A mere five weeks after the Berlin wall fell, Romania ended its communist rule with a bloody revolution in its capital city that overthrew dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. It’s part of Bucharest’s vibrant modern history, and thanks to Ceausescu’s masterpieces to himself, the city’s painstaking preservation of its monuments, churches and turn-of-the-century buildings, and its enlightened artistic expression, Bucharest is a must-see city.
You’re likely to find yourself in “Little Paris” after a Danube cruise that ends in Giurgiu, Romania, a sleepy village an hour away. While the train system runs like clockwork in Western Europe, it isn’t as punctual or regular here. Instead, we booked Blacklane, which operates in 250 countries, and is one of the most reasonable and reliable luxury car services we’ve found. Four friends were quoted $520 by a limousine company for transport to Bucharest. It was $130 by Blacklane, including tip, in a Mercedes van.
Enter Bucharest and gaze upon ancient gypsy mansions with soaring turrets next to magnificent Beaux- Arts buildings that dominate the landscape. Shadows of the Romanian Revolution are everywhere, from the mammoth Palace of the Parliament to the former Securitate secret police headquarters adjacent to Revolution Square and a towering monument of King Carol I, repurposed from a destroyed Ceausescu monument. Here’s where to go, where to stay and what to eat if you have only 48 hours in this architectural dream:
Where To Go
For one of the most riveting walking tours, book the Communist Tour on GetYourGuide.com, and have Emma Schwarz take you on a four-hour discovery of monuments and much more, including Domnita Balasa church, said to be the most beautiful in Bucharest, saved from Elena’s Ceausescu’s rampage to destroy places of worship. Emma also leads shopping tours and can tell you where to buy the most beautiful hand-embroidered Hungarian peasant blouses (so exceptional in their artistry, they are featured at Museum of Modern Art, on runway collections and adorned by Adele on a recent Vogue cover). A walk through Old Town will lead to exciting discoveries, including buried Roman ruins under a plexiglass cover and Vlad the Impaler’s (aka Count Dracula) former villa where he spent most his time thinking up ways to torture foes.
Walk through the passages of Pasajul Villacrosse Macca by day for its sheer magical beauty and diffused light from the golden-hued glass roof. What was once an aristocrat’s dowry is now filled with small restaurants and plenty of nighttime action. Pasajul Victoria is a photographer’s dream with colorful rainbow umbrellas hanging over a hidden passage to walk through multiple times for the sheer joy. For a snapshot of Romania’s history, visit the Outdoor Village Museum in Herăstrău Park, itself a place to walk, rent a boat or bike and see Elisabeta Palace, the residence of Romania’s royal family. Gradina Eden (Garden of Eden) opened last year and may be the locals’ best kept secret. This large, lush watering hole under a canopy of trees is hidden behind Stirbey Palace, with gravel pathways, bars constructed from wooden branches (one for cocktails, the other for healthy smoothies), rustic wooden tables and chairs on raised platforms, hammocks and a few discreet, pillowed cabanas. It’s a place to relax, unwind and mingle with the locals.
Where to Shop
If it’s hidden treasures you seek, don’t miss the Antiquities Market inside a stunning Beaux Arts building that was once Bucharest’s stock exchange (Strada Doamnei 11). Mesteshikar ButiQ is an artists’ collective where Roma gypsy traditional crafts meet modern design for jewelry, fashion and home collections (Str. Edgar Quinet, #7). Carturesti Carusel bookstore with its three stories and soaring skylight is the go-to place for locals to select pens, journals and gifts (Strada Lipscani 55). A few steps away in side street you’ll find HIRCUS for silk and cashmere creations that are works of art (Lipscani 43). Look for weekend street fairs like the Bounty Fair, for handmade treasures by local artists including Brandusa Ungurasu with her original porcelain and gold jewelry.
Where to Eat
Even the locals will tell you to go to Caru’ cu Bere in Old Town for Hungarian cuisine and traditional dance performances, weekends at 7 and 8 p.m. Ask for a table behind the hostess stand inside; that’s where the shows take place, with dancers likely to ask you to join them. Hanui lui Manuc, also in Old Town, is the oldest operating hotel in Bucharest. Built in 1806 and just across from Vlad the Impaler’s old digs, the medieval tavern, summer garden and wine cellar transport you to another century.
Where to Stay
There are plenty of five-star hotels, like the grand Athénée Palace Hilton built in 1914 and designed in Louis XIV style, but if you’re feeling more adventurous, consider Hotel Rembrandt in the heart of Old Town. Its 16 rooms are managed by Alina-Cristina Stefan and her dedicated staff, who deliver personalized service. Located in an historic building, its vintage pully elevator squires visitors to spacious guestrooms with hardwood floors, Tiffany-style lamps and all the in-room amenities you expect (in-room safe, air conditioning, minibar, TV) in three room types (the largest at 377 square feet). Request the “Standard Class Room” with its own balcony overlooking Bucharest; there’s only one. Complimentary European breakfast is up a curved wrought-iron staircase in the hotel’s Café Klein, with brass-framed windows that provide exceptional views of bustling pedestrian traffic below. If you have an early flight, the staff will present you with a cappuccino as you depart; it’s a charming touch.
Maximize the Memories
Stay healthy: Our tried and true wellness recipe includes hand sanitizer wipes, Counter Attack immune booster and Cabeau neck pillow. It's the only one we've found that works on long flights for its head and neck stability by anchoring its thick, memory foam support on seatback wings. Plus, it rolls into its own, diminutive carrying case that clips on to hand-luggage
Reminisce upon Return: psychologists call it “anchoring,” associating a scent with a location or memory, and we find traveling with a new perfume is an excellent way to transport yourself back to a happy place. Tous, jewelers since 1920, now have perfume, the newest called “Oh! The Origin,” which uses rare Florence iris butter and expensive perfumery ingredients for a complex, woody, violet scent.
Written by Michelle Payer
Read more posts by Michelle Payer