No street in Bucharest has a history to match that of Calea Victoriei, the city’s most famous thoroughfare which runs - much as it has for more than three centuries - from Piata Victoriei in the north of the city all the way down to Piata Natiunilor Unite and the Dambovita river.
Lined with fine houses, palaces, churches, hotels, upmarket shops and museums, it remains perhaps the most prestigious address in the city.
Calea Victoriei was first opened to traffic - or what passed for traffic in those days - in 1692, originally part of the route from the Old Court (Curtea Veche) to Mogosoaia, where Constantin Brancoveanu, that great ruler of these parts who did so much to modernise the country during his long and distinguished reign - had his main palace. The street has had many names over the years, including Ulita Sarindar, Drumul Brasovului and Drumul Mogosoaia - its name until 1878 when it was christened Calea Victoriei in honour of victories recently won by Romanian armies fighting to preserve the country’s newly won independence from the Ottoman Empire.
The street - originally covered with logs, as was the norm in those days - was fully paved by 1825, one of the first in the city (Strada Franceza, in Old Town/Lipscani, closer to the Old Court, was in fact the first). There followed a blossoming of construction as the street became a magnet for wealthy merchants who built homes along its length, keen to be spared the ignominies of the mud streets which persisted elsewhere. Though much has changed since, and not a few majestic buildings have fallen victim to earthquake, war, socialist planning or modernisation, many of the buildings which went up along Calea Victoriei in the 19th century remain, and to walk the street’s length (around three kilometres) is to at once enjoy an architectural treat and history lesson.
Orientation: modern Calea Victoriei can be split more or less neatly into two sections: the residential northern part (extending as far south as Calea Grivitei), noted mainly for its fine houses and palaces and the commercial southern part, packed with hotels, shops, banks, restaurants and cafes. To start a walk of the full length of the street at the northern end (which we recommend, as you can then end up by relaxing in one of the cafes of Old Town), simply take the metro to Piata Victoriei.
Piata Victoriei to Calea Grivitei
For all its history, Calea Victoriei does not start well. Piata Victoriei is by and large an awful place, all cars and traffic, smoke and dust. The modernist building on the far side is the Palatul din Piata Victoriei, home today of the Romanian government (though when it was built in the 1930s it was the Foreign Ministry). On the other side of the square is the Grigore Antipa Museum of Natural History, built in 1906 and one of the best museums in the country. Elsewhere, Piata Victoriei is a socialist nightmare, with its more recently built office blocks barely more attractive than those built before 1989.
Heading off from here along Calea Victoriei itself, you need to walk for 200 metres or so alongside tall, communist-era blocks on either side until you get to the first of many neglected architectural gems, the huge Banloc-Goodrich building at No. 218. Designed by Octav Doicescu in 1938 it was completed only in 1946, and is elegantly functional, the bulk of the building being set back from the street, creating a small square flanked by the building’s twin wings. Banloc-Goodrich was the first tyre-manufacturer in Romania, nationalised in 1948. The building, now owned by the state, has been vacant for some time. It is also known as the Red Building, apparently because in its early years the exterior was painted red. Opposite, on the corner of Strada Sevastopol, is another neglected gem, a vaguely Secessionist house whose original wrought-iron balconies remain intact. Look out too for the sculptures over the windows.