Bucharest is at once surprising and confusing. It's a city which, at first sight, appears to be an incomprehensible jumble of old and new, East and West, chicness and dilapidation, elegance and crudeness - its overall feeling is one of pulsating European metropolis mishmashed with the provincial.
In the period between the two world wars, Bucharest's social and cultural life was equal to that of the old European capitals. And still today, despite the years spent under the infamous Ceausescu regime, a glimmering of that former era of glory is still alive. It is, however, intermingled with the ongoing healing process from wounds inflicted by all of those years of communism, not to mention the new scars inflicted by the recent global economic crisis. New bars, restaurants, art galleries... In the last few years, Bucharest has flourished at an astonishing speed, and at the same time, shocked with its eclecticism. But it's quite possible that that is exactly wherein its charm lies. There are moments when you actually start to believe it's a city within a city. There is quite a bit of Parisian ambience in Bucharest: Şoseaua Kiseleff, one of the largest streets in the city, is the size of Champs-Élysées and lined with opulent mansions surrounded by walnut trees. Bucharest even has its own Arch of Triumph - a smaller copy of the Parisian original, decorated with Romanian ornaments. Then there is the Athénée Palace Hotel (currently owned by the Hilton chain), a reminder of the times when Bucharest carried the nickname of "Little Paris". There was good reason for that, actually: the relationship between Bucharest and Paris started in the late 1800s, when many affluent families sent their offspring to study architecture in Paris. French architects were all the rage at the time, and most of the mansions in Bucharest were designed by the French. The Golden Age of Bucharest architecture and culture was the 1930s, the period between the two world wars - a time when the city's economy flourished. One of the symbols of the era is the ARO building, currently home to the Patria movie theatre with its marble auditorium containing 1200 seats. And then, of course, there is the notorious Bucharest of the communist era, its symbol being the 1970 Hotel Intercontinental - once the tallest building in the city - and with the inevitable 21st-floor Luna Bar. Not to mention the House of the People (Casa Poporului) or the Palace of the Parliament, a brilliant testament to the powerful ego of Nicolae Ceauşescu - in terms of area, it is second only to the Pentagon (in Washington D.C.); to build it, the Ceauşescu regime sacrificed a significant part of old Bucharest. Ceauşescu believed that his twelve-storey, 1100-room palace - the construction of which used up one million cubic metres of marble - would become "the Acropolis" of Romania; instead, it became a symbol of the megalomania and destructiveness of his regime.
The people of Bucharest are friendly and open, and a large number of them speak English quite well. The city's restaurant scene can compete with that of any European metropolis (the local populace likes to "go out"), and the prices are significantly more affordable, to boot. At the same time, the lack of really good and stylish hotels reveals that Bucharest has yet to be discovered by the greater tourist masses. Actually, this is one of the best reasons to head here right now. An ideal itinerary would be to devote a couple of days to Bucharest, and then head on to Transylvania, the legend-laden home of Dracula.
Good to know:
Bucharest's Otopeni Airport lies 17 kilometres from the city's centre. Taxis are yellow in colour, with a "TAXI" light on the roof; the official rate is about 1.40 RON/km (ranging from 1.30 - 1.50). A trip to the centre of town will cost you no more than 60 - 80 lei (13-18); just be sure that the driver turns the meter on once you get in.
Bucharest is the largest city in Romania, and has a population of more than two million.
Romania has been a member of the EU since 2007, but distinctly stands apart from the rest by allowing people to smoke in indoor public spaces; you can count the no-smoking cafés and restaurants in Bucharest on one hand. This blemish is a blast from the past that will make you realize that you don't ever want to go back to those times!
Bucharest is composed of six districts, and four of them are definitely worth taking a closer look:
Lipscani - The historical market district that was the pulsating heart of the city in the 18th century. In addition to Romanian merchants, there were Greek, Serbian, Armenian, Jewish, Albanian, Bulgarian and Austrian tradesmen selling their wares as well. The small shops on the main street, Strada Lipscani, sold cloth imported from Leipzig (hence the name of the street). During the Ceausescu regime, the quarter was largely abandoned, but now a large number of the historic buildings have been restored, and several popular restaurants and cafés have opened up in Lipscani. Unfortunately, the pronounced commercialization of the area has dampened the charm of the cobbled streets and historical building façades. The pride of Lipscani is the small Stavropoleos church; built in 1722, it is a combination of Byzantine-, Renaissance- and traditional Romanian architectural styles, and is one of the oldest churches in Bucharest.
Ioanid - This district between Ioanid Park and the Icoanei Gardens (the point where Dacia Boulevard, Polona Street and Aurel Vlacu Street all come together) hides fantastic belle époque villas from the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th, and which used to belong to the architects, aristocrats, physicians and merchants of the time. Once the heart of Bucharest, something of that era can still be felt in the air. Some of the villas have been restored, while others still endure the ravages of time as they await their chance at a second life.
The Calea Victoriei area. The oldest street in Bucharest, Calea Victoriei is the city's main artery as it stretches from Kiseleff Boulevard in the south of the city, to the banks of the Dâmboviţa River in the north. Unlike one usually expects of central avenues, Calea Victoriei is not straight as an arrow, and at times is even wildly winding. The buildings on both sides of it embody the essence of Bucharest, from one extreme to the other - from the spectacular to the decrepit, from real architectural gems built at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, to abandoned and ramshackle structures built during the communist era and more recently. One of the most beautiful specimens is Cantacuzino Palace, which currently houses, among others: the museum commemorating the Romanian composer, George Enescu; the Museum of Art Collections; the National Museum of Art of Romania; Revolution Square; and the Grand Hotel Continental.
And then there's the exclusive Dorobanți district, where the villas built between the world wars illustrate all of the architectural fads of the period: neoclassical, art deco, belle époque, bauhaus, and 1930s modernism. The district also stands out with it street names, which carry the titles of some of the world's largest capital cities - Paris, Roma, Londra, Varsovia, Washington, Atena, and so on.