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Bucharest

palace of parliament bucharest romania A visit to Bucharest would not be complete without a look at the Communist landmarks that make up much of the city's visual signature. Not only do the sites represent a difficult part of history that ended with the 1989 revolution, but the monuments are interesting architecturally. ("Anything that looks weird was built by the Communists," our guide told us. He was right.) Among the sites that mark Ceausescu's 25-year dictatorship: the former Central Committee of the Communist Party building on Revolution Plaza, the scene of Ceausescu's last speech and, across from it, a brick and glass building that headquartered the secret police; the large white obelisk shooting through a symbolic black cloud, a monument known locally as the "impaled potato," which celebrates freedom from Communism; and the Palace of Parliament, one of the largest buildings in the world. The building, Ceausescu's greatest folly, has more than 1,000 rooms, an enormous nuclear bunker and a 328-foot-long lobby. It took 20,000 workers and 700 architects to build. Palace of Parliament is located on B-dul Unirii, a boulevard modeled after the Champs-Elysees. Revolution Plaza is roughly nine blocks north of Parliament.

A counterpoint to the Communist landmarks is the lovely Lipscani district, the historical heart of Bucharest. The old city center, now being refashioned into an upscale neighborhood, is a mishmash of architectural styles, from Baroque to neo-Classical to Art Nouveau. This jumble of cobblestone streets and pedestrian walkways houses art galleries, antique shops and coffeehouses. It is also home to the stunning Stavropoleos Church. Built in 1724, this small architectural gem is a mixture of Romanian and Byzantine styles with a beautiful facade, frescoes and wood-painted icons. Many consider it to be Bucharest's finest church.

Bucharest has many museums, but far and away, the two local favorites are the National Village Museum (Sos Kiseleff 28 - 30), an open-air collection of peasant homesteads transported from across rural Romania, and the Museum of the Romanian Peasant (Sos Kiseleff 3), which houses 18th- and 19th-century collections of weavings, handicrafts, pottery and other folk arts. The latter was named European Museum of the Year in 1996. Another museum, underrated but quite wonderful, is the Museum of Art Collections. Founded in 1978 and part of the National Art Museum, it contains private collections confiscated by the Communists and later recovered. (Some promotional literature about the museum says the art was "donated to the state." Don't believe it!) The artworks -- traditional glass, Transylvanian icons, 19th-century French furniture and works by Romanian masters -- mirror the development of Romanian art in the 19th and 20th centuries and hint at how the nation's avant-garde once lived. The museum, headquartered in a neo-Classical building at Calea Victoriei 111, has sketchy hours, so it's advisable to call first.

Slideshow: 10 Best Undiscovered Destinations

The Arch of Triumph, based on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, is an important city landmark that honors the bravery of Romanian soldiers who fought in World War I. Originally built of wood in 1922, the 85-foot-high arch was finished in granite in 1936. The monument is located on Sos Kiseleff, the same street that houses the National Village Museum and Museum of the Romanian Peasant just a few blocks away. Kiseleff itself is notable because it showcases Bucharest's finest villas, occupied today by diplomats and political parties, among others. During the Communist era, it was reserved strictly for Communist party officials.

Herastrau Park, considered by many to be Bucharest's nicest park, stretches along a manmade lake, and is a great place to stroll, bike or boat. There are open-air cafes, restaurants, and nice spots to relax and live like the locals for a while.

brasov black church romania Tack some time in Transylvania onto your stay in Bucharest. It's gorgeous mountain country that houses ski resorts like Sinaia, 80 miles from Bucharest, and the lovely medieval town of Brasov, 100 miles away. The tourism industry has made much ado about Bran Castle because of its so-called association with Dracula. In fact, there is no association, and the castle itself is not all that special and is sparingly furnished. For day trips, the best bet is to focus on tours that include Brasov, Sinaia Monastery (founded in 1695 and still in use) and the extraordinary Peles Castle. The Peles compound, one of the most visited sites in all of Romania, is stunning architecturally and tells the story (through design, artworks, furnishings and family objects) of Romania's golden age and the royal family that made it so.

The Dracula legend originated in Romania, and to experience it locally, check out lovely Snagov, a weekend retreat for Bucharestians just 25 miles north of the city. There's a lowland forest, a lake and, notably, an island in the lake that features a 15th-century church that is home to Vlad Tepes' tomb. Tepes was the brutal prince who inspired novelist Bram Stoker's "Dracula." Rowboats, often manned by priests, are available to take visitors to the small stone church. For do-it-yourselfers, there are buses and a shuttle service that travel to Snagov; the concierge at your hotel can fill you in. There are also guided tours.

Take a day-long excursion to Piatra Craiului National Park, which supports rare species of plants. You can typically arrange for a tour that includes a cable car ride in the Bucegi Mountains and lunch in a chalet in the heart of the park. Check with your hotel concierge.
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