Euro 2016 kicks off with a head-to-head between hosts France and Romania. The latter’s capital, Bucharest, may not be quite as well established on the tourist circuit as Paris, but we reckon it’s well worth adding to your list. Here’s why.
1. Your pound goes a very long way
Romania joined the EU in 2007, but it is not in the Eurozone. Instead, you will be changing your pounds to Romanian lei, and may find yourself feeling pretty flush. The current exchange rate is 5.7 lei to the pound and entry to the city’s main attractions should cost you no more than a few quid, while your food and entertainment bill for a weekend should easily come in at less than £100. The abbreviation for the denomination is RON, useful to know before you start thinking the city is inexplicably obsessed by Harry Potter (may have just been me).
2. So drinking is incredibly cheap
The beer prices alone are enough to make you consider leaving London for good. Even in touristy spots, two pints will set you back less than a fiver. And be sure to try out tuică, a traditional spirit made from plums.
3. It’s home to the world’s heaviest building
Prepare to have a good gape at the Palace of the Parliament, a gargantuan concrete embodiment of communist-era might, erected in the 1980s under the Ceaușescu regime. It is the second biggest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon, and has yet to be surpassed on heft. Take a tour inside to see a small selection of the 1000-plus rooms and to marvel at the ornate interiors.
4. And the most confusing monument you’ll ever see
It’s hard to miss the Memorial of Rebirth on Revolution Square – a 25 metre-high blood-soaked marble obelisk, piecing through a baffling basket-like structure. It wasn’t very well met by locals when it was unveiled in 2005, but you’ll definitely never forget it.
5. It’s got a pleasing mismatch of architecture
In the early 20th century, Bucharest came to be known as the “Paris of the east” thanks to its Art Nouveau architecture and grand municipal buildings, often French-designed. This faded grandeur is now mixed with utilitarian buildings left behind from decades of communist rule. The town may be less classically beautiful now, but the hotch-potch of architecture makes for a unique and evocative aesthetic.
6. You can visit one of the world’s coolest bookshops
Carturesti Carusel, located in the heart of the city’s buzzy Old Town (Lipscani) may be the prettiest shop you’ll ever see. A huge range of books, stationary and novelty items line the walls of this gorgeous galleried space. You can also peruse a wide vinyl collection in the basement and grab one of Bucharest’s most expensive coffees on the top floor.
7. It’s got its own Arc de Triomphe
Who needs Paris? Bucharest has got its own.
8. And the Caru’ cu Bere
Enjoy a brew under the gorgeous painted vaults of Caru’ cu Bere, the Old Town’s most famous beer hall. It may be a tourist trap, but it’s hard not to get to swept up in the fun of the traditional costume, live music and tankard waving. The restaurant here is known for its version of the Romanian national dish, cabbage rolls stuffed with mincemeat, with a side of polenta.
9. It’s packed with hipster coffee spots
Bucharest is home to an abundance of cultured graduates – and where young professionals go, hipster joints follow. Tasty local roasts and trendy waiters can be found at T-Zero, Origo, Dianei 4 and The Coffee Factory.
10. There are some fabulous summer parks
Renting a boat at Cişmigiu Gardens is one of the most popular leisure activities in Bucharest, especially on a hot day. The city is not short on green spaces and Herăstrău Park is also a treat.
11. And delightful old windmills
Mills, parts of churches, old homesteads and agricultural structures are all on display in the National Village Museum, an open-air delight on the banks of Herăstrău Lake.
12. You can go Dracula hunting
No trip to Romania would be complete without a bit of Dracula hunting. Vlad Țepeș (Vlad The Impaler in English) is the 15th-century prince who inspired Bram Stoker with his rather gruesome penchant for ramming a spike through his enemies and leaving them to die. He is widely admired in Romania as a defender of Wallachia. Dedicated Drac fans can take a trip to Snagov, 25 miles of north of Bucharest, where The Impaler himself is said to be buried in a tiny island monastery in the middle of a lake.
13. Or take a day trip to Sinaia
Sinaia, a picture-perfect little town nestled in the shadow of the Bucego Mountains, is 90 minutes from Bucharest by train. In a day you can take in the picturesque views and visit the unreasonably beautiful Peleș Castle, summer retreat of Romania’s first king. You might even find time to hop on a cable car up the mountains and take in the magnificent views.
14. The Romanian Athenaeum gives the Royal Albert Hall a run for its money
It’s the home of classical music in Bucharest. Get tickets to a concert or pay a pound or two to have a gawp at its splendour.
15. There are beautiful Orthodox churches
86 per cent of the population of Romania are Eastern Orthodox (at least nominally), and you will find Orthodox churches dotted throughout the city. Pop your head in to Stavropoleos Church in the Old Town or St Apostle’s Church, north of B-dul Unirii, to witness elaborate frescoes and dazzling gold iconography. Remember, though, that these are places of worship – and you might get chucked out for wearing shorts.
16. And some old-school train stations
The train from Bucharest to Brasov feels like a journey back in time.