We get this question all the time from people coming to Bucharest for the first time: I will be here for a limited period of time. What should I see and do before going home? There are many things you can see and do in Bucharest, and these are our recommendations. Ignore the order, as it is irrelevant.
Visit the Palace of the Parliament (Palatul Parlamentului)
Do you want to see something huge? Really huge? Visit the Palace of the Parliament (originally called Palace of the People) in Bucharest. The last time we checked, it was the largest civilian building in the world. However, we cannot absolutely guarantee this now as the Chinese people move very quickly in this direction.
This building was one of Ceausescu’s megalomaniacal ambitions – to have the most impressive center of political and administrative power in Romania. He managed to see it almost finished before his execution during the anti-communist revolution of 1989. After the revolution, however, we did not know what to do with it because it was really too big for anything useful. Some people wanted to turn it into a museum of Communism, and one of the more bizarre suggestions was that it becomes a huge casino!
Since 2006, both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies are housed here, and the building was renamed the Palace of the Parliament. You can visit it every day from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, but don’t forget to make a prior reservation at +40-21 3113611. The simplest way would be to go there by Metro – Piaţa Unirii or Izvor stations.
Eat, drink & have fun in the Old Town
Bucharest’s old downtown center is a relatively small area that managed to survive the bulldozers’ attacks in the years before 1989. There are some narrow streets with old-style buildings, hundreds of restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and small shops. This neighborhood has flourished during the last years due to the incredible flow of young tourists and party-goers.
Go here during the day to admire the beautiful period architecture and eat some delicious food (Romanian or international). Then go again at night – to drink, dance or listen to good music in a hip or elegant club.
Visit the Village Museum
This is the old village within the new city. More than 75 years ago, a Romanian intellectual and academician, Dimitrie Gusti, had the marvelous idea of organizing a village museum in Bucharest. At that time, he and his team brought 29 old houses (piece by piece!) from different areas of Romania, together with an old wooden church, five windmills, one watermill, and a fishery. They intended to re-create something like an original old village for new generations to see and learn from their ancestor's ingenuity and way of living.
At this moment, around 350 monuments are belonging to different ages and different regions of Romania. The oldest house, which is also the smallest in the museum, is more than 300 years old.
The Village Museum is located within Herăstrău park and on the Herăstrău lakeshore, so our suggestion would be to visit them together. Reserve a half-day to see both the park and the museum. Take the metro to Aviatorilor station and then enter the park.
Eat like a Romanian in a restaurant serving traditional food.
Romanians eat well. We don’t know if it is because of the lack of food during the tough communist period or our gourmand tradition – but we love big portions. We eat a lot of pork, chicken, and beef. If you want to try something local, you will not be disappointed by sarmale cu mamaligă (meat rolls in cabbage leaves with polenta) or by mici/mititei (a kind of grilled sausage dish).
There are many restaurants in Bucharest serving Romanian food. Still, we recommend Caru cu Bere (www.carucubere.ro) – an old beer house turned into a good restaurant – or Vatra (www.vatra.ro). They are both centrally located so that you can walk to or from any hotel in the center.
Hear the story of Romanian Communism
Unless you come from an Eastern European country and have lived under a totalitarian regime, you will be fascinated by the long story of Communism in Romania.
Romania was under Communist rule for more than 40 years: between 1948 and December 1989. Nicolae Ceauşescu became the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party in 1965 and the President of the Socialist Republic of Romania in 1974. Fifteen years later, he was removed from power and executed after the violent revolution of December 1989. While these days Romania is a democracy, the Communist period has remained interesting as well as controversial.
Hire a local guide who has lived here during Ceauceşcu’s “Golden Age” or perhaps buy a resident a beer in any bar and let yourself be carried away by the stories he will tell you.
Visit Revolution Square (Piaţa Revoluţiei)
One of the most important squares in Bucharest is a history lesson about the city and is surrounded by many interesting and important buildings.
Athenée Palace Hotel – one of the oldest hotels in Bucharest, built-in 1914. It had 140 luxury rooms and 10 suites decorated in the style of Louis XIV at its opening. Between the two World Wars, it was the favorite meeting place for the aristocracy and politicians and artists and foreign spies. Unfortunately, it was partially damaged during the bombings of WWII and has since been renovated four times. Currently, the hotel is part of the Hilton group of hotels.
The Romanian Athenaeum – the main concert hall of Bucharest and a stunning art-nouveau landmark of the city. Go to a concert or visit the interior of the Athenaeum. This beautiful concert hall has been the home of classical music concerts since 1888. The art nouveau interior and the acoustics are amazing. Do not miss the chance to listen to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra concert, or at least ask the doorman to let you take a look inside.
Central University Library „Carol I” – a building with a remarkable architecture, built on the initiative and with the help of the first king of Romania. It was destroyed during the violence of 1989 but completely rebuilt between 1990 and 1997, using the original plans.
The Union of Architects of Romania currently uses the building of the former headquarters of the Fifth Division of the State Security (the division charged with Ceauşescu’s personal security). Much of it was damaged during the revolution, but the exterior walls were kept while a new and modern building was erected inside to symbolize the birth of a new era built on the ruins of the past.
The building of the former Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party – on the front balcony here, Ceauşescu gave his last speech in December 1989 and fled by helicopter together with his wife. Today, it houses the Ministry of Interior and Administrative Reform.
Housed in the former Royal Palace, the Romanian Art Museum consists of three galleries: European Art, Romanian Medieval Art, and Romanian Modern Art. In the Romanian Gallery, you can admire the works of famous Romanian painters. The European Gallery includes paintings and sculptures by Rembrandt, Domenico Veneziano, El Greco, Renoir, Monet, and many others.
During the anti-communist revolution of 1989, which began in the square in front of the palace, the museum was damaged by fire and street fighting. Parts of the building are still in need of repair.
There are also two statuary groups in the middle of the square – one is the statue of King Carol I, Romania’s first king, and the second is the Memorial dedicated to the victims of the 1989 Revolution.
Take the metro to the suburbs, walk around a neighborhood with typical blocks of flats, and try to understand the locals’ life now and in the past.
Traveling by public transportation is still very cheap in Bucharest. Buy a transportation card valid for both the Metro and surface lines, and visit a suburb. There is no better way to get a feel for the city.
Visit the Peasant Museum
This is not just a museum; it is where you can find the Romanian soul and spirit. It is not just about popular costumes, but about the joy, you feel while you are wearing the clothes made by your mother and your grandmother.
It is not just traditional music, but carols and old incantations. It is all of Romania in one museum.
Tip: There is also a good restaurant behind the museum which serves Romanian dishes. Try something there before you leave – believe me, everything is good!