For many people, initial impressions of Bucharest (Bucureşti), a sprawling, dusty city of some two million people, are less than favourable. It’s Romania’s centre of government and commerce, and site of its main airport, so most visitors to the country will find themselves passing through the city at some point, but its chaotic jumble of traffic-choked streets, ugly concrete apartment blocks and monumental but mostly unfinished communist developments is often enough to send most travellers scurrying off to the more obvious attractions further north. Yet it’s a city that rewards patience, with a raft of terrific museums, first-rate restaurants and bars, and, behind the congested main arteries, some superb architecture and abundant greenery.
The architecture of the old city, with its cosmopolitan air, was notoriously scarred by Ceauşescu’s redevelopment project in the 1980s, which demolished an immense swathe of the historic centre – including many religious buildings and thousands of homes – and replaced it with a concrete jungle, the compellingly monstrous Centru Civic. The centrepiece of this development was an enormous new palace for the communist leader, now known as the Palace of Parliament, which is Bucharest’s premier tourist attraction.
The heart of the city is the Piaţa Revoluţiei, the scene of Ceauşescu’s downfall and site of the old Royal Palace – now home to the superb National Art Museum, housing a fine collection of Romanian medieval art. It lies halfway along Bucharest’s historic north–south axis, the Calea Victoriei, which is still the main artery of city life; the city’s main junction, however, is the Piaţa Universităţii, scene of major events immediately after the 1989 revolution. To the south of here lies the scruffy but atmospheric historic centre, which these days owes its popularity to the welter of bars and restaurants crammed into its agreeably tatty streets.
North from Piaţa Victoriei, along the broad sweep of Şoseaua Kiseleff, lie Bucharest’s two best museums – the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, with its marvellous exhibits on peasant life and superbly reconstructed buildings, and the Village Museum, an assemblage of vernacular buildings garnered from Romania’s multifarious regions. There’s plenty of greenery to explore, too – most obviously the tranquil Cişmigiu Gardens in the heart of the city, and the more expansive Herăstrău Park, on the shores of the lake of the same name.
From Bucharest, there are excellent rail and road connections to the rest of the country, but local bus and train services to the towns and villages in the immediate vicinity are often limited or tortuous. There are, however, some enjoyable visits to be had just outside the capital, most notably the lake and monastery at Snagov, the palace at Mogoşoaia and the village of Clejani, known for its outstanding Gypsy music.