Architecture – Most visitors landing in Bucharest stay in town as little as possible before heading to Transylvania or the Black Sea. Still, the Eastern European capital is full of surprises. Indeed, with its continuous clash of architectural styles, no city better represents Romania’s great and cruel past.
OLD CITY: ANCIENT CHURCHES AND BUSTLING NIGHTLIFE
Begin your exploration by walking along Lipscani Street, which runs through the Old City, where artisans and merchants used to thrive from the 16th to the 19th century. Until a few years ago, the historic district was very run-down and inhabited by some of the poorest Roma communities. Today, it is populated by restaurants, international brands’ flagship stores, cocktail bars and clubs of all sorts. Despite the renewed vibe, sumptuous palazzos still stand next to neglected communist buildings, boutiques and decrepit apartments alternate with some of the most antique churches in town.
Make sure to visit the Stavropoleos Monastery and Church, an oasis of silence in the Old City’s hustle and bustle [Strada Stavropoleos 4, Map]. Completed in 1725, the church vaults and walls are entirely decorated with vibrant frescos, important chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and all furniture, doors and details are finely crafted in wood. Explore the enchanting back courtyard with gravestones and walk through libraries with thousands of centenary books.
Other must-visit churches in the Old Town are the Romanian Orthodox New Saint George Church, 1669, which hosts the tomb of Walachian Prince Constantin Brâncoveanu [Map], and the Old Princely Court Church, Bucharest’s oldest church, 1.559, with stunning frescos and a more recent stone portal [Map]. The nearby Courtea Veche – Old Princely Court – is one of Bucharest’s oldest venues, dating back to the 13th century. Here, Vlad Tepes the Impaler built a palace or residence in 1459 [Under renovation, Map].
Visit the Carturesti Carusel bookstore [Strada Lipscani 55, Map]. In 2015, Bucharest-based Square One studio transformed a neglected 19th-century building into a contemporary temple of culture and consumerism, representing Bucharest’s vibrant post-communist transformation.
“We saw it as a permanent shell and our intervention as a fragment in its history. Pieces of recent restorations were kept visible in our final design, the concrete walls in the basement and several components of outline beams, as an expression of the building’s continuous metamorphosis.”
For dinner, head to Caru’cu Bere – Beer wagon in Romanian – a historic restaurant providing an architectural and gastronomic experience since 1899 [Strada Stavropoleos 5, Map]. A vibrant meeting point for tourists and locals to taste traditional Romanian cuisine. The vaulted ground floor in Neo-Gothic style is richly decorated with paints, stained glass, coiling stairs, mosaics and carved panelings. Book a week in advance.
BUCHAREST’S ROARING PAST
Between the 19th and 20th centuries, Bucharest was known as the Little Paris of Eastern Europe. International elites convened in Art Nouveau and Art Deco palazzos, concert halls and sumptuous cafes. During the communist era, most of the grand palazzos fell into disrepair. Check these best-preserved and most important architectures, bringing visitors back to that Golden Era of wealth. Some of the most interesting buildings are located by Revolution Square, including the Central University Library, completed in 1893 by French Architect Paul Gottereau.
The Romanian Athenaeum is the heart of the country’s classical music tradition [Strada Benjamin Franklin 1-3, Map]. Built by Albert Galleron in 1888 in Neoclassical style, the concert hall mesmerises visitors with a 41m-high dome with an impressive fresco narrating the history of Romania – from the conquest of Dacia by the Roman Emperor Trajan to the unification of the country in 1918.
A stone’s throw from the Athenaeum is the most beautiful Belle Époque building in Bucharest: the George Enescu National Museum, dedicated to Romania’s prominent classical musician and composer. Designed by Paris-educated Romanian architect Ioan D. Berindei, the Art Nouveau palazzo stuns for its richly adorned façade and the oyster-shaped glass entrance. Inside sumptuous interiors, pink marble columns, and ceiling frescos [Calea Victoriei 141, Map].
Named after Romania’s oldest bank and built at the end of the 19th century, the CEC Palace was designed by Paul Gottereau, 1897-1900 [Old City, Calea Victoriei 13, Map]. The building is an eclectic mishmash of different styles. A glass and metal dome tops the palazzo. The entrance features an arch supported by two pairs of columns in a composite style. The four corners are decorated with gables and coats of arms and end in Renaissance domes. Beautiful perplexity?
Completed in 1895, the Macca-Vilacrosse Passage is a fork-shaped, yellow glass-covered arcaded passage on Lipscani Street [Map]. Today, the Parisian café vibe and culture have been replaced by shisha bars, a Chinese restaurant and a tattoo shop.
Life was tough during the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, 1965-1989: the extreme scarcity of primary goods – including food, medicine, hot water and electricity -, no freedom of expression, the propaganda, and a KGB-like evil and perfectly functioning system to control and spy on people.
The dictator deported people from the countryside to the cities to keep the economy afloat. During the day, they worked in factories for very long shifts. At night, they slept in Soviet-like dormitory neighbourhoods. It is impossible not to notice them while walking across the city.
Despite the poor living conditions, the regime projected a glorious and powerful image of itself. Occupying an area of 365,000 square metres, the gigantic Palace of Parliament [Map] is the world’s heaviest building, 4.10 million tonnes, and the second largest administrative building. The colossal palace was ordered by Nicolae Ceausescu as part of his personality cult propaganda and cost around 4 billion euros. Over 700 architects worked together for thirteen years, from 1984 to 1997, six years after the dictator’s death. The building blends Neoclassical style with Socialist Modernism. Today, it hosts both the chambers of the Romanian Parliament, the National Art Museum and other administrative offices – Still, it is so big that a good part remains unoccupied.
About one-fifth of Bucharest was bulldozed to build the palace, the surrounding buildings, and the grand avenue that leads into the distance from the palace, deliberately made wider and longer than the Champs-Élysee. Entirely disconnected from the rest of the city, the masterplan best represents the dictator’s approach to architecture: imposed, austere, self-celebratory, and megalomaniac. Fountains in a play of perspectives, bold yet sombre concrete facades with arches and rounded shapes, celebrate the new style and vision for a then-new Communist capital.
Along with this vision is the Monument to the Heroes of the struggle for the freedom of the people and the motherland for Socialism, 1963, [Strada General Candiano Popescu 105, Map] rises in Park Carol.
Another important Communist-style building is the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Revolution Square [Map]. From here, on December 21, 1989, Nicolae Ceausescu was booed by the people during his last speech before trying to flee and then being tried and shot dead along with his wife on Christmas Eve.
During the regime, Horia Maicu built the House of the Free Press in northern Bucharest in 1956 [Piața Presei Libere 1, Map]. The building was intended to house (and control) all of Bucharest’s printing presses and newsroom offices. One of Moscow’s Stalinist ‘Seven Sisters’ propaganda skyscrapers inspired the Soviet-style palace. Today, where once was a statue of Lenin is the Wing monument put up to honour the memory of the anti-communist fighters in Romania.
Not far is the Spring Palace, the actual home where Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu lived for twenty years. Today, The villa is a museum revealing dictators’ kitsch and opulent lifestyle. Given Romanians’ poor living conditions, the overall display is quite depressing: Luis XVI furniture, Art Deco interiors, a pool, a private cinema and a luxurious garden. [Bulevardul Primăverii, 50 – Map].
A POST-MODERN POST-REVOLUTION
In the wake of the Revolution, a new future awaited for Romania. A democratic government and joining the European Union have been two critical steps toward a new Western-oriented path. On a social and economic level, the country embraced globalisation and capitalism. Today, Bucharest offers quite a clash of cultures shining with neon every night. Some of the most typical Communist architectures are topped by international capitalist brands such as Coca-Cola, Pepsy & Co. or KFC.
What about the many housing blocks built under Ceausescu? Today, 70% of the city’s 1.9 million people live in these frills-free pre-constructed glasses and concrete multi-storey boxes, most of which were built during or finished after Communism. Still, many buildings were abandoned, occupied or let rot in neglect.
The Government also committed to preserving historic architecture – From ancient churches to Art Nouveau palaces and Modernist villas or housing from the 50s and 60s. But there are so many that it is impossible not to encounter stone, marble or concrete ghosts of bygone eras everywhere across the city.
A ‘Post-Modern’ approach defines many contemporary buildings in town. A clear example is the Union of Romanian Architects tower in Revolution Square, next to the infamous Ministry of Internal Affairs. The shell of a former historic building still marked by the bullets of the revolution contains a contemporary glass and steel skyscraper, creating a debatable clash of styles.
We found particularly touching the Holocaust Memorial [Strada Anghel Saligny 1, Map], commemorating the approximately 280,000 Jews and 25,000 Roma who died due to their deportation to Poland and Transnistria’s concentration and extermination camps. The memorial consists of a 17m high cast iron column, a narrow passage symbolising the death trains’ route to the camps, and a semi-submerged room strikingly resembling a gas chamber. Along the walls is a rusty metal band with the names of Jews killed during the Holocaust. A sculptural epitaph is composed of a massive iron container. Inside, fragments of rock cut on one side are inspired by bulldozers pushing the tortured corpses of the victims.