Romania's capital is full of surprises. Parts of the city feel like they could have been lifted from 19th-century Paris (as you'd expect in the "Paris of the Balkans"), others remain rooted in the Communist era, while most of this pulsating city is focused squarely on the here and now.
Bucharest offers a rare collision of a fascinating past and an optimistic future. You can tour the picturesque churches of Lipscani, catch a cut-price feast of high culture at the Bucharest National Opera and wonder at the megalomania that went into the enormous Palace of the Parliament - but that's not the whole story.
Fun, relaxation, and sheer hedonism await as well. Few destinations in Eastern Europe have the verve and energy of Bucharest. From the wave of gourmet food sweeping the city to the underground energy of the city's nightclubs, Bucharest is full of life and that's why so many people fall in love with this inviting city.
Bucharest has seen a lot of history. In the 19th century, it was a cultural hotspot, and the wealth of the era was channeled into the gorgeous Lipscani neighborhood. Then came war and Communism. Architectural highlights of the Ceausescu era are few, but the massive People's House (now the parliament) is an unmissable monument to the ambitions of dictatorship.
Recent years have seen Bucharest reclaiming its position as the Balkans' cultural hub. The National Opera House continues to lay on a superb schedule of ballet and operas, the National Theater has had a successful makeover, and lesser known venues like Green Hours 22 showcase the city's burgeoning jazz scene.
Bucharest has transitioned from Communism to hedonism. These days, you'll find DJs pumping out everything from avant garde electronica to raucous turbo-folk (not for the fainthearted) at favorite spots like Control Club and Club A, whatever night of the week you venture out.
Bucharest has one of the best collections of museums in Eastern Europe. Find out about the holocaust and Romania's past at the Jewish History Museum, head to the cavernous National Museum of Romanian History, see works by European masters at the National Museum of Art, and tour the President's residence at the stately Cotroceni Palace.
Bucharest's energy and youthful vibe extends well and truly into its gastronomy. The best thing is that traditional restaurants like Zahana Zexe and tiny bistros like Beca's Kitchen offer world-class food at criminally low prices. And, even better, there's a vibrant craft beer community too, with breweries like Ground Zero Beer and Csiki Sor leading the way.
Bucharest's Palatul Parlamentului, or Palace of the Parliament, is truly one of the most stunning buildings in the world. It boasts a number of superlatives, including being both the second largest administrative building on the planet (behind the Pentagon) and the heaviest building of any kind. Construction began in 1984 under the Ceausescu regime but it is still not entirely finished today. Since the revolution in 1989 it has become widely known as the People's House, or Casa Poporului, and houses the Romanian parliament, three museums and an international conference center. There are frequent public tours of the building.
The Biserica Stavropoleos is a monastery and church in central Bucharest built in 1724 in the Brâncovenesc style. In addition to its impressive architecture, it is known for the Byzantine music played by its choir. It also has a fine library which holds more than 8,000 books including the largest collection of Byzantine music books in Romania. It also has an impressive collection of religious artifacts. Although it has suffered through the years from extensive earthquake damage, it has been sensitively restored and the chandeliers and paintings of the church's dome are particularly beautiful.
The Ateneul Român (Romanian Athenaeum) is the major concert hall in Bucharest and home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra. It was built in 1888 by the French architect Albert Galleron. The circular and domed building houses an ornate conference hall on the ground floor, with the equally sized auditorium upstairs. There you can see an impressive fresco by Costin Petrescu, which circles the entire auditorium. It depicts key moments from Romanian history from ancient Roman times until the creation of Greater Romania in 1918. The Athenaeum has become a symbol or Romanian culture and is a fabulous venue in which to enjoy a concert.
The Curtea Veche, or in English the Old Princely Court, was built in 1459 by Vlad III Dracula (the infamous Vlad the Impaler!) as his palace. It is a highlight of the historic center of Bucharest and includes the Annunciation Church of Saint Anthony. Dating from 1559, it is the oldest religious building in the city. Today the palace is occupied by the Muzeul Municipiului Bucuresti, a museum with some fascinating exhibits on Romanian history. It's a great place to gain a better understanding of the country and to enjoy some of its most ancient architecture.
The Piata Revolutiei (Revolution Square) is a must-see site for any visit to Bucharest. Known until the 1989 revolution as Piata Palatului (Palace Square), it is home to the National Museum of Art (the former Royal Palace) the Athenaeum, The University of Bucharest Library and the elegant Athenee Palace Hotel. The Square has witnessed much of Romania's turbulent history, including a famous speech by Nicolae Ceausescu at the height of his popularity in 1968, and the beginning of the revolution in 1989. Today it is an altogether more peaceful place and a wonderful place to stroll and visit some of the most important sites in the city.
Bucharest has a mild climate for most of the year, but bitterly cold winters. Temperatures start to rise rapidly from April, and late spring is the ideal time to go, with smaller crowds and plenty to see. September and October are also fine, but beware of encountering a few showers in October, as the seasons start to shift.
Henri Coandă International Airport (OTP) can be found around 12 miles north of Bucharest's center, and has excellent links to the downtown area. Bus number 783 runs every 20 minutes from the arrivals terminal and costs just RON7, and the Henri Coandă Express Train offers a slightly faster rail connection for RON8.1. Expect taxis to cost around RON30.
Bucharest has rail connections to the whole of Eastern and Western Europe, including cities like Belgrade, Berlin, and Vienna. All international trains arrive at the Gara de Nord, just northwest of the city center. The station is on the Bucharest subway system, and there are buses and trams to the major tourist areas as well.
If you are driving from the airport to downtown Bucharest, simply hook up with Highway 1, and follow it southbound towards the city center. If you are coming from Timisoara, take the A1, then change to the E81 just after Sibiu, and continue directly to Bucharest. The E81 also runs from the Black Sea port of Constanta to Bucharest.
If you are traveling within Romania, intercity buses are comfortable and cheap. Local buses within Romania tend to be operated by Atlassib, while Eurolines is the major international bus operator into Bucharest. Most international services stop at Rahova, on the southwestern outskirts. Take the light rail from Depoul Alexandria, which runs straight into the center.
Bucharest is full of luxury accommodation options, including some of the finest in Eastern Europe. If you want to experience 19th-century grandeur, try the stunning Epoque Hotel or the Grand Hotel Continental. The JW Marriott Bucharest Grand offers a high-quality modern service, while the Crowne Plaza is closer to the airport, and just as comfortable. If you are traveling on a budget, look no further than the cozy Little Bucharest Old Town Hostel in the middle of town.
Lipscani - Bucharest's old town, Lipscani, was mainly built in the city's heyday in the late 19th century, and it's a beautiful place to explore. Attractions include the elegant National Opera and the Museum of Romanian History, as well as innumerable wine bars, pubs, and nightclubs.
Cismigiu - built around the sublime Cismigiu Gardens, this area is one of the most pleasant places to stay in Bucharest. Conveniently located and stuffed with charming hotels, Cismigiu is where locals go to chat, relax, play sport, and date. It's simply a lovely place to be.
Floreasca - prosperous, business-like, and classy, Floreasca has Bucharest's highest concentration of gourmet restaurants and is also home to the Promenada Mall - the city's shopping hotspot.
Bucharest's four subway (metro) lines represent the easiest way to get around town (and offer some of the best coverage in the whole of Europe). Single fares cost RON5 and you can buy 10 journeys for just RON10, so it's also great value. There are also plenty of buses, trolleys, and trams. However, to ride them you'll need to get hold of a rechargeable Activ card, which can be purchased from RATB kiosks near major stations and bus stops.
Taxi fares in Bucharest vary, but reputable companies should never charge more than RON2.50 per mile. It's also advisable to book cabs with your concierge, as the quality of service varies depending on which company you choose.
Car rental is an excellent option in Bucharest, and there are city center branches of Sixt, Europcar, Budget, and Avis. With your own vehicle, you can get out to day-trip destinations like Targoviste or Snagov with ease, and rates should be low: expect to pay around RON50 per day with most companies.
Bucharest is an affordable city for luxury, second-hand, and everyday shopping, with no end of places to explore. The Promenada Mall in Floreasca is the place to head for designer chains (and has a fantastical postmodern design to complement its shopping options). Calea Victoriei in Lipscani is also a wonderful place to shop, lined with beautiful architecture, museums, boutiques, and prestigious restaurants.
If you need to stock up on basic groceries during a stay in Bucharest, the best places to go are supermarkets like Kaufland, Carrefour, and Profi. Expect prices to be low, at around RON15 for a gallon of milk and RON20 for a good bottle of wine.
Food is on the up in Bucharest, with a generation of talented chefs staffing a glittering array of bistros and gastro-bars. Some of the best of them specialize in authentic Romanian dishes, including Caru cu Bere (who brew their own beer) and Lente & Cafea. Others, like Energiea, place the emphasis on healthy ingredients, while some, like Vacamuuu, are a carnivore's delight. Prices are almost always very reasonable, even for gourmet food, at around RON40 for a meal.