Stunning Bucharest is truly an enigma. On the surface, it appears to be a bustling, energetic European city that fully embraces its EU home. Look closer however and hints of the city’s communist past remain. Drab concrete apartment blocks, excessive bureaucracy and hints of corruption remind us of the city’s turbulent past. This Bucharest walking tour will provide a fascinating glimpse into a schizophrenic, city of contrasts.
Bucharest walking tour highlights
Ornate 19th century buildings squeeze between ugly communist architecture. Delightful leafy suburbs and beautiful parks hint of a prosperous past, to a time when the city was known as the Paris of the East. These days, the wealth gap is acute. The rich flaunt their wealth in designer shops and expensive cars whilst the poor sleep on outdoor benches in the old town. Indeed, Romania has the highest poverty rate of all EU member states (Source: Poverty Watch). The average wage is less than 3.5 times that of other EU member states. Yet, a Bucharest walking tour reveals an air of optimism in a city that can enchant, delight and horrify in equal measures. So, join us for a walking tour that is likely to leave an indelible impression.
Bucharest Walking Tour – Morning itinerary
We stayed at the Mansion Boutique Hotel on Strada Franceza in the heart of the Old Town. Just minutes from pulsing nightlife, its courtyard rooms provide a central oasis. Exit the hotel and turn right towards the modern thoroughfare of Calea Victoriei. This wide boulevard is one of the main arteries of the city. It connects Piata Universitatii in the South with Piata Victoriei in the North. Along its route, you will discover architectural gems sandwiched between Soviet monstrosities, museums and designer heaven.
One of the first major sights is Revolution square, a flat expanse of land surrounded by stark communist buildings. It was the setting for the 1989 protests that led to the downfall of Ceaușescu and Communism in Romania. Look for the Monument of Rebirth, a towering column topped by an object that resembles a bird’s nest and commemorates those who perished during the uprising.
Here on the 21st December 1989, Ceaușescu gave an ill-fated speech, designed to quash the unrest surging through the country. Protests in Romania’s second largest city of Timisoara had resulted in the massacre of men, women and children. These atrocities quickly sparked riots across the country. Impoverished residents of Bucharest, weary of repression, food shortages and government excess gathered to heckle Ceaușescu as he attempted to rally locals. Realising the futility of his oration he and his wife slipped away.
The death of Ceaușescu
This was the beginning of the end for Ceaușescu’s reign of terror. Insurgency spread like wildfire through Romania and when a senior member of the military, Vasile Milea committed suicide the next day the military turned on Ceaușescu. Rumours abounded that Vasile had indeed been assassinated on Ceaușescu’s orders and the Ceaușescu’s, fearing for their lives, made a dramatic rooftop escape by helicopter.
Intercepted by the military, a showtrial on Christmas Day 1989 ensued. Ceaușescu and his wife Elena were accused of committing genocide in Timisoara and embezzling millions from public coffers. In just one hour the trial concluded and both were sentenced to death. Desperate to welcome a new era, the military wasted no time in carrying out the sentences. Nicolae and Elsa were hurriedly ushered outside and executed on live TV by a firing squad of soldiers. 24 years of dictatorship came to a bloody end.
If you would like to know more about the rise and fall of communism in Bucharest join a Communist walking tour of the city. Most Eastern European countries freed themselves from the shackles of Communist with little blood shed. Romania was the sole country to experience a violent revolution and the story is truly captivating.
Shortly after you pass Revolution square, you will spot the dome of the Athenaeum. It is home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra. A 41 metre high dome tops the stunning building that hosts classical concerts throughout the year.
Continue up Calea Victoriei to Piati Victoriei. Take the right hand road up Bulevardul Aviatorilor to the sprawling mass of Herastrau Park. This is a delightful park where paths meander around a large boating lake and a selection of open air stalls sell corn on the cob, drinks and snacks.
In the North West corner of the park on ‘Insula Trandafirilor’ is a circle of sculpted heads of key European figures from the 20th Century. From here, loop around to Soseaua Pavel D Kidesleff road and you can head to the Arcul De Triumf. The traffic is not quite as crazy as at the Parisian one but it is a splendid monument.
Bucharest Walking Tour – Afternoon itinerary
From the Arch you can retrace your way South, passing through the woodland park of Kiseleff that dates back to 1832. From there, head to Cismigiu Garden which was undoubtedly my favourite park in the city. This beautiful suburban park a charming spot to retreat from the bustling city and the constant honk of horns and sirens blaring. Just minutes from the E81, shaded paths meander beneath archways of trees and vibrant flowerbeds. A smattering of statues decorate the park and there are plenty of benches where you can admire flower beds in full bloom or people watch.
This park has a selection of delightful cafes where you can even linger over a cold beer or soda. Yet, it is just a stone’s throw from one of the major roads of the City.
The Palace Of Parliament
From Cismigiu Gardens head over to Parcul Izvor, a mundane expanse of greenery that allows for uninterrupted views of the Palace of Parliament. The Palace is perhaps Ceausescu’s most ambitious building project. It is the second largest administrative building in the world, after the Pentagon and also lays claim to the Guinness World Record of the world’s heaviest building. This may be due to over 1 million cubic metres of marble that decorates its interiors.
Commissioned by Ceausescu in the 1980s, today the Palace is home to Romania’s parliament and many of the Ministries. It resembles a layered wedding cake from a distance and the photos simply do not give a true indication of the scale of this building. To visit all of the 1,100 rooms would take a whopping 18 hours!!
I highly recommend a guided tour of the building. Although you will only see a tiny % of the building, it provides a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a megalomaniac dictator and gives you access to some stunning rooms and galleries. Tickets cost 40 Lei for a tour that lasts an hour. You can book them directly with the Palace, albeit only in the 24 hours to your tour. However you can also pre-book a skip the line ticket here which I recommend if you wish to avoid disappointment. This tour was the highlight of my trip to Bucharest. The building is as beautiful as it is incomprehensible.
The Fountains of Unirii
When you exit from the Palace of Parliament, head towards Bulevardul Unirii. This boulevard leads away from the front of the Palace towards Unirii Square. The central reservation of the boulevard is home to dancing fountains, a hint of the masterpiece on Piata Unirii. The fountains of Unirii Square cover a surface area of 16,200 square metres. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between May and October the city hosts the Water Symphony, a 45 minute, free animated fountain performance to a backdrop of music and light. Ask at your hotel for show times.
Originally created in the 1980s, a €9 million investment from the EU transformed them into the first ‘smart fountains in Europe, designed 100% on a computer’ (Source: Visit Bucharest). The Water Symphony show is a mesmerising display of colour, music and water projections. It holds another Guinness World Record for the longest choreographed fountain system in the world.
Although the square is in the heart of Ceausescu’s socialist building area, the 44 fountains dotted around the square, offer a playful distraction from the ugly apartment blocks. The Unirii Fountains, Bucharest
Keep up the energy, as you are nearly there. Nestled on a quiet unassuming street on the edge of the Old Town, the Stavropoleos Church is an absolute gem. Stunning frescoes decorate the eaves of the church and inside the courtyard a series of tombstones adorn the covered walkway. Gorgeous ornate wooden doorways and interiors are worthy of a brief stop and entry is free.
Bucharest Walking Tour – Evening itinerary
By this point, you may be in need of a cold beer and thankfully you are in the right place. Exit the Monastery and turn tight and you will be in the bustling old town in minutes. The cobbled streets of the old town were once home to thriving artisans, merchants and traders. Its fortunes have declined over time leaving behind scruffy, derelict buildings hinting at the area’s bourgeoise past.
These days, the old town brims with modern day merchants plying the wares of bars, restaurants and ‘sexy entertainment’. From modern, heaving nightclubs to tiny atmospheric bars crammed into narrow alleyways and courtyards, it is pulsing.
British Airways flies direct from London Heathrow and Ryanair fly from both Edinburgh and London Stansted. Check out flight options on Kiwi.com
So this brings you to the end of your Bucharest walking tour. As you can see this tour focuses on outdoor spaces and buildings as Jason and I are not museum lovers. We prefer to explore a city on foot and take in the sights.
However, if you love museums, check out 18 things to do in Bucharest by Two Scots Abroad. At the very end of their excellent post is a list of museums you can gorge on.
We would also love to hear your thoughts on places to visit so do feel free to share those in the comments below. Let us know if you loved or loathed the city.
And finally, the map below shows you all the key sights highlighted in our Bucharest walking tour. We hope you enjoy the tour and would love to hear how you get on.