Romania’s most controversial building sits like a megalith in the middle of Bucharest, a monument to the folly and ego of fallen Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, who conceived his grandiose idea after visiting another dictator, Kim II-sung, in North Korea. Started in 1984 and designed by young Romanian architect Anca Petrescu, the palace was conceived from Ceaușescu’s wish for it to be the biggest office building in the world – and he almost got his way, with only the Pentagon being larger. Churches, synagogues and 30,000 private homes were demolished to make way for this awesome monstrosity, and its mammoth proportions include 12 stories (with four underground), 1,100 rooms and state apartments, a brutal Soviet Realist façade of 270 meters (886 feet) in length and a vast subterranean nuclear bunker. Around 20,000 builders worked for six years to complete the palace, working seven days a week and using only materials available in Romania.
Taking centerstage in Bucharest’s Old Town, Revolution Square (Piata Revolutiei) is located along the central boulevard of Victoriei Street and has long been at the forefront of the city’s historic events. Originally named Palace Square (Piața Palatului), Revolution Square earned its current moniker after the Romanian Revolution in 1989, and remains one of the city’s principal landmarks and navigational hubs.
For first-time visitors, the grand square is undeniably impressive, framed by ornate buildings and crowned by the towering Memorial of Rebirth – a 25-meter-high marble pillar erected in the center of the square, in memory of the victims of the Revolution. Other important monuments on the square include the neoclassical Royal Palace, now home to the National Museum of Art; the Romanian Atheneum, a domed concert hall dating back to the 19th century.
Also known as the Metropolitan Church, Bucharest’s main Orthodox place of worship is dedicated to Saints Constantine and Helen and sits atop Mitropoliei, one of the few hills in the city center. It was designed by an unknown architect as a copy of the Curtea de Arges monastery in the university city of Pitesti and consecrated in 1658; it has three dumpy spires, a bulbous apse and Byzantine-style gilded paintings of the saints adorning its exterior. Although the cathedral was largely restored to its original form in the early 1960s, four major upgrades have been made over the centuries, particularly to its gold-encrusted interior, where frescoes have been added as recently as 1935. The first Romanian-language bible was printed here in 1688 and the cathedral holds the most valuable collection of icons in Romania.
First built in 1878 as a wooden monument to mark Romania’s Independence, Bucharest’s Arch of Triumph (Arcul de Triumf) has long been one of the city’s most memorable landmarks. Although rebuilt again after WWI, the current Arch of Triumph is the work of architect Petru Antonesc, reconstructed in granite in 1936, and decorated with sculptures by Romanian artists like Constantin Medrea, Constantin Baraschi and Ion Jalea.
Towering 27-meters over the intersection of Kiseleff road, Mareșal Alexandru boulevard and Alexandru Constantinescu street, the monumental arch now marks the entrance to Bucharest’s Herăstrău Park. Still a poignant reminder of Romania’s independence, it’s the site of military parades and celebrations on Romania's National Day (Dec 1st), and an internal staircase also allows visitors to climb to the top, looking out over the busy boulevards below.
Arguably the most beautiful building in Bucharest, the Romanian Athenaeum is the city’s foremost concert hall and a source of national pride, with an elegant Doric-colonnaded façade topped with a pediment and cupola. It was designed in Neo-classical style by French architect Albert Galleron and opened in 1888 to great acclaim; the great Romanian conductor George Enescu debuted his ‘Romanian Poem’ here in 1898. The lobby of the concert hall is an opulent, almost Art Nouveau triumph of ornamental gilding supported by arched, pink marble columns that lead off to a series of twisting marble staircases leading up to the concert hall. The circular auditorium seats 652 under a fabulous domed ceiling richly ornamented in scarlet and gold and fringed by frescoes by Costin Petrescu depicting important events in Romanian history; it is world-famous for the clarity of it acoustics and is home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra.
Brasov’s monumental Black Church (Biserica Neagra) soars heavenwards at the southwestern end of the city’s focal Council Square (Piata Sfatului) and is the largest Gothic church in central Europe. Afloat with flying buttresses and a landmark tower, construction on the church began in 1383 and it was completed almost a century later in 1477; along with several other prominent buildings in the city it was all but destroyed in the great fire of 1689 and takes its present name from its blackened, smoke-damaged walls. Repairs took more than 100 years and even today only one of the two proposed towers is complete, standing 215 feet (65.6 meters) above the Council Square. The Black Church’s Gothic vaulting remains but the interior now shows touches of Baroque in its styling; the flamboyant, 4,000-pipe organ is one of the best in Romania, designed in 1839 by the famous German organ-maker Carl August Buchholz and there are weekly organ concerts at 6 p.m. each Tuesday.
The triangular expanse of Council Square (Piata Sfatului) has been the focus of life in Braşov since medieval times; at the heart of the city’s Saxon, medieval Old Town, it can rival the Rynek in Krakow for sheer beauty. The piazza is lined with a jumble of stately Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque townhouses – now mostly restaurants and cafés – and is overshadowed by the Old Town Hall, a Gothic masterpiece dating from 1420 and whose landmark Trumpet Tower was originally a watchtower against approaching invaders. Formerly the hub of civic activity in Braşov, today the Old Town Hall houses the tourist office and the city’s History Museum.
Braşov’s monumental Black Church (Biserica Neagră) stands at the southwestern end of the square and is the largest Gothic-style church in central Europe; its origins lie in the 14th century but much of the church was destroyed in the fire of 1689 and subsequently rebuilt.
With a width of over 140 meters, Sibiu’s Big Square (Piata Mare) is aptly named and for visitors, the enormous pedestrianized square makes a strategic starting point for a tour of the city. Piata Mare, along with neighboring Piata Mica and Piata Huet, makes up the main hub of Sibiu’s Old Town and is home to some of the district’s most impressive architecture.
Almost everywhere you turn on the square, you’ll be confronted by historical landmarks. At the north end of the square stands the Turnul Statului (Council Tower), the Holy Trinity Church and the early-20th-century City Hall, next to which is the tourist information office. To the west is the Brukenthal Museum and the Romanian Art Gallery, while the south and east sides are home to notable buildings like the 15th-century Casa Generalilor and Casa Hecht; the Romanesque Casa Haller, now home to the Haller Café; and the 16th-century Casa Weidner, now a hotel.
Built in the late 1890s and opened at the turn of the 20th century on one of Bucharest’s main boulevards, the CEC Palace was designed by French architect Paul Gottereau and the construction of this fine Beaux Arts masterpiece was overseen by Romanian architect Ion Socolescu. Designated to be the HQ of Romania’s oldest savings bank, Casa de Economii și Consemnațiuni (CEC) and located opposite the National History Museum of Romania, it is a monumental mansion topped with five cupolas; the central one stands over the grandiose, colonnaded entrance and is made of glass and steel. The palace is slated for transformation into an art museum and was sold to the city council for more than €17.75 million in 2006; while plans are drawn up the CEC Bank rents it back from the council but its sumptuous, marble-clad interior – much of which was covered over in Ceaușescu’s time – is no longer open to the public.
Once marking the entrance to the fortified city and home to the Town Council, Sighisoara’s grand Clock Tower dates back to the 14th century and remains one of the city’s most memorable landmarks. Looming 64 meters over Piața Muzeului, the tower’s most distinctive feature is its 17th-century clock, complete with mechanical figurines that symbolize Peace, Justice, Law, Day and Night. Today, the Clock Tower is home to a fascinating local history museum, with exhibitions spread over the tower’s three floors and reached by the original narrow stairwell. Artifacts on display include Romanian furniture, medieval tools, medical equipment, old clocks and traditional handicrafts. Visitors can also take a peek at into the clock’s mechanism and climb to the top-floor observation platform for a view over the city.
The Macca Villacrosse Passage, also known as the Pasajul Macca-Vilacrosse, is a fork-shaped arcaded street in central Bucharest. Covered with yellow glass to allow natural light to shine through, the passage was built at the end of the 19th century to connect the Calea Victoriei and the National Bank. Today, the Macca side of the passage opens on to Calea Victoriei, one of Bucharest’s main avenues, while the Villacrosse side opens to the National Bank and Strada Eugeniu Carada. The passage has a French look to it and is similar to other covered passages built in Milan and Paris during the same period. During Communist times, it was known as the Jewelry Passage due to the presence of the city’s largest jewelry shops, but the original name was restored in 1990. Today, the passage is still home to a few jewelry shops, but also features several restaurants, cafes, boutiques and hookah bars.
Framed by old-fashioned lampposts and lined with colourful flowers, the iron footbridge running between Piata Mica and Piata Huet makes for a romantic spot, looking down over Ocnei street below. But if you believe local legend, Sibiu’s landmark ‘Bridge of Lies’ is much more than a pretty photo opportunity. First built as a wooden footbridge some 200 years ago, the bridge earned its ominous moniker thanks to local myth, which dictates that the bridge has ‘ears’ and magical powers. The bridge was said to expose liars and cheats, creaking and shuddering when lies were told in the town, and would allegedly collapse if a liar attempted to cross.
The iron bridge that stands today was built to replace its predecessor in 1859, but the legend remains and it’s often cited as an example to local kids about the importance of telling the truth.
The district of Lipscani is the lively, beating heart of Bucharest and virtually the only part of the city that remains following the aerial bombardments of World War II and moves to flatten the city and rebuild it to Nicolae Ceaușescu’s grandiose designs under Communism. Fringed by the great thoroughfare of Calea Victoriei, the River Dambovita to the south and the Piata Universitatiei to the north, the district was historically Bucharest’s commercial center, with its origins in medieval times; it has transformed in the last 15 years from a tawdry, run-down backwater into action-central. Today its faded mix of Neo-Classical, Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture draws overseas visitors in to explore narrow streets lined with art galleries, vintage shops, scores of restaurants, open-air cafés and late-night clubs. However, the major nightclub fire in October 2015 saw many clubs forced to close as their premises are considered unsafe.
Housed in the majestic former Royal Palace, which stands on Revolution Square and dates from 1812, the National Museum of Art of Romania opened in 1947; it was subsequently badly damaged in the Romanian Revolution of 1989, which saw the downfall and death of Communist despot Nicolae Ceaușescu. The museum reopened fully in 2005, displaying three major collections spread over three floors of the palace, and is now regarded as Romania’s premier art gallery.
The European Paintings and Sculpture galleries include mighty Old Master treasures from the private collection of King Charles I – the likes of Rembrandt, Rubens, El Greco and the Impressionists – while the Romanian Medieval collections feature glittering silver icons, rare manuscripts and stone sculptures in the Lapidarium, found in the restored cellars of the palace. The Romanian Modern galleries are jam-packed with works such as modernist sculptures by Constantin Brancuşi.
Built, as its name suggests, on a hilltop overlooking Sighisoara, the Church on the Hill is one of the city’s oldest buildings, dating back to the mid-14th century. Acclaimed as one of Transylvania’s most important examples of ecclesiastical Gothic architecture, it’s a striking sight, perched on the 420-meter summit of School Hill. It’s a steep climb up a 175-step covered wooden staircase, the ‘Scholar’s Stairs’, to the church, but it’s worth the effort to view the beautifully restored interiors. Highlights include a number of carefully restored 15th-century frescos, an elaborate 16th-century altar and an eerie crypt, home to around 30 tombs.
Cotroceni Palace in Bucharest is the headquarters and residence of the Romanian president, as well as home to the National Cotroceni Museum. The original palace served as the residence of Romanian rulers until the end of the 19th century, at which time a larger palace was commissioned by King Carol I. Most of the palace had to be rebuilt after an earthquake struck in 1977. Adjacent to the palace is the Cotroceni Garden, one of the major public gardens in the city which dates back to the 1850s.
The National Cotroceni Museum collection features more than 20,000 objects, divided into several different collections. Highlights include 18th and 19th century religious arts; a collection of Romanian paintings from the 19th century to the present; 18th and 19th century paintings from German, Austrian, French and Belgian artists; sculptures from both Romanian and European sculptors; drawings, watercolors and engravings from the 19th and 20th centuries.