People sit near a statue of King Carol I, the founder of Romania's royal dynasty, as the moon rises in Bucharest.

People sit near a statue of King Carol I, the founder of Romania's royal dynasty, as the moon rises in Bucharest. (Radu Sigheti, Reuters)


BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Got 48 hours to explore Romania's capital and its eclectic mix of western architectural ideas, eastern imagery, 20th century totalitarian megalomania and buzzing nightlife?

Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors map the city's shift from one of Europe's most progressive urban centres at the start of the 20th century to a chaotic maze of dusty boulevards and quaint neighborhoods bearing the scars of brutal communist policies.

FRIDAY

4 p.m. - From the airport, take a taxi or 783 airport bus straight to Piata Universitatii and the old medieval merchant district of Lipscani, which escaped the attentions of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who razed much of its surroundings.

The area, all but abandoned until just a few years ago, is now a dense network of cobbled streets and period buildings in various stages of refurbishment and center of the city's burgeoning nightlife scene.

It's an easy area to wander around at random but you shouldn't miss the exquisite Stavropoleos Monastery, built in 1724 and an example of Brancovenesc style of Romanian architecture, a rich mix of Byzantine and baroque motifs.

Browse the cafes, bars and small textile and antique shops before having a look at Curtea Veche, the 15th century residence of Vlad Tepes - also known as "Vlad the Impaler" - a bloodthirsty ruler who inspired Bram Stoker's Dracula.

The courtyard of Hanul lui Manuc, a 19th century merchants' inn, is an atmospheric location for an aperitif.

Keep an eye out for stray dogs, a major problem for the city but which have become an offbeat attraction for some tourists. You're unlikely to have problems in the city center, where dogs tend to be alone or in small groups and rarely fierce.

7 p.m. - There's no shortage of options for dinner in Lipscani, including French, Turkish, Italian and Hungarian food. Caru cu Bere (www.carucubere.ro) is a 19th century brewery that serves traditional Romanian fare under impressive vaulted ceilings and offers sarmale, minced meat wrapped in cabbage, and mamaliga, a polenta-like dish often served with cream and cheese.

9 p.m. - Take a stroll through the elegant Pasajul Villacrosse and find a cozy place for a nightcap.

You are spoiled for choice in Lipscani, which is packed with an ever-changing line-up of bars and clubs. Mojo has regular live music (www.mojomusic.ro). A string of trendy industrial-themed bars dot the area; Atelierul Mecanic, designed to look like a workshop, Papiota as a tailor shop and Energiea as a printing press are well worth a visit.

Or continue to Calea Victoriei, the city's most famous street, which leads you past the monumental Beaux Arts Cercul Militar and Art Deco Telephone Palace to hip club Control (www.control-club.ro). Nearby are indie hangout Panic! and Green Hours jazz bar, a long-time Bucharest favorite.(www.greenhours.ro).

SATURDAY

10 a.m. - Hop on the efficient metro (two journeys for 4 Romanian lei or $1.20; 6 lei for a day pass) to Piata Romana and stroll past Amzei market to Piata Revolutiei, lined with historical buildings including the former royal palace, now the National Museum of Art, a gallery with Romanian and European art (www.mnar.arts.ro).

The square was a focal point of the 1989 revolution and facing the royal palace is the former communist headquarters, from where Ceausescu fled the crowds in a helicopter only to be caught and executed. In the middle is a monument to victims of the revolution, which some locals derisively refer to as a potato on a stick.

Don't miss the titchy red brick Cretulescu church and pillared Athenaeum concert hall, renowned as the city's most beautiful building and venue of the world-renowned George Enescu classical music festival, before popping into the Athenee Palace Hilton (www.hilton.co.uk/bucharest) for a drink or early lunch.

Built at the start of the 20th century, the hotel was a notorious meeting spot for spies in the 1930s. Under communism, rooms were said to be bugged and many staff on the payroll of the pervasive secret service, the Securitate.

1 p.m. - Take a walk up Calea Victoriei, passing historic churches, parks and the Cantacuzino Palace, which houses a museum dedicated to Enescu, Romania's most famous composer.