With centuries-old churches and modern steel-and-glass buildings, the Romanian capital of Bucharest is on the brink of change – there is no better time to visit than the present
Despite a chequered past, which encompasses Allied bombings during World War II, devastating earthquakes and revolutions that finally ended the country’s communist rule, the city is embracing the future with arms wide open. Visit during the winter months, when the city is at its most magical. Join the locals as they ice-skate on the frozen lake, gaze over urban parks that are knee-deep in fresh snow and relax in the warmth of a cosy café. Bucharest is one of the least expensive capitals in Europe, so you need no excuse to delve into one of its many unusual and stylish shops.
What to do
Bucharest’s rich and thorny history is written in the architecture. From 18th-century monasteries to the stony-cold buildings of communism, there’s plenty to see. Visit the Palace of the Parliament (Calea 13 Septembrie 1) with its weighty crystal chandeliers (one is an incredible 2.5 tonnes) and intricate handwoven tapestries. Contrast this opulent experience with the Museum of the Romanian Peasant (Sos Kiseleff 3), home to the carcass of an 18th-century Transylvanian wooden church and the only surviving portraits of former leader, Ceausescu.
The National Art Museum (Calea Victoriei 49-53) is a must-see if you’re interested in Romanian artists such as Brancusi and Grigorescu. Stop by at the George Enescu Museum (Calea Victorei 141) to learn about the life of this renowned composer and hear his work performed at the Romanian Athenaeum (00 40 21 315 8798; Benjamin Franklin 1-3), which hosts an array of prestigious concerts throughout the year.
For a harrowing but necessary reminder of the country’s troubled past, make a visit to Piata Universitatii (University Square), the site of some of the most violent scenes of the 1989 revolution. Stone crosses commemorate people who lost their lives in the struggle. Finish the day by taking a walk in Cismigiu Park before strolling up Soseaua Kiseleff (the city’s main thoroughfare) to the Arcul de Triumf – now you know why Bucharest is often nicknamed the ‘Paris of the east’.
The city has a surprisingly lively music scene – from traditional Romanian bands to jazz. Many of the bars have regular live music performances in the evening and offer a glimpse of real, local life. Alternatively, enjoy a ballet performance at the opera house (00 40 21 314 6980; www.operanb.ro). Time permitting, catch a train to the Caldarusani Monastery, situated on a small island in Snagov Lake, to see the supposed tomb of Dracula.
Where to stay
The Athenee Palace Hilton is the jewel of the city. Built in the early 20th century and host to political scandal during World War I, it is as interesting as it is extravagant. Casa Capsa was once the choice of kings, queens and tsars, and it still has its original mirrors and opulent chandeliers to testify to its regal past.
Where to eat and drink
Casa Vernescu (00 40 21 311 9744; www.casavernescu.ro) serves delicious Romanian dishes in elegant surroundings. Watch out for nisetru la gratar – grilled Black Sea sturgeon. Try more local cuisine, listen to live music and taste delicious beer brewed on-site at the Caru cu Bere (00 40 21 313 7560; www.carucubere.ro). Bursting with authentic atmosphere, it was built in 1875 and continues to follow the original beer recipe.
Balthazar (00 40 21 212 1460; www.balthazar.ro) is the trendiest and tastiest restaurant in town, serving French-Thai fusion food. To dine in a stately 18th-century villa go to Casa Doina (00 40 21 222 6717; www.casadoina.ro). Try the tochitura – a heartily spiced meat stew.
Menuet (00 40 21 312 0143; Bulevard Nicolae Grigorescu 14) serves up a range of delicious local dishes. For a feast of Romanian flavours start with the ciorba de perisoare (meatball stew), throw in some slices of melting cascaval pane (fried cheese) and round it all off with papanasi doughnuts filled with a spicy fruit preserve.
Time running out?
For one last taste of Bucharest’s architectural melting pot visit Stavropoleos Church. It was built by a Greek monk in 1724; the Romanian architect Ion Mincu designed the courtyard and restored the building in 1899 – each added their own inimitable touch.
Pick up a copy of Bucharest In Your Pocket at your hotel - the magazine details everything, from events to bars and shops.
Currency is the Romanian leu. Bucharest is two hours ahead of GMT and a three-hour 15-minute flight from London.
Tarom (00 40 21 317 4444; ww.tarom.ro) flies from Heathrow. Wizz Air (www.wizzair.com) flies from London Luton.
Bucharest Tourist Board: 00 40 21 314 9957; www.romaniatourism.com.
The Romanian Revolution of December 1989 by Peter Siani-Davies (Cornell University Press, £15.95).
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.