Things to Do in Wallachia
If you’re in Bucharest, it’s impossible to miss the massive Palace of Parliament which dominates the city center and contains more than 1,000 rooms. Built under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu, this opulent edifice is now one of Bucharest’s most popular tourist attractions and home to the National Museum of Contemporary Art and more.
First built in 1878 as a wooden monument to mark Romania’s Independence, Bucharest’s Arcul de Triumf (Arch of Triumph) has long been one of the city’s most memorable landmarks. Although rebuilt again after WWI, the current Arch of Triumph is the work of architect Petru Antonesc, reconstructed in granite in 1936, and decorated with sculptures by Romanian artists like Constantin Medrea, Constantin Baraschi and Ion Jalea.
Towering 27-meters over the intersection of Kiseleff road, Mareșal Alexandru boulevard and Alexandru Constantinescu street, the monumental arch now marks the entrance to Bucharest’s Herăstrău Park. Still a poignant reminder of Romania’s independence, it’s the site of military parades and celebrations on Romania's National Day (Dec 1st), and an internal staircase also allows visitors to climb to the top, looking out over the busy boulevards below.
The cute little Stavropoleos Monastery (Manastirea Stavropoleos) started life in 1724 as an Orthodox monastery and inn, commissioned by the Greek monk Ioanichie Stratonikeas. It has an ornate exterior adorned with patterned frescoes, a colonnaded portal, elaborate carved wooden entrance doors and several small towers topped with tiled domes. Inside its church, every inch is liberally smothered with frescoes depicting biblical scenes and the golden altar screen is adorned with jewel-like images of Mary, Jesus, and a clutch of saints.
Today the inn, which was used to finance the building of the monastery, is long gone, but the pretty Stavropoleos Church has survived several earthquakes and was restored in the early 1910s. Crammed among Bucharest’s plentiful Art Nouveau townhouses on the edges of the party-loving Old Town, it is a pleasant respite from the excesses of the city, with a delightful cloister filled with 18th-century tombs. A small community of nuns and monks still live there, and there are several sung services held daily along with regular concerts of Byzantine music; the church also has Romania’s largest collection of rare Byzantine musical scores in its library of more than 10,000 books. Other highlights of a visit include icons brought together from across Romania and fragments of original frescoes that were replaced during renovation.
Taking centerstage in Bucharest’s Old Town, Revolution Square (Piata Revolutiei) is located along the central boulevard of Victoriei Street and has long been at the forefront of the city’s historic events. Originally named Palace Square (Piața Palatului), Revolution Square earned its current moniker after the Romanian Revolution in 1989, and remains one of the city’s principal landmarks and navigational hubs.
For first-time visitors, the grand square is undeniably impressive, framed by ornate buildings and crowned by the towering Memorial of Rebirth – a 25-meter-high marble pillar erected in the center of the square, in memory of the victims of the Revolution. Other important monuments on the square include the neoclassical Royal Palace, now home to the National Museum of Art; the Romanian Atheneum, a domed concert hall dating back to the 19th century; and the former headquarters of the Romanian Communist Party, where Nicolae Ceausescu famously addressed the crowds for the final time, before fleeing by helicopter. Also around Revolution Square are the University library, the sprawling Palace of Parliament and statues of Iuliu Maniu and Carol I of Romania.
The sprawling Cantacuzino Castle (Castelul Cantacuzino) was completed in 1911 to plans drawn up by architect Grigore Cerchez; it was designed as a hunting lodge for Prince Gheorghe Grigore Cantacuzino, who was twice Prime Minister of Romania in the 1900s. Surrounded by forested hills, the mansion has an ornate stone-and-brick façade adorned with colonnaded loggias and towers in an exotic style known Neo-Romanian; it is open for guided tours of the decorative interior, where flourishes of Art Nouveau, patterned marble floors, stained glass, mosaics and embellished carved wood abound. A rare collection of Cantacuzino coats of arms is on display and the castle is host to occasional art exhibitions as well as summertime musical concerts known as Prahova Classic Nights.
After exploring the inner courtyard, the Cantacuzino family church and the hunting tower, there are grottoes and fountains to discover in the gardens and views towards the Bucegi Mountains. Family activities available at the castle include horseback riding, archery, zip lines and an adventure course for young kids. Costs for these sports are additional to admission prices but full instruction and safety gear are provided. Visiting Cantacuzino can be combined with a tour of fairytale Peles Castle in nearby Sinaia.
Founded in 1864 by Prince Alexander John Cuza, who ruled over the Romanian United Principalities of Walachia and Moldova, the University of Bucharest is located on Piata Universitatii, a buzzing square snarled with traffic and popular with Bucharest locals as a meeting place. The Bucharest University Palace’s imposing Neo-classical façade stands on the northwestern corner of the square; it was designed by architect Alexandru Orascu and completed in 1859.
Today the university has five faculties and is one of the biggest and most prestigious in Romania. Past alumni include playwright Eugène Ionesco, biologist George E Palade and philosopher Emil Cioran.
Outside the University Palace stand four monumental statues of pivotal figures in Romanian history as well as numerous stalls selling secondhand books. Piata Universitatii itself is surrounded by a jumble of architecturally diverse buildings, including the National Theater of Bucharest, the School of Architecture, the modernist Hotel InterContinental and the ornate Neo-classical beauty of the Coltea Hospital, the oldest in the city. A memorial of ten stone crosses stands in the middle of the square in tribute to the rebels who died in the 1989 revolution, which saw the downfall of the despotic President Ceaușescu and brought about the end of Soviet domination in Romania.
Eastern Europe’s foremost open-air museum was opened in 1936 and presents a collection of more than 60 historic rural buildings from across Romania and of different eras, all carefully reassembled in 15 hectares of parkland on the shores of Lake Herăstrău in Bucharest. Featuring farms, churches, windmills, wooden cottages, cow sheds, and farm machinery from remote districts such as Moldavia, Hunedoara and Transylvania, each building at the National Village Museum (Muzeul Satului) is painstakingly labeled with its exact geographical and cultural provenance and accompanied by a multi-lingual commentary on its original use, building up an accurate picture of rustic village life in a Romania before the advent of Communism. Highlights include earth houses from Straja and cheerily painted, shuttered houses from Tulcea, as well as the 35-meter (115-foot) belfry of the wooden church from Maramureş, embellished with faded icons on its interior. Making a wonderfully family-friendly day out, the museum has a souvenir store, a range of eating options from stalls selling candy to a restaurant in a 19th-century inn, and regular displays of traditional crafts such as weaving and winemaking.
Arguably the most beautiful building in Bucharest, the Romanian Athenaeum (Ateneul Rôman) is the city’s foremost concert hall and a source of national pride, with an elegant Doric-colonnaded façade topped with a pediment and cupola. It was designed in Neo-classical style by French architect Albert Galleron and opened in 1888 to great acclaim; the great Romanian conductor George Enescu debuted his ‘Romanian Poem’ here in 1898. The lobby of the concert hall is an opulent, almost Art Nouveau triumph of ornamental gilding supported by arched, pink marble columns that lead off to a series of twisting marble staircases leading up to the concert hall. The circular auditorium seats 652 under a fabulous domed ceiling richly ornamented in scarlet and gold and fringed by frescoes by Costin Petrescu depicting important events in Romanian history; it is world-famous for the clarity of it acoustics and is home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra, who offer a full program of classical and chamber concerts as well as performing in the celebrated George Enescu Classical Festival, one of the biggest cultural events in eastern Europe.
Housed in the majestic former Royal Palace, which stands on Revolution Square and dates from 1812, the National Museum of Art of Romania (Muzeul National de Arta al Romaniei) opened in 1947; it was subsequently badly damaged in the Romanian Revolution of 1989, which saw the downfall and death of Communist despot Nicolae Ceaușescu. The museum reopened fully in 2005, displaying three major collections spread over three floors of the palace, and is now regarded as Romania’s premier art gallery.
The European Paintings and Sculpture galleries include mighty Old Master treasures from the private collection of King Charles I – the likes of Rembrandt, Rubens, El Greco and the Impressionists – while the Romanian Medieval collections feature glittering silver icons, rare manuscripts and stone sculptures in the Lapidarium, found in the restored cellars of the palace. The Romanian Modern galleries are jam-packed with works such as modernist sculptures by Constantin Brancuşi, the best-known of Romania’s 20th-century artists.
An ever-changing selection of temporary exhibitions highlights the best of contemporary Romanian art, from installations to photography, drawings and prints. The museum is currently in the process of handing back artwork stolen from Romanian nationals in the Soviet-era late 1940s, and guided tours of the palace’s sumptuous royal apartments are now available, at a cost of 20 lei.
Running for almost 3km through the heart of central Bucharest, Victoriei Street (Calea Victoriei) is the capital’s main thoroughfare and the obvious starting point for a walking tour. First laid out in the 16th century, the historic boulevard is one of the oldest in the city, and it’s lined with architectural landmarks, palaces, museums and upmarket hotels.
Start from the commercial hub of Piata Victoriei, with its modern office towers, and head south down Victoriei Street, passing notable buildings like the Cantacuzino Palace, home to the George Enescu National Museum; the Athenaeum concert hall; the CEC Palace and the Palace of the National Military Circle. Be sure to stop by the famous Revolution Square, hemmed in by impressive monuments, and the National History Museum, before arriving banks of the Dambovita River. As well as being a prime spot for photographers, the street is crammed with shops, restaurants and cafés, offering ample opportunities for a sightseeing break.
Alternatively, north of Piata Victoriei, Victoriei Street becomes Șoseaua Kiseleff and leads the way through Kiseleff Park to the Arcul de Triumf and the enormous Herăstrău Park (around 2 km from Piata Victoriei).
More Things to Do in Wallachia
Finally inaugurated in 2009 after a long (and somewhat controversial) wait, Bucharest’s Holocaust Memorial serves as a stark reminder of the thousands of Romanian Jews affected by the Holocaust. The memorial holds great significance not only for Romania’s Jewish community, but as a symbol that the country recognizes its role in events (a fact often denied by the post-war communist government).
The memorial itself is a simple yet poignant monument, designed by artist Peter Jacobi and featuring a plaque dedicated to the estimated 280,000 Jews and 25,000 Roma who lost their lives during the Holocaust. The memorial includes a ‘Column of Memory’, inlaid with the Hebrew word for ‘Remember’, and a Roma wheel, dedicated to the Romani people.
Cotroceni Palace in Bucharest is the headquarters and residence of the Romanian president, as well as home to the National Cotroceni Museum. The original palace served as the residence of Romanian rulers until the end of the 19th century, at which time a larger palace was commissioned by King Carol I. Most of the palace had to be rebuilt after an earthquake struck in 1977. Adjacent to the palace is the Cotroceni Garden, one of the major public gardens in the city which dates back to the 1850s.
The National Cotroceni Museum collection features more than 20,000 objects, divided into several different collections. Highlights include 18th and 19th century religious arts; a collection of Romanian paintings from the 19th century to the present; 18th and 19th century paintings from German, Austrian, French and Belgian artists; sculptures from both Romanian and European sculptors; drawings, watercolors and engravings from the 19th and 20th centuries; and decorative arts, including ceramics, glass, metals and textiles.
Bucharest’s main Orthodox place of worship is dedicated to Saints Constantine and Helen and sits atop Mitropoliei, one of the few hills in the city center. It was designed by an unknown architect as a copy of the Curtea de Arges monastery in the university city of Pitesti and consecrated in 1658; it has three dumpy spires, a bulbous apse and Byzantine-style gilded paintings of the saints adorning its exterior. Although the cathedral was largely restored to its original form in the early 1960s, four major upgrades have been made over the centuries, particularly to its gold-encrusted interior, where frescoes have been added as recently as 1935. The first Romanian-language bible was printed here in 1688 and the cathedral holds the most valuable collection of icons in Romania.
Next to the cathedral is a squat bell tower built in 1698 and opposite is the Patriarchal Palace, which has been the official residence of the head of the Romanian Orthodox church since 1708; it is closed to the public but enjoyed a moment in the spotlight when it became the temporary seat of Parliament following the revolution in 1989. Close by is the Neo-classical Palace of the Chamber of Deputies, built in 1907.
Built in the late 1890s and opened at the turn of the 20th century on one of Bucharest’s main boulevards, the CEC Palace (Palatul CEC) was designed by French architect Paul Gottereau and the construction of this fine Beaux Arts masterpiece was overseen by Romanian architect Ion Socolescu. Designated to be the HQ of Romania’s oldest savings bank, Casa de Economii și Consemnațiuni (CEC) and located opposite the National History Museum of Romania, it is a monumental mansion topped with five cupolas; the central one stands over the grandiose, colonnaded entrance and is made of glass and steel. The palace is slated for transformation into an art museum and was sold to the city council for more than €17.75 million in 2006; while plans are drawn up the CEC Bank rents it back from the council but its sumptuous, marble-clad interior – much of which was covered over in Ceaușescu’s time – is no longer open to the public.
Bucharest’s Jewish History Museum was founded in 1978 by Moses Rosen, who was the city’s chief rabbi between 1964 and 1994; it is found in the ornate Holy Union Temple synagogue, which was built in 1836 by the wealthy Jewish Tailors Guild and is in Moorish style, with layers of brickwork alternating with white plaster fronted by an extravagant rose window. Among all the gold and silver religious ephemera inside, displays detail Jewish history in Romania and mark the community’s contribution to Bucharest society. The somber memorial room at the back of the synagogue is dedicated to victims of the Holocaust, when thousands of Romanian Jews lost their lives in Transnistria. However, star prize probably goes to the startlingly colorful interior of the three-tiered, galleried synagogue, which is liberally ornamented with Byzantine and Moorish tiling, marble floors and decorative walls and ceilings.
Immerse yourself in the multi-sensory exhibits of Bucharest’s Museum of Senses, home to around 40 life-size optical illusions. The family-friendly museum provides plenty of photo opportunities and unique experiences, including the chance to dance in an infinity mirror room and walk through a dizzying Vortex tunnel.
Housed in a grandiose neoclassical building along Calea Victoriei, the National Museum of Romanian History takes visitors on a journey through national history and heritage with its permanent collection of over 750,000 items. Note that the museum is partially closed for renovations until 2021, and exhibits may move to a temporary location in the interim.
The Pasajul Macca-Vilacrosse (Macca-Villacrosse Passage) is a fork-shaped arcaded street in central Bucharest. Covered with yellow glass to allow natural light to shine through, the passage was built at the end of the 19th century to connect the Calea Victoriei and the National Bank. Today, the Macca side of the passage opens on to Calea Victoriei, one of Bucharest’s main avenues, while the Villacrosse side opens to the National Bank and Strada Eugeniu Carada. The passage has a French look to it and is similar to other covered passages built in Milan and Paris during the same period. During Communist times, it was known as the Jewelry Passage due to the presence of the city’s largest jewelry shops, but the original name was restored in 1990.
Today, the passage is still home to a few jewelry shops, but also features several restaurants, cafes, boutiques and hookah bars.
The district of Lipscani is the lively, beating heart of Bucharest and virtually the only part of the city that remains following the aerial bombardments of World War II and moves to flatten the city and rebuild it to Nicolae Ceaușescu’s grandiose designs under Communism. Fringed by the great thoroughfare of Calea Victoriei, the River Dambovita to the south and the Piata Universitatiei to the north, the district was historically Bucharest’s commercial center, with its origins in medieval times; it has transformed in the last 15 years from a tawdry, run-down backwater into action-central. Today its faded mix of Neo-Classical, Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture draws overseas visitors in to explore narrow streets lined with art galleries, vintage shops, scores of restaurants, open-air cafés and late-night clubs. However, the major nightclub fire in October 2015 saw many clubs forced to close as their premises are considered unsafe, so the future of Lipscani’s hard-edged, fabled nightlife is once more unsure.
High up in the mountainous Bucegi Natural Park just south of Brasov, the tiny white Orthodox monastery of Ialomicioara sits underneath a sheer cliff face; it was built in the early 16th century by Wallachian ruler Mihnea cel Rau, who was the son of Vlad the Impaler. Made of wood and guarding an enormous cave complex, the monastery repeatedly burnt down over the centuries and its last refurbishment came in 1993 after another fire. Its exterior is gleaming white and adorned with simple biblical figures; the interior is awash with frescoes and icons.
The caves themselves extend deep under ground through limestone caverns and galleries and recent investment has seen them transformed with new lighting, staircases and bridges. More than 1,300 ft (396.25 m) of accessible paths lead through grottoes and chambers adorned with stalactites and stalagmites; the most ethereal are the St Mary Grotto, named after limestone formations that resemble the Virgin Mary, and the enormous Bear Hall, which was full of 10,000 year-old bones of cave bears when it was first discovered in 1870. Ialomicioara caves are accessed by guided tour; there’s a lot of walking involved and they quickly get cold, so wear sturdy shoes and warm clothes.
Bucegi Natural Park itself is a popular destination for hikers, climbers and — in winter — skiers. It’s also close to the mysterious castles and fortified towns of Transylvania.
The George Enescu National Museum in Bucharest is a memorial to Romania’s most important musician. Enescu was a composer, violinist, pianist and conductor who passed away in 1955. After his death, the museum was established in the Cantacuzino Palace, widely considered one of the most beautiful buildings in Bucharest. Designed in a French academic style with art nouveau elements, the palace features a remarkable glass awning above the entrance and an interior adorned with murals and sculptures.
The permanent collection of the museum includes three rooms of the palace and is devoted to the life of Enescu, as well as the history of Romanian music. Displays include photographs, manuscripts, medals, drawings, musical instruments, furniture and personal items, as well as a casting of Enescu’s hands and his mortuary mask. The museum also has two other branches: the George Enescu Memorial House in Sinaia and the Dumitru and Alice Rosetti-Tescanu George Enescu section in Bacau.
One of the first synagogues in Bucharest was the Choral Temple, which was completed in 1857 by architects Enderle and Freiwald; it is a copy of the Leopoldstadt-Tempelgasse Great Synagogue in Vienna and has a façade decorated in Moorish style with yellow-and-red patterned brickwork. A wealthy Jewish community was established in the city by the mid-16th century but never lived in complete harmony with its Romanian neighbors. In 1593, many were killed during a rebellion against the city’s Ottoman overlords and unrest continued to rumble for several centuries.
Several years after the Choral Temple was built, it was destroyed in a pogrom and rebuilt in 1866. Even with the destruction, the city’s Jewish population continued to grow. By 1930, it numbered 74,480 while the pogroms and indiscriminate killings continued. During World War II, all Bucharest’s synagogues were closed down and many thousands of Romanian Jews were sent to their deaths in Transnistria and Bessarabia. Following the war, Jewish numbers in the city swelled with refugees from other eastern European countries but uncertainty under the autocratic rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu led to mass immigration to Israel.
With the collapse of Communism, a memorial was erected outside the synagogue in 1991 to commemorate the thousands of Romanian Jews who died in the Holocaust, and in 2006, a painstaking restoration of its interior was undertaken; the synagogue finally reopened in December 2014 with its Moorish tiles, carved wooden balconies and heavy chandeliers gleaming once more.
With a history dating back to the early 1900s, Carol Park (Parcul Carol) is one of Bucharest’s oldest parks, built by French designer Eduard Redont to mark the Jubilee of King Carol I. With its glittering lake, tree-lined esplanade and landscaped gardens sprawling over 30 hectares in South Budapest, the park offers an idyllic retreat from the city, with ample space for walking, cycling and sports.
The park is also home to a number of important monuments and has been listed as a National Historic monument since 2004. Most notable is the Mausoleum, originally built as a communist monument and later transformed into a WWI memorial, fronted by the Monument of the Unknown Soldier. Additional highlights include the early 20th-century Tepes Castle and a series of statues, including Filip Marin’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and the ‘Giant’s’ by Dumitru Paciurea and Frederic Storck.
Hidden away in Bucharest’s old Jewish quarter, the Great Synagogue (or the Great Polish Synagogue) was built by the city’s Polish-Jewish community in 1845 and is an impressively preserved tribute to Romania’s rich Jewish heritage. Don’t be put-off by the synagogue’s simple façade – inside, the main hall is lavishly decorated, painted in Rococo style by Ghershon Horowitz in 1936 and hung with beautiful chandeliers.
Today, the Great Synagogue remains active as a place of worship, but it’s also home to a small, but fascinating Jewish museum. Focusing on Romania’s Jewish history and heritage, the most moving exhibition details the horrors of the Holocaust and includes the poignant Memorial for Jewish Martyrs.
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