The People's Palace: Ceausescu's Lasting, Loathed Legacy

Bucharest's unmistakable Palace of Parliament, due to its immense physical, psychic and historic stature, is perhaps the most controversial building in Romania. Meant to be the crowning achievement of 'Centrul Civic' or 'Civic Centre' - Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu's ambitious urban development plan - the Palace of Parliament represents one of the most extravagant and expensive building projects in the history of mankind; certainly of the last century. Claiming superlative as the world's second-largest building by surface area (after the sneakily spacious US Pentagon), the Palace of Parliament is one of Romania's biggest tourist attractions, despite popular disdain.

As once regal and cosmopolitan Bucharest lay in decay after two World Wars and a devastating earthquake in 1977, Romania's Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was coming to the height of his power and megalomania. By creating a pervasive cult of personality (calling himself 'Conducator' ('Leader'), 'Geniul din Carpati' ('Genius of the Carpathians') and even having a king-like scepter made for himself), Ceausescu projected his own narcissism onto the people, wishing to erase everything as it was before him from the popular imagination. Promoting the 'Civic Centre' project as the creation of a 'multilaterally developed socialist society,' Ceausescu began to demolish the deteriorating capital and rebuild it in his own vision, culminating in the construction of 'Casa Poporului,' or the 'The People's House' as it was to be ironically titled. [The name of the structure was changed to 'The Palace of Parliament' after the fall of communism, however most Romanians still refer to it as 'Casa Poporului.']

Ceausescu achieved the idea for 'The People's House' after a visit to North Korea's Kim II-sung in 1972. The 'People's House' would be the largest, most lavish palace in the world and would hold all the functions of his socialist state, as well as serve as a handsome residence for he and his wife. Leading to the Palace would be Boulevard 'Victory of Socialism' (now Boulevard Unirii), the Champs Elysees of Bucharest (but deliberately designed to be 1 metre wider on each side and 6 metres longer than Paris' thoroughfare), stretching from Piata Alba Iulia to the Palace premises. To build the Palace and Centrul Civic, Ceausescu set about demolishing most of Bucharest's historic districts (leaving only Lipscani), including 19 Orthodox Christian churches, 6 synagogues and Jewish temples, 3 Protestant churches (plus eight relocated churches), and 30,000 homes in two neighbourhoods alone. In total, one-fifth of central Bucharest was razed for the project. As a result, a popular joke of the time was that the 'Victory of Socialism' Ceausescu had engendered was over the city itself.

Construction began on 'The People's House' in 1983, with the cornerstone laid June 25, 1984. Some 700 Romanian architects purportedly collaborated on its design which combines elements and motifs from a multitude of classical sources, creating an eclectic, undefinable architectural style. Measuring 270 metres wide by 240m long, 86m high and 92m underground, the People's Palace is 12 stories tall with an undisclosed number of underground levels (at least 8) in varying stages of completion. It's 1,100 rooms were apparently constructed strictly from Romanian materials, though most locals seem skeptical of this. Estimates of the materials used include 1 million cubic metres of Transylvanian marble, 3,500 metric tonnes of crystal for the 480 chandeliers and 1,409 lights and mirrors that were manufactured, 700,000 tonnes of steel and bronze, 900,000 cubic metres of wood and 200,000 square metres of woven carpets, many of which were spun on site.

Though no figures have been officially released, it is said that some 20,000 workers toiled in 24-hour shifts, seven days a week, to build the Palace at the pace at which it was being constructed. To finance the project, Ceausescu had to take on enormous foreign debts. In order to repay these debts he systematically starved the Romanian people, exporting all of the country's agricultural and industrial production as the standard of living in Romania sank to an all time low. Food-rationing, gas electric and heating blackouts became everyday norms; people lived in squalor and poverty as the Ceausescu's themselves exhibited outrageous extravagance.

The Romanian Revolution of 1989 broke out just as the People's Palace was nearing completion. Mass protests in December 1989 in Timisoara caused martial law to be declared, a Bucharest rally turned to riot and the Ceausescus were forced to flee the capital by helicopter. They were soon after captured by police in Targoviste after abandoning their chopper, were sentenced to death by an ad hoc military court on charges ranging from illegal gathering of wealth to genocide and were executed by firing squad on Christmas Day, 1989.

After Ceausescu's deposition, the new government moved its functions into his maniacal mansion and it was renamed the Palace of Parliament. Today it also houses the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC), however most of the premises goes unoccupied. Tours of the building are of course available and cost about 2.50; watch out, though - there's a rather outrageous 30 lei tax for taking photographs (over 8). Guided tours are available in several languages though you may have to wait over half an hour for an English language tour. And don't expect your guide or anyone else who works there to be cheery; they're about as self-loathing as they come. Several questions you can ask and be told by your guide, "officially I can't answer that" include: 1) How many people died during construction? 2) What percentage of this building is actually in use? 3) How much did it cost to build this monster? 4) How many floors underground does it go? Are there tunnels? and so on...

Though many find the Palace to be aesthetically unappealing, the exquisite craftsmanship of the marble staircases, carved wooden balconies, crystal chandeliers and whatnot cannot be denied. During your visit you'll only see 5% of the structure, but you will be able to step onto the balcony from which Ceausescu planned to address his people had they not executed him first. Instead, the balcony was first used by pop star Michael Jackson, who declared to the adoring crowd below, "I LOVE BUDAPEST!" [Moments later MJ was forced to escape by private helicopter back to his Neverland Ranch.]

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grosspietsch from Germany Reply Sep 29th, 2014

Is there any event in the time 29.12.14 - 03.01.15 in the palace ??

Howard Norgaard from United States Reply Mar 30th, 2014

We visited the palace in 2009. I'm glad we got to see it. Our guide was young, cheerful, and informative. She was quite insistent on the group staying together, but my wife doesn't do stairs quickly, so we lagged behind a few times. The guide did not complain. One of the best best bits of information about the palace is that Ceausescu's name is not mentioned or inscribed anywhere. Why have I gone back to Romania 3 times? It is the wonderful people we know there. They are lifetime friends. One took us to Bacau and a tour of that area. She also took us to see Peles and Bran. We found wonderful coffee shops in Brasov. In Buchaest we ate at a restaurant called Vulturul that served delicious food in a variety of settings. We ate our 49th wedding anniversary meal there with very special service. I wish Romania did a better job of inviting tourists. On a Chicago tour bus the guide pointed out the Merchandise Mart as the second largest building in the world. I advised him about the Palace of Parliament in Bucharest. Our Romanian visitor was happy to see me take pride in her country.

Loreen from Romania Reply Sep 29th, 2013

The part about Michael Jackson is 100% not true, pure junk.

Jeannine from United States Reply Sep 1st, 2013

Just returned from a visit to my husbands home land ( he left it 7 yrs ago) and we saw both the palace and the country side ( including Vlad's place ) and all was impressive...but the people were the most impressive.. Poor but very generous to this visitor. I wish they would learn from Ireland tourist trade...this country has a lot to offer but most don't know it. Your article was amazing and the pic above it was cool..never saw that entire view before. As for MJ...what do you expect from ignorent American"s....geography is not their strong point...sad but true.

Leigh Wilson from Australia Reply Jan 16th, 2013

The Palace, boulevards, & centrul area are a huge achievement - compare with centre of Paris, London, Moscow etc. The major pyramids of Egypt, the major buildings of Rome. Extravagent, ambitious, narcissistic --- but they've survived & are contemplated long after the pain of creation. I'm sure the Romanians will eventually modify their attitude, improve its functionality.

Liza from Philippines Reply Jan 12th, 2013

I love this well explained article. It is nice to know the history of this palace and about Romania in general. Regarding MJ, I'm glad the author shared this to the readers, I believe this added more color to the history. I mean, the world should know about this, it isn't a big deal if they would understand and read this article clearly.

Anton from United States Reply Nov 6th, 2012

I grew up in Bucharest and feel ashamed that such waste went to a family of dictators while we, the population, were starving. At the time of their ruling (45 years) there were no pedestrians or cars driving close to 1 mile from the building except for the Security services which grew up to work against the population instead of protecting it. The wealth of Romania was compiled in selfish constructions like this and i'm glad to see it at work for the Romanians nowadays. The second building in size in the world after the Pentagon was the host of the NATO Summit 2008 with no incident (thankfully). Those Parliament representatives working in it nowadays are either absent or sleeping in their post except for a handful that are still trying to fix the country on their own. Worths to visit but come prepared with at least Euros 25/ a person and a restrictive visit schedule. If you ask me, i'd rather recommend you to go visit castles and amazing sights in the Transylvanian mountains (Bran, Peles, Sighisoara).

Dwight from Switzerland Reply Sep 25th, 2012

We’ve just been through a two week meeting in one wing of the palace, and it was certainly impressive but daunting, way way overdone, and pretty unmanageable now in terms of ventilation, bathrooms, distances between our work stations, labyrinthine directions to meeting rooms and the cafeteria and so on. President Basescu was being impeached upstairs whilst we were there (but later survived the referendum). The palace was worth the experience but wasn’t wholly positive. Some of the vast neighborhood, torn down to build the thing in 1980, is largely wasteland now in some areas, junkyards and what not, out to the ring road with the hotels, a really tragic view. To Margaret: the Old Court of Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler or ‘Dracula’, is downtown in what remains of the old town (now mostly bars and clubs in a pedestrian zone) – it’s an archaeological site apparently in the early stages of preparation for visitors.

Iuliana Arsene from Romania Reply Mar 21st, 2012

Impressive building with amazing architecture. The main attraction for foreigners.

Artur from Poland Reply Mar 12th, 2012

Like all red, Russian palace. Revision in progress. There was no money to build the tower. A similar, but complete in Poland in Warsaw http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palace_of_Culture_and_Science,_Warsaw

margaret from United States Reply Feb 24th, 2012

Is this the place were dracula used to live? I heard it is the remains of draculas court...

james masterson from United Kingdom Reply Jan 22nd, 2012

I visited this wonderful building in 1993 and was absolutely blown away with the sheer size of it. The craftsmanship is unbelievable. Although it was built through tyrany it should be held up as a symbol of the Romanian workers rather the evil,

Expat in Bucuresti from United States Reply Dec 8th, 2011

As an American living in Bucuresti for a few years, I've toured the Palace several times. I can so speak to a few things... It's a well known and funny fact about MJ, I know people who were there. It's a common mistake among people unfamiliar with the region, but there are historical Hungarian/Romanian political issues that make it a BIG slip up! Also, yes, there is poverty, yes, the Palace contributed some, but historically Romanians have survived years of occupation from neighboring countries and an very oppressive form of communism and a recent financial set back... It's an old country, with a long history of survival... Dont write it off yet... There is much beauty and great resources here... Go see the countryside and you'll been blown away with breathtaking landscapes. Also, about guides, some are ok and some are great... Just like any other tour, and it's really worth seeing!

Branson Block from United States Reply Nov 11th, 2011

Just returned from a cruise on the Danube. Great time and great visit to the Peoples Parliament. Why the uproar over MJ's comments? Our guide spoke of it and it was interesting to hear their perspective of his comments! Let someone say something like this in their city in the good US of A and I would like to hear their response. Great trip from Bucharest to Budapest. Plan on going another time from Bupapest to Amsterdam.

Liz from United Kingdom Reply Sep 19th, 2011

They don't tell you there's no toilet until you get halfway around the tour, and getting in seems quite badly organised too. Also, when we went there was a conference on so we only saw half the rooms, which was a disappointment, and yet we still had to pay full price. Nevertheless, if you went before you got there (!), its an amazing building. If only I could have seen more.

Liz from United Kingdom Reply Sep 19th, 2011

They don't tell you there's no toilet until you get halfway around the tour, and getting in seems quite badly organised too. Also, when we went there was a conference on so we only saw half the rooms, which was a disappointment, and yet we still had to pay full price. Nevertheless, if you went before you got there (!), its an amazing building. If only I could have seen more.

Lynne Wordsworth from Canada Reply Sep 5th, 2011

I visited the Parliament and was left speechless. Our guide, contrary to this reviews comments, was informative, cheerful, smiling, well educated and did not hesitate to answer any questions we asked.

Um Aiman from Oman Reply Jul 16th, 2011

I visited the People's Palace on 06/July/2011..It's really an amazing place..Wow how wonderfull the palace is, the Marble, Oak wood, Crystals....I really appreciate all who contribute in constructing such a great wonder... but yah MJ story doesn't have to be repeated to all visitor..The guy is dead let him sleep in peace!

manuelrota from United States Reply May 11th, 2011

Ana Maria was our touristic guide and she used to give personal opinions about a part of the history of Rumania.That never happens in Spain¡ You only have to inform sizes, years, names etc but never try to make a politic speech to the people you are receiving like ¿guest?.

zeny S from United States Reply Dec 3rd, 2010

We visited the palace on Nov 14,2010; and while it was arguably beautiful inside, it was so dark inside because they have to turn off the lights in a lot of the rooms (even the ones we were walking through during the tour)because the government can't afford to pay for the electricity. How sad. Romania is very poor & building this gigantic palace contributed to the bankruptcy of this country. If you think we are hurting in the West, you should see how much this country is suffering.

lori from United Kingdom Reply Jul 31st, 2010

I visited the Palace and Bucharest just last week (July 2010)and I agree with all the info on this page....absolutely amazing and a definite "must see". How one person could depict the ruin of what could be such a beautiful city is very sad and depressing. Very selfish.

Lee Godfrey from United Kingdom Reply Jul 14th, 2010

Im currently studying architecture and find this fascinating. Over 1 million cubic metres of marble, crazy. As for the tunnels, anyone see top gear recently? they had cars in them, the noise of the engines was incredible and as for everyone getting upset about MJ comments....who cares, if thats what he thinks then let him have his opinion does it effect you in any way because if it does... it shouldnt

Anastasia Miller from United Kingdom Reply Jun 24th, 2010

interesting article, but please what has it got to do with Michael Jackson I fail to see the link here - please enlighten me

Bill M from Greece Reply Jun 19th, 2010

i too sometimes use the wrong term (budapest instead of bucharest). As for the attack to Michael you are just ignorant..

Kareen Sims from United Kingdom Reply Jun 13th, 2010

Great factual info but let down at the end with the comment about MJ - I'm not a fan but I think it's obvious to all that previous accusations have been proved false, at least, I don't think anyone believes them - ruins the article.

michael mortell from United Kingdom Reply Jan 10th, 2010

shame the page ruined by the jacko slur

Ash Scott from United Kingdom Reply Jan 5th, 2010

i was really enjoying reading this untill i got to the micheal jackson bit. May i remind you he was cleared of all charges!

Anders Svensson from Sweden Reply Dec 17th, 2009

Remember that you have to bring your passport which is kept by the entrance staff during the tour. You also have to pass an airport copy security check to get in. We had a wonderful guide last week: humorous with perfect English and willing to answer any questions.

Jeremy from Singapore Reply Dec 3rd, 2009

Hey dude, or whoever wrote this, Michael Jackson is dead. Can you just let him rest in peace by removing that "p" word? Respect yea, RESPECT!

Big D from Switzerland Reply Nov 9th, 2009

Interesting article. The palace is a montrosity, and alienates rather than impresses. The remaining old city is left in neglect, and the Romanian government needs to wake up and understand the way tourism works: better tours, proper signage for the visit. We walked all around the back past the acres of scrubland behind to reach the art museum. Not one sign on the route and the sign outside simply had a logo: "msac", luckily we guessed correctly. A disappointing tourist visit to Bucharest unfortunately.

Simona Ciubancan from Romania Reply Apr 9th, 2009

I was glad to find out some new things about the House of People. But to be objective and to respect the facts, we I hope you will be able to change the last paragraph about the singer Michael Jacksoon, because after the long trial regarding the accusations of pedophily, the court of justice declared him innocent.

Colm Mc Gleenan from United Kingdom Reply Feb 24th, 2009

I visited the structure on saturday past and was astonished by the sheer size of both the building and the head on that guy who built it. I was over in Romania doing charity work with the charity School Aid Romania mainly working in the region of Brasov and i was taken aback by the lavish material and products used. The fact remains that the cost of the largest chandelier (estimated at nearly 5 ton) could almost entirely wipe out poverty in most parts of the country. An abomination that still stands as a tribute to a Communist regime, corrution is still rife in the government so it is not surprising that it hasn't been demolished.

Philip Bradbury from Spain Reply Feb 7th, 2009

I was in the palace today - we had an excellent young guide who was cheerful, not frightened to talk about tunnels etc., and allowed photos free of charge - as long as I didn't take too many.

Bucharest Life from Romania Reply Jan 17th, 2008

By the way, the entrances to the Contemporary Art Museum and the regular tours are on opposite sides. If you show up at the tourist entrance looking for the Art Museum, you'll soon find yourself walking over 20 minutes around to the other side of the building. (And when you get there, it'll probably be closed, though no one will have told you that...)