36 Hours in Bucharest17 Nov 2018
Rebounding from decades of repression, Romania’s capital is brimming with Italian-style cafes, museums, parks and restaurants that celebrate the country’s rich cuisine.
Bucharest is like cilantro, a Romanian resident once told me: You either love it or hate it. But there’s much to love about a city that provides a less-expensive taste of Europe (Romania is in the European Union but not in the eurozone). Still grappling with allegations of government corruption and working to rebound from layers of grim history, the present-day capital remains a bit rough around the edges, but offers a rich ethnic culture, a resurgent arts and crafts scene, beautiful parks and a booming night life.
1) 4 p.m. A dictator’s digs
Book in advance for a tour in English at the opulent Ceausescu Mansion, also known as the Spring Palace, which opened as a museum in 2016. A guide walks visitors through the villa where the head of state, Nicolae Ceausescu, and his wife, Elena, lived in relative luxury from 1965 until their execution by firing squad in 1989, after decades of social, political and economic repression. There’s a grand marble staircase, a glitzy bar, a private movie theater (“He liked to watch ‘Kojak’ but she preferred John Wayne,” our guide said), and a huge walk-in closet still displaying their dated designer clothing. Check out the private spa’s slimming machines and the lavish mosaics surrounding the indoor swimming pool, and remember the population that struggled to survive on rationed food and fuel. To join a group tour, entry is 50 lei, or around $12, a person. Free for war veterans and what the website calls “revolutionaries.”
2) 6 p.m. A taste of Romania
Catapult back into this century with a drink and an appetizer at Paine si Vin, a casual, but sophisticated, outpost emphasizing natural ingredients from regional butchers and farmers. The wood-fired flatbread with toppings like blue cheese and mushrooms (32 lei), or salami and eggplant (28 lei) make a nice snack with a glass of Romanian Alira rosé (17 lei). Or two can make a meal out of the charcuterie board of “traditional tastes from local producers,” including Mangalita smoked ham, Plescoi mutton sausages, marinated olives, salty Transylvanian sheep’s milk cheese, honey mustard and crunchy veggies (72 lei).