Now in its sixth successful year of operation the Bucharest City Tour open-top sightseeing bus - much mocked, not least by us, when it first appeared - is more popular than ever and is without question one of the best ways to see the city.
Tickets for the buses are valid for 24 hours, allowing you to hop-on and hop-off as many times as you like throughout the day. You do, however, need to validate the tickets each time you board a bus. Tickets are priced at 25 lei for adults, 10 lei for children, and can be bought either on board, at RATB ticket kiosks or at selected hotels. Headphones offer (very) basic recorded commentary in a number of languages. There are 14 stops along the route (all are well signposted) and every one is directly outside or very close to a major sight.
Leaving Casa Scanteii (officially now called Casa Presei Libere) the bus follows Soseaua Kiseleff, passing Herastrau Park and the Village Museum on the left, and Romania’s national rugby stadium on the right, before arriving at the Arc de Triumf.
The Arc, which is being refurbished, is not currently open to the public. From here the bus continues along Soseaua Kiseleff, passing some of the most expensive real estate in Bucharest. Most of the splendid houses on this street are now embassies. Pavel Kiseleff by the way, for whom the street is named, was a modernising Russian general who was the de facto governor of Bucharest and Wallachia in the 1830s.
Calea Victoriei is Bucharest’s most famous street, and you get a very different perspective from the top of a bus than you do at street level. The vast number of architectural styles on show is immediately obvious, from the Brancovenesque houses at the northern end to the art-deco, 1920s apartment blocks further south. The biggest attraction on Calea Victoriei is probably Piata Revolutiei, where the bus conveniently stops. On this huge square you will find the Atheneum, the Athenee Palace Hilton, the Former Royal Palace (now the National Museum of Art), the Former Central Committee Building and the Revolution Memorial, which locals call ‘an olive on a stick.’
The next stop is the rather amazing CEC building, home of Romania’s national savings bank, CEC. Built from 1896-1900, the interior cupola is stunning. Opposite is the Post Office Palace, a neoclassical gem built as the home of the Romanian post office, but since 1970 the site of the National History Museum. Behind the museum is the Old Town area of the capital.
At the bottom of Calea Victoriei is the river Dambovita, now more a canal than anything, its embankments little more than ugly concrete slabs. Until the 1970s the river was a more natural-looking affair, its embankments covered in trees and foliage. Concrete-fan Nicolae Ceausescu deemed it untidy, however, and its fate was sealed. In a similar way the whole area that the bus now enters was also ‘tidied up’: hundreds of houses, churches, schools and even hospitals were razed in order to make way for the Civic Centre, of which the most important building is of course the Casa Poporului, where the bus stops. It is almost impossible to imagine how this area looked before the demolitions began (in 1984), but you can get an idea by peering behind the blocks on Bulevardul Unirii at some of the few surviving houses and at the church of the Antim Monastery, built in 1715 and which survived demolition only by being moved 25 metres from its original location.
Piata Unirii itself is one of the largest public squares in Europe. That does not, however, make it one of the nicest. In fact, the square is an awful place, all concrete and traffic. Respite can be found up the hill leading southwest from the square, home of the Romanian Patriarchal Cathedral, known Mitropoliei. From Unirii the bus makes its way along Bulevardul Ion Bratianu, named for a former Romanian prime minister. Look out for the Baratiei Church on your right, which sticks out quite literally, almost into the street. First built in 1590 it is one of the oldest churches in Bucharest. Next stop is Piata Universitatii (the bus stop is in fact outside the Coltea hospital and church).
As you travel north along Bulevardul Magheru towards the next stop, Piata Romana, look out for two art deco hotels, the Lido on the left (currently closed) and the Ambassador on the right. Both built in the 1930s they are crying out for five-star refits. Gheorghe Magheru, for whom the street is named, was a Romanian general and politician who was instrumental - both militarily and politically - in bringing about the independence of Wallachia and Moldavia in the 19th century. Piata Romana is another of Bucharest’s large public squares that is today little more than a mess of cars and concrete. On the right hand side is the ASE building, home of Bucharest’s economics university.
From Piata Romana the bus makes its way along Bulevardul Lascar Cartagiu towards Piata Victoriei. Smart fin-de-siecle villas and apartment blocks line the avenue, named for another former Romanian prime minister, Lascar Cartagiu. A large statue of Cartagiu can be spotted about half way along the street, on the right hand side.
At Piata Victoriei, yet another Bucharest square that is little more than concrete and traffic (are you noting a theme?) the only point of any real interest (other than the museums we have already mentioned) is the 1930s Italianate building on your right, once the foreign ministry but now home to the Romanian government. Since thousands of miners turned up uninvited and ransacked the place in 1991 it has been open only to those on official business. Do not miss the horribly kitsch mansion a little further along, on your right, the unmistakable home of convicted criminal George Becali, the racist, homophobic owner of Steaua Bucharest who was only recently released after serving a prison sentence for corruption. A little further along, on your left (in the middle of the road, in fact) is the Aviators Monument, dedicated to the many aviation pioneers who hailed from these parts. (A small exhibition on the upper floor of Otopeni Airport offers more detail about Romania’s proud record in the development of commercial aircraft, should you have ten minutes to kill while waiting for your plane home).
Arriving at Piata Aviatorilor, the bus rejoins Soseaua Kiseleff, stopping once more (at the Village Museum) before ending its circuit of the Romanian capital back at Casa Scanteii.