Romania’s capital sometimes gets a bad rap, but in fact it's dynamic, energetic and lots of fun. Many travellers give the city just a night or two before heading off to Transylvania, but that’s not enough time. Allow at least a few days to take in the very good museums, stroll the parks and hang out at trendy cafes and drinking gardens. While much of the centre is modern and the buildings are in various stages of disrepair, you'll find splendid 17th- and 18th-century Orthodox churches and graceful belle époque villas tucked away in quiet corners. Communism changed the face of the city forever, and nowhere is this more evident than at the gargantuan Palace of Parliament, the grandest (and arguably crassest) tribute to dictatorial megalomania you’ll ever see.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Bucharest.
The Palace of Parliament is the world’s second-largest administrative building (after the Pentagon) and former dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s most infamous creation. Started in 1984 (and still unfinished), the 330,000-sq-metre building has more than 3000 rooms. Entry is by guided tour only (book ahead). Entry to the palace is from B-dul Naţiunile Unite on the building's northern side (to find it, face the front of the palace from B-dul Unirii and walk around the building to the right). Bring your passport.
The exquisite Athenaeum is the majestic heart of Romania’s classical-music tradition. Scenes from Romanian history are featured on the interior fresco inside the Big Hall on the 1st floor; the dome is 41m high. A huge appeal dubbed ‘Give a Penny for the Athenaeum’ saved it from disaster after funds dried up in the late 19th century. Today it’s home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra and normally only open during concerts, but you can often take a peek inside.
The collection of peasant bric-a-brac, costumes, icons and partially restored houses makes this one of the most popular museums in the city. There’s not much English signage, but insightful little cards in English posted in each room give a flavour of what’s on offer. An 18th-century church stands in the back lot. Don’t miss the jarring communism exhibition downstairs, which focuses on the Ceauşescu-era program of land collectivisation, which almost completely destroyed the traditional peasant way of life.
This restored villa is the former main residence of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu, who lived here for around two decades up until the end in 1989. Everything has been returned to its former lustre, including the couple's bedroom and the private apartments of the three Ceauşescu children. Highlights include a cinema in the basement, Elena's opulent private chamber, and the back garden and swimming pool. Reserve a tour in advance by phone or on the website.
What was supposed to be a 6km-long dam during the communist era, left abandoned after the 1989 Revolution, turned over 22 years into a vast urban delta. The first of its kind in Romania, this nature park has 136 species of birds and 116 types of plants, reptiles and insects, an entire ecosystem thriving among concrete structures. Call ahead to visit the 17th-floor Observatory in Asmita Gardens’ T4 Tower (free entry).
The city’s most prestigious burial ground houses the tombs of many notable Romanian writers – a map inside the gate points out locations. Many Romanians pay their respects to national poet Mihai Eminescu (1850–89) and comic playwright and humorist Ion Luca Caragiale (1852–1912), who are separated only by a bloke named Traian Savulescu; go to Figura 9 (to the right after you enter).
The tiny and lovely Stavropoleos Church, which dates from 1724, perches a bit oddly a block over from some of Bucharest's craziest Old Town carousing. It's one church, though, that will make a lasting impression, with its courtyard filled with tombstones, an ornate wooden interior and carved wooden doors.
One of the few attractions in Bucharest aimed squarely at kids, this natural-history museum, showing off Romania's plant and animal life, has been thoroughly renovated. It features lots of modern bells and whistles, such as video displays, games and interactive exhibits. Much of it has English signage.
This is the lovingly restored residence and studio of 19th-century Romanian painter Theodor Aman. Aman's skill was in small, finely rendered oil paintings depicting aspects of local and national life. The detail is so fine on some of the paintings, the figures appear to take on three-dimensional form.