It’s fair to say that Bucharest is usually given a wide berth by most travellers eager to reach the country’s more obvious sights, such as Transylvania, but this is a shame. Romania’s invigorating capital has much to commend it.
Beyond the welter of concrete – which in itself has a strange allure – you’ll find wide, tree-lined boulevards, ancient Orthodox churches and monasteries, and a stock of excellent museums. Not to mention a resurgent historic quarter and nightlife that rates among the best in the Balkans. As summer winds down and the heat subsides, there’s no better time to start exploring.
It’s hard to escape the fact that Bucharest is comprised of lots of concrete, a legacy of Ceauşescu’s brutal redevelopment project in the 1980s – but that’s not to say it isn’t fascinating. First port of call is the gargantuan, twelve-storey Palace of Parliament, but don’t worry, you only get to see around a dozen or so of its 1100 rooms on a guided tour. The Palace of Parliament lies on the fringes of the Centru Civic, which, although hardly a thing of beauty, is simply mesmerising in its scale.
Otherwise, take a stroll around Piaţa Revoluţiei, which is where the drama unfolded in December 1989 as Ceauşescu’s command began to crumble; the centre of the action was the former Communist Party Headquarters, a Stalinesque behemoth.
Bucharest’s premier cultural institution is the Village Museum, one of the finest open-air museums in the Balkans, the highlight of which are the iconic wooden churches from Maramureş. Whilst here, take the chance to escape the ferocious summer heat with a stroll around Lake Herăstrău.
Second only to the Village Museum is the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, whose displays of colourful peasant artefacts offers a wonderful insight into Romanian rural life.
Bucharest’s culinary scene is finally on the move. Top dog at the minute is The Artist, a super-smooth establishment that can rate marvellously inventive dishes like marinated octopus with salted lemon sorbet and black garlic. Fabulous homestyle cooking is the order of the day at Beca’s Kitchen, whose genial proprietor, Beca, delights in chatting with customers. There’s much fun to be had at Caru’ cu bere, a rousing, German-style beer-hall where you can chow down on mititei (grilled sausages) and tochitură (pork stew).
While it can’t boast the grand coffee houses of, say, Budapest or Vienna, coffee culture has hit Bucharest big-time in recent months. Your first stop should be Origo, whose baristas really do know their beans, as do the folk at Tucano, a bohemian-style hangout occupying a grand old villa just north of the centre; their cheesecake is the best in the city. For a bit of outdoor coffee action, head to Café Verona, a sprawling, tree-shaded garden attached to the brilliant Carturesti bookshop.
These days the best place to party is the Old Town, whose narrow, cobbled streets are packed cheek-by-jowl with good-time party places. A cracking all-rounder is Bordello, where you can variously enjoy live music, cabaret, burlesque, or just kick back with a good old-fashioned pint. Biutiful, meanwhile, is an uber-cool industrial-style space frequented by Bucharest’s beautiful people, naturally. Another place worth seeking out is La 100 De Beri, which, as the name suggests, stocks 100 beers – enough said.
Away from the Old Town, the shores of Lake Herăstrău offer enticing possibilities, not least at Fratelli, a thumpingly-fine venue where you’ll find the very best local and visiting DJs.
Romanian wine is something of an unknown quantity, but a number of bars have emerged recently, the most convivial being Abel’s, a small, laid-back kind of place in the Old Town where you can discover any number of local vintages.
Airport hotels are generally fairly unexciting places, but the VI Hotels angelo Airporthotel Bucharest, just a stone’s throw from the runway, bucks the trend. Warm, welcoming and super-colourful throughout, it also possesses a first class restaurant.
Bucharest’s most historic, if not its most glamorous hotel is the Athenee Palace Hilton, which for years functioned as a hotbed of espionage and intelligence – the rooms themselves are supremely comfortable.
Inauspiciously tucked away on a quiet residential street, Christina is a cool, eco-driven residence offering rooms in four colour schemes, each with ergonomically-designed beds and strip lighting, plus neat touches like Nespresso machines.
The city’s premier event is September’s George Enescu Festival, three weeks of world class music in honour of Romania’s most celebrated composer; this year the line-up will feature the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam and the London Symphony Orchestra – most concerts take place in the stunning surrounds of the Romanian Atheneum.