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Getting off the Beaten Path in Bucharest, Romania
This is a guest post from Marius Iliescu, the founder of Romanian Friend, an initiative for handpicked tours run by locals in Romania.
Romania’s capital is the newest up-and-coming travel destination in Eastern Europe. In recent years, the city has seen more and more tourists visit attracted by the mixed urban sights, young and vibrant culture, complicated past and, truth be told, affordable prices. Bucharest sits at the intersection of Western culture, Balkan fiery blood, Latin lifestyle and Oriental influences. All this makes it a surprisingly intense city to visit!
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Most travelers are drawn to the city’s main sights like Old Town, Palace of Parliament, Revolution Square or Herestrau Park. But as with every capital of the world, when venturing off the beaten path, away from the main boulevards, squares and crowded areas, travelers are rewarded with unique and fascinating sights they would never discover on their own or read about in the usual tourist guides. And since I’m a local, I can tell you where to find them. So here are a couple of suggestions:
1. The Castle in the Park: Vlad the Impaler Castle
Dating back to 1906 this wonderful, medieval-looking castle is close to Carol Park. The construction was initially designed as a 20-meter high water tower to celebrate the 40-year anniversary of King Carol I reign. Although it never fulfilled its original purpose, the amazing fact about this building is its close resemblance with Poenari Fortress, the citadel that belonged to Vlad the Impaler (aka the inspiration for the Dracula character) which is now in ruins following a devastating earthquake. Hence, the name Vlad the Impaler Castle. Do not confuse this castle with the famous Bran Castle near Brasov, also known as Dracula Castle, Romania’s #1 tourist attraction.
The castle has been used for military purposes throughout history and has been continuously restored. Tourists who climb to the top of the tower will be rewarded with lovely views of Carol Park and of Bucharest while finding out interesting facts about Romanian history.
Unfortunately, the castle can only be visited twice a year: on the National Heroes Day (May 17th) and on the Romanian Army Day (October 25th) but even from the outside the castle is a fascinating and unexpected sight to admire in the urban landscape of Bucharest.
2. Bellu Cemetery: A Different Kind of History Lesson
Despite what people usually think about cemeteries, Bellu cemetery is an impressive cultural monument of Bucharest. Serban Voda cemetery, as it is otherwise known, was open in 1858 and has since become the final resting ground for Romania’s greatest, most famous and rich personalities. Famous writers, singers, and actors, cultural figures, politicians, lawyers, doctors or businessmen are buried there.
Many of the funeral monuments, tombs, statues and ornaments in Bellu cemetery belong to well-known architects or sculptors like Ion Mincu, Dumitru Paciurea or Karl Stork and are very elaborate, remarkable pieces of art. Besides their high price at the time, the funeral monuments are also a unique expression of a family’s appreciation to the passed one’s memory, in many cases holding a story about their lives. The cemetery is freely open to the public but there are also guided tours you can book to learn about the celebrities buried here and fascinating details about their burial grounds.
3. Darvari Site: An Isle of Tranquility in the Middle of Noisy Bucharest
The Darvari Site is an orthodox monastery built in 1834 by Mihail and Elena Darvari in the center of Bucharest, close to Romana Square. Originally built as a place for spiritual retreat and prayer for the Darvari family and its companions, the founding family later asked 12 nuns from nearby monasteries to take care of the site, eventually transforming it into a monastery-in-the-city. Having preserved its original architecture, setting, and layout, the site is an important historical monument of Bucharest.
Besides the religious background, this monument is a wonderful piece of Orthodox-inspired architecture for monastic sites. The flowers in the garden are gorgeous in summer, which makes Darvari site the perfect place for those in search of a calming and beautiful oasis, and a little bit of Orthodox history, far from the city’s hustle and bustle just a few streets away.
4. Cotroceni Neighborhood: History, Politics, and Beauty
Cotroceni neighborhood (from Eroilor Metro station heading South-West) is not to be missed by anyone who travels to Bucharest. ‘What is it that makes it so special?’ one may ask. First, it brings together valuable, impressive and unique architectural styles like Neo-Romanian, Art Deco, and Modernist. Each house, building, and decoration is so breathtakingly beautiful and elaborate that visitors will find themselves stopping every 15 meters to admire them. During the interwar period in Bucharest’s golden years, many rich and famous doctors lived in this neighborhood, which explains why its streets were named after them.
Second, the neighborhood hosts Cotroceni Palace, the headquarters of the Romanian Presidency, another splendid sight to see. Part of the palace is restricted to visitors, except on special occasions, but the other part is home to Cotroceni Museum which can be visited. Last but not least, Cotroceni neighborhood is known as Bucharest’s “flower garden” as major streets are lined with gorgeous magnolias that bloom in spring. So, if you’re looking to discover a special part of Bucharest, Cotroceni area should definitely be on your list.
5. Mogosoaia Palace: Architectural vs. Natural Beauty
On the North-Western outskirts of Bucharest, Mogosoaia Palace is a local favorite getaway spot. It is a great choice offering travelers a taste of history, architectural beauty, fine dining and impressive gardens with beautiful alleys.
The palace was built in 1702 by the ruling prince of Wallachia, Constantin Brancoveanu, and was named after the wife of boyar Mogos, the owner of the land used for the construction. The palace is made out of several structures, all open to visitors. The Guest House (currently a restaurant), the Tower and its walls, “St. George” Church and the main building (a museum). The buildings are very well preserved and are a superb example of the original Romanian architectural style known as Brâncovenesc. Go for a visit and you will see for yourself what makes it special!
As is fitting for every palace, its ‘garden’ is, in fact, a large park bordered by a lake. The entire area is perfect for a day out and you will see many locals having a picnic, barbecue or bike ride unless there’s also an open-air event nearby. A nice stroll by the lake is always a good idea for those craving a quiet afternoon after visiting Bucharest, but those looking for more interesting things to do can also go for a wakeboarding course on the lake!
Where to next? After Bucharest, head to Transylvania, which is especially beautiful in the winter!
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About the Author
Marius Iliescu is the founder of Romanian Friend, a locally-run initiative promoting handpicked tours in Romania with independent guides showcasing the authentic beauty of Romania through local & responsible travel. Plan your trip with help from a Romanian Friend and follow us on Facebook to see what you can visit!
Thanks a bunch for sharing Marius’s post, Jennifer. Romania and Bucharest are a must visit and I really hope to cross them off my bucket list. I would especially love to explore Vlad the Impaler Castle. How many days would be enough to explore these highlights in Bucharest?
Hi Lydia, glad you liked it! I recommend you spend 2 nights / 3 days in Bucharest to see these sites and the main ones!
Burcu Basar says
Bucharest – being so close to Istanbul is definitely among the places I want to visit in the near future. By the way Dracula`s Castle looks much warmer than I though it would be! Cotroceni neighborhood sounds very interesting s I really like architecture.
Mogosoaia is by far my favorite spot nearby Bucharest. I go there every season. It’s so cool to have such an oasis of tranquility nearby your home city!
I keep hearing great things about Bucharest, although I had never heard of any of these! I’m not usually into visiting cemeteries, but it sounds like there are some interesting stories to uncover there. And checking out the castle sounds fascinating if you can time your trip around the open days!
next week i am going to romania for business trip, but i would have 2 days to tour most popular place. Your article quite help me to do what you posted on article. sure i would go there once. Thanks for sharing your trip experience.
Sandy N Vyjay says
Lovely post about Bucharest. The offbeat places paint a refreshing perspective of the city. The pictures bring alive the old world charm of the place like never before. Of course the Vlad the Impaler Castle rivets ones attention immediately owing to its connection with Dracula, however, all the other places are unique and lovely in their own right.
Since Vlad the Impaler Castle can only be visited twice a year, I imagine hordes of tourists jostling their way on those two dates. Bellu Cemetery is to Bucharest as Père Lachaise is to Paris although I reckon that the latter has a more international mix of personalities buried. I couldn’t agree more with the author that unique experiences and fantastic sights await those who would venture off the beaten path. Excellent suggestions for places to visit coming from a local!
Wow! Dracula’s castle? Dracula is really a big part of our popular culture and it’s amazing to visit it someday!
Archana Singh says
I spent three weeks in Romania last year and totally fell in love with the country. Although Bucharest is a very nice place to explore, I fell in love with the countryside. I did visit the Bran Castle/Dracula Hotel in Transylvania but missed out visiting Vlad the Impaler Castle. Maybe next time when i go there in two months 🙂
I love the architecture of Romania. I haven’t been, but I’ve seen a lot of great photos and we have friends who live there. They talk about it like they deeply miss it when they aren’t there. I would love to see Vlad the Impaler’s Castle. The Cotroceni Neighborhood sounds like a place you could get lost in for hours. Great information.
Vasu Devan says
Nice way to explore a city, is to check out the less touristy places. Thanks for the tips as to when the Castle is open for public . It can help people to plan in advance. Second place that impressed me was the Darvari site. It is even surprising the authorities let this place alone, against ever increasing requirement of urban spaces.
Ami Bhat says
Vlad the Impaler Castle would be my first stop. It looks so mysterious and nice. I would love to see those hidden rooms and corners (which I think it might have…or maybe I am being too Indiana Jones). The museum too, seems like a great idea. I hope I can get to Bucharest …and soon!
Medha Verma says
If these places are off the beaten path, the touristy places must be amazing! The castle in the park sounds amazing, though its a pity that it can be visited only two times a year. I like the architecture of Darvari Site too, and it looks so tranquil. Bucharest is on my list for later this year, not sure how much time I will have in the city but will keep this list handy. Thanks for sharing!
This is super helpful! Bucharest is one of my favorite cities in Europe, and I’m dying to go back and explore more. The only place on this list I’ve been is the Darvari Site.
I been to Bucharest before but I dont remember seeing or knowing about the Vlad castle and now I want to check it out. I go to Romania often for its mountains and hiking in Brasov but I always fly in via Bucharest. Now I wanna make sure I check this place out before heading north 🙂
Overall, these are definitely amazing places to visit in Bucharest. For one, the Vlad the Impaler Castle sounds pretty interesting. I’d love to check it out! Good to know about the time of the year that the castle can be visited inside and that it has been continuously restored :). That sculpture at the Bell Cemetery looks amazing btw! I wonder what’s the story behind it?
Danila Caputo says
I would love to visit Vlad Castle but I still haven’t managed to plan my trip there for when it’s open! It’s a pity that they only let visitors in twice a year 🙁 And I wonder how crowded it is these two days!
Karla Ramos says
I would also love to visit Vlad’s castle. It’s a story you can tell others- that you’ve been to Dracula’s castle!