Altitude: 82m above sea level
With tree-lined boulevards, lakes sunk in well-kept parkland and grandiose French palaces, Bucharest has a taste of Paris; but savour it for long enough and a flavour soon emerges all of its own. A short walk lays bare its history, from medieval churches, through modernist grey housing blocks and ostentatious neo-classicism (the Palace of the Parliament springs to mind), to ultra-modern office buildings and shopping malls.
The eclecticism seems inherent to Bucharest – even the origins of the city's name are diverse. Visit one of the popular outdoor beer gardens and ask around and one Bucharester will tell you that it derives from the words bucurie (joy) or bucuros (joyful). Another will tell the legend of Bucur, the founding father – a shepherd, even a prince; or maybe a fisherman, outlaw or shepherd. Somehow, the lack of certainty is comforting.
The earliest known mention of Bucharest came in 1459, when it was named as a residence for Vlad III (The Impaler), the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula. Within 250 years, after being sacked by the Ottomans, it was capital of Wallachia, a kingdom that covered what is now the southern third of Romania. It set the tone: the city has alternated between periods of development and destruction, natural and not, ever since.
Bucharest became capital of Romania in 1862, after Moldavia and Wallachia were unified (retaining the title after the borders were redrawn in 1918), and a golden age began. By the late 1930s it was known as 'Little Paris', complete with its own Arcul de Triumf. World War Two, earthquakes in 1940 and 1977, and a brutal remodelling under Communist leader Nicolai Ceauşescu changed the city irrevocably; as did the December 1989 Revolution, when Ceauşescu was overthrown. After a painful rebirth, Bucharest is discovering new glories.
Bucharest is home to 9% of Romania's population and almost a quarter of its GDP. It heads the country's manufacturing, financial and service industries, with over 180,000 companies based there, and the bigger ones are registered on the Bucharest Stock Exchange. There has been a huge retail boom over the past 15 years and you will never have to walk far in search of a shopping centre – likewise if you are trying to avoid them.
• Tudor Arghezi, poet and writer (1880-1967) – best known for his children's literature and the poetic synthesis of traditional styles and modernism.
• Henri Coandă, avaition pioneer (1886-1972) – invented perhaps the first jet engine and discovered the Coandă effect; Bucharest's airport bears his name.
• John Houseman, actor and producer (1902-1988) – famous for his collaboration with Orson Welles, on stage and screen, including Citizen Kane.
• Mircea Eliade, historian, novelist and philosopher (1907-1986) – a polyglot and polymath best known for his work on religious experience.
• Ilie Năstase, tennis player (b1946) – former world No1, winner of seven Grand Slam titles in singles and doubles and over 100 ATP tournaments.
THINGS TO SEE
As unsympathetic as Ceauşescu's modernisation was, even he could not bring himself to meddle with the city's historical heart, the Lipscani district. Amid a jumble of narrow cobblestone streets lie 19th-century merchant buildings, churches, art galleries, antique shops, and even the ruins of the Wallachian princes' medieval court. Rest can be found at the 200-year-old Manuc's Inn, which hosted peace talks to end the 1806-1812 Russo-Turkish war.
Follow the Dambovita river 200m west and the colossal Parliament Palace quickly dominates the skyline. The world's second largest administrative building behind the Pentagon, construction began in 1984 under Ceauşescu (almost three decades later, 10% remains incomplete) and the grandiloquent design features 1,100 rooms and a crystal chandelier weighing 2.25 tonnes. It now houses Romania's parliament and a conference centre.
The 50 buildings at the Village Museum, Europe's largest outdoor museum, give a somewhat different impression. Perhaps the most unique of Bucharest's multitude of galleries and institutions, it resides in Herăstrău Park, the biggest of the capital's many gardens. The French-designed Carol I Park in the south of the city is regarded the most beautiful; the Gallic theme runs further north along the Calea Victoriei and under the Arcul de Triumf to the stunning Romanian Athenaeum.
Fan zones: Piata Constituţiei (Constitution Square), Piata George Enescu (George Enescu Square)
There will be fan areas for both sets of supporters. One team will be based at Constitution Square in the shadow of the Palace of the Parliament; the other fan zone is at George Enescu Square near the Romanian Athenaeum.
To and from
București has two airports. The biggest is Henri Coandă International, situated in Otopeni, 16km north of the city centre, while Aurel Vlaicu International lies between the two. The Gara de Nord, Romania's biggest railway station, has connections to Budapest, Belgrade, Sofia, Kyiv, Salonika, Vienna, Istanbul and Moscow.
In and around
Bucharest Metro consists of 51 stations on four lines, including the Gara de Nord, and accommodates an average of half a million passengers per day – a return journey costs 4 RON (€1). The surface transport includes buses (including express lines to and from the airports), trams, trolleybuses and light rail, while there are 10,000 private taxis.
Led by FC Steaua București (23 championship titles) and FC Dinamo București (18), capital clubs have dominated Romanian football, although with the rise of CFR 1907 Cluj and FC Oţelul Galați they have not had things all their own way in recent years.
It was a similar story after the national championship was founded in 1909, with numerous Bucharest sides vying for success against more provincial outfits, especially from Timisoara. Yet since a five-year break for the Second World War and the subsequent creation of Steaua and Dinamo, it has been a different story. Steaua, representing the Army Ministry, won their first league title in 1951, beating Dinamo on goal difference.
The Militarii have since claimed a record 23 championships, including a run of six between 1993 and 1998, and a similarly unsurpassed 21 Romanian Cups. Their success has not been restricted to their homeland, either: in 1986 a team featuring László Bölöni, Marius Lăcătuş, Victor Pițurcă and Miodrag Belodedici helped Steaua beat FC Barcelona on penalties in the European Champion Clubs' Cup final. They finished runners-up to AC Milan in 1989.
Dinamo, European Cup semi-finalists in 1984, have finished second more than any other side in both league (20) and cup (eight), but their teeming trophy cabinet reveals that they are far from nearly men. The former Communist Home Office outfit have won 18 championships and 12 cups. The Romanian capital's third biggest club, FC Rapid București, have won one more knockout title, but just three leagues.
Rapid were founded by railway workers in 1923 and during the Communist regime all factories had their own teams. Many disappeared after 1989 but FC Sportul Studențesc București survived. Founded by university professors and students in 1916, they have never won a major honour and often flirt with relegation though, with Gheorghe Hagi in the side, they did finish second to Steaua in 1986.
While football dominates in the Romanian capital ice hockey, gymnastics and rugby union are also popular. Bucharest hosts an annual ATP tennis tournament and, once in a while, the area around the Palace of the Parliament is transformed into a temporary motor racing circuit, the Bucharest Ring. Basketball, handball, water polo and volleyball are also popular, as is Oină, a traditional game with similarities to baseball.
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