Bucharest, both the heart and soul of Romania, is caught in a whirlwind of unique and differing cultures. Throughout the city, you can witness Romania’s rich history of clashing mega-empires combined with a fascinating Transylvanian touch, altogether making Bucharest one of Europe’s true hidden gems.
As you make your way around Bucharest, you’ll find the streets decorated by beautiful Orthodox Cathedrals and impressive Romanesque architecture, cementing Bucharest in as the cultural hotspot you won’t want to miss.
It’s not called Paris of the East for nothing. In fact, I found it as fun to visit as Amsterdam!
So I embarked on a 2-day journey to check out everything that makes Bucharest such fascinating and truly unique city. And it was not what I expected – in a good way.
The (quick) history of Romania and how it makes it so awesome
What truly makes this fascinating city so interesting is it’s history. It’s prime location made Bucharest a target for massive empires, each leaving a huge footprint on this epic city.
From local Transylvanian control in the 1400s to being incorporated by the Ottoman empire, then the Austrian-Hungarian empire, and even being occupied by the Germans, Bucharest has seen it’s fair share of cultures.
And it definitely left it’s imprint on Bucharest. You can feel and be witness to the magnificent history as you walk around and see the incredible variety of architecture and the clash of cultures. It’s a vibe.
What is the best way to get around Bucharest?
As you may know from my Athens, San Francisco, and Seattle layover guides, I do enjoy leaving some rubber from the bottom of my shoes everywhere I go.
And Bucharest is an excellent walking city. But for the in-between, public transportation – particularly the Metro – is supremely efficient and a great way to hop around.
But you have other options;
- Roll around: Many, many scooters. Bird, Uber, etc.
- Rideshare: Bolt, Uber, and FreeNow
- Public transportation: bus and metro
- City bikes all over the city
Google Maps is a great place to start – whether you’re walking, biking, or hopping on the Metro.
How to get from Bucharest airport to downtown
There is a very convenient bus route from the University area direct to the airport. It’s bus line 780 (North Rail Station) or 783 (Central Bucharest) and costs 7-8 lei round trip. 673 is the express bus running every 15-30 minutes.
Pickup is at the Arrivals Terminal bus stop, outside the doors, where a ticket/card booth is also located.
I personally took an Uber for 50 lei to get downtown a bit more quickly. An even better option is to pre-book your transfer;
The Top 20 Places You Need to See in Old Town Bucharest
As soon as I touched down in Bucharest, I set out on the most efficient, but encompassing walking tour I could create.
I started in Old Town closest to the metro stop, and zig zagged my way through streets of colossal Romanesque, Ottoman, Transylvanian, and Orthodox buildings. The eclectic mix of colors, the evident clash of cultures intertwined into this small old town made for vibrant sightseeing. It felt like visiting 10 cities at once.
And here’s the game plan, in the order that took me through an epiphany of what makes this city what it is.
- Curtea Veche Palace, from the Dracula (yes, he’s real) era
- Palatul Pinacotecii, the center of Old Town and art
- Stavropoleos Monastery Church, an incredible Orthodox monastery you can enter and explore
- National Museum of Romanian History, especially great on a rainy day
- Palatul Parlamentului: an iconic, massive, communist-era government building with over 1,100 rooms
- Cismigiu-Park, a gorgeous park in the center of town
- Romanian Athenaeum, Piata Romana, and the Roman neighborhood
- Royal Palace of Bucharest
- The Romanian Store, my favorite store for all-local souvenirs and artifacts
- Pasajul Victoria, an umbrella-filled passageway
- University Area, for a fun time and some beautiful architecture
- Mitropoliei, an absolutely fabulous Byzantine complex of churches and museums
- Saint Spyridon the New Church, which you can see why you have to visit below
- Bucharest Fountains by sunset!
- The Bucharest Municipality Museum
- Km 0 al Democratiei
- The Bucharest Central Bank Palace
- Revolution Square
- The Cărturești Carusel, an epic massive bookstore
1. Curtea Veche Palace
During nonstop conflicts with the Ottoman Empire, Vlad the Impaler (otherwise known as Dracula) found himself in need to surveil the Southern border of Wallachia (now Romania), designated Curtea Veche as his primary palace in the late 1400s.
It’s a fascinating place to learn more about the epic power struggles and surprisingly deep, rich history of Romania.
2. Palatul Pinacotecii
Created in 1933, the municipal Pinacotheque gallery might just be the most beautiful cultural project that the City Hall has undertaken in its history.
You can visit inside and discover, admire, and fall in love with Romanian art.
Or you can just enjoy the impressive architecture from the outside.
3. Stavropoleos Monastery Church
Visiting the Stravropoleos Monastery Church in Old Town Bucharest really feels like stepping into the past.
You can still hear the enchantment of Byzantine music by the choir, and discover the largest selection of Byzantine music books in Romania. In fact, the church houses over 8000 books of theology, byzantine music, arts and history.
It dates back to the early 1700s, and any visit to Bucharest should involve a visit just to admire its beauty.
4. National Museum of Romanian History
Located in what historically was known as the Post-Office Palace, the National Museum of Romanian History is the perfect place to learn just how incredibly rich, diverse, and monumental the history of Romania and this incredible slice of Eastern Europe is. It’s truly fascinating.
The history dates back as far as prehistoric times with early settlers and covers history over tribes, kingdoms, all the way to empires. You’ll find over 650,000 pieces of history inside.
5. Palatul Parlamentului
This iconic, massive, communist-era government building features over 1,100 rooms! Absolutely overkill and unheard of, but that’s just another thing to make this Eastern European city so special.
In fact, it’s actually the heaviest building in the world! At 4,098,500,000 kilograms (9.04 billion pounds), it’s also the second largest administrative building. Crazy!
Honestly, there are so many wonderful parks scattered across Bucharest. But what makes Cismigui special are all its Romanian touches. You can’t help but feel you’re in a special, unique place. You can’t mistake where you are, and that’s what I love about it.
7. Romanian Athenaeum
So, the secret it out. You finally found where the front cover picture was taken!
The Roman Athenaeum is located in another gorgeous parks ornated with interesting statues and history. It serves as city’s most prestigious concert hall and home of the “George Enescu” Philharmonic and of the George Enescu Festival.
8. Royal Palace of Bucharest
This incredible Royal Palace has served as the primary residence for kings of Romania until communism took hold in 1947. Since 1950 the palace hosts the National Museum of Art of Romania. You can explore both medieval and modern Romanian art, including work salvaged from Monasteries destroyed during the revolution in 1989.
It’s the largest and most significant royal residence in the country.
9. The Romanian Store
I didn’t meant to walk into this store. What happened was… I was just exploring the Old Town and it caught my eye. Look at it.. how can you not go in?
The workers couldn’t be more friendly, the prices more fair, and the handicraft of better quality. It’s literally all done locally by hand, all fair market, and so unique and authentic.
10. Pasajul Victoria
A very pretty place on a sunny day, and a protective one in the rain, the Pasajul Victoria offers a cute streets with little diners, shops, restaurants, and shade!
11. University Area
You could consider the University area the center of town, and in it so many beautiful buildings with incredible architecture. There’s of course cheap food here, beautiful parks, and lots of history.
12. Dealul Mitropoliei
This array of monasteries, palaces, and churches overlooks the city from the top of a small hill. It’s a charming walk here from the Old Town, and you can actually visit inside most of these massive, outstanding monuments.
It stands as one of the centers of Romanian Orthodoxy, and also served as the Palace of the Chamber of Deputies all the way until 1997 – exactly in the Palatul Patriarhiei pictured above!
13. Saint Spyridon
This entire neighborhood of town feels older and more authentic, offering many incredible monasteries, churches, and beautiful hilltop sights overlooking the city. Saint Spryidon is the perfect example, but just check out the inside of it:
14. Bucharest Fountains
Located in the Parcel Unurii, this epic show happens weekends from Spring to Fall. In June and July, the shows will start at 9:30 p.m., in August, they will return at 9:00 p.m., and in the fall, they will begin at 8:00 p.m.
15. Bucharest Municipality Museum
Featuring an enormous array of exhibits divided in 12 sections and memorial houses, the Bucharest Municipality Museum features everything from documentary films to education to history, with over 400,000 pieces.
The building itself is the oldest aristocratic residence in Bucharest and one of the few buildings that have remained unchanged for over 150 years since its inception.
16. Km 0 al Democratiei
Located next to the massive downtown theatre, this monument may at first appear strange. But its a depiction of the real and true struggles against communism during the 1989 revolution, that lead to Bucharest and Romania’s emergence and renaissance.
17. The Bucharest Central Bank Palace
Without a doubt located on one of the prettiest streets of the entire city, the Bucharest Central Bank Palace is architecturally one of the prettiest buildings here.
It’s a must see – if not for its beauty, for its location. Surrounding the Palace are food trucks, stands selling localities, fantastic restaurants and bars, and the prettiest parts of Old Town Bucharest.
18. Revolution Square
In case you aren’t yet aware just how important the 1989 revolution was to the people of Bucharest, a walking tour should do you justice. One of the most exemplary and astounding parts of town is the Revolution Square, which houses the building of the former Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party
Fun fact: Nicolae Ceaușescu, the ex-communist General Secretary, and his wife fled from here by helicopter on December 22, 1989.
19. The Cărturești Carusel, an epic massive bookstore
This absolutely massive bookstore was built in the early 1900s, originally serving as the Chrissoveloni Bank headquarters before eventually decaying. In 2015, it was completely renovated, revamped, and turned into this wonderful center of education and social space.
It’s definitely a must see in Old Town Bucharest.
6 Must Sees in Bucharest Outside of Old Town
By now, you’ll have seen the major highlights. But there’s more to explore just outside the Old Town of Bucharest if you have the time.
On day 2, I used a mix of the super highly convenient metro and my even more convenient legs to explore more deeply and outside of the old town. These were the most remarkable areas and monuments I saw:
- Arc de Triumf, a WWI era tribute to the real Arc de Triomphe in Paris
- Park Herastrau (King Mihai), a large park around a massive lake lined with local restaurants
- Bucharest Sector 1 “Embassy Row”, the ‘rich’ area filled with hip cafes and vegan restaurants
- House of Ceauşescu (Casa Ceaușescu)
- Nation’s Heroes Memorial
- Antipa Museum
Where to eat in Bucharest
I found the food in Bucharest to be surprisingly good, including vegan options aplenty. For traditional food, I stuck with (delicious) fish (mainly carp), but there are plenty of pork/sausage dishes Romanians are known for.
For traditional food, definitely head to these restaurants in Old Town Bucharest:
- Caru’ cu Bere
- Restaurant Pescarus
- Noma Herastrau
Like any modern city, Bucharest has an incredible array of coffee beans to go around. They’re not kidding when it comes to caffeine. For your morning fix, head to these incredible cafes:
- Human Coffee
For vegan food in Bucharest, don’t miss out on:
- Verv Kitchen
- Sublimmme – cofetarie raw vegan
- level up
I sincerely enjoy eating Vegan food – even though I’m not vegan. It’s fascinating to encounter the diverse melange of flavors Vegan chefs are able to produce – and not found anywhere else.
COVID testing in Bucharest: as easy as it gets
As we all know, restrictions are slowing fading out of memory. However here’s info in case you still need a Covid test for whatever reason (as of Spring 2022).
At the time, Bucharest assembled mobile testing centers in many busy areas of the city. These appear like trailers, and they’re hard to miss;
You can find locations on www.test-covid-bucaresti.ro , but here were two of the three I found:
The heart in the bottom right is the one I used, right next to the H&M at Piața Unirii 1, București 030119, Romania.
I paid 65 Romanian Lira, which is about USD$15, for an antigen test. The friendly receptionist handed me printed results in no more than 5 minutes. Overall, I found testing in Bucharest to be super pleasant and easy.