Bucharest, Romania: City of Culture and Architecture
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Revolution SquarePost-Ceausescu history starts here where in 1989 Romanians overthrew the government as Ceausescu spoke from the balcony of the former Communist Party Headquarters. Admire the gorgeous French Classical architecture, then gaze on the somber Rebirth Memorial dedicated to those who died when security forces fired on the crowd as they began to protest his reign. Revolution Square (Piata Revolutiei) also encompasses the former Royal Palace (now the National Art Museum), the stunning Romanian Athenaeum (gorgeous concert hall and home of the Romanian George Enescu Philharmonic) and the historic Athenee Palace Hotel. At the south end of the square, you can visit the small, but beautiful, Kretzulescu Church built in 1720, and reconstructed after the earthquake.
Calea VictorieiCalea Victoriei, the street that borders the Square is one of the major shopping streets in town. Follow it north to more museums and the Bucharest version of the Arc de Triumph - the Arch of Triumph honors the victory of the Romanian soldiers during the WWI and was inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It was initially built of wood but was finished in Deva granite in 1936. Going south along Calea Victoriei after Piata Revolutiei brings you to the beautiful classical building that is the CEC bank.
The Old Court Princely PalaceIf you have a weakness for half ruined historic sites (and I do), you'll love Princely Court (Strada Franceza 25-31). It is considered the oldest feudal monument in Bucharest. It dates back to the middle 1400s constructed as a brick fortress, later enlarged by Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler, and Dracula. It is open to the public and there’s an English brochure available for a self-guided tour.
Great SynagogueThe long formal name is Dr. Moses Rosen Museum of the History of the Jewish Community in Romania (Address: Str. Mamulari 3), but it is housed in the Great Synagogue built in 1850 in the city's historically Jewish neighborhood. It's a beautiful building and worth a visit just to see the architecture and restored interior. Inside are exhibits and information on Romanian Jewish life and history. Although Romania initially sided with Germany, late in the war Romania switched sides, enabling some of the Jews living in the city to survive the war. There is still a Jewish community in Bucharest and you can visit the other historic synagogue which still holds religious services. The Choral Temple (Templul Coral Address: Str. Sfanta Vineri 9) was built in 1857 with offers lovely Moorish touches.
Truly Must-See Places
Parliamentary PalaceFor over-the-top extravagance head to the controversial Parliamentary Palace (Calea 13 Septembrie 1, ). Started by Ceausescu as a monument to himself, whole neighborhoods were destroyed to make room for it, and the boulevards he envisioned and the less than stellar architecture of the area's buildings. It is a huge construction that extends almost as far down below ground as it rises above. It is said that part of the reason for the underground floors is that in the event of war it could function as a bomb center. A network of now-closed tunnels is said to run under the city, and even out into the countryside. Today, it houses Romania's Parliament, but its enormous size leaves most of the space unused. It is the second largest administrative building in the world (the Pentagon in Washington DC is the largest) and took 20,000 workers and 700 architects to build. It has 12 stories, 1,100 rooms, a 328-ft-long lobby and four underground levels, including that nuclear bunker. Visitors can take a guided tour through a small section of building. Be prepared to gawk at the crystal chandeliers, mosaics, oak paneling, marble, gold leaf, stained-glass windows and floors covered in rich carpets. Today, much of the space is empty, and the land around it could use a bit of love and attention. But the building itself shines in the sunlight on top of the hill. It may be an expense the city can ill afford, but it is one very impressive building. Beyond offices, it also is used for exhibits, and conferences. It houses the National Museum of Contemporary Art. Since there is an abundance of space, the exhibits span over 4 floors, housing permanent and changing exhibitions. On my visit, there was one whole floor devoted to paintings, another to video installations including a thought provoking piece on the old game of telephone, and another meditating on what makes art - several participants stand quietly in the midst of an art museum, holding a "frame" that is actually a projection of people standing frozen as they admire the art.
Patriarchy PalaceAnother of the architectural gems of the city is the Patriarchy Palace and Metropolitan Church (Aleea Dealul Mitropoliei) . Set atop one of the city's few hills, known as Mitropoliei, the Metropolitan Church has been the centerpiece of the Romanian Orthodox faith since the 17th century. The country is almost completely Romanian Orthodox (87%), and the compound of the Patriarch Palace is the spiritual home. The outstanding bell-tower at the entrance was built in 1698 and restored in 1958. Next to the church, and closed to the public, is the Patriarchal Palace (1708), residence of the supreme leader of the Romanian Orthodox Church. The architecture is truly striking.
National Village MuseumFor a totally different experience, visit the National Village Museum - the Dimitrie Gusti tucked inside the beautiful Parc Herastrau (Sos. Kiseleff 28-30). One of the show pieces of Bucharest, the museum recreates, or has moved, actual houses and housing compounds from around the countryside. It's an architectural and cultural tour of Romania, in one place. And you can enjoy the views of the park and lake as well.
LipscaniBucharest is not really a restaurant city with sidewalk cafes, however, there is one district that must be visited and appreciated. It's the old part of the city called Lipscani. Barely escaping the fate of most of the historic parts of the city under Nicolae Ceausescu's let's-tear-everything-down approach to beautification, it is perhaps the oldest extant part of the city, and a pedestrian zone. Cafes seem to inhabit the ground floor of almost every building. Shops are supplemented by street vendors, and day or night, this is the best place to eat, drink, and people-watch. There's also a theater and several historic churchs that are definitely worth a visit. For evening entertainment, the city offers the Teatre National - with its whimsical sculpture in front - one of the few pieces of public art. The opera house is nearby. Festivals also add to the cultural life of the city.
If You GoThere are many ways to see a city. In Bucharest, the hop-on-hop-off buses loop around the most interesting sites offering easy access to popular attractions. However, for Bucharest, I chose to engage the services of Adrian Rusu. Knowledgeable and amiable, he readily tailored an itinerary to match my interests, as well as eager to showcase the best of the city. A guide is especially helpful if time is a factor. Plus, in places where English wasn’t spoken, he was also my translator. The Fixers, for DIYers, the Bucharest City Tour (brochures available at all major hotels) is an excellent alternative. Romania's currency is the RON, or the LEU. Although the Euro is popular, not all places will accept it as payment.Exchange bureaus are along major arteries, but rates vary. Check several, and at greater distances from upscale hotels. Learn more about visiting Bucharest at Romanian Tourism - Bucharest
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Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author