The Communists put the capital of Romania through the wringer. In high megalomaniac style, President Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, demolished a vast swath of Bucharest’s historic center in the late 1970s in order to build the grandiose Palace of Parliament building and the broad avenue leading to it. Elsewhere, numerous historic buildings were replaced by dour cement eyesores. When I first visited in the 1990s, the city once known as the “Paris of the East” was ugly and frankly unnerving.
What a difference a quarter-century makes. The Bucharest of today still feels like a frontier of Europe, but chic restaurants, creative cocktail bars, lively pedestrianized shopping streets and restored Belle Epoque architecture balance its residual grittiness. A customized guided tour organized by the Travel Office proved highly worthwhile, but it was also endlessly fascinating to simply walk around. Bucharest continually confronted us with contrasts: a high-end florist in a crumbling neoclassical storefront, a freshly painted wedding-cake palace abutting a blackened communist housing block, a craft-beer bar in an ornate mansion. In an increasingly internationalized world, the city is its own unique self.
InterContinental Athénée Palace Bucharest
On my last visit to Bucharest in 2018, I found no hotels up to our standards. But a Romania-Budapest itinerary aboard the AmaMagna (see the AmaMagna review) gave me cause to return, and I reserved two pre-cruise nights at the Athénée Palace with high hopes. Completed in 1914, the original grande dame hotel in Bucharest became a social center of the city. The leafy square in front of the building, also overlooked by the imposing Romanian Athenaeum concert hall, was the scene of heavy fighting during the 1989 revolution. In January 2023, after a thorough renovation, the hotel reopened as a 283-room InterContinental property.