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The word on Bucharest is that it's ugly, gritty, grimy -- and parts of it are. But don't make do with first impressions. As our guide aptly put it: "New-old-beautiful-ugly. This is what Bucharest is."

Energetic, hectic and not quite a quarter of a century out of Communist rule, this textured capital city of 2.2 million people is an acquired taste, and it's still in the process of defining itself. Just as Romania has been touted as the New Italy, Bucharest is being hailed as a sophisticated but less pricey alternative to Budapest and Belgrade.

The overarching signature of Bucharest today is the intersection of Communism and capitalism: Buses carrying tourists routinely pull up to the massive Palace of Parliament, built by Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu as a tribute to himself. (More than one-sixth of the city was leveled to accommodate his indulgence.) The endless grey blocks of apartments that rose during Communist times are still in evidence, but so are outlets for Ferrari and Maserati, Hard Rock Cafe, ING, Starbucks and McDonald's. And the national sense of humor that Romanians quietly relied upon to help them survive Ceausescu's dictatorship is out in the open now. Locals, for instance, call the Judicial Ministry "the laundry": where politicians go in dirty and come out clean.

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Located between the Carpathian foothills and the Danube River, Bucharest in its golden age -- the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- was known throughout Europe as "Little Paris." Royals ruled at the time, and the city was famous for its elegant architecture, grand thoroughfares and cultural elite. There are still some gorgeous neo-Classical buildings that date back to Bucharest's heyday, but World War II bombings and two earthquakes altered much of the skyline.

A member of the European Union since 2007, modern-day Bucharest is trying hard to regain its fallen stature as a European capital. In a travel piece in The Guardian, the British newspaper called Bucharest "Paris eaten then spat out." Get real. Bucharestians make no apologies for their city -- and they shouldn't. Just like its residents, it's a place with a big personality and a huge heart.

With its elegant, historic city center, emerging cafe society, architectural high points and proximity to lovely Transylvania, Bucharest has a lot to offer tourists. But there are a few caveats. Pickpockets troll the public transportation system during the peak hours of 7 - 9 a.m. and 4 - 5 p.m., so use caution. Bucharest also has a severe problem with stray dogs -- thousands of them. It's best to steer clear if you happen upon one. Also, Bucharestians joke that there are no traffic rules in the city, only traffic suggestions. Take them at their word when doing something as simple as crossing the street.

--written by Ellen Uzelac


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