Rediscover Bucharest: Calea Victoriei

more than a year ago

Those visitors to (and residents of) Bucharest who speed along in Calea Victoriei in cars - pausing only to watch the traffic lights turning green - often fail to realise that the street is blessed with a number of small parks. The Nicolae Iorga Park is just one of these. A gorgeous little place, the park is home to two large busts: one of Nicolae Iorga (a 19th century politician and polymath), and one of Nichita Stanescu, Romania’s finest 20th century poet.

The large, handsome church overlooking the park is the St. Nicolae Tabacu church, first built in 184. Next to it is the now sadly neglected Casa Cesianu, built in 1880 and which was for a long time home to the German Legation in Bucharest. It most recently housed a casino, but has been empty for some time now.

Opposite (and built at a right angle to the street) is the imposing Library of the Romanian Academy, a Duiliu Marcu design (Marcu was also the architect behind the Palatul din Piata Victoriei) constructed from 1936-7. More than four million books are kept inside.

The house on the south-western corner of the Calea Victoriei/Bulvardul Dacia intersection, hidden behind advertising hoardings and trees is the once fabulous Casa Monteoru. One of the oldest on Calea Victoriei it dates from around 1810, although it was almost entirely reconstructed in the 1880s (to designs by Ion Mincu - an architect whose name you come across a lot in Bucharest). The building is distinguished by its uneven character: the ground floor is much smaller than the upper floor, the gorgeous balcony of which is supported by two broad, Corinthian columns. Eclectic both inside and out the building is today one of a number in the city owned by the Romanian Writer’s Union.

Next door is a fine palace, known as the Palat Romanit which hosts the Museum of Art Collections. The central corp was built in 1834, then rebuilt and extended in 1883, when the wings were added. For much of the 19th century the building was home to the Ministry of Finance, becoming an art museum in 1948, when the wealthiest families in Romania were made an offer they couldn’t refuse by the communist government, and forced to donate much (in many cases all) of their extensive art collections to the state.

The elegant, modernist if rather neglected (spotting a theme?) linear building at No. 152, next to the Golden Tulip hotel, is another Duiliu Marcu design, built from 1936-40 and which was from 1948-1989 home of the State Planning Committee (in other words, the building where bureaucrats tried to ensure that every collective farm in Romania had enough paper clips). Looking every inch a 1930s Italian railway station, the clock on the sublime tower is a gem. It is to be hoped that the building will soon be restored to past glories: it is one of the most overlooked and ignored in the city. This is a real shame.

Commercial Calea Victoriei

It is at the crossroads with Calea Grivitei that you notice a real change in the mood of Calea Victoriei. The road and pavements narrow, and houses, palaces and small parks give way to blocks - many of which are nevertheless elegant if run down - most of which are now used as offices, with shops on the ground floor.

But there are exceptions, such as the Stirbey Palace at No. 107, which dates from 1835, but which is rather hemmed in by the 1960s apartment blocks which surround it, and its facade is spoilt by the impromptu car park directly in front. For decades a museum of arts and crafts, the building is currently in limbo although a very trendy cafe and bar, Eden, operates in the courtyard.

A little way long the other side of the road, past the courtyard that leads to the legendary jazz and theatre club Green Hours, is the extravagant, deliberately over-engineered Neo-Romanian AGIR building at No. 118. Designed by Petre Antonescu and completed in 1925 its facade apparently pays tribute to ‘the engineering genius of Roman aqueducts’. The AGIR was the pre-war association of Romanian engineers, and the building was very much seen as a ‘look what we can do’ calling card. Next door is a charming if neglected 19th century low rise building that looks very out of place in such high-rise company.

The next building of real interest will for most people be the little white church set back from the street in a small square on the corner of Str. George Enescu. Known colloquially as the Biserica Alba (White Church), it is officially the Biserica Sf. Nicolae and is one of the oldest in Bucharest, founded in 1700. The current structure dates from 1827 however (the original was destroyed in an earthquake), with the interior frescoes for which it is famed having been restored a number of times, most recently in 1988. After the last major earthquake in Bucharest (in 1977) the foundations of the church were consolidated, and it is now considered one of the safest in the city.

The glass and steel opposite belong to the Radisson Blu hotel, opened in 2008 after a refit of several years had turned the tired, old and often infamous Hotel Bucuresti into the five-star wonder the rich and famous throng to today. The hotel’s interior courtyard is home - in the right weather - to one of the few outdoor swimming pools in the city. (The original Hotel Bucuresti was built from 1982-4).

In what is very much Bucharest’s Hotel Row, directly across the road from the Radisson is the Athenee Palace Hilton, one of few hotel’s in the world whose history is so intriguing that books have been written about it (Rosie Waldeck’s Athenee Palace details the intricate diplomatic discussions - official or otherwise - which took place here in the 1930s and 1940s). The hotel opened in 1912 (it was designed by a Frenchman, Teophile Bradeau) and was built on the site of an old inn, the Hanul Gherasi. The Calea Victoriei wing was added in the 1960s, and the hotel was entirely renovated again in 1997 when it became a Hilton property. Most recently the ground floor brasserie was remodelled and reopened as the Cafe Athenee. Despite all the changes, the Athenee Palace’s historic English Bar remains wonderfully old fashioned and has barely changed in decades. It serves the city's best pint of Guinness.

The Athenee Palace vies for attention on Piata Revolutiei with the Atheneum, the Former Royal Palace, the University Library, the statue of Carol I, the Former Central Committee Building, the Revolution Monument and the Cretulescu Church. (In fact, there are two squares here: the area as far as the Carol I statue is Piata George Enescu, with Piata Revolutiei only kicking in beyond that. Most people refer to the whole open space as Piata Revolutiei, however). Most of those buildings are listed below, but there are a couple we should point out for you.

First off, the University Library. It was designed by the French architect Paul Gottereau and built from 1891-95. Badly damaged during the revolution of 1989, it was faithfully restored from 1993-96 and is now one of the city’s finest buildings.

Take a look also at the building just behind it: a modern green office block inside the ruins of an old house first built in 1890. What happened here is simple: the original building was all but destroyed during the 1989 revolution (this square saw most of the action: it was from the balcony of the Former Central Committee Building that Nicolae Ceausescu gave his last public speech, before fleeing the next day from the roof in a helicopter). It was taken over by the Architects’ Union who then created the rather splendid mix of old and new we admire today. There is a cafe on the ground floor.

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Over a year ago
Martin Speers
Looking forward to returning to Bucharest soon and have just re-read Olivia Manning's atmospheric 'Balkan Trilogy' in which pre-WWII Bucharest and the Calea Victoriei, the Athenee Palace and it's English Bar feature prominently; a good read that gives you a good sense of the city and its people at that time. (Manning worked there at the time)
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