Things to Do in Bucharest
Romania’s most controversial building sits like a megalith in the middle of Bucharest, a monument to the folly and ego of fallen Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, who conceived his grandiose idea after visiting another dictator, Kim II-sung, in North Korea. Started in 1984 and designed by young Romanian architect Anca Petrescu, the palace was conceived from Ceaușescu’s wish for it to be the biggest office building in the world – and he almost got his way, with only the Pentagon being larger. Churches, synagogues and 30,000 private homes were demolished to make way for this awesome monstrosity, and its mammoth proportions include 12 stories (with four underground), 1,100 rooms and state apartments, a brutal Soviet Realist façade of 270 meters (886 feet) in length and a vast subterranean nuclear bunker. Around 20,000 builders worked for six years to complete the palace, working seven days a week and using only materials available in Romania.
First built in 1878 as a wooden monument to mark Romania’s Independence, Bucharest’s Arch of Triumph (Arcul de Triumf) has long been one of the city’s most memorable landmarks. Although rebuilt again after WWI, the current Arch of Triumph is the work of architect Petru Antonesc, reconstructed in granite in 1936, and decorated with sculptures by Romanian artists like Constantin Medrea, Constantin Baraschi and Ion Jalea.
Towering 27-meters over the intersection of Kiseleff road, Mareșal Alexandru boulevard and Alexandru Constantinescu street, the monumental arch now marks the entrance to Bucharest’s Herăstrău Park. Still a poignant reminder of Romania’s independence, it’s the site of military parades and celebrations on Romania's National Day (Dec 1st), and an internal staircase also allows visitors to climb to the top, looking out over the busy boulevards below.
Finally inaugurated in 2009 after a long (and somewhat controversial) wait, Bucharest’s Holocaust Memorial serves as a stark reminder of the thousands of Romanian Jews affected by the Holocaust. The memorial holds great significance not only for Romania’s Jewish community, but as a symbol that the country recognizes its role in events (a fact often denied by the post-war communist government).
The memorial itself is a simple yet poignant monument, designed by artist Peter Jacobi and featuring a plaque dedicated to the estimated 280,000 Jews and 25,000 Roma who lost their lives during the Holocaust. The memorial includes a ‘Column of Memory’, inlaid with the Hebrew word for ‘Remember’, and a Roma wheel, dedicated to the Romani people.
Taking centerstage in Bucharest’s Old Town, Revolution Square (Piata Revolutiei) is located along the central boulevard of Victoriei Street and has long been at the forefront of the city’s historic events. Originally named Palace Square (Piața Palatului), Revolution Square earned its current moniker after the Romanian Revolution in 1989, and remains one of the city’s principal landmarks and navigational hubs.
For first-time visitors, the grand square is undeniably impressive, framed by ornate buildings and crowned by the towering Memorial of Rebirth – a 25-meter-high marble pillar erected in the center of the square, in memory of the victims of the Revolution. Other important monuments on the square include the neoclassical Royal Palace, now home to the National Museum of Art; the Romanian Atheneum, a domed concert hall dating back to the 19th century.
Bucharest’s Jewish History Museum was founded in 1978 by Moses Rosen, who was the city’s chief rabbi between 1964 and 1994; it is found in the ornate Holy Union Temple synagogue, which was built in 1836 by the wealthy Jewish Tailors Guild and is in Moorish style, with layers of brickwork alternating with white plaster fronted by an extravagant rose window. Among all the gold and silver religious ephemera inside, displays detail Jewish history in Romania and mark the community’s contribution to Bucharest society. The somber memorial room at the back of the synagogue is dedicated to victims of the Holocaust, when thousands of Romanian Jews lost their lives in Transnistria. However, star prize probably goes to the startlingly colorful interior of the three-tiered, galleried synagogue, which is liberally ornamented with Byzantine and Moorish tiling, marble floors and decorative walls and ceilings.
Arguably the most beautiful building in Bucharest, the Romanian Athenaeum is the city’s foremost concert hall and a source of national pride, with an elegant Doric-colonnaded façade topped with a pediment and cupola. It was designed in Neo-classical style by French architect Albert Galleron and opened in 1888 to great acclaim; the great Romanian conductor George Enescu debuted his ‘Romanian Poem’ here in 1898. The lobby of the concert hall is an opulent, almost Art Nouveau triumph of ornamental gilding supported by arched, pink marble columns that lead off to a series of twisting marble staircases leading up to the concert hall. The circular auditorium seats 652 under a fabulous domed ceiling richly ornamented in scarlet and gold and fringed by frescoes by Costin Petrescu depicting important events in Romanian history; it is world-famous for the clarity of it acoustics and is home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra.
Also known as the Metropolitan Church, Bucharest’s main Orthodox place of worship is dedicated to Saints Constantine and Helen and sits atop Mitropoliei, one of the few hills in the city center. It was designed by an unknown architect as a copy of the Curtea de Arges monastery in the university city of Pitesti and consecrated in 1658; it has three dumpy spires, a bulbous apse and Byzantine-style gilded paintings of the saints adorning its exterior. Although the cathedral was largely restored to its original form in the early 1960s, four major upgrades have been made over the centuries, particularly to its gold-encrusted interior, where frescoes have been added as recently as 1935. The first Romanian-language bible was printed here in 1688 and the cathedral holds the most valuable collection of icons in Romania.
More Things to Do in Bucharest
Cotroceni Palace in Bucharest is the headquarters and residence of the Romanian president, as well as home to the National Cotroceni Museum. The original palace served as the residence of Romanian rulers until the end of the 19th century, at which time a larger palace was commissioned by King Carol I. Most of the palace had to be rebuilt after an earthquake struck in 1977. Adjacent to the palace is the Cotroceni Garden, one of the major public gardens in the city which dates back to the 1850s.
The National Cotroceni Museum collection features more than 20,000 objects, divided into several different collections. Highlights include 18th and 19th century religious arts; a collection of Romanian paintings from the 19th century to the present; 18th and 19th century paintings from German, Austrian, French and Belgian artists; sculptures from both Romanian and European sculptors; drawings, watercolors and engravings from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Hidden away in Bucharest’s old Jewish quarter, the Great Synagogue (or the Great Polish Synagogue) was built by the city’s Polish-Jewish community in 1845 and is an impressively preserved tribute to Romania’s rich Jewish heritage. Don’t be put-off by the synagogue’s simple façade – inside, the main hall is lavishly decorated, painted in Rococo style by Ghershon Horowitz in 1936 and hung with beautiful chandeliers.
Today, the Great Synagogue remains active as a place of worship, but it’s also home to a small, but fascinating Jewish museum. Focusing on Romania’s Jewish history and heritage, the most moving exhibition details the horrors of the Holocaust and includes the poignant Memorial for Jewish Martyrs.
Built in the late 1890s and opened at the turn of the 20th century on one of Bucharest’s main boulevards, the CEC Palace was designed by French architect Paul Gottereau and the construction of this fine Beaux Arts masterpiece was overseen by Romanian architect Ion Socolescu. Designated to be the HQ of Romania’s oldest savings bank, Casa de Economii și Consemnațiuni (CEC) and located opposite the National History Museum of Romania, it is a monumental mansion topped with five cupolas; the central one stands over the grandiose, colonnaded entrance and is made of glass and steel. The palace is slated for transformation into an art museum and was sold to the city council for more than €17.75 million in 2006; while plans are drawn up the CEC Bank rents it back from the council but its sumptuous, marble-clad interior – much of which was covered over in Ceaușescu’s time – is no longer open to the public.
Standing almost opposite the Beaux-Arts CEC Palace on Calea Victoriei and just as architecturally impressive, Romania’s history museum is a majestic piece of Neo-classical styling, with a colonnaded façade flanked by two symmetrical side wings. It is the work of architect Alexandru Săvulescu and was completed in 1900 as the headquarters of the Poşta Romană (Romanian Postal Service). When this moved on in 1970, the building inherited the country’s impressive history collections, which spreads across 60 displays.
Although much of the museum is currently closed pending renovation, it should still be seen for its two major collections: the priceless jewelry in the Romanian Treasury and the Bronze Age relics in the Lapidarium. Highlights include a full-size replica of Trajan’s Column in Rome and a selection of the Romanian Crown Jewels.
The George Enescu Museum in Bucharest is a memorial to Romania’s most important musician. Enescu was a composer, violinist, pianist and conductor who passed away in 1955. After his death, the museum was established in the Cantacuzino Palace, widely considered one of the most beautiful buildings in Bucharest. Designed in a French academic style with art nouveau elements, the palace features a remarkable glass awning above the entrance and an interior adorned with murals and sculptures.
The permanent collection of the museum includes three rooms of the palace and is devoted to the life of Enescu, as well as the history of Romanian music. Displays include photographs, manuscripts, medals, drawings, musical instruments, furniture and personal items, as well as a casting of Enescu’s hands and his mortuary mask. The museum also has two other branches: the George Enescu Memorial House in Sinaia and the Dumitru and Alice Rosetti-Tescanu George Enescu section in Bacau.
The Macca Villacrosse Passage, also known as the Pasajul Macca-Vilacrosse, is a fork-shaped arcaded street in central Bucharest. Covered with yellow glass to allow natural light to shine through, the passage was built at the end of the 19th century to connect the Calea Victoriei and the National Bank. Today, the Macca side of the passage opens on to Calea Victoriei, one of Bucharest’s main avenues, while the Villacrosse side opens to the National Bank and Strada Eugeniu Carada. The passage has a French look to it and is similar to other covered passages built in Milan and Paris during the same period. During Communist times, it was known as the Jewelry Passage due to the presence of the city’s largest jewelry shops, but the original name was restored in 1990. Today, the passage is still home to a few jewelry shops, but also features several restaurants, cafes, boutiques and hookah bars.
Housed in the majestic former Royal Palace, which stands on Revolution Square and dates from 1812, the National Museum of Art of Romania opened in 1947; it was subsequently badly damaged in the Romanian Revolution of 1989, which saw the downfall and death of Communist despot Nicolae Ceaușescu. The museum reopened fully in 2005, displaying three major collections spread over three floors of the palace, and is now regarded as Romania’s premier art gallery.
The European Paintings and Sculpture galleries include mighty Old Master treasures from the private collection of King Charles I – the likes of Rembrandt, Rubens, El Greco and the Impressionists – while the Romanian Medieval collections feature glittering silver icons, rare manuscripts and stone sculptures in the Lapidarium, found in the restored cellars of the palace. The Romanian Modern galleries are jam-packed with works such as modernist sculptures by Constantin Brancuşi.
The district of Lipscani is the lively, beating heart of Bucharest and virtually the only part of the city that remains following the aerial bombardments of World War II and moves to flatten the city and rebuild it to Nicolae Ceaușescu’s grandiose designs under Communism. Fringed by the great thoroughfare of Calea Victoriei, the River Dambovita to the south and the Piata Universitatiei to the north, the district was historically Bucharest’s commercial center, with its origins in medieval times; it has transformed in the last 15 years from a tawdry, run-down backwater into action-central. Today its faded mix of Neo-Classical, Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture draws overseas visitors in to explore narrow streets lined with art galleries, vintage shops, scores of restaurants, open-air cafés and late-night clubs. However, the major nightclub fire in October 2015 saw many clubs forced to close as their premises are considered unsafe.
One of the first synagogues in Bucharest was the Choral Temple, which was completed in 1857 by architects Enderle and Freiwald; it is a copy of the Leopoldstadt-Tempelgasse Great Synagogue in Vienna and has a façade decorated in Moorish style with yellow-and-red patterned brickwork. A wealthy Jewish community was established in the city by the mid-16th century but never lived in complete harmony with its Romanian neighbors. In 1593, many were killed during a rebellion against the city’s Ottoman overlords and unrest continued to rumble for several centuries.
Several years after the Choral Temple was built, it was destroyed in a pogrom and rebuilt in 1866. Even with the destruction, the city’s Jewish population continued to grow. By 1930, it numbered 74,480 while the pogroms and indiscriminate killings continued. During World War II, all Bucharest’s synagogues were closed down and many thousands of Romanian Jews were sent to their deaths in Transnistria and Bessarabia.
With a history dating back to the early 1900s, Carol Park (Liberty Park) is one of Bucharest’s oldest parks, built by French designer Eduard Redont to mark the Jubilee of King Carol I. With its glittering lake, tree-lined esplanade and landscaped gardens sprawling over 30 hectares in South Budapest, the park offers an idyllic retreat from the city, with ample space for walking, cycling and sports.
The park is also home to a number of important monuments and has been listed as a National Historic monument since 2004. Most notable is the Mausoleum, originally built as a communist monument and later transformed into a WWI memorial, fronted by the Monument of the Unknown Soldier. Additional highlights include the early 20th-century Tepes Castle and a series of statues, including Filip Marin’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and the ‘Giant’s’ by Dumitru Paciurea and Frederic Storck.
The Grigor Antipa National Museum of Natural History in Bucharest is considered one of Romania’s best museums, as well as one of the best natural history museums in all of Europe. It is named for a famous Romanian biologist who, among his other accomplishments, was the first Romanian to reach the North Pole. While the history of the museum goes back to 1834, the building in which it stands today was built in 1908. With some two million objects, the museum is the largest museum of natural history in the country and features a range of ethnographic, mineralogical, zoological and paleontological exhibits, with highlights including an extensive butterfly collection, a hall dedicated to the Black Sea and dinosaur fossils. In the basement, visitors will find a guide to the animal and plant life native to Romania. With a variety of hands on, interactive exhibits, the museum is also great for children.
Located in the center of Bucharest, the Museum of the Romanian Peasant is one of the leading museums in Europe dedicated to popular arts and traditions. Named the European Museum of the Year in 1996, it boasts a collection of more than 100,000 objects, including textiles, costumes, religious icons, handpainted Easter eggs, terra cotta pottery and other items telling the story of life in the Romanian countryside over four centuries.The museum was originally founded in 1906, but during Communist times, the building houses a museum of the Communist party instead. It reopened as the Museum of the Romanian Peasant after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, but the basement still contains remnants of the Communist museum.
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