Bucharest

Known for its wide, tree-lined boulevards, glorious Belle Époque buildings and a great reputation for the high life (which in the 1900s earned its nickname of “Little Paris”), Bucharest, Romania’s largest city and capital, is today a bustling metropolis which features a surprising mix of cultural influences, offering excellent relaxation opportunities and enriching experiences for the business or simply inquisitive traveler.

The Romanian legend has it that the city of Bucharest was founded on the banks of the Dambovita River by a shepherd named Bucur, whose name literary means “joy.” His flute playing reportedly dazzled the people and his hearty wine from nearby vineyards endeared him to the local traders, who gave his name to the place.

Bucharest is the Romanian Capital situated on the banks of the Dambovita River, which flows into the Arges River, a tributary of the Danube. Several lakes of which the most important are Lake Herăstrău, Lake Floreasca, Lake Tei, and Lake Colentina stretch across the city of Bucharest, along the Colentina River, a tributary of the Dâmbovita. In addition, in the center of Bucharest there is Lake Cismigiu, a small artificial lake, surrounded by the Cismigiu Gardens. The name, Cismigiu, comes from the Turkish cismea, meaning “public fountain.” The Cismigiu Gardens have a rich history, being frequented by famous poets and writers. Opened in 1847 and based on the plans of German architect, the Cismigiu Gardens are currently the main recreational facility in the Bucharest center. More than 30,000 trees and plants were brought to the Cismigiu Gardens from the Romanian mountains, while exotic plants were imported from the botanical gardens in Vienna.

Besides Cismigiu park, Bucharest contains several other large parks and gardens, including Herastrau Park and the Botanical Garden. Herăstrău is a large public park located in the north of Bucharest, around Lake Herăstrău, and the site of the Village Museum, while the Bucharest’s botanical garden is the largest in Romania and contains over 10,000 species of plants, many of them exotic; it was once a pleasure park for the royal family.

Bucharest is situated in the south eastern corner of the Romanian Plain, in an area once covered by the Vlasiei forest, which, after it was cleared, gave way to a fertile flatland. Bucharest is traditionally considered to have seven hills. The city of Bucharest has a total area of 226 square km. The altitude varies from 55.8 meters at the Dâmbovita bridge in south-eastern Bucharest and 91.5 meters at the Militari church. The city of Bucharest has a relatively round shape, with the center situated approximately in the cross-way of the main north-south/east-west axes at the University Square. Bucharest’s radius, from University Square to the city limits in all directions, varies from about 10 to 12 km. Until recently, the regions surrounding Bucharest were largely rural, but after 1989, new suburbs started to be built around Bucharest, in the surrounding Ilfov county. Further urban consolidation is expected to take place from 2006, when the Bucharest metropolitan area was formed, which will incorporate various communes and the cities of Ilfov and surrounding counties.

Athenaeum

The edifice of Athenaeum, completed in 1888 in neoclassical style was initiative of group of Romanian intellectuals. The Athenaeum became the symbol of Bucharest, being a place of music and the residence of the “George Enescu” Philharmonic. Inside the Athenaeum, with its exceptional acoustics, the world’s greatest musicians, such as Yehundi Menuhin, Zubin Mehta, Ion Voicu, Sergiu Celigidache and Madrigal Choir have performed. At the Athenaeum the “George Enescu International Festival and Competition” is held.

House of the Free Press (Casa Presei Libere)

An impressive edifice standing somewhat menacingly at the entrance to the capital, Casa Scanteii (as it is still universally known) was designed by architect Horia Maicu and completed in 1956, one year after the strikingly similar Palace of Science and Culture in Warsaw, Poland. Originally housing almost all of the capital’s printing presses and newsrooms, it, today, carries out much the same function, with the addition of the Bucharest Stock Exchange in the southern wing.

The Arch of Triumph (Arcul de Triumf)

Initially built of wood in 1922 to honor the bravery of Romanian soldiers who fought in World War I, Bucharest’s very own Arc de Triomphe was finished in Deva granite in 1936. Designed by the architect, Petre Antonescu, the Arc stands 85 feet high. An interior staircase allows visitors to climb to the top for a panoramic view of the city. The sculptures decorating the structure were created by leading Romanian artists, including Ion Jalea, Constantin Medrea and Constantin Baraschi.

Calea Victoriei (Victory Avenue)

Calea Victoriei is Bucharest’s oldest and arguably, most charming street. Built in 1692 to link the Old Princely Court to Mogosoaia Palace, it was initially paved with oak beams. The street became Calea Victoriei in 1878, after the Romanian War of Independence victory. Between the two world wars, Calea Victoriei developed into one of the most fashionable streets in the city. Strolling along this street from Piata Victoriei to Piata Natiunilor Unite give opportunity to discover some of the most stunning buildings in the city, including the Cantacuzino Palace, the historical Revolution Square, the Military Club, the CEC Headquarters and the National History Museum.

Cantacuzino Palace (Palatul Cantacuzino)

Grigore Cantacuzino was thought to be one of Romania’s wealthiest citizens in 1899. As Prime Minister, it was his wish to have the most elegant residence in Bucharest. Using the designs of architect Ion Berindei, the Cantacuzino Palace was built between 1898 and 1900 in eclectic French style. Combining a neoclassical architectural style with art nouveau elements, it features wrought iron balconies, tall arched windows and a porte-cochere (an elegant wrought-iron doorway) flanked by two lions. Today, the palace houses the George Enescu Museum.

Revolution Square (Piata Revolutiei)

The square gained worldwide notoriety when TV stations around the globe announced Nicolae Ceausescu’s final moments in power on December 21, 1989. It was here, at the balcony of the former Communist Party Headquarters, that Ceausescu stared in disbelief as the people gathered in the square below turned on him. He fled the angry crowd in his white helicopter, only to be captured outside of the city a few hours later. The square’s importance stretches back long before the dramatic events of the 1989 Revolution. On the far side of the square stands the former Royal Palace, now home to the National Art Museum, the stunning Romanian Athenaeum and the historic Athenee Palace Hotel. At the south end of the square, you can visit the small, but beautiful, Kretzulescu Church.

The Royal Palace (Palatul Regal)

Erected between 1927 and 1937 in neoclassical style, the palace was home to King Carol II and to his son, King Mihai I, until 1947, when the monarchy was abolished in Romania. It was inside the halls of this palace that King Mihai, aged 18, led a coup that displaced the pro-Nazi government during the World War II and put Romania on the Allies’ side. Today, the former Royal palace houses the Romanian National Art Museum.

Athenee Palace Hotel

Built in 1914 by French architect Teophile Bradeau, the Athenee Palace (currently a posh Hilton hotel) was made famous in Olivia Manning’s novel, Balkan Trilogy, as a center of intrigue and espionage during World War II. British and German diplomats plotted, schemed and spied on each other in the epoch atmosphere of the hotel’s English Bar, while a host of rich and famous gathered and intrigued as their society collapsed around them. The hotel suffered heavy bombing during the war and consequently, was rebuilt in 1945.

Kretzulescu Church

Nestled amid the other historical buildings in Piata Revolutiei, this small red-brick Orthodox church was built in 1722 by the great chancellor Iordache Kretzulescu and his wife, Safta (a daughter of Constantin Brancoveanu) in the Brancovenesti architectural style. The interior frescoes were executed around 1860 by the famous Romanian painter Gheorghe Tattarescu.

Royal Palace Great Concert Hall (Sala Palatului)

Located next to the Royal Palace, the concave-roof structure was built in 1960 to accommodate the 3,000 Communist party members who every five years attended the communist party congress. It was on this stage that Nicolae Ceausescu would deliver his vision of a multilaterally developed socialist society. Today, the massive auditorium plays host to various conferences and events, including some of the George Enescu International Festival concerts.

The Military Club (Cercul Militar National)

Standing guard imposingly, this neoclassical masterpiece, designed by Romanian architect Dimitrie Maimaroiu, was built in 1912 to serve the social, cultural and educational needs of the Romanian army. Banquets and official events are still hosted in the ballrooms, while the upstairs area is reserved for the army’s library, as well as offices and classrooms for officer instruction. The main part of the building is off-limits to civilians, but the sumptuous restaurant and summer terrace is open to the public.

The Palace of the Savings Bank (Casa de Economii si Consemnatiuni / CEC)

Boasting one of the most impressive neoclassical facades in the city, the Palace of the Savings Bank was built in the 19th century to the design of French architect Paul Gottereanu (who between 1875 and 1900 designed more than 50 buildings in the city, to house the first Romanian Savings Bank. The square-shaped palace has a large central dome with metallic ribs separated by glass, which allows natural light to come in; there are also four smaller domes. The arch at the entrance, with its Corinthian columns, is a highlight of any architectural tour of the city.

Lipscani District
Perhaps the city’s unique charm can be best observed in the area known as Lipscani, which consists of a jumble of streets between Calea Victoriei, Blvd. Bratianu, Blvd. Regina Elisabeta and the Dambovita River. A once-glamorous residential area, the old city center is now slowly being refashioned into an upscale neighborhood. At the beginning of 1400s, most merchants and craftsmen – Romanian, Austrian, Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian, Armenian and Jewish – established their stores and shops in this section of the city. Soon, the area became known as Lipscani, named for the many German traders from Lipsca or Leiptzig. Other streets took on the names of various old craft communities and guilds, such as Blanari (furriers), Covaci (blacksmiths), Gabroveni (knife makers) and Cavafii Vechii (shoe-makers). The mix of nationalities and cultures is reflected in the mishmash of architectural styles, from baroque to neoclassical to art nouveau.

Today, the Lipscani area is home to many art galleries, antique shops and coffeehouses. On a beautiful day, you can stroll down the narrow cobblestone streets and imagine the shopkeepers outside near their stores, encouraging people to buy their merchandise and negotiating prices with them. Don’t forget to stop by Hanul cu Tei, which is a rectangular courtyard between Strada Lipscani and Strada Blanari, home to an array of art and antiques shops.

Old Princely Court & Church (Palatul si Biserica Curtea Veche)

At the center of the historic area are the remains of the Old Princely Court (Curtea Veche), built in the 15th century by Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad Dracula. According to local lore, Vlad kept his prisoners in dungeons which commenced beneath the Princely Court and extended under the city. All that remains today are a few walls, arches, tombstones and a Corinthian column.

The Old Court Museum was established in 1972 when an archaeological dig revealed the remains of the fortress, along with Dacian pottery and Roman coins, evidence of Bucharest’s earliest inhabitants. The oldest document attesting to the city’s origin under the name of Bucuresti (Bucharest) was discovered here. It was issued on September 20, 1459 and signed by Prince Vlad Tepes. Next to the palace stands the Old Court Church (Biserica Curtea Veche), dating from 1559 and considered the oldest in Bucharest. For two centuries, the church served as coronation ground for Romanian princes. Some of the original 16th century frescoes have been preserved.

National Bank of Romania (Banca Nationala a Romaniei)

The National Bank of Romania (BNR) stands on the site of one of the most famous buildings in Romania: the Hanul Serban Voda, which from 1678 until 1883 was the home of various institutions ranging from a pub to an inn to a girl’s dormitory! After two fires gutted the building, however, the land was leveled and in 1883, work began on the BNR, completed to the designs of French architects Cassien Bernard and Albert Galleron in 1885. Built in neoclassical French style, the building boasts a facade with Corinthian columns and an enormous central banking hall. The passing of time has left its marks on the building, but it remains a classic worthy of admiration.

University Square (Piata Universitatii)

Buzzing with crowds and traffic from early morning until late at night, this area is one of the most popular meeting places in Bucharest. The square brings together some remarkable architectural masterpieces on each of its four corners, starting with the University of Bucharest’s School of Architecture, the Bucharest National Theater, the neoclassical Coltea Hospital and its lovely church (1702-1794) and the Sutu Palace, now home to the Bucharest History Museum. In the middle of the University square, on a little island, 10 stone crosses pay respect to those killed during the 1989 revolution. Below the square is an underground passage with shops and eateries, allowing pedestrians to cross from one side of the square to another and to access the subway station.

Parliament Palace (Palatul Parlamentului)

Built by Communist Party leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, the colossal Parliament Palace (formerly known as the People’s Palace) is the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon. The Palace of the Parliament (Palatul Parlamentului) in Bucharest, Romania is a multi-purpose building containing both chambers of the Romanian Parliament. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Palace of the Parliament is the world’s largest civilian administrative building, most expensive administrative building, and heaviest building. The Palace was designed and nearly completed by the Ceausescu regime as the seat of political and administrative power. Nicolae Ceausescu named it the House of the Republic (Casa Republicii), but many Romanians call it the People’s House (Casa Poporului). It took 20,000 workers and 700 architects to build. The palace boasts 12 stories, 1,100 rooms, a 328-ft-long lobby and four underground levels, including an enormous nuclear bunker.
When construction started in 1984, the dictator intended it to be the headquarters of his government. Today, it houses Romania’s Parliament and serves as an international conference center. Built and furnished exclusively with Romanian materials, the building reflects the work of the country’s best artisans. A guided tour takes visitors through a small section of dazzling rooms, huge halls and quarters used by the Senate (when not in session). The interior is a luxurious display of crystal chandeliers, mosaics, oak paneling, marble, gold leaf, stained-glass windows and floors covered in rich carpets. Interesting facts: it is the world’s second-largest office building in surface (after the Pentagon) and the third largest in volume (after Cape Canaveral in the US and the Great Pyramid in Egypt);  The crystal chandelier in the Human Rights Hall (Sala Drepturilor Omului) weighs 2.5 tons; Some of the chandeliers have as many as 7,000 light bulbs

Civic Centre (Centrul Civic)
Ceausescu’s building megalomania climaxed with the construction of the Civic Centre, an area located at the south end of the Palace of Parliament along Bulevardul Unirii. Bucharest had taken significant damage from the Allied bombing during World War II and the earthquake of March 4, 1977. However, neither of these events changed the face of the city as much as the redevelopment schemes of the 1980s, when eight square km in the Old Historical Center of Bucharest were leveled, including monasteries, churches, synagogues, a hospital and a noted Art Deco sports stadium. Some 40,000 people were evicted with only a single day’s notice to make room for the construction of these Stalinist apartment buildings topped with neoclassical follies.

Apostles’ Church (Biserica Sfintii Apostoli)

One of the oldest churches in Bucharest (with parts dating back to the 16th century and a steeple built in 1715), the Apostles’ Church is brimming with some rather strange portraits that are well worth seeing.

Metropolitan Church (Biserica Patriarhiei)

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 Byzantine interior, containing the most dazzling of the Bucharest’s iconostasis, as well as a couple of exquisitely carved side altars, bestows great beauty on the services presided over by the Romanian Patriarch. The Patriarchal church was built by Constantin Serban Basarab, ruler of the province of Walachia between 1656 and 1658, to a design inspired by the Curtea de Arges monastery. Decorated with a series of beautiful frescoes and icons, this 17th-century Orthodox Cathedral dominates an architecturally impressive complex of chapels and palaces, and the Patriarchal Residence. The wonderful Romanian Patriarchal Orthodox Cathedral (Catedrala Patriarhală din București) is an important place of worship that shelters a magnificent collection of religious art. Originating in Romania in the late 17th century, this architectural style blends Baroque, Byzantine, Ottoman and Renaissance features. Crowning the roof are three domes and four towers, each topped with a simple cross. The Romanian Patriarchal Cathedral was established in the 1650s under the direction of Constantin Şerban Basarab, Prince of Wallachia.

The Basarab was Wallachian Dynasty founded by Basarab I /ca 1310-1352/. Among its prominent members were Mircea Old /1386-1418/, Vlad Dracul /1436-1447/, and Vlad the Impaler /1456-1462 and 1476-1477/, both of whom were the literary inspirations for the imaginary Dracul personage – Michael the Brave /1593-1601/, and Matei Basarab /1632-1654/. The noble Basarab Dynasty became extinct with Constantine Serban in 1658. The House of Basarab has split into two rival ruling houses who were in constant contest for the throne from the late 14th to the early 16th centuries – the House of Danesti /descended from Dan I of Wallachia/ and the House of Draculesti. Descendants of this line would eventually come to dominate the rule of this principality until its unification with Transylvania and Moldavia by Mihai Viteazul in 1600. The legacy of the Drăculeşti Dynasty began in 1386 with the rule of Mircea cel Bătrân, one of the most important rulers in Wallachian history. The family is most remembered, however, for its association with Mircea’s grandson, Vlad III Drăculea. In ancient times Basarabia or Bessarabia was sometimes used as a synonym for Wallachia – Land of Bassarab – Basarabskaya Zemlya. A number of place names inspired by Basarab tradition are found in throughout territory of Romania.

The Romanian Patriarchal Orthodox Cathedral stands on Metropolitanate Hill, a treasure trove of historic and religious buildings. The cathedral became part of local lore in 1862 when it was the site of the assassination of Barbu Catargiu, Romania’s first prime minister. Catargiu was shot twice as he passed in front of the cathedral in an open carriage. Inside, a wealth of Byzantine-style frescoes beautify the archways of the nave. These frescoes portray Biblical scenes and were added in the 1930s by national painter Dimitrie Belizarie. Marvel at the gleaming gilded iconostasis and look up at a dome painted with a Madonna and child. Visitors go to the vestibule to see the tombs of famous patriarchs such as Miron Cristea and Nicodim Munteanu.

The Romanian Patriarchal Cathedral is a focal point of Metropolitanate Hill, which originated as a walled monastic complex. Today, it’s a center for Romanian Orthodoxy and home to other significant buildings. Among these are a 17th-century bell tower, the Patriarchal Palace and the Chapel of the Patriarchal Palace. Take a moment to gaze at the imposing neoclassic façade of the Patriarchal Palace.

The closest metro station to the Romanian Patriarchal Cathedral is Piaţa Unirii 1. The historic Lipscani neighborhood is less than a 20-minute walk away. Admission to the Romanian Patriarchal Cathedral is free and it’s open daily. It is recommended to visitors to dress conservatively and to be respectful of worshippers in this active cathedral. Visitors appreciate the arcaded entrance adorned with beautiful artistic mosaics of Jesus and well-known Orthodox saints.

It became the Metropolitan Church in 1668 and the seat of the Romanian Orthodox Church in 1925. A huge crowd gathers here for the Easter midnight service. 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 Teoctist, supreme leader of the Romanian Orthodox Church.

Stavropoleos Church (Biserica Stavropoleos)

The Stavropoleos Church was built in 1724 by the Greek monk Ioanikie Stratonikeas. Featuring a combination of Romanian and Byzantine architecture, it has a beautiful façade and a delicately carved columned entrance. Surrounded by a peaceful garden, it is an architectural jewel, with beautiful frescoes and wood-painted icons. The mass (in Romanian) is worth viewing if you can find room in this small and cozy church.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Catedrala Sfantul Iosif)

Constructed in red brick between 1873 and 1884, this Roman Catholic cathedral is an architectural masterpiece combining both Gothic and Roman elements. Organ recitals are held every week.

St. Nicolas Church (Biserica Sfantul Nicolae)

Built in 1909 by the Russian Tsar Nicholas II for 600,000 gold rubles, this Orthodox Church has a wooden, gold-gilded iconostasis allegedly modeled after the altar in the Archangelskiy Cathedral in Moscow.

Mogosoaia Palace & Brancovenesc Museum (Palatul Mogosoaia & Muzeul Brancovenesc)

Located in the village of the same name on the shore of Mogosoaia Lake, this palace reflects the Brancovenesc architectural style, featuring traditional Romanian staircase balconies, arcades and columns. Built by the Walachian prince Constantin Brancoveanu between 1698 and 1702 as a summer residence, the palace features a beautiful Venetian-style loggia on the facade facing the lake and a balcony with intricate Brancovenesc-style carvings overlooking the main courtyard. Today, the palace houses the Brancovenesc Museum with exhibits of valuable paintings, wood and stone sculptures, gold and silver embroideries, rare books and precious manuscripts.
Inside the complex, there is also a church built in 1688 and decorated by a team of Greek artists. The original interior murals have been well-preserved, including a painting showing Constantin Brancoveanu with his wife, Maria, and their four sons and seven daughters, all wearing royal dress.

Snagov Monastery & Lake (Manastirea & Lacul Snagov)

On an island in the middle of the Snagov Lake, there is a beautiful 16th century monastery, some 20 km away from the center of Bucharest. The Snagov Monastery is only accessible by a boat. Snagov Monastery was made famous by the legend according to which, in front of the altar, the infamous Vlad the impaler – Vlad Dracula is buried. Vlad was indeed killed in the vicinity, while battling a group of Turks, and the rumor has it that his body was brought to the monks of the monastery, and they were the ones that gave him a proper burial. One hundred years after the church was built /1364/, Vlad Tepes /Vlad Dracula/ added the fortress walls and a dungeon. A plaque on the floor of the church marks the grave with the presumed remains of the count. However, archaeological excavation done on the site in the 1930’s found the tomb to be empty. This fact was also one of the reasons for which the “Dracula the Vampire” myths caught momentum. According to some historical accounts, his headless body was taken to the monastery and buried in front of the altar. The spot is clearly marked with a small portrait of Vlad, and a vase of fresh flowers – another indication of his stature as a national hero. This was the site that was excavated in 1931 by Rosetti & Florescu, only to find that there was no coffin, no body, only a few animal bones! Where was /is/ Vlad Tepes? There are two main theories. One is that his body was later moved to a place near the entrance of the chapel where a body was actually found, though positive identification was difficult. This body has since disappeared. Another theory is that he is in the original place /near the altar/ but further down. There is talk of another excavation. But for now, the whereabouts of Vlad’s remains is a mystery.

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