Bucharest’s new Old City

A decade of refurbishment has resulted in a charming, walkable quarter with enough sights to keep you occupied for the day and enough bars and clubs to ensure you never have to sleep.

Travellers often only give the Romanian capital, Bucharest, a passing glance on their way to the more storied destinations of Transylvania, Bulgaria or Istanbul. The typical (and outdated) take on the city is that it is dilapidated and dirty and there is not much to see except for the outsized architectural ego of former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. It might merit an overnight stop, so the conventional wisdom goes, but that is about it.

Today, however, there may be more reasons to linger. In the past year, authorities have completed refurbishing Bucharest's historic core, the Old City, adding a previously missing element to the urban fabric: a charming, walkable quarter with enough worthy distractions to keep you occupied for the day and enough bars and clubs to ensure you never have to sleep.

Years of work
Renovating the Old City was no easy feat, taking nearly a decade of agonizing stop-start work during which cranes and bulldozers were idled for years at a time. The city and construction companies squabbled over both money and corruption allegations, as well as how to resettle the area’s poorer residents, including many Roma families. Between 2007 and 2011, the Old City was effectively a no-go zone, with minimal street lighting and gaping holes in the pavements, papered over by rickety plywood bridges.

Stroll along the quarter’s narrow lanes on a warm summer evening now, however, and those old days seem far away. While many of the buildings are still in a perilous state awaiting suitors with deep pockets and big dreams, the streets are pleasantly cobbled and lined with quirky art and antique shops, bookstores, theatres, and block after block of cafes, bars and clubs. Indeed, the Old City appears to have succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.

Where it all began
The Old City, as the name implies, occupies some of Bucharest’s earliest settled ground. The oldest structures date from the 15th and 16th Centuries, when the city edged out early centres of power – including the first capitals Curtea de Argeş and Târgovişte – to become the main town of the principality of Wallachia (later Romania). In the 18th and 19th Centuries, the area developed into a warren of craftsmen, plying trades like leather and metalworking.

Modern times were less kind. While the Old City thankfully survived Ceaușescu’s grandiose 1980s plan to raze much of old Bucharest and build a new Socialist capital, the area devolved into something of a slum. Most of the investment at the time went to the northern half of the city. Ceaușescu had little use for the historic core, and many of the crumbling older buildings were used to house the impoverished Roma minority. That all changed, though, once the  area’s historic and geographic value was finally fully recognised just more than a decade ago.

Where Dracula once ruled
Start your exploration along Str Franceza, on the southern edge Old City, where you will find the remains of the Old Princely Court and Old Princely Court Church. The court served as the early seat of the Wallachian princes, including for a time a ruthless young ruler named Vlad Tepes (aka Vlad the Impaler), who later served as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The city has ambitious plans for the court, including building a meeting centre and a museum, and much of it is still a construction zone. But for the modest sum of three lei you can poke around in the dusty old chambers and see the excavated remains of the former court. There is also an impressively spooky statue of Vlad Tepes standing outside the court complex. The church here is Bucharest’s oldest, dating from 1546 and the reign of Mircea the Shepherd. It is free to enter and the frescoes next to the altar are 16th-century originals.  

Wend your way northward following quirky streets like Str Covaci and Str Smârdan or the more conventional Str Șelari. Most of the buildings date from the latter 19th and early 20th centuries and are marked with information plaques detailing when they were built and how they were used.

Toward the northern edge of the quarter stands arguably Bucharest’s most evocative (and possibly tiniest) house of worship, the Stavropoleos Church, built in 1724. Though the church is perched precariously just a block away from clubs and bars, it retains a feeling of holy tranquillity. Take a look inside to see lovingly painted frescoes and an ornately carved iconostasis.

Trajan’s Column
About 100m west of the church is the imposing National History Museum, a good rainy day option, particularly for fans of the Roman Empire. Inside is a giant replica of the 2nd-century Trajan’s Column (the original stands in Rome), which was built to honour the emperor who once conquered the territory of modern Romania and subjugated the ancient Dacian tribe, from whom Romanians trace their origins. Indeed the name “Romania” was adopted to recognise this historic connection to Rome.

Emperor Trajan also gets star billing on the museum’s steps in the form of arguably the most eye-catching modern statue of a Roman emperor ever conceived. Here, a dour Trajan is depicted stark naked while holding a curiously rigid wolf in his arms. Go ahead and photograph the statue to your heart’s content; in its short history of just more than a year, it has become the most Instagrammed icon in all of Bucharest.   

Food and fun
In addition to the history and the sights, the Old City full of food and drink. If you are looking for good Romanian cuisine, try Caru’ cu Bere, a 19th-century beer house located near the Stavropoleos Church, for signature dishes such as sarmalute cu mamaliga (stuffed cabbage leaves served with a side of polenta). Do not be put off by the peasant-frocked hostesses who erupt into seemingly spontaneous can-can numbers on some nights; the classic cuisine is the best around. Be sure to make a booking for dinner.

Turkish and Middle Eastern food is all the rage in Bucharest right now and one of the liveliest spaces to sample enormous kebabs and plates of hummus and baba ganoush is Divan, where waiters in traditional Ottoman garb dazzle the crowds. Try to time your arrival for just outside the traditional meal hour (say 5 pm or 6 pm) to grab a rare free table on the terrace.

There is no end to the cafes, bars and clubs in the Old City. Str Smârdan is the epicentre of the action, but any street will have numerous options for a caffeinated pit stop or something stronger. Atelier Mecanic (Str Covaci 12, Tel 0726-767-611) is more laid-back than most, with an artsy crowd that comes for the unique junk-shop decor as well as great coffee, single malt scotches and a mellow DJ most evenings.

For clubs, it is a fool’s errand to choose one over dozens of others. The Old City Bar on central Str Lipscani was one of the first in the area and remains one of the best. On most nights, especially on weekends, you will find throngs of beautiful people sipping colourful cocktails through long straws, while dance beats pulsate in the background.