12 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Bucharest
Once known as "Little Paris," Bucharest in Romania is a capital rich with storied history that merges with its modern identity. The confluence of architecture is dizzying yet fascinating. Byzantine buildings; 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century churches; Art Nouveau mansions; and Neoclassical facades survived earthquakes, war, and later, communism. During that political era, block panel masonry left its imprint, as well as the gargantuan Palace of the Parliament, the prized creation of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
The charm of Bucharest is revealed by exploring its sprawling city parks, admiring the works at its excellent museums, and getting "lost" in the gritty yet charming lanes that weave through the Old City. A stroll down Calea Victoriei, arguably the prettiest street in the city, is an encounter with the country's grandest buildings and meaningful monuments, all a testament to times gone by. Exploring Bucharest is about understanding its complex past that is giving way to its modern sensibility as a booming European capital.
1 The Old Town
The Old Town is one of Bucharest's earliest settlements, where structures date back to the 15th and 16th centuries. Throughout time, it was the seat of Romanian princes, a center for trade, a place to worship, and a crossroads for travelers. It managed to survive Ceausescu's 1980s razing of one fifth of the city to build his vision of a new Socialist capital. After spending decades as a slum, much of the Old Town has been gentrified and renovated. Historic buildings have been gallantly restored, yet other properties are still awaiting their facelift. The contrast gives that much more charm to the pedestrian lanes and cobbled streets lined with mom-and-pop bookshops, theaters, restaurants, and cafés.
Location: Between Calea Victoriei to the west, Bulevardul Bratianu to the east, Dambovita River to the south, and Regina Elisabeta to the north
2 Palace of the Parliament
The Palace of the Parliament is one of the top tourist attractions in Bucharest. It is the world's second largest administrative building (after the Pentagon), an architectural colossus that also claims title as the heaviest building in the world. Boasting more than 3,000 rooms over 330,000 square meters and constructed with marble and steel, it was originally called the People's House by its visionary, the former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who used it as his family's residence and as the seat of his government. To complete it, he razed places of worship, workshops, factories, parks, part of the Old Town, and entire neighborhoods. More than 20,000 workers and 700 architects worked on the opulent Neoclassical-style palace over a span of 13 years while Romanians faced poverty. Still unfinished, a small portion houses Romania's parliamentary headquarters and the National Museum of Contemporary Art. Scheduled tours bring visitors up close to its vastness, the kitsch, and the outrageous luxury Ceausescu would have continued to experience had he not been overthrown in a coup d'état.
Address: Strada Izvor 2-4, Bucharest
3 Romanian Athenaeum
Home to the Romanian George Enescu Philharmonic, the stately Romanian Athenaeum is the city's most prestigious concert hall. The 19th-century building, designed by French architect Albert Galleron, resembles an ancient Greek temple with a 41-meter-high dome and a peristyle of six Ionic columns. The interiors feature a lobby of intricately painted gold-leaf ceilings, cascading balconies, and spiral marbled staircases. The 652-seat auditorium is known for its excellent acoustics and its fine art. A 70-meter-long and three-meter-high fresco that winds its way around the circular hall proudly depicts scenes from Romania's history.
Address: Strada Benjamin Franklin 1-3, Bucharest
4 Stavropoleos Church
Tiny, peaceful, and beautiful, the Stavropoleos Church was built in 1724 by a Greek monk, Ioanikie Stratonikeas. With its intricately carved entrance lined with columns, the Brâncovenesc-style church stands apart as a unique landmark in Bucharest. The Orthodox church features fine stone and wood carvings and a combination of Romanian and Byzantine elements. It is surrounded by a garden courtyard filled with 18th-century tombstones. Inside, several frescoes and wood icons can be admired. The church complex once included an inn and a monastery but both were destroyed. The church itself was restored several times after damage from earthquakes.
Address: Strada Stavropoleos 4, Bucharest
5 Old Princely Court and Old Princely Court Church
In the Old City, the Old Princely Court was the palatial residence of Wallachian princes, including Vlad Tepes, otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler, who inspired Bram Stoker's tale of Dracula. A statue of the infamous Romanian prince stands among what's left from the past, including the court's walls, several arches, and columns.
A 16th-century prince, Mircea Ciobanul, repaired the palace after Vlad the Impaler's rule, and he grew the surrounding Lipscani area as the trading core of Bucharest by establishing a community of skilled craftsmen. In 1559, Ciobanul built the Old Princely Court Church next to the palace. For the two centuries that followed, it was the place for succeeding Romanian princes to be coronated. Also worthy of a visit is the Old Court Museum, which features pottery and artifacts found during an archaeological dig around the ruins.
Address: Strada Franceza 25-31, Bucharest
6 Revolution Square
Revolution Square earned its name after setting the scene of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's final minutes of power in Romania. On December 21, 1989, a coup d'état ensued here with the help of a crowd of more than 100,000, forcing the leader of the communist party to flee and changing the course of the country's history. Until that date, the central square was known as Palace Square, due to its proximity to the Royal Palace, which is the current home to the National Museum of Art. Other historic buildings stand nearby, including the Senate Palace, the Romanian Athenaeum, and the Athenee Palace Hilton Bucharest.
Revolution Square is also known for the dramatic Monument of Rebirth. Erected in 2005, it includes the names of the 1,058 victims of the bloody revolution and a bronze statue of Iuliu Maniu, the Romanian prime minister imprisoned by the communist party.
Address: Calea Victoriei Boulevard, Bucharest
7 The Arch of Triumph
Finished in 1922, Bucharest's first Arch of Triumph was made from wood and dedicated to the Romanian soldiers who fought in World War I. In 1936, it was reconstructed in granite and designed by architect Petre Antonescu at a height of 27 meters. The arch is adorned with sculptures created by the most notable Romanian sculptors, including Ion Jalea and Dimitrie Paciurea. It continues to serve its purpose of being the central point for military parades. Romanian soldiers march beneath it for big events, including the first of December, which is the country's national holiday.
Address: Kiseleff Road, Bucharest
8 National Museum of Art
In the former Royal Palace, the National Museum of Art is Romania's leading art museum housing the most complete collection of Romanian art, including medieval and modern art. Established in 1948, the museum is also where the Royal Collection, including Romanian and European art dating back to the 15th century, can be admired. More than 100,000 works are in the various halls, including paintings by the country's most celebrated artists, Theodor Aman, Nicolae Grigorescu, and Gheorghe Tattarescu. The modern Romanian collection features sculptures by Milita Petrascu and Dimitrie Paciurea. One room is dedicated to Constantin Brancusi, one of the most influential sculptors of the 20th century. The European Gallery next door has 15 rooms including works by El Greco, Monet, Rembrandt, Renoir, and Rubens.
Address: Calea Victoriei 49-53, Bucharest
9 Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum
Founded in 1936, this unique open-air museum stretches through leafy Herastrau Park and depicts the traditional way of life in Romania. Visitors can wander through 300 traditional buildings, including peasant homes with steep roofs, thatched barns, heavy log cabins, various types of churches, workshops, and mills - all of which have been transported from towns across every region of Romania. Each building was carefully taken apart, shipped to the museum, and rebuilt to be part of the walkable village-like setting in the park. The Village Museum also displays artifacts and pottery as well as other traditional items hailing from around the country.
Address: Sos. Kiseleff 28-30, Herastrau Park, Bucharest
10 National Museum of Romanian History
The National History Museum is set in a Neoclassical building originally built for the Romanian postal service. Since 1970, the museum's 60 rooms display the country's most fascinating historical exhibits dating from prehistoric to modern times. The biggest permanent exhibit is a huge replica of the 2nd-century Trajan's Column, built in honor of the conquering Roman emperor Trajan, who defeated Romania's ancient Dacian tribes. Thousands of gold items and Neolithic artifacts, including jewelry dating to the time of the Geto-Dacians can be found in the Romanian Treasury. On permanent display are the Romanian Crown Jewels, including stunning emerald pieces made for Queen Marie, who was the wife of Romanian King Ferdinand. Also here are gold artifacts from the 4th-century Pietroasele Treasures. They were once considered the most valuable treasure collection in the world before Tutankhamen's tomb was unearthed.
Address: Calea Victoriei 12, Bucharest
11 Bucharest Parks
Bucharest is swathed in beautiful parks that are frequented by locals year-round. The oldest city park, designed in the mid-19th century, is Cismigiu Garden. Renting rowboats is one of the most popular things to do here in the summer, and the ice rink is popular in the winter. German landscape architect Carl Meyer designed the park, which opened in 1860, bringing in 30,000 trees and plants from the Romanian mountains and greenery from botanical gardens in Vienna.
Spread over 400 acres, Herastrau Park is home to the Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum, an open-air theater, sports club, and an old-fashioned amusement park. At its lake, boat rentals are available to the public every summer. Bordering the park, 19th- and 20th-century villas are the homes of Bucharest's elite.
Designed by French landscape artist Eduard Redont and completed in 1906, Carol Park is considered one of the most beautiful parks in the capital. Romania's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located here as well as a Roman-era styled open-air theater called Arenele Romane, which is popular for summer concerts.
12 Carturesti Carusel
Set inside a beautifully restored 19th-century building in the center of the Old Town is the city's most impressive bookshop, Carturesti Carusel. The 1,000-square-meter space is spread throughout six floors, with shelves stocked with more than 10,000 books as well as 5,000 albums and DVDs. Its design is impressively minimal, playing with light that filters through a central skylight, creating an atmosphere that is like a moving carousel, hence its name, which means "Carousel of Light."
The bookstore is a local hub, not only for reading and browsing through books, but for art and relaxing. Carturesti Carusel is also frequented for its changing contemporary art displays, media center presentations, and welcoming top floor bistro café.
Address: Strada Lipscani 55, Bucharest