The best of Bucharest - Europe - Travel - The Independent

The best of Bucharest

Romania's capital is finally starting to put the legacy of Nicolae Ceausescu behind it. There are some world-class museums, exquisite churches, and an emerging restaurant and music scene.

Romania's capital is finally starting to put the legacy of Nicolae Ceausescu behind it. There are some world-class museums, exquisite churches, and an emerging restaurant and music scene.

Much remains of the influence of Hausmann's Paris on the boulevards and grand municipal buildings of the main squares. But perhaps the greatest interest surrounds you: the minutiae of everyday life, from big-city bustle to a thriving café society.

Best hotel

For most of its lifetime, the Athénée Palace (00 40 21 303 3777; www.hilton.com) was the classic spy's haunt. Spooks, secret police and the Gestapo all laid their sweet little heads there. It has been renovated by the Hilton chain - the bugs have been removed and the telephones untapped. Rooms are smart and stylish; the atmosphere is light and airy and the Café Royal, on the ground floor, is good with charming and enthusiastic staff. Rates start at 8m Lei (£142) for a double room with breakfast.

Offering similar levels of comfort, but at the other end of the style spectrum, is the venerable Continental hotel (00 40 21 260 2222; www.continentalhotels.ro). This is the former palace of King Mihai, Romania's last king, and unmistakably Parisian in design, with Regency furniture, chandeliers and a good restaurant and a pleasant terrace. Doubles from 7.6m Lei (£125).

Best restaurant

It is remarkably difficult to spend more than £6 on a three-course meal, including wine. One place happy to let you rack up a large bill is the Athénée Palace's La Pergola restaurant (00 40 21 303 3777). The restaurant often flies in international chefs, and the food is high-quality Italian and French cuisine, with a few local dishes. Reckon on £25 per head.

There are two excellent choices for Romanian cuisine. La Mama, 9 Episcopiei (00 40 21 312 9797; www.lamama.ro), has a lovely terrace and a smart interior. Dishes include excellent salads and specialities such as pork cooked in cabbage leaves (sarmale). Three courses will cost £5 per head. A short walk south of the centre is Carul cu Bere, at 3 Stavropoleos, (00 40 21 313 7560), set in an astonishing building, a cross between a Byzantine church and a bierkeller, with tiled floors, stained glass windows and ribbed vaulting. Try the fried pork with garlic. Live bands play excellent gypsy and folk music. Three courses and drinks are £5-£7 per head.

Best cultural attraction

The National Art Museum, at 49-53 Calea Victoriei (00 40 21 314 8119; http://art.museum.ro), in the former Royal Palace on Piata Revolutiei, has two outstanding collections. The European section has an eclectic display of masters, while the Romanian wing ranges from ancient icons from Moldava to modern art. Open Wednesday-Sunday, 11am-7pm. Admission: 120,000 Lei (£2). For a complete contrast, head for the Village Museum, at Kiseleff 28-30 (00 40 21 222 9103; www.cimec.ro). This gem is an open-air collection of homes from the provinces - a fascinating insight into what is still everyday life for millions. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 9am-4pm. Admission: 40,000 Lei (66p).

Best shopping

A stroll down Calea Victoriei, the main drag, takes in the curious spectacle of designer shops almost entirely devoid of customers, for the simple reason that local people cannot afford to shop there. For souvenirs, cross the road to Musika, at 43 Calea Victoriei, where CDs of gypsy music can be picked up for £3. The best collection of handicrafts, such as carpets, bowls and wood carvings, is to be found at either the Village Museum or at the excellent Museum of the Romanian Peasant, at Kiseleff 3 (00 40 21 650 5360; www.itcnet.ro/mtr).

Best sightseeing

Ceausescu was at the height of his megalomania when he dreamt up his crazed House of the Republic, the second biggest building in the world, after the Pentagon. The palace is now home to parliament. You would once have been shot for getting too close; today the guided tour is unmissable. The Palace of Parliament (00 40 21 311 3611; www.cdep.ro/cic) is at the end of Bulevardul Unirii. Open daily, 10am-4pm. Admission: 200,000 Lei (£3.30). Nearby, wander through the Centru Civic to find magical little Byzantine churches, such as St Nicolai-Mihai Voda, at 4 Sapientei, and Domnita Balasa, at 3 Calea Rahovei.

Best nightspot

Many bars and clubs cater for Western businessmen, but the thriving jazz scene has more obvious appeal. One mellow place is Green Hours, at 120 Calea Victoriei.

How to get there

British Airways (0870-850 9850; www.ba.com) and Tarom (020-7224 3693; www.tarom.ro) fly daily from Heathrow to Bucharest, with fares from £200-£240 in July. Transylvania Uncovered (0845-3000 247; www.beyondtheforest.com) offers weekend breaks to Bucharest from £265. The city has no tourist office, but call the British office (020-7224 3692; www.VisitRomania.com or www.romaniatourism.com.

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