Bucharest is a big, crazy, sprawling, intimidating, sometimes beautiful, keep-you-on-your-toes kind of city. It isn’t the kind of city where you immediately say “Wow, I love this place” but rather, a destination that grows on you with its irrepressible spirit, nice restaurants, amazing coffeehouse scene, and many wonderful attractions. It rewards the intrepid traveler with some pretty wonderful gifts, and the more you explore, the more you’ll come to love this Romanian capital that just doesn’t quit.
You’re probably best off at one of the big international hotels, where gayfriendliness is more assured in this still not-very-open city. I love the Novotel (Calea Victoriei 37. Tel: +40-21-308-8500. www.accorhotels.com), with its perfect location just minutes’ walk from the historic center, amazingly helpful staff, and clean-lined, well-equipped rooms (many with great views out over the city). It’s a solid four-star choice, and offers a lovely restaurant (more on that later). In short, it’s one of those hotels you feel great coming back to at the end of a long day. Other choices nearby include the Radisson Blu (Calea Victoriei 63-81. Tel: +40-21-311-9000. www.radissonblu.com), where the high-design approach and accommodating service are what you’d expect from this brand. About five minutes’ walk north of the Novotel, it’s also in a great location. Want to stay right in the historic center? The Hilton Garden Inn (Strada Doamnei 12. Tel: +40-21-312-0300. www.hiltongardeninn3.hilton.com) is a good choice, with much more character than you might be used to from its American counterparts.
Now let’s do some walking. It’s the best way to see the city. (If you need a ride, use a ride-sharing app, or if in a taxi, establish prices per kilometer with your taxi driver at the outset, though even the worst of taxi fares are still super-cheap by American standards.) Practically everywhere you walk, there’s something interesting to see: a row of statues celebrating Romania’s great writers, a huge sundial plunked down into a tiny square, a tall statue of what’s supposed to be a heart but looks more like a big potato on a stick. The architecture is a fascinating combination of centuries old style and Communist bluster.
A prime example of the latter (though an attempt at the former) is the Palace of Parliament, built by infamous dictator Ceaușescu and the second largest administrative building in the world (only the Pentagon is bigger). Set up on a hill, it’s honestly more imposing than beautiful, a must-see just for its sheer size. You’ll also, no doubt, see Bucharest’s own Arch of Triumph (Şoseaua Kiseleff) as you ride in from the airport. Definitely pay a visit to the Romanian Athenaeum (Strada Benjamin Franklin 1-3. Tel: +40-21-315-2567. www.fge.org.ro), a gorgeous neoclassical building set in a quiet park. Home of the Bucharest Philharmonic, the interior is stunning, with mosaic floors, pillars, marble stairways, embossed ceilings, and hanging lanterns. Also unmissable is the moving Holocaust Memorial (Strada Anghel Saligny 1), which I’d walked by a hundred times but never really explored till my friends Lau and Alexandra pointed it out. As you walk around the series of sculptures scattered across a large plaza, the memorial reveals itself slowly. Every time you think you’ve seen the entire monument you turn around and there’s another piece of it that’s evocative, moving, and disturbing.
It’s good to have friends in the city to show you these things (well, that’s why you have me), as the most fun discoveries are not necessarily in the guidebooks. My tireless guide, friend, and Bucharest assistant Alex Tincu, a lifelong resident of the city, brings me to these waiting-to-be-discovered places. He leads me to the Valley of the Kings passageway (Pasajul Macca-Vilacrosse), a narrow, arcaded walkway that feels like Istanbul. He points out a statue of Vlad III, the model for Dracula. We look through panels at the ruins of the one-time city below the current streets. We stop in lovely Stavropoleos Monastery (Strada Stavropoleos 4. Tel: +40-21-313-4747. www.stavropoloes.ro), with its peaceful courtyard full of stone monuments. We walk through the car-free historic center, where the architecture brings you back through the centuries, but the tourist life is hopping with a multitude of restaurants and bars. In the heart of the historic center is Carturesti Carusel (Strada Lipscani 55. Tel: +40-728-828-922. www.carturesticarusel.ro), possibly the most amazing bookstore in the history of bookstores, with its spiral staircase leading to several galleried floors.