Bucharest

Romania’s capital it’s dynamic, energetic and more than a little bit funky. It’s where still-unreconstructed communism meets unbridled capitalism; where the soporific forces of the EU meet the passions of the Balkans and Middle East. Many travelers give the city just a night or two before heading off to Transylvania, but we think that’s not enough. Budget at least a few days to take in the good museums, stroll the parks and hang out at trendy cafes. While much of the centre is modern and garish, you will find some splendid 17th- and 18th-century Orthodox churches tucked away in quiet corners and graceful art nouveau villas. Communism changed the face of the city for good, and nowhere is this more evident than at the gargantuan Palace of Parliament, the craziest and arguably crassest tribute to dictatorial megalomania you’ll ever see. The Palace of Parliament is the world’s second-largest building (after the Pentagon) and former dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s most infamous creation. Built in 1984 (and still unfinished), the building has more than 3000 rooms and covers 330,000 sq metres. Entry is by guided tour only. The exquisite Romanian Athenaeum is the majestic heart of Romania’s classical music tradition. Scenes from Romanian history are featured on the interior fresco inside the Big Hall on the 1st floor; the dome is 41m high. A huge appeal dubbed ‘Give a Penny for the Athenaeum’ saved it from disaster after funds dried up in the late 19th century. Inside, the peristyle is adorned with mosaics of five Romanian rulers, including Moldavian prince Vasile Lupu (r 1512–21), Wallachian Matei Basarab (r 1632–54) and King Carol I (r 1881–1914). It was built in 1888, and George Enescu made his debut here in 1898, followed five years later by the first performance of his masterpiece, ‘Romanian Rhapsody’. Today it’s home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra.