By: Gretchen Kelly (with David Farley)
One of the first things you notice at the Henri Coanda Airport in Bucharest is the scores of Gucci- and Prada-clad Italians in the European Union national arrivals line. This is a sight few could have dreamed up before Christmas Day 1989, when Romanians gave their iron-fisted dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, a parting gift by violently sweeping him from his behemoth Palace of the People. The winds of change, however, blew lightly, as Romania struggled for over a decade to join Europe's modern economy.
One reason so many Italians are making themselves feel at home here is that Roman soldiers in Trajan's army brought their Italian culture to Romania in the second century. They are responsible for making this country, as the common saying goes, an "island of Latins in a sea of Slavs."
Epicures can enjoy the fine cuisine that shares ancient culinary traditions with not only Italy, but also Germany, Hungary, and even Turkey, in everything from salt-of-the-earth taverns to high-end restaurants for half the cost of a similar meal in Western Europe. The Romans also brought a wine-growing culture, which produces high caliber vintages that are affordable (and delicious) enough to inspire ordering another bottle.
And with the country getting itself in shape for its long-awaited entry into the European Union (in 2007), it's never been a better time to visit. The currency, lei (L2.75 = $1 at press time), will be giving way to the euro in a few years, and the younger generation of Romanians is embracing English. But learning a few Romanian phrases will quickly win you friends. Start with these: buna (BOO-na): hello; multumesc (moolt-soo-MESK): thank you; la revedere (lah reh-veh-DEH-reh): goodbye; and vorbiti engleza (vor-BEETZ eng-LEH-zuh): Do you speak English?
So, give a nod to the fictitious Count Dracula, and then submerge yourself in the rest of the place: cruise cobblestone streets, explore castles, and peek inside the famous Painted Monasteries. Indulge in the country's intriguing mix of bucolic countryside and budding cosmopolitanism. Romania is finally on the rise.
Bucharest has long been given monikers like "The Paris of the East" and "The New Prague," but this metropolis of nearly 2.1 million people deserves more. Sure, there's a bit of Paris in its leafy wide boulevards and Belle Epoque architecture and a nod to Prague with its narrow late-medieval lanes. But Bucharest has a unique eye-catching aesthetic, a mélange of styles found in few places. The Greeks, the Romans, and the Turks have all come and gone, leaving behind a harmonious allure like no other place on the planet.
Nowhere can you find more of the city's unique charm than in the ever-bustling central district of Lipscani. Once a neglected network of streets and avenues, the 15th-century core is undergoing a transformation – the "ruins," as locals once called Lipscani, have been refashioned into upscale shops and wine bars, hotels, and eateries. It's here, on and around streets like Calea Victoriei, the city's main artery, that you'll find an intriguing mix of hipsters in the latest club gear, fashionistas smoothly navigating the cobblestones in their pumps, and well-coiffed couples sipping cocktails at outdoor cafés, among the mishmash of architectural styles – from neoclassical to Art Nouveau to SocialistRealism.
The neighborhood is also home to the National Art Museum (Calea Victoriei 49-53; Wed-Sun 10am-6pm; $4; art.museum.ro) and underrated treasure and home to an impressive collection of Monets, El Grecos, and other old masters and impressionist painters, as well as a collection of Romanian art by artists like Constantin Brancusi and Theodor Aman.
It's also no surprise that that the city's first boutique hotel has swung open its doors in Lipscani. The Rembrandt Hotel (see Where to Stay), at just $100 per night for a double room, is a great value. Housed in a19th-century Art Nouveau bank, the Rembrandt offers nicely appointed rooms, as well as a hip bar and a restaurant. A few blocks away, at the Amsterdam Grand Café (see Where to Eat), upwardly mobile locals sip cocktails while dining on Asian-inspired dishes. For a true feast for the eyes and the palate, try nearby Hanul lui Manuc (see Where to Eat), a 200-year-old establishment that is now one of the city's biggest alfresco restaurants. Lounging under the inn's wooden eaves while sipping Romanian cabernet and watching the locals is worth every lei.
After Lipscani, head north to leafy Soseaua Kiseleff Street for a peek at the area's Sessionist- and Art Nouveau-era mansions. At the 75-foot Arcul de Triumf – a 1935 model of Paris' famous arch – take the staircase to the top for one of the city's best views. The nearb Village Museum (Sos. Kiseleff 28-30; daily 9am-5pm; $2; www.muzuel-satului.ro), one of the city's biggest attractions, is a surprisingly charming open-air reconstruction of a rustic village with cottages, churches, and shops. The excellent Museum of the Romanian Peasant, or Muzeul Taranului Roman (Sos. Kiseleff 3; Tues-Sun 10am-6pm; $2; www.itcnet.ro/mtr), boasts intriguing displays that spans four hundred years rural life in Romania including painted eggs, pottery, woven crafts, and two rebuilt churches from the countryside.
If museum hopping makes you hungry, try La Fattoria (see Where to Eat), located in the verdant Herastrau Park. This Italian-inspired eatery is a favorite for white-collar types and sleek couples.
Some of the city's staid, yet grand, Communist-era architecture is also a draw. Near Piata Unirii, south of Lipscani, the Palace of Parliament (Calea 13 Septembrie 1; daily 10am-4pm; $7; www.cdep.ro) – formerly Palace of the People – is the world's second-largest office building (the Pentagon is the first) and the 45-minute tour offers a look at the Communist-style dictatorship. While the rest of the country starved, Mr. Ceausescu built a lavish crystal and marble-bedecked temple to himself. The building of 1,100 rooms takes up 125 acres. Locals wanted to blow it up in 1989 when they deposed Ceausescu, but dynamite costs proved too prohibitive – good thing, because it's now one of Bucharest's top attractions.
Though Ceausescu had 26 churches, 2 synagogues, and a monastery razed for his palace, a few impressive historic buildings in the neighborhood survived. The 17th-century Patriarchal Cathedral (Str. Dealul Mitropoliei; daily 8am-7pm; free; www.patriarhia.ro) is where the Romanian Orthodox faithful flock. None of the original icons remain, save for one of the cathedral’s patron saints, Helen and her son, Roman Emperor Constantine, but the church itself is breathtaking. Also, have a look at the neo-Gothic, candy-striped Princess Balasa Church (Str. Sfintii Apostoli), on the north end of the square.
At the end of the day, tuck yourself into one of the city's world-class hotels. The Athénée Palace Hilton (see Where to Stay) is today the place to rest your cobble-weary feet. Standard rooms are a relatively expensive $280 per night, but it's a worthwhile Romanian-style smart splurge, and regular deals on their website bring the price down to $200. The InterContinental (see Where to Stay) is also a great place to stay, with a pool, sauna and other features and rates starting from $150 a night.
Horezu, Transylvania, and Bucovina
Leave the capital behind and you'll quickly put the 21st century in your wake. The Romanian countryside is home to vast tracts of pre-industrial landscape where some farmers still use a horse and plow, and babushka-clad ladies knit traditional costumes on their front porches.
A quick two-hour drive northwest of Bucharest lands you in Horezu – a must for pottery lovers. Nearly a century ago, local nuns taught the villagers how to make and paint pottery, and ever since, people have come from far and wide to get their hands on Horezu's ceramics, which gleam with iridescence – prices range from $3 to $70 and higher. Ceramica Palosi, one of the oldest family-run shops in the area (Str. Tudor Vladimirescu 15; 011-40-25-086-1634) is a great shop for picking up some pieces. Plates start at $20.
Another top attraction is the Horezu Monastery (011-40-25-086-0071), which houses priceless and sacred 17th-century Eastern Orthodox art. The main draw is the well-preserved murals of Heaven and Hell, which wind around the building like an ecclesiastical picture book. Built by Prince Constantin Brâncoveanu in 1690, this UNESCO-protected monastery is located just off the main road in the tiny village of Romanii de Jos, only two miles from Horezu. During the summer you can sleep at the modest inn here too, for a huge bargain. Don't be surprised if you run into Prince Charles, who often bunks down here – rooms can be had for $30. (He's a patron of the MET Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving Romania's heritage).
Transylvania – Count Who?
Whether the 15th-century nobleman Vlad Tepes, really is the famed bloodsucker that Bram Stoker modeled his fanged protagonist after has never been authenticated. But that doesn't stop most travelers from coming to Transylvania, a large region roughly 50 miles north of Bucharest. There are plenty of Dracula sights (both intriguing and hokey), but there's more to Transylvania than its mythic count.
Start in Sibiu. The southern Transylvanian university town is getting a scrubbing before becoming the 2007 European Capital of Culture. If Sibiu feels like you're in a rustic German burg, with its cobblestone streets and half-timber houses, you're not crazy. The region gained its Teutonic flair in the 12th-century, when Hungarian King Géza II invited Saxons to settle here in exchange for protection.
Stroll through the network of narrow streets, and from square to square to square. Then, rest your weary feet at Crama Sibiul Vechi (see Where to Eat), one of the best eateries in town, and sample classic Transylvanian dishes like corn meal dumplings or sausages stuffed with beef, garlic, and spices. Wash it all down with locally produced vino.
Another German-accented town, Sighisoara is one of Romania's most atmospheric cities. Walk along the ancient walls, ascending one of the original guard towers and take in the surrounding countryside.
The place to stay in Sighisoara is the Stag House (see Where to Stay), a medieval-era inn, another of Prince Charles' haunts. His favorite room features views of the town square and a large double brass bed. For a non-princely price of $75 per night, you can sleep in the same bed as the future king of England. Right next door is the Stag-owned eatery Messerschmitt and its tasty pork dishes. Finally, squeeze in a side trip to nearby Peles Castle (Str. Pelesului 2; June-Sept Tues-Sun 10am-4pm, Oct-May Wed-Sun 10am-4pm). The 160-room, 19th-century fortress houses a collection of European paintings and has over 800 stained glass windows.
Southern Bucovina is dotted with gorgeous 450-year-old monasteries, all of them exquisite examples of Orthodox painting and architecture. The best are in Voronet, but all of them are worth seeking out. The area is northeast of Transylvania and about 6 hours north from Bucharest by train. Moldovita, Sucevita, Voronet, Arbore, and Humor, each about an hour's drive from one another, are UNESCO-protected 15th- and 16th-century complexes whose facades and external walls are covered with colorful frescoes of Biblical scenes. Bathed in bright blue (now known as "Voronet blue"), the frescoes have miraculously survived 6 centuries of upheaval and exposure to the natural elements, and yet, they look freshly painted.
Agrotourism and guesthouse stays, where visitors get farm-fresh meals and organic veggies, are popular here. They aren't luxe, but they're charming, and typically just $20 to $25 per person, per night.
In Bucharest, the Athénée Palace Hilton (Str. Episcopiei 1-3; 011-40-21-303-3777; www.hilton.com) is a smart splurge – renovated in 1997, this elegant hotel offers clean, plush, airy rooms and the marble-columned lobby beckons you into the hotel's luxurious early-20th-century ambience. Bucharest's first true boutique property, the Rembrandt Hotel (Str. Smârdan 11; 011-40-21-313-9315; www.rembrandt.ro) offers spacious, Scandinavian styled rooms, rooftop views of the city, and a hip bar and restaurant all at an inexpensive nightly rate. The InterContinental (Blvd. Nicolae Balcescu 4; 011-40-21-310-2020; www.intercontinental.com) is housed in a Soviet-style building and formerly a favorite haunt of Romania's Communist Party leaders, but it's still popular today because of its heated pool, sauna, and hair salon.
In Sighisoara, the Stag House (Str. Scolii 1; 011-40-23-657-74625; www.ar-messerschmitt-s.ro) is a 10-room, 17th-century inn and a favorite of Britain's Prince Charles (he stays in the spacious, $78 double with a big brass bed). The exterior is adorned with paintings of bucks and the interior houses a new inn/restaurant called Messerschmitt. Meanwhile, in Bucovina is home, the Hilde's Residence (Str. Sipotului 2; 011-40-23-023-3484; www.lucy.ro) is a charming inn near the town of Gura Humorului. Hilde's offers quiet accommodations as well as breakfast and dinner. Proprietor Lucy Glaser makes her own berry liqueurs, and can arrange local sightseeing packages and traditional Romanian banquets.
Bucharest's Amsterdam Grand Café (Str. Covaci 6; 011-40-21-313-7580; entrées from about $15; www.amsterdam.ro) is just a few streets from the Rembrandt hotel and in the historical Lipscani section of Bucharest. Try a local specialty – meat-stuffed cabbage is one to try. For people-watching and old-world outdoor dining, try the food at Hanul lui Manuc (Str. Franceza 62-64; 011-40-21-313-1411; entrées from $5; www.hanulmanuc.ro) a nearly 200-year-old merchants' inn. For well-prepared Italian classics, try what's on the menu at La Fattoria (Sos. Nordului 7-9; 011-40-21-230-8350; entrées from $10; www.lafattoria.ro), located at Herastrau Park.
Sibiu's Crama Sibiul Vechi (Str. Papiu Ilarian 3; 011-40-26-921-0461; www.sibiulvechi.ro) guarantees a romantic evening with its candlelit tables and list of local wines. Dinner for two at this turn-of-the-century wine cellar restaurant runs about $50 with wine, but don't forget to try the restaurant's own brandy, aged in mulberry wood barrels. In Sighisoara, Messerschmitt (Str. Scolii 1; 011-40-26-577-4625; entrées from $5; www.ar-messerschmitt-s.ro) – a restaurant-bar-inn – offers Saxon-accented dishes with Romanian flair. It's connected to the Stag House hotel and a popular place in town, so you're likely to meet some colorful local personalities at the bar.
Though there are no direct flights from the United States to Bucharest at present, Delta (www.delta.com) is planning a New York-Bucharest non-stop flight to commence in June 2007. Still, getting to Romania is easier than you might think. American Airlines (www.aa.com), Alitalia (www.alitalia.com), British Airways (www.ba.com), Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com), Czech Airlines (www.czechairlines.com), and Austrian Airlines (www.aua.com) all fly to Bucharest. Airfares start at $800 from New York City, $900 from Chicago, and $1,100 from Los Angeles. In-air flight times to Bucharest are approximately 10 hours from New York, 12 from Chicago, and 14 from LA. All flights have at least a 1- to 6-hour layover in a Western European hub before the last stretch to Romania. Flying through London on British Airways, or through Munich on Lufthansa are your best bets for short layovers.
Bucharest is an easy city to navigate. Individual neighborhoods are walkable and an all-day subway pass costs just over a dollar. Cab rides from neighborhood to neighborhood shouldn't be more than $10. Every ride has a 50-cent tax and then rates per kilometer vary depending on type of car. Always make sure your cab has a meter, ask the fare before entering, and don’t take any taxi with a fare higher than 90 cents (or about 25 lei) per kilometer.