffee and concept store. Nearby, Control club draws crowds for its live indie rock and electronic music concerts.
Control club is a few steps off Calea Victoriei, where a guided stroll is in order. This is Bucharest’s oldest artery and its most representative for the belle époque past, which earned the city the nickname of ‘Little Paris’ a century ago. Within a 1km radius, you’ll go past the former Royal Palace (now housing the National Art Museum) and Revolution Square landmarks, evocative of the painful 1989 fall of communism. Nearby, the Romanian Athenaeum is picture-perfect grandeur as the home of the George Enescu Phillarmonic Orchestra.
Once the sightseeing is completed, refuel with great coffee at hip Artichoke Coffee Shop, overlooking 18th-century Creţulescu Church. For a session of contemporary art and clever Romanian designs, head to the Galateca art gallery and NeoGalateca shop located on the ground floor of the Central University Library Carol I. End your tour with a Romanian craft beer jaunt at Fabrica de Bere Bună for a sample of the owners’ Zăganu brand or many of the other local microbrews on tap (Hop Hooligans is our favourite).
Known as the posh – and a bit pretentious, some may say – quarter up in North Bucharest, Dorobanți emerged in recent years as the place to be for foodies. Head to Puțul lui Zamfir street for everything from home-cooked Japanese at Yuki, gourmet Italian fare at Grano, Thai cuisine at Tuk Tuk and premium wine at Tasting Room by Ethic Wine gastro wine bar. Also in the area, fresh seafood dishes are cooked right in front of you at no-frills, fashionable Raionul de Pește. For the best Scandinavian-inspired brunch, Frudisiac cafe is always full. We shouldn’t forget Mesange Fromagerie, a mouth-watering new addition by way of France, serving the best selection of cheese in town.
Food aside, the National Museum of Maps and Old Books (housed in a 1920s Venetian-style villa) provides stunning insight into Romania’s history and more. End the day with New Romanian cuisine at Maize, the lauded upscale farm-to-table eatery whose Noma-trained head chef was voted Chef of the Year 2018 by Gault & Millau Romania guide.
Once home to the former communist elite just north of Dorobanți, Primăverii represents Bucharest’s most expensive postcode. Proof of this is the opulent Spring Palace, dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s former residence that’s now open as a museum. On the same Primăverii Boulevard, the new Museum of Recent Art (MARe) wows with its monolith facade and modern art dating from the 1960s onwards. Treat yourself with refined Italian fare at upscale Poesia, followed by exceptional speciality coffee at Bob Coffee Lab on Charles de Gaulle Square, whose roaster and co-founder Alexandru Niculae is the World Coffee Roasting Champion for 2016.
With streets named after capital cities, and its concentration of sumptuous embassies and luxury brands, the quarter retains the exclusive allure of yesteryear. One of its biggest draws is the expansive Herăstrău Park on its borders, with enough to do and see for an entire day. For instance, on the shores of Herăstrău Lake (which makes for a fantastic jogging trail), the bucolic National Village Museum is an open-air ethnographic museum with dozens of original peasant homes brought in from all over the country. Look out for Bucharest’s very own Triumphal Arch as you exit the park via Kiseleff Road.
Perhaps the most authentic quarter one can discover in Bucharest – largely untainted by the woes of communism – is Cotroceni, a 10-minute walk from the Palace of Parliament. Starting with the Bucharest National Opera House, the tree-lined neighbourhood is an architect’s dream, boasting a variety of 19th- and early 20th-century art deco, Neo-Romanian and modernist villas.
Bearing the names of prominent doctors, the streets are a testament to the district’s intellectual prestige. Don’t miss the idyllic Infinitea teahouse, and the tiny Two Minutes Café, possibly the smallest coffee shop in Europe. Another reason to come here is the baroque Cotroceni Palace, the official residence of the President of Romania, which is open for visits, and the adjacent verdant Botanical Garden.