Old Town, Bucharest
I've decided to make a post since as far as I could see many people got some things wrong... or just visited our city a very long time ago, so, let's start with the obvious begining, the main reason of you visiting our city is gaining experience and making an idea of how's the situation here, first of all, if you're a calm person which enjoys learning new things and understanding other nation's culture you would you would be able to chose from a very large gama of museums, if you just like walking along the main boulevards and spending time and cash in restaurants and shops than get aquainted with lipscani area, it's our old town, which saw a lot of changes in the last few years, many buildings have been refurbished as a lot of restaurants, shops and coffe shops opened, making the old town a very pleasent place in which you could spend some time,
A very important worth mentioning is that the city is very safe, especially in the central areas, you don't have to keep an eye of everybody surrounding you but keeping an eye on your personal belongins when sitting down at a table is another thing, in crowded places be sure to have your baclpack/purse and pockets zipped, just as a matter of fact, thieves which are usually represented by the roma community won't represent trouble.
One very important thing to mention is that, when getting a cab ride make sure that the cost of the ride is written on the door, which is now about 1.39, don't enter "Pelican company" taxis, those will extracharge you, take in account that a taxi-fare from the airport to any hotel in the centre of Bucharest will cost you between 30-40 lei, never above, make sure that if travelling with public buses to always have a ticket, cause there's a very big possibilty that you'd get caught and recive a fine up to 50lei, don't be afraid of stray dogs, they don't represent a threat, even though there aren't that many left... all that being said, have fun visiting Bucharest :)
The old town area, otherwise known as Lipscani, is a total mess, yet fascinating. Many of the streets were ripped up years ago; then due to a dispute were left ripped up rather than repaved. Some are currently being repaired. There are wonderful buildings, beautifully restored, right next to derelict buildings, falling down where they stand. The whole area is covered in restaurants and bars and despite everything is a great place for a drink or a meal. Highlights include the Old Court (Curtea Veche) once the palace of Vlad Tepes aka Dracula, the Old Court Church, the Hanul Lui Manuc - a former inn. From the outside this looks derelict and a mess. From the inside it is a lovely posh restaurant/hotel. There are also several churches such as the Russian Church and Stavropoleos Church. There are many beautiful bank buildings. You will also find the famous Caru cu Bere (beer cart restaurant) here. Well worth a stroll, just watch out for the bulldozers!
A few years ago, the City Hall started talking about refurbishing the Old Town. They wanted to have this part of the city closed for traffic, to evacuate illegal occupants (mostly Gypsies) of some of the old houses, have them restored or sold to people / companies that could do so, change all sewage and electricity wires, even up the pavement and turn this area into a tourist attraction.
The results were, just like life, uneven. The Spanish company which won the auction had the great old cobblestone (which only needed polishing) removed and replaced with pathetic cement biscuits; they then exported the old cobblestone to cities that still appreciate history. They imported street lights per se, without adapting these to the buildings or streets they served (notice my last picture); wake up, dear Sedesa architects, this is no Madrid, maybe you should have coffee instead of sangria before going to work in the morning. The good parts included creating special areas where they uncovered old foundations (of Serban Voda Inn for instance), and left them in daylight, so that people can see them while walking. The whole quarter became a bit cleaner, but - as the City Hall did not evict the illegal tenants and only part of the traffic was kept out - there is still a lot of place for improvements. Meanwhile, works continue painfully slow (they have not even started on Lipscani, for instance), but having a whole street closed down, with the pavement removed and with wooden bridges providing access for pedestrians, as Franceza Street is nowadays (January 2008) is interesting, I would dare say. On the other side of Bratianu Avenue, sections of Calea Mosilor and Sfanta Vineri streets are just perfect for mountain biking. Including the mud and all jumps one might like...
During the late Middle Ages, both on plots of land that used to belong to the Old Court (which had stretched far beyond the little we can see of it today) and on land to the North, West and East of it, various merchants settled with their businesses. They built houses and shops or caravanserais. The houses were designed on the bazaar scheme, with living quarters upstairs and shops on the ground level.
Larger caravanserais were arranged around a central church, with a wide open area around and surrounded by a building hosting storage space in the cellars, shops downstairs, with rooms for rent upstairs. It was, for instance, the great Serban Voda Inn built by Serban Cantacuzino in 1687, demolished in 1882 when they built the National Library and the buildings around it, while one could hardly believe that the still standing Sfantul Gheorghe Nou Church (see my special tip for that) was initially part of such an inn, accomplished in 1698 and demolished after the devastating fire in 1847. Smaller caravanserais were arranged on the simpler bezesten scheme (shops all around, rooms upstairs); it was the case of the nowadays ruined Gabroveni Inn (see my tip for it) or of the fine Hanul cu Tei.
Just like in a bazaar, the Old Town of Bucharest developed gathering guilds or merchants dealing a certain type of products on a certain street, hence the name these streets have: Lipscani (merchants coming from Leipzig), Gabroveni (merchants coming from Gabrovo, with their own inn), Selari (merchants into horse saddles), Sepcari (hat makers), Caldarari (bucket makers), Zarafi (bankers, cash dealers). Even though many houses have been neglected or abandoned for a while, it is well worth walking and admiring the old houses; soon enough they will all host restaurants and bars and it will change.
Not much is left of Bucharest's historic centre. City planning, wars, Ceauscescu and time have confined Old Bucharest to the streets roughly between the river, Calea Victoriei, Bulevardul Bratianu and Bulevardul Regina Elisabeta. Essentially, Str. Lipscani and around is very run down in places, although in recent years occasional corners have been restored to their previous state. Here you'll find the Old Court Church, (Biserica Curtea Veche 1559, Bucharest's oldest), Bucharest's oldest café, Hanul lui Manuc (a genuine caravanserai from 1808), and for fans of Dracula, the ruins of the Princes' Palace (Palatul Voievodal), built by Vlad Tepes. It was during the reign of Tepes (1456-76) that Bucharest was named, fortified and became a centre of trade.
The old town area in general is simply crying out for investment. Already some trendy bars, boutiques and restaurants have appeared.