Long overlooked in favour of its hipper Balkan bedfellows, Romania is a beguiling and misunderstood country. While its breathtaking natural landscape offers one of the EU’s last vestiges of truly Old World rural tradition, the capital, Bucharest, offers much for the modern visitor. The ghosts of Communist rule are long departed, and the Paris of the East melds history and cosmopolitan culture seamlessly – with cutting-edge eats, high art and banging nightlife to rival any global metropolis. Here’s why you should make Bucharest your next European city break.
1. It’s a gateway to one of Europe’s most beautiful countries
Romania’s capital is a destination in its own right, but as a jumping-off point into the rugged country beyond it’s unsurpassable. Brasov – with its medieval Saxon enclaves and brooding gothic spires – is but a couple of hours northwest, with the Dracula-influencing castle of Bran atop a hill to the southwest. Better still are the surrounding Southern Carpathian mountains – an atmospheric Alpine range, the Bugeci Massif portion of which is ideal for both day-walkers and more intrepid adventurers (their thorough waymarking is a handy hangover from the domestic-tourism-heavy Communist era).
2. It has some truly out-there museums
Bucharest’s provision of fascinating museums is rich, from big-hitting institutions like the National Museum of Contemporary Art, to the Museum of Romanian History’s gilded displays and one dedicated to beloved local composer George Enescu. Even more interesting, though, are its quirkier hoards. Must-visits included the Romanian Kitsch Museum, a radiant (and enormously fun) temple to bad taste; the Romanian Peasant Museum’s comprehensive and enlightening dedication to rustic life; and the Dimitrie Leonida Technical Museum, a straight-faced but delightfully anachronistic collection of once-futuristic engineering and transport.
3. It’s home to one of the biggest buildings in the world
Bucharest’s totemic Palace of Parliament might be a reminder of the country’s recent dark past, but it’s a truly awe-inspiring pile. Its construction was ordered by the former Communist president Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1984, though it wasn’t finished until 1997, nearly eight years after his execution. As befitting the whims of a dictator, it’s both the world’s largest administrative building and the world’s heaviest building outright, with eight underground floors. Access to its ornate, column-heavy halls is by organised tour only.
4. You can dive into the country's best waterpark and spa
Almost as impressive in scope as the Palace of Parliament, Therme Bucuresti is a sodden sanctuary from the hectic hustle of central Bucharest. They’d describe it as a “wellness concept for a modern lifestyle” but in practice it’s far more fun: a gargantuan collection of themed saunas, spas, in and outdoor thermal pools (with swim-up bars) and elaborately hair-raising slides, all housed in an incredible steel-framed greenhouse. Oh, and it’s so full of tropical greenery that it counts not only as Bucharest’s largest botanical garden, but also the largest palm forest in Europe.
5. The food is incredible
Whether you’re hungry for cutting-edge contemporary or traditional Romanian fare, Bucharest’s ascendent food scene has something for everyone. The charmingly florid restaurant Zexe on Str Icoanei is a no-brainer for retro enthusiasts, with unusual butcher’s cuts and sarmalute (cabbage rolls) stuffed with boar or goose, but this town’s top joints tend to merge old and new. Bistro Ateneu, Kaiamo and The Artist are three spots creating marvellous modern takes on the country’s cuisine – with critical acclaim to match.
6. It has some truly amazing architecture
A wide-ranging mish-mash of Art Nouveau, Modernist, brutal Communist, Neo-Gothic, Art Deco and Neo-Romanian styles means that Bucharest’s streets and cityscape are a truly varied pull for architecture stans. The Romanian Athenaeum, which hosts the annual George Enescu classical music festival, is perhaps the most obvious landmark, the but the city is full of beautiful urban villas (such as Casa Melik, which houses the Theodor Pallady Museum), hallowed Orthodox churches (don’t miss the Brâncovenesc-style Stavropoleos Monastery) and other banging builds lucky to survive the mass demolitions under Communist rule.
7. It’s a brilliant city for nightlife
Maybe it’s a coincidence, but Romania’s lack of alcohol licensing might just have something to do with Bucharest’s ace nocturnal scene – parties here can legally continue ad finitum. Either way, it’s a city lousy with great clubs and drinking holes, running the gamut from hip modern cocktail and wine bars like Fix Me A Drink and Abel's, through beer gardens (like the excellent Gradina Eden, behind the dilapidated Știrbey Palace, which also has a fine experimental basement venue), rock clubs and renowned electronic heavy hitters Control and Kran. No yawning!
8. It has fantastic green spaces
Bucharest’s key aesthetic appeal is its approximation of an Eastern Paris (and a wonderfully grungy one at that), but it’s also home to swathes of serene parks and green spaces. There are plenty dotted in and around the city: from Parcul Natural Văcăreşti in the southwest, a protected 189-hectare wetlands teeming with flora and fauna; to the teeny, city-centre oasis Parcul Grădina Icoanei; and the sprawling and verdant Herăstrău north of the Old Town, replete with enormous lake, a “Rose Island” dotted with Soviet-style sculptures and, notably, Eastern Europe’s largest beer hall.