At first glance a clashing blend of neoclassical buildings, wide tree-lined boulevards, and brutal post-Stalinist apartment blocks, Bucharest can be a confusing place, but is a city that rewards closer inspection.
Filled with grey communist housing estates that were built to hide the finer bourgeois architectural details, it’s difficult to conceive that this misunderstood city once inspired the nickname ‘Paris of the Balkans’. But there are plenty of reminders of a glorious past, and also of a potentially glorious future.
The most symbolic building in Romanian culture, and the spiritual landmark of a nation, is the Atheneum. Built in the heart of the city in the 1880s, this magnificent concert hall has seen great politicians and scientists give lectures, had orchestras and musicians from around the world come to perform, and shown exhibitions of great paintings and sculpture by the masters of fine arts.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll quickly find more survivors of the communist architectural desecration. There are Byzantine-style chapels and bell-towered mansions, while side streets in the historic centre hide antique shops, characterful bars, and eateries serving French, Italian and Transylvanian food.
Elsewhere in the centre are the 15th-century remains of the Old Princely Court, built by Vlad the Impaler. According to local folklore, it was the way he treated his enemies (and prisoners in the dungeons below the court) that gave rise to the legends of Count Dracula.
More recent history can be appreciated in Piata Revolutiei, the square at the heart of the 1989 revolution that ended the reign of notorious dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife. Contrasting with this in the ritzy north is sprawling Herastrau Park, which offers boat rides and an open-air museum displaying traditional homes.
Since Romania joined the EU, the sense of a new dynamism has spread all over town. And the construction projects seen everywhere offer new architectural evidence that Bucharest’s journey back to greatness has begun.