Romania’s capital Bucharest is still making its way into the ranks of European capitals to visit. Much like the rest of the country, it’s a lesser-known tourist destination. This makes it perfect for those who want to go off-the-beaten path and experience something different!
With an eclectic mix of elegant French Renaissance architecture, massive communist architecture, and modern Western sky scrappers, the city will keep you busy wherever you go. And locals love to go out – that’s why you’ll see so many cozy coffee shops, hipster bars, and inspiring restaurants while exploring the city.
Things to do in Bucharest, Romania
Like all capitals, Bucharest has several landmarks and areas considered to be the main tourist attractions. You will quickly find these on TripAdvisor and the likes. But there are other places just as interesting and worth visiting, so let’s see what they are!
- Bucharest Old Town: the hotspot
Bucharest, once known as “Little Paris,” is both an underrated and surprising Southeastern European destination. Much of this city changed beyond recognition after communism fell, and the Old Town area made no exception. It was neglected for a significant period of time until the early 2000s when buildings started being restored. Now, it’s a mix of old and new and the hotspot of Bucharest tourism.
The Old Town area is impressive in that it is a mosaic of neoclassical and neo-baroque architecture, as you can tell by looking at the buildings’ colors and complex details. During the daytime, the plethora of cafes, terraces, restaurants, and shops, many of which are on the ground floor of the buildings, are perfect pastimes for tourists or locals looking to unwind. The atmosphere is just as breezy in the evening, too.
During weekends, you can see why Bucharest is renowned for its vibrant nightlife. The old town area lifts the spirit with pubs, bars, and a contagiously good mood. It’s equally lovely to just stroll around the cobblestone streets and enjoy the uplifting vibe.
Among the most impressive tourist attractions in the old town area is the three-centuries-old Stavropoleos Church. Its monumental appearance and original, unique “Brancovenesc” style appeared and developed between the 17th-18th centuries in Southern Romania. It has exterior murals, and the interior, with furniture and decoration, is made of stone.
One of the few old Romanian inns and most significant buildings is Hanul cu Tei. The 1930s ambiance is well preserved here and you can find all sorts of vintage art on the ground floor: from cameras and gramophones to old documentaries, tapestries, and rugs.
Another exciting place in the Old Town area is Carturesti Carusel Library which was built in the house of an important bourgeois family. The library is spread across six floors and has a wide variety of books, toys, trinkets, and a lovely cafe bar on the top floor. And it’s also one of the most Instagram-able places in the city!
- Union Square & University Square
Piata Unirii as locals call it is one of Bucharest’s largest squares and meeting points for locals. It was initially named Victory of Socialism Boulevard before being renamed after the 1989 anti-communist revolution.
Hanul lui Manuc is Bucharest’s oldest inn built in 1808 by a wealthy entrepreneur. Even today it has an impressive courtyard with an old charming feeling to it that will take you back in time. You can stop by for a meal in its popular restaurant, have a drink in the bars or cafe house, or shop around the several stores.
In the center of Union Square is a little park where you can take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city. You can see the entire 3,5 km long boulevard with the massive Palace of Parliament, Bucharest’s top landmark, on one end. And then, all of a sudden, the fountains’ water show may start just in front of you!
The University Square, or Piata Universitatii as locals call it, is technically the center of Bucharest. The buildings are imposing and there are many museums and cafes here. You’ll immediately notice the University of Bucharest’s main building, the Ion Mincu Architecture School, and the National Theater, a modernist structure completed in the ’70.
When here, head over to Silk for a coffee or meal. It’s a rooftop restaurant with a balcony from where you can see panoramic views of the city. Dish choices here vary from classic international favorites to Asian cuisine. And if you like the Renaissance period and atmosphere, try Excalibur. It’s unique thanks to its medieval approach to décor, atmosphere, and dishes inspired by Romanian traditional food.
For the ultimate Italian experience, Modigliani, one of the finest Italian restaurants in Southeastern Europe, caters to the most pretentious tastes. What’s so cool about it? It uses fresh, locally sourced ingredients and reproduces the authentic Italian atmosphere perfectly, with live piano playing in the background.
- Go off-the-beaten-path in Cotroceni Neighbourhood
If you’re looking to get away from the main tourist hotspots, see how people live and why Bucharest is known as Little Paris – then grab a taxi and head over into the Cotroceni neighborhood, a little to the South-West from the city center.
The main attraction in the area is Cotroceni Palace, a 350-year-old site. It’s now the official residence of the President of Romania but part of it is also the Cotroceni National Museum. The building used to be the Royal Palace before it moved to Victory Boulevard. Before that, it was the seat of power for Wallachia’s rulers in the 17th century.
The building itself and its domain are impressive and worth visiting. Built in the Venetian style and upgraded over the years, if you visit the museum inside you’ll also admire this beautiful building few tourists know about.
This quaint area around Cotroceni Palace is filled with residential bourgeois houses in the most beautiful styles you will ever see. Well-off families lived here for a long time and their houses are well-preserved, some taken over by nature. Get lost on these streets where you likely won’t meet other tourists at all! The area is quiet with lots of speak-easy cafes and wine bars where locals hang out in the evening.
- Vacaresti Urban Delta
Bucharest is home to Europe’s only wetland which occurred ‘by accident!’ The communist administration of Bucharest had plans to build a large industrial site on a surface of approx. 18 hectares in the South-East part of Bucharest. But, luckily, those plans never happened.
So Mother Nature took over and in the last 30-40 years a marvelous aquatic ecosystem developed here. There’s a lake in the middle and willow groves, reeds, swamps, popular nests, and reed curtains appeared around it.
Soon, 138 bird species, most of which are internationally and nationally protected, as well as reptile species, amphibians, insects, mammals, and pond birds made their home here.
Vacaresti Natural Park is now a protected area where you can see all this if you visit from April – October. There’s a 2,3 km route and an 8 km route you can do to visit the park, which will be an escape from any city’s typical concrete scenery. If you’re into nature and wildlife but can’t go hiking in Romania or make it to the UNESCO Danube Delta reserve 3h away from Bucharest, then this should be a must on your list.
- Queen Elizabeth Boulevard: a trip down history lane
Boulevard Queen Elizabeth is a place full of history in Bucharest. During the Romanian Independence War in 1877-78, Queen Elizabeth, wife of Carol I and Romania’s first queen founded hospitals, ambulance and care services and procured medication for the wounded, sometimes helping them herself. The boulevard had several names until it was finally named after her in 1995.
With brimming cinemagraphs along the chic boulevard, the avenue was known as the “Bucharest Broadway” in the ’20s. Even though today it’s just a memory of what it used to be, the stylish architecture and atmosphere are just as stunning as time has passed, making a walk here worth it.
That’s why you’ll see many buildings of significant historic importance for Bucharest. The Palace, for instance, is a historical monument from 1834 which is famous for the ballrooms and carnivals hosted in the 19th century. The Military Circle, Cismigiu Hotel, and the famous Cismigiu Gardens are also here.
- Northern Bucharest: imposing and grand
Aviatorilor and Kisseleff Boulevards in the Northern part of Bucharest are unique in Romania’s capital. The area around them wasn’t built ‘for the people’ and you won’t find any stores or typical tourist attractions here.
It was initially designed as a protocol neighborhood for army leaders and important figures in the country’s ruling elite in the 19th and 20th centuries. That’s why you’ll see some very imposing and beautiful buildings on both sides of these wide boulevards. So going for a walk here is a great idea, and there’s also a park where you can take a break.
Several attractions in the area gather visitors from all over the country and beyond. “Grigore Antipa” Natural History Museum for instance is among the country’s oldest institutions for biodiversity study and public education, showcasing a vast collection of beautiful exhibits including reconstructed models of animals and dinosaurs. So this is one of the best things for families with kids to do in Bucharest!
Another important institution in the area is the Romanian Peasant Museum opened in 1906 in an imposing building you won’t miss. Named “European Museum of the Year” in 1996 by the European Museum Forum, it’s one of Europe’s leading museums for ethnographic culture and organizes many free cultural events in its backyard, so check it out!
So you see, there’s much more to do and see in Bucharest besides its typical tourist attractions and landmarks. In fact, the authentic vibe of Bucharest is best found going off the beaten path when you can discover the city’s contrasts!
Marius Iliescu is the founder of Romanian Friend: a one-stop-shop website with travel inspiration, tour ideas, and practical info for those planning to visit Romania. His mission is to make sure people experience the best of his country while supporting responsible, inclusive tourism that helps local communities. Follow them on Facebook or Instagram.