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Everyone has a relatively good idea of what to expect when visiting Paris, London, Berlin, Prague or Budapest. But what to make of Bucharest, one of the biggest cities in Europe and an up-and-coming destination for years? Here’s our guide on how to make the best of Bucharest to get you started.
An architect’s surrealist dream or total nightmare, Bucharest can be both. From large Stalinist architectural monuments lining the big boulevards designed during the country’s Communist decades, to quiet and charming tree-lined streets with Art Deco villas, the city’s got it all. The meeting ground of Western and Eastern architectural styles, Bucharest has a unique architectural identity, the keyword being ‘diversity’.
Bucharest has over 60 museums and memorial houses. While visits to the National Museum of Art of Romania (MNAR), the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC) and the open-air Village Museum are a must, go off the beaten track and you will be rewarded. Check out the Museum of Art Collections for exquisite Romanian art, the Storck Museum for charming murals and Casa Melik to soak in the spirit that breathes in Bucharest’s oldest house.
Bucharest’s neighbourhoods could not be more different. Walk the huge boulevards in the city centre inspired by Nicolae Ceaușescu’s ill-fated visit to North Korea, get lost on the winding cobbled streets of the nearby Lipscani, the city’s party epicentre, cool off in the charming Cotroceni while admiring imposing villas, then grab a meal in one of restaurants in Floreasca, among the city’s best. And you’ve only just scratched the surface.
The city’s bookstores are the best place to pick a souvenir in the form of an album about Romania’s picturesque region of Bukovina, its magnificent castles or the Danube Delta, one of Europe’s top wildlife destinations. Do not miss Kyralina, hosted in a beautifully restored 19th-century villa, and the breathtaking book lovers’ paradise that is Cărturești Carusel.
Bucharest has a lot of old buildings whose walls and roofs are starting to be covered in some very creative ways. In one of the latest projects, developed by Make a Point, a group of local creatives has hit a major mark by covering the rooftops of several blocks of flats with murals inspired by the identity of their neighbourhood, Pantelimon.
The city has plenty of churches and monasteries, where rituals are carried out in the same way as hundreds of years ago. Experience the otherworldly draw of Byzantine spirituality by attending a morning or evening service in 18th-century, Brâncovenesc-style Stavropoleos Monastery, Domnița Bălașa church or Plumbuita Monastery. And, if you’re looking to lift a particular curse, consider heading to Zlătari church.
There’s no better way to escape the crowds than head to one of Bucharest’s parks and gardens. If looking for a carefully designed green oasis in the heart of the city, visit Grădina Cişmigiu, the oldest and most popular public garden. For wide lawns and long walking lanes head to Herăstrău Park or Tineretului Park, and for a wildlife-watching experience go to Parcului Natural Văcăreşti. The Botanical Gardens, some of the best in the country, will introduce you to the varied local flora.
A visit to Bucharest can act as the best introduction to Romanian cuisine. Try local staple dishes such as sarmale, mititei and papanași, while not forgetting that the Romanian capital is a great spot to revisit world cuisine at its many cafés and restaurants.
Bucharest has some pretty colourful markets where you will find fresh local produce, such as berries and mushrooms from the Carpathian Mountains, honey products and the best quality fruit and vegetables around. The biggest market in Romania, Obor Market, is perhaps the best place for an immersive experience, while treasure hunters should brace the distance and pay a visit to Valea Cascadelor, the city’s biggest flea market.
Traditional Romanian souvenirs are a great way to bring a piece of the local culture to your home. But while in Bucharest, take time to browse through shops and galleries looking for objects, clothes and accessories by local designers and you might stumble upon some treasures.
Romanian cinema has been on an upswing since the ’90s. Over the years, local powerhouses Cristi Mungiu, winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2007, Calin Peter Netzer, winner of the Berlin Golden Bear, and Cristi Puiu have successfully exported their creative vision abroad and have already started receiving competition from talented young directors, to the benefit of cinema lovers everywhere.
One of the undisputed party capitals in Europe, Bucharest’s nightlife has something for everyone. Start off with a cocktail in one of the hip bars in Palatul Universul or at the many pubs in the old centre before heading to Control or Expirat for a cool, alternative crowd, or Fratelli for an unforgettable glamorous extravaganza.
While perhaps a surprising suggestion at first sight, going to the beach – a real yellow sandy one with palm trees even – is perfectly possible. In the summer, head to Sands of Therme, the biggest urban beach in Europe, and in the cold months you can head the same way, since the covered thermal water pools at Therme are open year-round.