A vibrant city with a complicated past and a rich history, my first glimpse of the Romanian capital came in the form of twinkling lights sprawling out into the distance below the plane window. From sampling traditional Romanian cuisine to experiencing some stunning architecture, here’s a guide to the very best things to do in Bucharest:
#1 See the Parliament Building (and the second largest building in the world)
It’s impossible to talk about the history of Romania, and indeed Bucharest, without discussing its communist past. The massive parliamentary building that was constructed during the communist era during the rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu is the second largest building in the world (second only to the Pentagon).
It’s constructed from Romanian marble and is the world’s heaviest building (as well as the most expensive). Construction of the building started in 1978, and the structure is so vast that it actually takes a full hour’s walk just to walk around it!
Despite housing administrative offices and government departments such as the competition Council, and the Romanian Senate, seven-tenths of this building actually remains empty. For a fee, you can go inside the parliament building and experience another side to its imposing architecture. To save your feet from walking the distance around the building, the entrance for tourists is to the right hand side of the building when you’re facing it straight on.
#2 Spot the French Influences on Bucharest
Bucharest is often referred to as Little Paris and it’s true that French influence is apparent throughout the city. From the small French-like signs in the parks to the Haussmannian style architecture dotted throughout the city, there are traces of France almost everywhere you look.
#3 Go Searching for Street Art
The other nickname Bucharest has gained in the past decade or so is ‘New Berlin‘, owing to the sheer amount of street art around nearly every corner, as well as a buzzing ‘Berlinesque nightlife’ when the sun sets over the city. And it’s true that people in Bucharest like to party; throughout the city (particularly in the old town), you can find dozens of clubs that are open well into the early hours of the morning.
#4 Visit the Basilica Saint Anthony
This pretty orthodox church is located on the fringes of the old town, right next to the ruins of one of Vlad the Impaler’s former residences. Though the church is built on the site of a much older place of worship, the building you can now see here dates back to the early 20th-Century. Inside the church, you’ll find the tomb of Mircea the Shepherd, founder of the original 16th-Century church.
#5 Visit the Umbrella Passage and Pizzeria
If you’ve searched for ‘Bucharest’ on Instagram, no doubt you’ve come across the pretty umbrella street outside a cute little pizzeria. Named the ‘Pizza Colosseum’, you’ll find its vibrant decor just off the Calea Victoriei and pretty close by to the ‘one day church’ (A pretty orthodox church. Its construction started and ended on the same date of the year, hence why it’s called the ‘one day church’.)
If you want to see even more umbrella passageways in the city of Bucharest, head to the cute café of Acuarela. Elsewhere in the city, there are plenty of hidden gems to discover, if only you know where to look. Here’s a full guide to the best secret spots in Bucharest.
#6 Drink (and eat plenty of food) at the 18 Lounge
Towering high above the leafy green city of Bucharest, from here you can even enjoy views onto the great lakes and the Arcul de Triumf. The food was incredible, the wine was tasty and the views breathtaking. Head here to take in some of the best views of the city, while enjoying a good glass of wine (or a coffee depending on the time of day!)
#7 Learn about Communism
To get a real sense of how much communism shaped Bucharest, and Romania as a whole, I highly recommend going on a free walking tour of the city with a local guide. Walkabout Free Walking Tours operate in a few cities across Romania, including the Transylvanian town of Brasov.
Their ‘The Story of Bucharest’ tour will quite literally walk you through centuries of history, and help you to understand the story of how Bucharest came to be the city you can see, visit and experience today. While tours are free to attend and take place on a daily basis, donations are always appreciated.
#8 Wander around Cismigiu Park
The Cișmigiu Gardens or Cișmigiu Park is a pretty green space is the oldest park in the capital city and centred around a beautiful artificial lake. Throughout the area, you’ll find little follies, monuments and statues dotted around. During my stay in the city, I stayed in the Hotel Epoque which was close to Cismigiu Park.
Particular points of interest in the 16 hectares park include the Writer’s Rotunda/ Rondul Român (a circular walk lined with busts of famous Romanian authors) and The Monument of French Heroes/ Monumentul Eroilor Francezi which commemorates French soldiers who fought for Romania in WWI.
#9 Visit the Prettiest Bookshop in Romania
Located in a repurposed 19th-Century building in the heart of Bucharest’s Old Town, you’ll find Cărturești Carusel, what may well be the prettiest bookshop in all of Romania. Head here to find books on a whole variety of subjects, as well as a light-filled café on the mezzanine floor. Although much more popular since the rise of certain social media platforms, the ‘Light Carousel’ Bookshop remains one of the prettiest bookstores in Europe.
#10 Be amazed by the Town Hall
While the interior is often closed to the public (we were incredibly lucky to be granted a sneak peek inside thanks to the City of Bucharest), Bucharest Town Hall is still well worth admiring from the exterior. Located just opposite from the Cismigiu park, a trip here can easily be combined with a trip to the nearby park.
#11 Check out the Arcul de Triumf
Thanks to its abundance of cute cafés and Haussmannian style architecture, Bucharest has been given the nickname of Little Paris. But what you might not know is that yes, Bucharest has an Arc de Triomphe too, and it’s situated along Victoriei Avenue! The current arch was constructed in 1935 and offers breathtaking views over the city (even when the Triumphal arch is closed to the public, it’s still impressive and can be seen from all over Bucharest).
#12 Relax in Herăstrău Park
Would you believe that Bucharest actually has over 20 square metres of green space per person! The Herăstrău Park is located to the North of the city and offers plenty of green space to stroll around and soak up the sunshine in the summer months.
Here, you’ll also find a Michael Jackson statue, among plenty of other monuments. The iconic singer came to the city as part of his world tour ‘The Dangerous Tour’ in 1992. Just don’t make the same mistake the King of Pop did and call ‘Bucharest’ ‘Budapest’ by accident!
#13 Go Looking for the ‘Churches That Moved’
Bucharest is filled with churches (pretty much one per every five minutes of walking!). This is especially true when you look beyond the communist buildings that line the Grand Promenade leading up to the Palace of Parliament. If there’s one thing I learned during history lessons at school, it’s that secular communism and religion do not mix well.
Nicolae Ceaușescu did not want to see any of the Orthodox churches when it came to his grand vision for Bucharest- they just didn’t fit with Communist architecture or ideals. However, as so many of the architects did not want to lose the ancient buildings of the churches, they came up with an ingenious plan to move them via rail tracks. Imagine seeing centuries-old buildings rolling by during the 1980s in Communist Romania!
The oldest of all the churches that were moved during this period is that of the Mihai Voda Church, a pretty 16th-Century orthodox church hidden in amongst the high rise communist flats. During the communist era, the religious building was moved from the top of where the palace of Parliament now sits to behind a particularly high block of flats.
#14 Admire the Stavropoleos Monastery
Of all the best things to do in Bucharest, searching for many of the pretty churches dotted around the city is high up on the list. And within the limits of the city’s ‘old town,’ you’ll find the beautiful architecture of Stavropoleos monastery. Inside, the walls are painted ornately, while the garden hiding behind the church house a set of pretty cloisters (perfect for soaking up some history in peace and quiet).
#15 Drink beer at Hanul Lui Manuc (Manuc’s Hotel and Restaurant)
Recently renovated after a period of renovation, the ancient building of Manuc’s Inn is the oldest operating hotel in Bucharest. Located at 62–64 Strada Franceză and just across from the Curtea Veche, the Inn was first built in 1808.
Today, it houses a huge beer garden where you can enjoy Romanian specialities and Romanian beer. Just bear in mind that owing to the special nature of the history of the place, as well as its proximity to many major tourist attractions in Bucharest, the prices here can be a little higher than elsewhere.
#16 See the Remains of Vlad the Impaler’s Palace (Curtea Veche)
Although many people believe that Vlad the Impaler (a ruler who governed with an iron fist and had a particular fondness for impaling enemies and foes) came from Transylvania, where Bran Castle is located, he actually came from Wallachia, where Bucharest if based.
Vlad is so famous because it’s widely believed that he served as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. Now, not far from the beer house and next to the Basilica of Saint Nicholas, you’ll find the remains of his once great palace, Curtea Veche, as well as a statue dedicated to him.
#17 Enjoy Bucharest’s Vibrant Coffee Culture
It has to be said that one of the most unexpected parts and best things to do in Bucharest was exploring the coffee culture that is alive and well in the Romanian Capital. Bucharest is a city where you really have to search for the hidden gems, and walking around from coffee shop to coffee shop is easily one of the best ways to get to know the city.
Some of the best cafés in Bucharest include:
French Revolution, Strada Esarcu Constantin Nr. 1, Bucharest 010291, Romania (their eclairs are out of this world!),
The Creamier, Benjamin Franklin, nr. 5010287 Bucharest, Romania (specialists in Freakshakes)
Grand Café Van Gogh, Strada Smârdan 9, București 030167, Romania (great sandwiches at lunchtime- though don’t come here if you’re in a hurry as lunches taken here are long and relaxed).
#18 See a live performance at the National Theatre
The National Theatre of Bucharest is a public cultural institution. Head here for a whole array of cultural activities; interesting things on offer include theatre performances, conferences and talks. A theatre has stood here for over 150 years, though the original was badly bombed during WWII. Each month, the National Theatre welcomes up to 20,000 guests.
#19 Wander the Old Town /Centru Vechi
Bucharest’s Old Town is actually the ‘newest’ Old Town in the world, coming in at just under a decade old! The Old Town part of the city was actually constructed in the early 2000s in a bid to attract more tourists to the capital. And it seems to have worked because today, the bright lights of the old town are a draw for international visitors the world over. Head here to find some of the best nightlife and bars in the city.
#20 Sample a covrigi (a Romanian Pretzel)
Of all the food things to do in Bucharest, sampling a covrigi is a must! This pretzel like national delicacy and can be purchased from pastry shops throughout the city. Head into a store to try the giant pastry piping hot! If you’re a meat eater (and much of Romanian food is based around meat), then you’ll also have the opportunity to puchase a pastry filled with sausage in the pastry stores (my meat eating friends tell me they’re good).
#21 Take a day trip to Bran Castle
Though I highly recommend booking (at least) a few days to see Transylvania, it’s possible to see Bran Castle (AKA Dracula’s Castle) as a day trip from Bucharest. To get the best possible photos of the castle, head there mid-week, earlier in the day! If you have a little longer time to explore Transylvania, be sure to base yourself in the ever-so-pretty city of Brasov.
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I visited some of the activities and places on this list as part of #ExperienceBucharest. However, all opinions, words and photos are my own!