BUCHAREST, May 17 (Reuters) - Got 48 hours to explore Romania’s capital and its eclectic mix of western architectural ideas, eastern imagery, 20th century totalitarian megalomania and buzzing nightlife?
Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors map the city’s shift from one of Europe’s most progressive urban centres at the start of the 20th century to a chaotic maze of dusty boulevards and quaint neighbourhoods bearing the scars of brutal communist policies.
4 p.m. - From the airport, take a taxi or 783 airport bus straight to Piata Universitatii and the old medieval merchant district of Lipscani, which escaped the attentions of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who razed much of its surroundings.
The area, all but abandoned until just a few years ago, is now a dense network of cobbled streets and period buildings in various stages of refurbishment and centre of the city’s burgeoning nightlife scene.
It’s an easy area to wander around at random but you shouldn’t miss the exquisite Stavropoleos Monastery, built in 1724 and an example of Brancovenesc style of Romanian architecture, a rich mix of Byzantine and baroque motifs.
Browse the cafes, bars and small textile and antique shops before having a look at Curtea Veche, the 15th century residence of Vlad Tepes - also known as “Vlad the Impaler” - a bloodthirsty ruler who inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The courtyard of Hanul lui Manuc, a 19th century merchants’ inn, is an atmospheric location for an aperitif.
Keep an eye out for stray dogs, a major problem for the city but which have become an offbeat attraction for some tourists. You’re unlikely to have problems in the city centre, where dogs tend to be alone or in small groups and rarely fierce.
7 p.m. - There’s no shortage of options for dinner in Lipscani, including French, Turkish, Italian and Hungarian food. Caru cu Bere (www.carucubere.ro) is a 19th century brewery that serves traditional Romanian fare under impressive vaulted ceilings and offers sarmale, minced meat wrapped in cabbage, and mamaliga, a polenta-like dish often served with cream and cheese.
9 p.m. - Take a stroll through the elegant Pasajul Villacrosse and find a cosy place for a nightcap.
You are spoiled for choice in Lipscani, which is packed with an ever-changing line-up of bars and clubs. Mojo has regular live music (www.mojomusic.ro). A string of trendy industrial-themed bars dot the area; Atelierul Mecanic, designed to look like a workshop, Papiota as a tailor shop and Energiea as a printing press are well worth a visit.
Or continue to Calea Victoriei, the city’s most famous street, which leads you past the monumental Beaux Arts Cercul Militar and Art Deco Telephone Palace to hip club Control (www.control-club.ro). Nearby are indie hangout Panic! and Green Hours jazz bar, a long-time Bucharest favourite.(www.greenhours.ro).
10 a.m. - Hop on the efficient metro (two journeys for 4 Romanian lei or $1.20; 6 lei for a day pass) to Piata Romana and stroll past Amzei market to Piata Revolutiei, lined with historical buildings including the former royal palace, now the National Museum of Art, a gallery with Romanian and European art (www.mnar.arts.ro).
The square was a focal point of the 1989 revolution and facing the royal palace is the former communist headquarters, from where Ceausescu fled the crowds in a helicopter only to be caught and executed. In the middle is a monument to victims of the revolution, which some locals derisively refer to as a potato on a stick.
Don’t miss the titchy red brick Cretulescu church and pillared Athenaeum concert hall, renowned as the city’s most beautiful building and venue of the world-renowned George Enescu classical music festival, before popping into the Athenee Palace Hilton (www.hilton.co.uk/bucharest) for a drink or early lunch.
Built at the start of the 20th century, the hotel was a notorious meeting spot for spies in the 1930s. Under communism, rooms were said to be bugged and many staff on the payroll of the pervasive secret service, the Securitate.
1 p.m. - Take a walk up Calea Victoriei, passing historic churches, parks and the Cantacuzino Palace, which houses a museum dedicated to Enescu, Romania’s most famous composer.
Continue across the traffic-clogged square to the Romanian Peasant Museum (www.muzeultaranuluiroman.ro). The building is an essential example of Neo-Romanian architecture, a trend contemporary of Art Nouveau and Antoni Gaudi’s Modernism.
The cafe at the back offers traditional Romanian food, including “ciorba” or sour soup and platters of cold meats and cheeses.
The museum has a collection of folk art, textiles and other articles of peasant life and a shop sells craftwork. A cinema screens arthouse films and often a market with woodwork, ceramics, bric-a-brac, food and wine brought wholesale from the countryside clusters around a small wooden church.
4 p.m. - Cross a small park toward Bulevardul Aviatorilor and a tangle of leafy streets behind it, lined with spectacular Modernist and Art Deco villas - many now housing embassies - that earned Bucharest the nickname “Paris of the East” at the turn of the 20th century.
Or for something a bit different, hop on the number 1 tram, which circles the city from nearby Piata Victoriei. The journey of nearly two hours takes you through residential and commercial areas just outside the centre and over the new Pasajul Basarab bridge with views over the city.
7 p.m. - Try La Taifas, a bistro tucked off Piata Victoriei which serves Romanian specialities chalked up on a blackboard - staff can translate (www.bistrotaifas.ro). Metuka, not far away on Bulevardul Lascar Catargiu, offers hearty food, a friendly atmosphere and great ribs.
Head back to Lipscani if you still have energy for a night out.
10 a.m. - Take a taxi to Casa Poporului or Palace of the People, the monstrous building concocted by Ceausescu in the late 1970s. Now housing parliament, it looms over Bucharest.
Don’t go by foot as you will need the energy to walk through its cavernous halls and seemingly endless corridors. Ceausescu hoped the building, made with thousands of tonnes of crystal, marble and wood, would become Romania’s “Acropolis” but it came to symbolise the destructiveness of his social policies.
Construction of the building and demolition of huge swathes of houses, churches and synagogues, to be replaced with a new “Civic Centre”, evicted thousands of residents and devoured large chunks of the state budget at a time when food and energy rationing tormented much of the population.
1 p.m. - In the back of the building, find the Contemporary Art Museum, with a cafe overlooking the city which gives a wider perspective of Ceausescu’s efforts to remodel Bucharest.
3 p.m. - Head toward the Armenian Church on Bulevardul Carol II - but only walk if you want to see the outsized and lifeless streets of the Civic Centre. Once you arrive, you can stroll through a picturesque district of French-style villas, modernist apartment blocs and tiny Neo-Romanian castles complete with vine-covered turrets.
Continue north to the Gradina Icoanei park and more villas around Bulevardul Dacia, with another cluster of embassies. Try Gargantua (restaurantgargantua.ro) for a coffee, or Have A Cigar, a newly opened art pub on Strada Vasile Conta that serves great cocktails, pasta and sandwiches.
Beyond here the expanse of drab apartment blocks, Bucharest’s communist legacy which are slowly being refurbished and brightened up, starts again. ($1 = 3.3413 Romanian lei) (Reporting by Paul Casciato)