A city of culture in a constant state of flux, Bucharest has been shaped by earthquakes, war and the whims of a dictator. And now in the middle of a construction boom there’s a new wave of snazzy glass facades and high-rise towers that multiply by the year.
But you can still find big patches of the early 20th-century city dubbed “Little Paris” for its Beaux-Arts-style palaces, municipal buildings and museums. Bucharest harbours surprises like sweet fresco-coated churches hiding in the shadow of communist apartment blocks. Some of these churches were lost in the 1980s when the city was reconfigured along the lines of a European Pyongyang, but many were saved by being moved in one piece to backstreets.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bucharest:
1. Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum
The whole west side of the Herăstrău Park is given over to a massive outdoor museum, which has more than 270 authentic historic buildings.
Made from stone, wood or cob (clay and straw), these have been carefully dismantled and put back together at this site and come from all corners of the country, from Banat in the West to Moldova in the east and Transylvania in the centre.
Each region has its own style, whether it’s the brightly painted walls from the Danube Delta to the ornately carved portals from Berbeşti in the centre of Romania.
The museum was established by the eminent sociologist Dimitrie Gusti in 1936 and its oldest houses date from the 18th century.
Each house also has a recorded explanation of its style and region, available in English.
Suggested tour: Traditions in Bucharest: Village Museum & Wine Tasting
2. Parliamentary Palace
A building of absurd magnitude, the Parliamentary Palace hosts Romania’s Parliament, but also perfectly encapsulates Nicolae Ceaușescu’s megalomania.
At 365,000 square metres, it’s the largest administrative building in the world, intended as a residence, and despite containing reception halls, museums and government offices and the parliament hall, is still almost three quarters empty.
The palace was raised at an enormous cost, in terms of money but also lives, as thousands of people are claimed to have died during its construction in the second half of the 1980s.
The palace was the focal point of Ceaușescu’s pompous redesign of Bucharest following an earthquake in 1977, and had eight subterranean levels, at the bottom of which was a nuclear bunker.
You have to go in to gauge the full, stupefying size of this building, paying a visit to the Museum of the Palace, Museum of Communist Totalitarianism and the National Museum of Contemporary Art.
3. Romanian Athenaeum
A performance venue extraordinaire, the Neoclassical Romanian Athenaeum is the home of the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra.
Wrapped in gardens, this magnificent structure was completed in 1888 and given a thorough restoration to save it from collapse in 1992. Under a grand dome embellished with gilded stuccowork, the circular concert hall seats more than 650 and has an epic fresco on its frieze that depicts the most pivotal events in Romanian history.
For an affordable night of Haydn, Bach or Mozart, book online and pick up tickets from the box office.
Be here in September for the George Enescu Festival, when there’s a busy programme of performances and one of Eastern Europe’s biggest classical events.
4. Lipscani (Old Town)
A hint of what Bucharest looked like before the Second World War, Lipscani was the place to do business in the city between the Middle Ages and the 1800s.
Some of the street names still recall the guilds that were once based along them: Blănari (Furriers’ Street) or Șelari (Saddlers’ Street). This small pocket was one of the only parts of Bucharest to be retrievable after the Second World War and has been reborn as a stylish pedestrian zone that has boutiques, restaurants and bars in restored buildings.
Look for Pasajul Macca-Vilacrosse on the west side, a fork-shaped shopping passage from 1891 lit by yellow stained glass in its roof.
Recommended tour: Bucharest Old Town 2.5-Hour Private Walking Tour
5. Romanian Peasant Museum
First opened in 1906, the history of this highly-regarded folk museum was interrupted in the 20th century by the Communist regime, but it reopened in 1990 no more than six weeks after Ceaușescu died.
In those intervening years it had been a museum to communism, and you can still view a small exhibition on collectivisation in the basement preserved for posterity.
The remainder is dedicated to the history and culture of the Romanian countryside, summing up 400 years and presenting a jaw-dropping diversity of costume, furniture, religious objects and ceramics.
There’s also an entire wooden house (The House in the House), brought here from Gorj County in the southwest of the country.
6. Herăstrău Park
The largest park in Bucharest borders the city to the north, and much of its area is taken up by the 74-hectare Herăstrău Lake.
On the Colentina River, this large body of water is partly man-made having been formed when riverside marshes were drained in the 1930s.
The lake has a six-kilometre perimeter path favoured by joggers in summer, and in this season you can rent a bike near the main entrance or take a boat trip from the jetty on the south shore.
On foot take a detour through the Insula Trandafirilor (Rose Island), down the lime tree avenues and into the Japanese Garden, planted with cherry trees that bloom in early spring.
7. Stavropoleos Church
Arguably the finest religious building in Bucharest, Stavropoleos Church has a gorgeous facade that has multifoil arches painted with arabesque foliate and tendril patterns and held up by beautiful capitals.
Above are painted medallions of saints, and there’s much more painting inside in the form of stone frescoes and a breathtaking iconostasis.
The church dates to the 1720s and its architecture is a perfect expression of Romania’s Brâncovenesc style, which blended Byzantine, Ottoman, Renaissance and Baroque elements.
Right next door is an early 20th century building housing religious art like icons and frescoes from the many churches that were pulled down during the communist regime after the Second World War.
8. National Museum of Art of Romania
After King Michael I abdicated following the Second World War, the Neoclassical Royal Palace on Revolution Square has been the headquarters of Romania’s National Museum of Art.
The collections were damaged during the revolution in 1989, but there’s still a feast for art lovers in galleries for European Art, Romanian Medieval Art and Modern Romanian Art.
The European section has many big names like Lucas Cranach the Elder, Jan van Eyck, El Greco, Tintoretto, Peter Paul Rubens, Monet and Sisley.
Also be sure to get acquainted with some Romanian artists like the Post-Impressionists Nicolae Tonitza and Ștefan Luchian, and the surrealist Victor Brauner.
9. Dealul Mitropoliei
South of Union Square is a small rise where Romania’s Orthodox religious institutions can be found in eye-catching buildings.
The Romanian Patriarchal Cathedral is one, and we’ll cover that next.
But this stands in an ensemble with the Palace of the Patriarchate, with its striking Ionic columns.
For 90 years from its completion in 1907 the palace was the seat of successive Romanian parliaments, from the Assembly of Deputies during the monarchy, through the Communist Great National Assembly to the Chamber of Deputies after the 1989 Revolution.
The hill is a sight to behold at Palm Sunday and Easter (Pascha), when it is packed with worshippers, a tradition that even continued under communist regime.
10. Romanian Patriarchal Cathedral
The destination for a pilgrimage on Palm Sunday, the Patriarchal Cathedral was founded by the Prince of Wallachia, Constantin Șerban in the 1650s.
The building has come through restorations in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, so not much of the original remains, while the current design is based on Curtea de Argeș Cathedral in the centre of the country.
The church also holds the relics of the 13th-century Saint Dimitrie Basarabov, the patron saint of Bucharest.
His remains were brought here from Bulgaria in 1774 and are kept in a silver reliquary with a glass panel on top.
11. Revolution Square
The setting for all sorts of Romanian institutions, Revolution Square got its name from the violent unrest in 1989 that deposed Nicolae Ceaușescu and overthrew the Socialist Republic of Romania.
An interesting building to ponder for a moment is the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
This was built as the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party, and in 1989 Ceaușescu and his wife Elena fled by helicopter from the roof before eventually being tried and executed on Christmas day of that year.
Another landmark event took place here twenty years earlier when Ceaușescu announced Romania’s policy of independence from the Kremlin after condemning the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
That speech marked the height of his popularity.
12. Palatul Primăverii (Spring Palace)
Not far from the Herăstrău Park in the plush Primăverii neighbourhood is a compelling slice of 20th-century Romanian history.
With tours available by booking a day in advance, the Palatul Primăverii was the gaudy residence for the notorious dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu.
This 80-room palace was built in the 1960s, and came with a winter garden, wine cellar, silk wallpaper, valuable art, expensive furniture, a large swimming pool, bathrooms with solid gold fittings and even a cinema.
Among the world leaders received here was Richard Nixon, who had tea with Ceaușescu at the palace in 1969.
13. Grigore Antipa Museum of Natural History
Named after the man who was in charge for more than 50 years at the start of the 20th century, this natural history museum was given a big update a few years back and reopened in 2011. Multimedia and interactive exhibits now go hand-in-hand with the classic dinosaur skeletons, taxidermies and dioramas, many of which were first set up by Antipa decades ago.
In the basement there’s a comprehensive exhibition on the biodiversity of Romania, while the ground floor deals with all the major ecosystems on the earth’s surface.
From there you can head off and indulge your curiosity in fields like mineralogy, entomology, marine biology and anthropology.
14. Cismigiu Gardens
The oldest recreation space in the centre of Bucharest, Cismigiu Gardens took shape in the middle of the 19th century and were laid out by German landscape architect Carl Meyer.
On what used to be a lakeside vineyard, he planted thousands of tree and plant species sourced from Vienna’s botanical gardens and Romania’s upland regions.
The lake itself can be navigated by rowboat in the summer, and if it freezes over in winter it’s possible to go skating on its surface.
The Rondul Român is a memorial garden, with busts of Romania’s 12 best-loved writers, while there are also separate monuments to the French soldiers who died in Romania in First World War, and Americans who died in the country in the Second World War.
15. Cotroceni Palace
Raised in 1895 for Romania’s first king, Carol I, Cotroceni Palace is on a hill that had long been a place of residence for Romania’s rulers.
Following the abdication of the last king, Michael I in 1947, the property was used to receive visiting heads of state.
And since the return of democracy the palace has become the official residence of the President of Romania.
The oldest wing of the building is open to the public as the National Cotroceni Museum, showing off the splendour of the library, apartments and reception rooms, together with a mammoth collection of painting, sculpture, ceramics, graphic arts, furniture, textiles and glassware.
Many of these items were the personal collections of Queen Marie of Romania and King Ferdinand I at the turn of the 20th century.
16. Museum of Art Collections
An arm of the National Museum of Art, this museum is in the Palatul Romanit, which goes back to 1822 and was a private home before eventually becoming Romania’s Ministry of Finance.
After the end of the Second World War and the communist takeover, the building became a repository for art seized from Romania’s wealthy families.
There are 44 collections in all, giving you a who’s who of Romanian art from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Some of the lauded artists featured are Theodor Aman, Nicolae Grigorescu, Nicolae Tonitza, Gheorghe Petrașcu and Theodor Pallady.
Also fascinating, if a little poignant, is the lapidarium, with fragments of architecture from sites like the Văcărești Monastery, pulled down by Ceaușescu in 1986.
17. Calea Victoriei
It’s a sign of this street’s history and prestige that many of the attractions and landmarks on this list are located on its route.
Beginning at Revolution Square in the north Calea Victoriei continues all the way down to the Dâmbovița River, and after a fallow period during the Socialist Republic is a posh shopping and entertainment street traced by cafes, fashion emporia, restaurants, cultural venues and art galleries.
These are mostly set on the southern end, while the northern reaches are for stately residences.
Calea Victoriei’s upmarket reputation has persisted for hundreds of years, partly because it was one of the only paved streets in the city (at first the road was covered with wooden planks), sparing its wealthier citizens from the mud that dominated the rest of the city in autumn and spring.
18. Botanical Gardens
With 5,000 plant species in 17 hectares, the Botanical Gardens are maintained by the University of Bucharest.
You can enter for a small fee, and pay a little extra to go inside the greenhouses like the Sera Veche, which reopened 2011 after being closed for 35 years.
This structure was built at the start of the 1890s and inside is a small world of tropical and sub-tropical vegetation.
In the open air are ponds and winding paths guiding you to a rose garden and a glorious display of some 1,000 exotic flowers in summer.
19. Bucharest Russian Church
Also known as the Students’ Church as it is used by students and professors at the University of Bucharest, this church was constructed after a sizeable donation by Tsar Nicholas II. At the start of the 20th century the congregation was solely Russian expats and diplomats.
The project was led by the Russian ambassador and the church was consecrated in 1909. It’s an easy building to spot for its seven onion domes in the typical Russian orthodox style.
Duck inside to check out the frescoes and the gilded wooden iconostasis, based on the example at the Church of the Twelve Apostles in the Kremlin.
20. Arcul de Triumf
Near the Japanese Gardens beside Herăstrău Park, this monument dates to 1936 to commemorate both the Romanian War of Independence and the First World War.
The arch is at the same location as an earlier wooden version built in haste to celebrate victory in the War of Independence when the nation broke from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. This was replaced by another wooden arch after the First World War, while the current monument has reliefs carved by Constantin Baraschi, the foremost Romanian sculptor of the 1930s.
There’s a platform on the roof that you can reach on special days, but the rest of the time it’s a sight to admire from the other side of a very busy roundabout.
In Lipscani, the Cultural Centre of the Bucharest Municipality is a building you need to see if you have an eye for Art Deco architecture.
Completed in 1934, this is typical of the Art Deco wonders that went up in the city during the interwar period, and was intended as a recreational venue for the Bucharest City Hall Civil Servants’ Union.
Since 1996 the building has been a cultural centre, putting on more than 200 events a year by artists not supported by traditional cultural institutions.
You can see the interior by attending one of the concerts at the 320-seat auditorium accessed by an elegant staircase from an entrance hall with parquet floors.
22. George Enescu National Museum
One of the loveliest properties in Bucharest is the Beax-Arts/Art Nouveau palace conceived for the Prime Minister Gheorghe Grigore Cantacuzino in the early 1900s.
From the street the elements you’ll notice is the exaggerated iron and glass entrance canopy and the dormers in the mansard roof.
The building has an oblique connection to Romania’s celebrated composer George Enescu, as Gheorghe Grigore Cantacuzino’s son was initially married to Enescu’s future wife, who then remarried the composer after he passed away.
Since 1956 there has been a small museum devoted to Enescu in a few rooms in the palace, with personal possessions, instruments, posters and photographs.
23. Doamnei Church
Bucharest has many hidden churches that disappeared from the street-fronts during Nicolae Ceaușescu’s radical overhaul of the city in the 1980s.
One such building is the Doamnei Church, now nestled in a courtyard at the junction of Bulevardul Regina Elisabeta and Calea Victoriei.
This was founded in 1683 by Maria Doamna, the second wife of Wallachian Prince Șerban Cantacuzino, as a chapel for their princely residence.
The fresco inside is original, dating to the 17th century, but the high point is the entrance with ornate carvings on its wooden door and stone portal.
See also the column capitals in front, which have Oriental floral motifs.
24. National Museum of Romanian History
The Historicist building that used to be the headquarters for Romania’s postal service has hosted the National History Museum since the 1970s.
The collection is mixed, but still contains lots of interesting things if you’re willing to put in the time.
One is a complete reproduction of the frieze on Trajan’s column in Rome.
Also worthwhile is the Pietroasele Treasure made up of 12 Gothic gold objects from the Chernyakhov culture crafted at the end of the 4th century.
And lastly there’s the Romanian treasury in the basement, with precious stones worn by Marie of Romania (Granddaughter of Queen Victoria), as well as the Crown Jewels, among which are sceptres, crowns and ceremonial swords.
25. Manuc’s Inn
A place of real meaning, not just because it is one of the oldest buildings in the city, but because it is one of Europe’s final caravanserais (khans). Manuc’s Inn was set up by the Armenian Merchant Manuc Bei in 1802 with the classic format of a large central courtyard around two levels of wooden galleries with rooms for lodging, dining and storing goods.
In the first half of the 19th century this was Bucharest’s business hub and after several restorations, the most recent at the end of the noughties, the essential structure remains intact as a restaurant.
On the southern edge of the Old Town, Manuc’s Inn cooks traditional Romanian and Balkan cuisine accompanied by music and folk dance in the evenings.