It may not be on your travel bucket list yet, but Bucharest, the capital of Romania, is an underrated city filled with culture, historical intrigue and vibrant life. It was once known as the "Paris of the east" thanks to the city's palatial squares and broad boulevards, like Calea Victoriei (Victory Way) and Șoseaua Kiseleff (Kiseleff Road). Bucharest even has its own Arc de Triomph (Arcul de Triumf in Romanian) honouring the Romanian soldiers who fought in the war of independence in 1878.
During World War II, though, and throughout the reign of former dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, much of the city was destroyed. Luckily, Bucharest Old Town, also known as Lipscani, was one of the only areas in the city that was spared. This charming neighbourhood is home to legions of fine dining options, picturesque Baroque buildings and ancient churches and monasteries that are definitely worth including on your sightseeing list when you visit Bucharest.
The aforementioned Calea Victoriei, which runs right through the centre of Old Town, is the oldest and most famous thoroughfare in Bucharest. Designed in 1692, the street is home to many of the most important landmarks and museums in the city.
One of the best things to do here is simply stroll down the length of Calea Victoriei and marvel at the different architectural styles along the road. On the south end of the street near Dâmbovița River you'll see the CEC Palace, a grand neoclassical structure built in 1900. Just across the road from the palace is the Muzeul Național de Istorie a României (National Museum of Romanian History), which is housed inside the former Postal Services Palace. This massive 8,000-square-metre museum contains historical Romanian artifacts from throughout history, including an impressive collection of jewels from the royal collection.
Wander a bit further north on Calea Victoriei, past the attractive Sărindar Fountain, and you'll hit Piața Revoluției (Revolution Square). This is the site where the revolution of 1989 began in Bucharest, resulting in the overthrowing of Ceauşescu. It's also home to a number of points of interest like Palatul Regal (the Royal Palace), the Athenaeum, the Memorialul Renaşterii (Memorial of Rebirth) and the University of Bucharest Library.
When you need a break from sightseeing, spend some time in Cişmigiu Gardens, a super serene public park in the north of the city with bubbling fountains, a fragrant rose garden and a popular boating lake. Bring a picnic and sit under the shade of some trees, or treat yourself to an ice cream from one of the vendors in the gardens.
While we're on the topic of lunch, you can't possibly visit Bucharest without sampling some of the local fare. One thing you'll probably notice here is the surprising number of places selling pretzels (covrigi in Romanian). Indeed, pretzels are one of the city's favourite snacks, and Romanian pretzel makers have got pretty inventive over the years. Expect to see a huge variety of pretzels with various fillings and toppings like cheese, sausages or chocolate.
For something a little heartier, head to one of the nice restaurants in Lipscani and order some local dishes such as sarmale (cabbage rolls stuffed with meat) and mămăligă (polenta topped with cheese and sour cream). Poftă Bună!