Dusting off its communist past following decades of transition, Bucharest is increasingly popular for visitors travelling through Eastern Europe. Many come to one of Europe’s most affordable capitals for the gaudy 1100-room Palace of Parliament, the second-largest administrative building in the world that stands as a testament of Romania’s power-hungry dictator. But considering a slew of interesting museums, parks and trendy al fresco cafes peering from art nouveau villas, factor in at least two days before you dash off to Transylvania.
Start with a stroll along Calea Victoriei, lurching with belle époque sensations and upscale boutiques. Bucharest’s oldest artery is arguably its most revealing. From the stately Cantacuzino Palace (today housing the George Enescu Museum) to the grandeur of the Romanian Athenaeum, bordering the scar-marked Revolution Square, it’s clear why the Romanian capital was once dubbed ‘little Paris’. Crowning wide, tree-lined boulevards, the city even boasts its very own Triumphal Arch.
But Bucharest is best enjoyed from the seat of a garden terrace, watching life go by. Contributing to a long-standing cafe culture, the Garden of Eden (facebook.com/gradinaeden107) – so appropriately called – boasts a vast urban garden seemingly veiled behind Știrbei Palace, complete with swings and hammocks. Come fall, sip your coffee inside the covered terrace whose artsy-industrial design scores extra points.
Before you set off into the maze-like streets of the Old Town, refuel with hearty Romanian fare at Caru’ cu Bere, Bucharest’s oldest beer house. Despite the tourist crowds, this stained-glass architectural landmark from 1897 is worth a stop, both for the food and occasional song-and-dance traditional performances.
With your belly full of beer and ciorbă (the customary sour soup), journey on the cobblestone streets of Lipscani, the area named after the many German merchants from Leipzig once retailing here. With quirky street names redolent of the craftsmen of yesteryear – such as Blanari (furriers), Covaci (blacksmiths) and Gabroveni (knife makers) – the pedestrian district will keep you entertained for hours.
On the left as you exit the restaurant, notice the Orthodox Stravropoleos Church, a magnificent example of Brâncovenesc style built by Greek monks in the 1700s. Head to the tranquil garden in the back for the masterfully carved arcades and a few minutes of silence. Moving on, the discreet courtyard of Strada Hanul cu Tei unravels a heap of art galleries and antique shops. Also in the vicinity is the Old Princely Court, built in the 15th century by the infamous Vlad Ţepeş, more widely known as Count Dracula.
But if you’d rather seek the modern, there’s plenty on that front to keep you busy. Envisioned as a cultural habitat where one can retreat to read and savour organic food and drinks, Carturesti Carusel library (carturesticarusel.ro) – an Instagram magnet in the Old Town – is an impressive six-level structure in a restored 19th-century house. Next door, the brought-to-new-life Gabroveni Inn (arcub.ro/arcub-gabroveni) is the capital’s newfangled cultural centre (renamed ARCUB), often hosting free exhibitions and events.
Finally, take a peek inside the oldest operating hotel in Bucharest, Manuc’s Inn (hanulluimanuc.ro). Here, the picturesque balconied courtyard acts as a perfect backdrop for fairs and folkloric acts, while also housing a restaurant, a few bars and a coffee shop.
Closing in a tireless afternoon of Old Town crawling, cool off with an Aperol Spritz at Bordello (bordellos.ro), a 3-in-1 hotspot thanks to its gastro pub, 1930s speakeasy and cabaret. Whether you start with Foreplay snacks or Quickies, you can wine, dine and get your groove on, all in the same building.
Bucharest is known for its nightlife, and Lipscani is where the action is. Try club-hopping on the adjacent streets, a pastime that in Bucharest goes on well after midnight, or hop over to newcomer Energiea (energiea.ro) for some of the city’s most ingenious cocktails.
Start the day right at Origo Coffee Shop (origocoffee.ro), a speciality store offering the best brew in town, along with breakfast snacks and herbal teas (return at dusk for an introduction to Romanian wines, accompanied by an assortment of local cheeses and cold cuts). Properly energised, take advantage of one of the best English-language bookstores in Eastern Europe, at Anthony Frost on Calea Victoriei; it’s stocked with several titles on Romania.
If weather permits, hop on a 20-minute taxi ride north (around €3) for a unique morning outdoors at the National Village Museum. Here you can witness a page of Romanian rural life and a display of a few dozen peasant homes, barns, wooden churches and mills from all regions of the country. Stroll past tall-roofed houses, with beautifully crafted shingles and doorways, in a bucolic setting on the shores of Herăstrău Lake.
Following the nature walk, make your way back south to Fabrica Club (fabrica-club.ro), one of Bucharest’s most popular hangout spots. Promoting an alternative lifestyle and with an underground vibe, the former communist-era sock factory (Fabrica translates as ‘factory’) is first and foremost a restaurant. Start with a lunch on the outdoor terrace.
Afterwards allocate a few hours to exploring the various parts of this industrial haunt claiming to be the world’s first ‘plub’ (club and pub), complete with a skate park, climbing zone and game room. After dark, rock, electro and hip-hop fans can rock it out at B52 (fabrica-club.ro/extreme/b52-the-club.html), where concerts are often staged.
Your last night in Bucharest should take you back to the city centre, rubbing shoulders with art directors and creative types. Go for tagliatelle nero di seppia with salmon at Alt Shift (altshift.ro), where industrial Brooklyn meets Berlin vibes. To follow the Italian theme, give in to a scoop of bio gelato at Puro & Bio (facebook.com/Puro.Bio.Romania), the first artisanal ice-cream maker in Romania.
End the night on Smârdan Street, where the trendy Nomad Skybar (facebook.com/nomadskybar) offers panoramic city views and an unbeatable atmosphere.