Bucharest, the Old City Center

While much of Bucharest has changed beyond recognition over the past two decades, nothing compares to the recent transformation of Old Town, which in the past two years has turned what was very much a no-go area with almost nothing to offer into the Romanian capital’s liveliest and most vibrant entertainment district.

The best place to start any exploration of Old Town is at Universitate from where you can enter the Old City Center on Toma Cargiu or Ion Ghica Street where the first sight that will probably grab your attention (it will be difficult to miss it) is the beautiful, colorful St. Nicholas (Students’) Church. It is known colloquially as the Russian Church and it is topped with seven typically Russian onion domes and crowned with an orthodox cross.

Walk to the end of the street (Str. Ion Ghica) and you will see in front of you the unmistakably Neo-Classical exterior of the National Bank of Romania (BNR). The building boasts a facade with Corinthian columns, and an enormous central banking hall. The passing of time has seen the building become rather hemmed in, but it remains a classic worthy of admiration.

From there take a right turn on Smardan Street where you can admire an 1925 restored building that houses a hotel nowadays and can even visit the old safe room of the National Bank of Romania, turned into the wine cellar of a local café.

Next Street is Lipscani Street, which gets its name from the large number of traders who, in the 18th century, sold wares here brought from Leipzig, which at the time was one of the largest trading posts in Europe. As Str. Lipscani was the main commercial street in the Old Town, it over time lent its name to the whole area. Ironically, its name and history aside, modern Str. Lipscani has little to recommend it, although it does have some exceptional bars, pubs and clubs, and a theatre. It also has some hidden treasure: if you walk through the little alley opposite Str. Selari (an alley now packed with cafes and bars) you will come to Str. Blanari, home to the St. Nicolas Church.

Back on Str. Lipscani, the Hanul cu Tei is a wonderful courtyard (once part of a large inn) which today houses art galleries, antique shops, second-hand book shops, gift shops, studios and portrait artists, as well as a lively terrace and bar/restaurant.

Retrace your steps to the National Bank, and head for Str. Stavropoleos, named for the eponymous church found along its length (Biserica Stavropoleos opened every day; service is held every Sunday in Romanian). The church was built in 1724 by the Greek monk Ioanikie Stratonikeas. It is characterized by its beautiful stone and wood carvings, of which the finest are on the main doors. The courtyard outside (beautiful on a warm afternoon) has a curious collection of tombstones dating from the 18th century. On the other side of the wall, there is another historical monument, a building with a breath taking interior hoasting a beer house and restaurant dating from 1875.

A few steps to the right is the Zlatari Church (Biserica Zlatari) built in the 19th century on the site of an earlier church and featuring interior frescoes by Gheorghe Tatarescu, famous Romanian churches painter. The ornate building on the other side of the road is the headquarters of CEC, the national savings bank, while the Neo-Classical giant facing it is the National History Museum.

On the far side of the museum is Str. Franceza, another Old Town street now blessed with more restaurants, cafes, bars and such like than you could wish for. About half way along look out for the Sf. Dumitru Church and if you descend further to the street you will intersect with the birthplace of Bucharest, the Old Court Palace and Church.

The Old Court, first built on this site in the second part of the 15th-century by Vlad Ţepeş, was considerably extended during the 16th-century, by Mircea Ciobanul, and again a century later, this time at the hand of Constantin Brancoveanu, who added a splendid voievodal palace, decorated with marble and icons. The palace was by and large destroyed by a series of fires in the 19th century however, and subsequently neglected. Much of what remains today was uncovered during archeological digs that took place from 1967-72, when the palace ruins were first opened as a museum.

Looking anything but its best is the Hanul lui Manuc opposite. Built in 1808 it remained operational as a hotel and restaurant until 2007 when it was closed but now has been return it to the descendants of its original owners and part of the inn (the restaurant/bar, courtyard and some function rooms) was finally reopened.

Opening in from of Manuc`s Inn is Saint Anton Square where, during the summer, all kind of concerts, theatrical performances and movie projections are held. From there, if you go straight ahead on Sepcari Street you can end your journey in Roma Piazza, next to the ground zero kilometer of Bucharest, where the statue of the Capitoline Woolf marks the square.