Being awarded the prestigious European Capital of Culture tag is highly coveted and has the power to catapult a little known town or city into the limelight. It’s an opportunity for that city to showcase their history, heritage and of course culture and brings with it increased social and economic benefits for many years.
The European Capital of Culture was conceived in 1985 with the aim of further uniting Europe and showcasing a particular area that is outstanding in terms of local culture, traditional values and historically rich sights. These are the cities that have so far hosted the annual honour from 1985 to 2013;
Complete list of all European Capital of Culture Cities
1985 – Athens, Greece – Home to some world famous sights including the incredible Acropolis, magnificent Parthenon temple and the birthplace of the Olympics, the Panathenaic Stadium. Of course Athens also hosted the 2004 Olympic Games and remains a firm favourite tourist destination. Recent financial woes offering some fantastic travel bargains.
1986 – Florence, Italy – The capital city of Tuscany offers magnificent medieval architecture and is known as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance period. Famous sights include the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, aka the magnificent Duomo, which offers up stunning cityscape views and the world-renowned Uffizi art museum.
1987 – Amsterdam, The Netherlands – For a modern urban destination who’s reputation goes before it, head to Amsterdam. What you CAN expect is carefully preserved 17th century buildings and the incredible Vincent Van Gogh Museum packed with his works of art. There are miles of Dutch canals and bridges which just cry out to be explored by bike and boat.
1988 – Berlin, Germany – Shortly before the wall came down, Berlin hosted the Capital of Culture. In the twenty odd years since hosting the event, Berlin has grown into a trendy city popular with emerging funky artists. As well as an abundance of fascinating museums and cool art galleries there are also reminders of the past at the Berlin Wall site and also at Checkpoint Charlie. Remember the past and embrace the future. In my opinion, this city will host the City of Culture again very soon.
1989 – Paris, France – Ultra chic Paris oozes charm and character, with famous landmarks, museums and galleries bursting with notable masterpieces, opulent opera performances and delicious cuisine. Yes the romantic capital of the world has it all. Top things to experience in Paris include the might Eiffel Tower (of course), possible the best museum in Europe, the Musee d’Orsay and the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral.
1990 – Glasgow, Scotland – Scotland’s second city of Glasgow hosted the prestigious European Capital of Culture title back in 1990 and has continued to evolve and modernise ever since. Today Glasgow is edgily trendy with traditional Victorian architecture blending perfectly with modern bars and clubs which set the pace in terms of live music in the UK. Explore the refurbished Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, enjoy a cruise along the River Clyde and wander the magnificent Gothic Glasgow Cathedral.
1991 – Dublin, Ireland – If you’re up for the ‘craic’ head to Dublin which has something of party-hard reputation. As well as downing an authentic pint of Guinness and revelling in all things green come St Patricks Day, Dublin is also brimming with traditional culture and architecture. Wander the Elizabethan Trinity College, soak up the artwork at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and catch an event at the mighty Croke Park.
1992 – Madrid, Spain – The capital city of Spain has something of an understated sophistication, with a lively nightlife scene with live music the main attraction, excellent art galleries and fine food with tapas a firm favourite. Get your bearings in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, gawp at the masterpieces on display at the Museo del Prado and pick up a bargain at the Sunday morning El Rastro Market.
1993 – Antwerp, Belgium – Another trendy hotspot in Europe is Antwerp, Belgium’s second city. Boasting a stunning central cathedral, quaint cobbled lanes and oodles of authentic shops and restaurants, this is the place to be seen. Browse the antique stores, luxury chocolate shops, art galleries and designer boutiques by day and party by night at one of the many clubs, especially in the cosmopolitan gay-friendly docklands area.
1994 – Lisbon, Portugal – Did you know that Portugal’s capital city Lisbon predates Rome, London and Paris? This was surely a factor in awarding the city the prestigious Capital of Culture status in 1994. Brimming with Gothic cathedrals, interesting museums and traditional monasteries there’s plenty to see and do in this family friendly city which so far has avoided mass tourism.
1995 – Luxembourg – Technically a commune with city status, Luxembourg is something of a fairytale destination with lush valleys and highland and a small city in Luxembourg City. Expect low key tourism with an overall French and German influence from this European Capital of Culture city. There are ancient castles such as the Château de Bourscheid, traditional villages and museums such as the Modern Art Museum and City History Museum waiting to be explored.
1996 – Copenhagen, Denmark – The Danish capital city of Copenhagen in Scandinavia is incredibly safe, clean and easy to navigate. Wearing its eco credentials with pride, Copenhagen revels in it outdoors adventure scene as well as its big-city reputation. Striking modern architecture rubs shoulders with more traditional buildings and the locals have really caught on to the cage culture. Take a canal and harbour tour to view the Little Mermaid and catch the annual jazz festival.
1997 – Thessaloniki, Greece – The second city of Greece, Thessaloniki is located in the north and offers visitors great food, fabulous shopping and a lively nightlife scene. Throw in the centuries old history and culture in the Byzantine city walls, the Church of Agios Dimitrios which dates back to the 4th century and the gigantic Roman Rotunda and you’ve got a Greek destination with a difference on your hands.
1998 – Stockholm, Sweden – Home to the Vikings, meatballs, various pickled foods and of course that famous modern furniture brand, Stockholm is at ease with both its traditional past and vibrant future. The sheer beauty of the city hits you on arrival and travellers should check out the Old Town district of Gamla Stan which has quaint cobbled streets. The Södermalm district is the place to go for good shopping, food and nightlife.
1999 – Weimar, Germany – The small town of Weimar in Central Germany is renowned for its cultural heritage and is small enough to explore on foot or by bike. Visit the art gallery at the City Castle Stadtschloss, see the memorial to the two famous German writers Goethe and Schiller in the Theaterplatz and visit the rococo Anna Amalia Bibliothek which houses a library and art gallery.
2000 – The millennium year offered something of a bonus with a total of 9 cities hosting the European Capital of Culture honours; medieval Avignon in southeast France, Norway’s second city of Bergen, cosmopolitan college city Bologna in northern Italy, 10th century fortress city of Brussels in Belgium, Finland’s capital city Helsinki located on the Baltic Sea, the fascinating 7th century Polish city of Krakow, the Czech Republic’s imperial city of Prague, the most northernmost capital city Reykjavik in Iceland and Santiago de Compostela in Spain’s Galicia region.
2001 – Rotterdam, Netherlands and Porto, Portugal – Rotterdam is a surprisingly modern city as it was forced to extensively rebuild following heavy WWII bombing. Home to the second largest post in the world, Rotterdam is a lively multicultural city with some standout attractions; explore the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, wander the Oude Kerk district which survived the war and see the handprints of Bryan Adams, Roxette and David Lee Roth (of Van Halen fame) on Rotterdam’s own Walk of Fame.
Porto has retained its traditional charm and enchants visitors to a city filled with Roman ramparts, market squares reminiscent of Paris and exciting bars and clubs. The Portuguese city is a history lover’s paradise with oodles of charm in the many churches, narrows lanes and museums. Visit the expansive collections on display at the Museu Nacional Soares Dos Reis, admire the Parisienne-style São Bento Train Station and explore the Gothic Igreja de São Francisco church, with an intricate Baroque interior with plenty of gold leaf on display.
2002 – Bruges, Belgium and Salamanca, Spain – Bruges is an incredibly popular destination all year round, thanks to fantastic medieval architecture. Picture photogenic traditional market squares, meandering canals and plenty of medieval buildings. For art from the 14th to 20th century, visit the Groeningemuseum and witness the rather gruesome Jeruzalemkerk, which is a replica of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
At the heart of Spain’s Castilla region lies Salamanca; lively, beautiful and typically Spanish. Salamanca is bursting with architectural wonders and a youthful vibrancy, thanks to the large international student population. Highlights include the very heart of the city; the Plaza Mayor, the Catedral Vieja cathedral which dates back to 1120 and the city museum Museo de Salamanca.
2003 – Graz, Austria – Austria’s second city Graz is incredibly laidback, yet has plenty going on, with plenty of green parks to explore by day and a lively arts and nightlife scene to discover by night. Cultural delights include the Baroque Schloss Eggenberg Palace, the Landeszeughaus Museum which has 30,000 artefacts on display and the Schlossbergbahn Fortress which originally gave Graz its name.
2004 – Genoa, Italy and Lille, France – With a country full of outstanding cities, Genoa certainly holds its own. The city is incredible hilly resulting in winding streets, steep steps and meandering streets. Visitors will fall in love with the medieval palaces, churches and remains of the city walls. The black and white striped Cattedrale di San Lorenzo really stands out and the elaborate palace Palazzo Lomellino dates back to 1563.
Lille in northern France is today a thriving cultural city with strong Flemish traditions. There are interesting museums, fine dining and boutique shopping opportunities. Browse the 15th to 20th century art including pieces by Manet and Rubens in the Fine Arts Museum and visit the Citadelle, a massive 17th century fortress constructed with over 60 million bricks.
2005 – Cork, Republic of Ireland – Since hosting the European Capital of Culture in 2005, Cork has continues to build its cultural reputation, ably assisted by its flourishing arts, restaurants and music scene. There are 17th century sidestreets, Georgian parades and intriguing art galleries. Visit the stark Cork City Gaol, browse the Old Butter Market and try a traditional beer at the Beamish and Crawford Brewery.
2006 – Patras – Greece – Patras is the biggest city in the Greek Peloponnese with over 3,000 years of history. Today the city is a cosmopolitan destination with a burgeoning nightlife scene. Admire e the longest multi-span bridge in the world at the Rio-Antirio Bridge, explore the relatively modern St. Andrews Church and view the exhibits at the Archaeological Museum.
2007 – There were 3 hosts of the 2007 City of Culture; Sibiu in Romania, Luxembourg (see 1995 above) and the ‘Greater Region’ which comprises Belgium, Germany, France and Luxembourg.
In the heart of Transylvania lies Sibiu which underwent significant renovation I order to the host the City of Culture with a strong Saxon heritage. Walk the old town where German merchants settled in the Middle Ages, browse the 1,000 paintings in the Brukenthal Museum and try some local watersports on offer at the Balea Lake.
2008 – Liverpool, UK and Stavanger, Norway – Mention the city of ‘Liverpool’ and you’ll instantly think football, The Beatles and the UESCO listed waterfront and docks. But did you know that Liverpool also has an abundance of free art galleries and museums and also the most listed buildings in the whole of the UK, outside of London.
Picturesque Stavanger in the north of Norway is a maze of quiet streets set around a quaint harbour. Even with a small town feeling there is still plenty going on. Catch the exhibits at the curiously interesting Stavanger Oil Museum, admire the Romanesque Stavanger Cathedral which dates back to 1125 and explore the Canning Museum which reminds visitors that Stavanger was once the premier cannery site in Scandinavia.
2009 – Vilnius, Lithuania and Linz, Austria – The capital city of Lithuania, Vilnius is compact and easily explored on foot or by cycle. Visitors are treated to stunning Catholic churches and Baroque architecture; in fact Vilnius is the largest Baroque Old Town in the whole of Europe and is also UNESCO listed. Climb up to the Gediminas Castle and Museum with its red bricked tower, admire the Vilnius Cathedral which has been rebuilt many times since 1251 in many different styles, and hire an English speaking guide to appreciate the historical accounts at the sombre Museum of Genocide Victims.
The largest city in Austria, Linz, sits on the Danube River and has a large old town region (Altstadt) which is the city’s cultural hub with museums, galleries and monuments in abundance. Discover the Neo-Gothic New cathedral which dates back to 1862 and the Baroque Old cathedral, built in 1669. Standout museums include the Schlossmuseum which houses gothic art and the Military History Collection in Ebelsberg Castle. Head to the ‘Culture Mile’ alongside the Danube for a lively night out.
2010 – Again in 2010 there were 3 areas that marked the European Capital of Culture. Germany’s city of Essen represented the Ruhr area, which lies in the west of Germany and is the fifth largest European urban area. The city of Istanbul in Turkey hosted for the very first time in 2010 with visitors bewitched by the famous sights of the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Pécs in Hungary also hosted in 2010 thanks to a city thriving with galleries, mosques, museums and Roman tombs. Located on the foothills of the Mecsek mountains makes Pecs an adventurer’s paradise as well as a cultural hotspot.
2011 – Turku, Finland and Tallinn, Estonia – The oldest city in Finland, Turku, has a medieval heritage although sadly little remains from this period. The museums are varied with modern art on display at the Turun Taidemuseo and traditional handicrafts exhibits at the Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum. Look out for the boat bars as well, which are literally bars hosted in boats throughout the city.
Another medieval tourist-heavyweight hotspot also hosted in 2011; Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia boasts 14th century houses, cobbled streets, ancient churches, historic ruins and diverse galleries. Walk the Town Hall Square and admire the last surviving Gothic Town Hall building within northern Europe. Explore the 19th century Alexander Nevsky Cathedral built in Russian Orthodox style and browse the exhibits at the Kiek-in-de-Kök museum which was constructed in 1475.
2012 – Guimarães, Portugal and Maribor, Slovenia – The dual hosts for 2012 were historic Guimaraes, dubbed Portugal’s first city with the impressive Guimarães Castle and Dukes of Braganza Palace. Take the elevator up the Penha Mountain to admire the view below and wander the pretty Olive Square, aka Largo da Oliveira.
Maribor is the second largest city in Slovenia (after the capital Ljubljana) and sits on the Drava River in the heart of wine growing territory. As you’d expect there are museums, galleries, theatres and an impressive Old Town district. Explore the Maribor Castle and the impressive Maribor Regional Museum contained within it. Try a drop of the local Slovenian wine at the Vinag Wine Cellars and the Old Vine.
2013 – Marseille, France and Kosice, Slovakia – 2013 sees the dual hosting of the City of Culture with the historical port city of Marseille showcasing its 2,600 years of history. Top sights in Marseille include the resplendent Notre Dame De La Garde, the startlingly beautiful Calanques fjords region and the deeply literary Château d’If prison island.
Košice, aka “The City of Peace” will also host in 2013 and travellers will be treated to stunning Art Nouveau architecture spread across this Eastern European gem. Check out the high gothic St Elizabeth’s Cathedral, browse the many and varied palaces of Kosice and admire the brazenness of the Beggar’s House.