Bucharest, Romania’s capital and home to two million people, is both dense and expansive, both run-down and grandiose. This flat city, baking hot in summer and icy-cold in winter, offers striking sights and plentiful evidence of both a fascinating past and a dynamic present.
At the heart of Bucharest’s sweeping downtown area is a broad, noisy and straight road that runs north to south, changing its name from Bulevardul Magheru to Bulevardul Balcescu to Bulevardul Bratianu as it goes.
With never less than three lanes of traffic each way, Magheru-Balcescu-Bratianu is lined with cafes, restaurants, hotels, and stores selling fashion, mobile phones, and other necessities of the modern cosmopolitan. It also is home to several bookstores, perhaps due to the proximity of Bucharest University.
That university is located on Piata Universitatii, a big square that opens to the right of the road when you are halfway down. That square also boasts the stately building of a major bank, Banca Comerciala Romana, and the onion-domed St. Nicholas Church, originally a gift from Moscow but now a Romanian place of worship frequented by students. There are four statues at the square’s center, including one of Ion Heliade Radulescu, first president of the Romanian Academy, and one of the Romanian King Michael the Brave (Mihai Viteazul), brandishing an ax.
Returning to the main road, look at the side opposite the square, and you will see two landmark buildings built in a style reflecting their late 60s-early 70s vintage: the Intercontinental Hotel and the National Theater. By contrast, continue south and you’ll reach one of the landmarks of Romania’s early post-communist history; the huge fast-food joint, Sheriff’s, here before any foreign burger chains arrived. The large neon figure of the Sheriff still glitters from the facade, promising “the best food in town.” Inside, neckerchief-toting waitstaff sell pizza, burgers and sticky cakes. On the opposite side of the road at this point is a big bookstore that includes foreign-language volumes.
Just after this, the road opens into the enormous circle of Piata Unirii, the centerpiece of a southern downtown area that was created – after an existing neighborhood had been leveled – under the communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu. Piata Unirii is basically a 400-foot-wide traffic roundabout, with a park at its center that contains benches, flowerbeds, and monumental fountains.
At this point, you can head due west along the grandiose Bulevardul Unirii toward the Parliament Palace, an enormous white pseudo-classical fantasy dating from the last years of Ceausescu’s rule. Second only to the Pentagon among the world’s largest buildings, it contains both houses of the Romanian Parliament. Public tours are available.
If that does not appeal, you can exit Piata Unirii by walking southwest up the sharply sloping Strada Dealul Mitropoliei. This leads to the most important premises of the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Patriarchal Cathedral, a domed haven of peace, filled with icons, whispered or chanted prayers, and the scent of incense. The Patriachal Cathedral is, indeed, a story in itself.