The best of Bucharest... and Sofia.
CSpend 72 hours in the capitals of Bulgaria and Romania and you'll be left with an appetite to discover more about these two Eastern-European gems.
The pair have an east-meets-west vibe about them, as well as similar climates.
You'll find blocky Communist architecture in both for sure, but Ottoman and Orthodox buildings lent Sofia an air of Seville or perhaps Vienna, while Bucharest is known as the Paris of the East.
Only a 55-minute flight separates them and staying at the Hilton Sofia and the The Athenee Palace Hilton in Bucharest and you can do it in style and luxury. With plenty on offer in both, here are 10 things to top your list of things to do: 1 PALACE OF THE PARLIAMENT, BUCHAREST THE second biggest building in the world (after the Pentagon in the USA), was commissioned and built under the megalomanic communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Grotesque and grand in equal measure, at certain points during its construction Romania was spending more than 40% of its GDP on this folly. Some 40,000 families were displaced so a huge swathe of Bucharest could be raised for it to be built, with a copy of Paris's Champs-Elysees (Boulevard Unirii) facing it thrown in for good measure. Walking tours are held every hour and cost 25 Lei (PS4 approx). During the hour-long tour you'll walk 1.2 miles and only take in 3% of this breathtaking building. The views from the balcony overlooking Boulevard Unirii are spectacular.
2 VILLAGE MUSEUM, BUCHAREST THE open-air museum in the centre of the city is a novel way to tell the story of how Romanian life evolved between the 17th and 20th century. Some 33 buildings have been transferred from their original locations and rebuilt on the edge of the Herastrau Park. Take in the houses, churches, and a windmill at your own pace with useful descriptions of each house written in Romanian and English outside each one. The price is 10 lei (PS1.70).
3 SAMPLE ROMANIAN WINE IN BUCHAREST OLD TOWN BUCHAREST Old Town is full of hip and trendy bars and restaurants.
The area has undergone a huge renaissance in the past decade and is thronged with crowds into the early hours most days. You'll find cuisines to suit most palates. Down the quieter Strada Sepcari you'll find Dionysos Wine Bar. Owner Radu is a larger than life character with a great sense of humour. He is an evangelist for Romanian wine, which is enjoying a resurgence.
4 ART IN BUCHAREST IF YOU'RE into art then book onto an Art in Bucharest tour. No two tours are the same as it depends which artists are available when you're visiting. Run by art enthusiast Daniela Staicu, right, you'll visit a variety of artists in their studios.
You can't just turn up though. Book in advance through www.artinbucharest.com - it costs about 90 lei (PS15).
5 THE ATHENEE PALACE HILTON AND HILTON SOFIA BUILT in 1914 The Athenee Palace Hilton (pictured) was a notorious hangout for spies in the cold war. Fittingly it overlooks what became Revolution Square in 1989 when the Communist regime was overthrown. Modernised and renovated in 1994 it still enjoys its original features, such as its ornate marble lobby. Hilton Sofia is set in parkland opposite the Park National Palace of Culture, a huge conference centre built in the Communist era. It's in an ideal location, just a five-minute walk from the Vitosha Boulevard, the main shopping thoroughfare. It also has great views of the Vitosha mountain, which sits on the outskirts of the city. Both offer everything you would expect from a five-star hotel, including free wi-fi.
6 BOYANA CHURCH, SOFIA APPROACHING the small medieval Bulgarian Orthodox Church on the outskirts of the city I had no idea at the spectacular artworks within. Bulgaria has gone to huge lengths to preserve the spectacular religious frescoes painted inside this Unesco World Heritage Building. The most famous in the Boyana Church are a second layer dating back to 1259, some 150 years before the renaissance started and show the depth of Bulgarian culture. Entry costs 10 Leva (PS3.75).
7 VODENITSATA RESTAURANT A 20-MINUTE drive from the centre of Sofia, nestling half way up Vitosha mountain, sits this cracking restaurant. Here you can sample traditional Bulgarian fare, while being entertained by traditional Bulgarian dance and music.
Vegetables more associated with the Mediterranean than Eastern Europe such as olives, peppers, cucumber and tomatoes feature heavily in Bulgarian cuisine. Prices vary from 5 lva (PS1.90) for starters to around 30 leva (PS10) for the more expensive mains. I particularly enjoyed the lamb skewers.
The highlight of the night was two Bulgarian men performing a fire walking ceremony in the courtyard.
Traditional... A Bulgarian act at the Vodenitsata restaurant 8 SOFIA CITY WALK TAKING IN ST ALEXANDER NEVSKY CHURCH, PARLIAMENT BUILDINGS THE best way to explore Sofia is on foot. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church does not have cathedrals, but the St Alexander Nevsky Church and its golden domes is the nearest you'll St Alexander Nevsky Church find. It's a useful starting point. Don't miss the Rusian Orthodox Church on Tsar Osvboditel Boulevard. Cafe Corso opposite has brilliant views and serves great coffee.
9 PRI ORLITE RESTAURANT, SOFIA LOCATED on the 18th floor of Bulgaria's Ministry of Transport you'll enjoy fine dining and wonderful panoramic views of Sofia. Pri Orlite is just round the corner from the spectacular National Theatre building. You might expect to pay more to eat here. I enjoyed a delightfully fresh tagiatelli with king prawns and octopus for 20 leva (PS7.50).
10NATIONAL HISTORY MUSEUM, SOFIA VISIT this if only to marvel at the Communist architecture - it was once the official residence of Bulgaria's communist leaders. It contains some of the earliest examples of items made from gold. You'll also learn how the devilishy hard Bulgarian Cyrillic alphabet has evolved over the years. Entry is 10 leva (PS3.75).
NEED TO KNOW |ACCOMODATION:Hilton Sofia Hotel, prices start from PS75 per night for a double room. Athenee Palace Hilton Bucharest, prices start from PS80 per night for a double room. DoubleTree by Hilton Bucharest - Unirii Square, prices from PS80 per night for a double room.
FLIGHTS:Fly to Sofia and Bucharest from various UK airports. Manchester to Sofia (via Amsterdam) with KLM costs approximately PS290. A flight from Sofia to Bucharest with Tarom costs approximately PS100. Return flight Bucharest to Manchester (via London) with British Airways is approximately PS440.
DAVID BARTLETT discovers two cities that are full of Eastern European promise
Radu Tudor, owner of Dyonisos wine bar in the Old Town Bucharest
Hilton Sofia, above, is in an ideal location, just a five-minute walk from the Vitosha Boulevard