Short History of Bucharest: From the Medieval Centuries to Communism

Diana Condrea
Diana Condrea
Diana is a tourism consultant, tour guide, travel writer and amateur photographer. You can find Diana on LinkedIn

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The history of Bucharest has come a long way before the capital became the city it is today. The legend has it that Bucharest was founded by a shepherd named Bucur, but historical sources indicate that it was most likely established at the end of the 14th century by the medieval prince Mircea the Old on the grounds of a small fortification.

Bucharest City

The National Museum of History

Bucharest was first mentioned in a written document issued, in 1459, by the legendary prince Vlad the Impaler. Taking advantage of its location on the commercial road that linked the Ottoman Empire with Central Europe, Bucharest developed rapidly. Two hundred years later it became the capital of Southern Romania, a separate historical province until 1859 when it united with Moldavia, creating the United Principalities, a state entity that will become Romania under the reign of King Carol the 1st (1866-1914).

Despite its commercial importance and geographical location, Bucharest was more resemblant to an Oriental city than to a European capital. Luckily, its history changed completely in the second half of the 19th century.

The history of Bucharest as a royal capital

The history of Bucharest was fundamentally marked by the arrival, in 1866, of the future King Carol the 1st who modernized the capital with the help of the political elites. Almost all the monumental sites of Bucharest were built during the time of the royal family of Romania: the National Museum of History, CEC Palace, the former Chamber of Commerce, the Atheneum, the royal palaces, the Arch of Triumph, the National Bank of Romania, numerous banks and administrative buildings.

The capital reached its glory between the two World Wars when it was known throughout Europe as the ‘Little Paris’ for its architecture and the elites’ use of the French language.

royal family Romania

The Royal family of Romania

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The Second World War marked, however, the abrupt end of this period in the history of Bucharest. The capital was bombed by both the Allies and the Germans in 1944. Many of its landmarks were destroyed or severely damaged, not to mention the thousands of local victims. This tragedy only preceded the event that completely changed the history of Bucharest in the 20th century, the coup d’état that brought the communist regime to complete power in 1947.


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Communism changes everything

The actions of the communist governments put an end to Bucharest’s interwar atmosphere, private property was nationalized, and the elites died imprisoned. A grey architecture, typical for Eastern communist regimes invaded the capital, reaching its peak during Nicolae Ceausescu’s time in power (1965-1989) when many emblematic constructions were demolished and tens of thousands of people relocated to make room for the World Record House of the People.

Changing completely the architecture of Bucharest was only one of the many disturbing methods Ceausescu used to empower his absurd cult of personality.


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The Romanian Revolution burns Bucharest

In late December 1989, Bucharest witnessed massive anti-communism manifestations with over 1,000 victims among the participants and numerous emblematic buildings set on fire in Revolution Square.

The first year after the fall of the communist regime brought other manifestations, this time against the new neo-communist government and violent civil clashes. For much of the ’90s, the capital was marked by a transition process, followed by a rapid development beginning with the 21st century.

Romanian Revolution 1989

Tank with the Revolution Square in the background

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Symbolically, contemporary Bucharest is perhaps the best representation of today’s Romania, stuck between a conflicted past and a future it can’t decide upon. Visiting it is without a doubt a great way to better understand recent European history.


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