Discovering European Capitals of Culture

Owl and instruments, Museum of Alchemy, Prague
Museum of Alchemy in Prague, a European Capital of Culture in 2000

Since 1985, the European Commission has been designating one or two cities per year as European Capitals of Culture (ECOC). That’s thirty years of work, recognizing more than fifty cities, and resulting in thousands of events and special exhibitions. How did I miss this?

For most of that time, I must have had my head in the sand, and I don’t mean the beach. I was in North America working and raising children, involved in covering arts and culture in Minneapolis/St. Paul (MN), and trying to keep up with the crazy new world of technology. Like most Americans, I knew Europe was a place of Culture, but I had no idea there was a concerted effort to promote local municipalities in this modern, orchestrated way.

Thirty years ago in Europe, just for perspective, the Euro was not yet common currency, there were only a dozen countries in the European Union (EU), and the Berlin Wall was still standing (that came down in 1989). While Europe was encouraging borderless travel among its countries, it was still addressing plenty of skepticism about ‘sharing’ national interests. But still, a few great minds wanted to preserve the unique history and culture of various great cities, and encourage international visitors to witness the cultural diversity within one Europe. Imagine fierce nationalism alongside adamant cooperation, and you have the impetus for the European Capitals of Culture.

San Sebastian fishing boats
Fishing boats in San Sebastian, Spain, a 2016 European Capital of Culture.

The ambitious Capitals of Culture program is remarkable for going beyond the ‘celebrating diversity’ jargon, and for adapting as the years pass. We’re impressed at the program’s stated purpose to “enhance the image of cities in the eyes of their own inhabitants,” and also to boost tourism by “breathing new life” into the cities’ cultural landscape.

In the early years, the Cities of Culture (as they were called then) and their respective countries were on their own to foot the bill. The first city, Athens, had less than a year to prepare. Now the EU provides €1.5 million to each city, and the titled towns take about four years to lively up the place for their year of festivities.

riga art nouveau 8
Art Nouveau district in Riga, Latvia, a 2014 European Capital of Culture

We imagine all sorts of trouble from a cultural program implemented by politicians and bureaucrats. But it seems Art will prevail. Detailed reporting by each city shows how wildly different the interpretation and implementation of a Capital of Culture year can be. Culture? What’s that, exactly? Improvements might include roads and public transportation, convention and visitor centers, museums and art spaces. Special events encompass fashion, technology, food, performance, and literary arts. In the last decade, requirements have been tweaked, too, resulting in more pan-European programing, more public involvement, and some cooperation between paired cities. (Since 2007, two cities are named per year.)

Emphasis is on making the urban areas more livable, and on communicating the unique heritage of the place to the world.

A portion of " Paradiset" by Niki de Saint Phalle with Jean Tinguely. 1966
An art stop during a day of biking around Stockholm, 1998 European Capital of Culture.

Of course the European Capitals of Culture have not been developed without controversy. Citizens gripe about the hiring of foreigners to design their museums; new infrastructure often means major inconvenience to residents; projects miss their deadlines; and artistic egos squabble with sponsors, government bodies, and political egos.  From the sidelines (and I do enjoy being on the sidelines) this just adds to the cities’ Big Reveal.

Whether visiting these hotspots before, during, or long after their year of recognition, visitors can hardly avoid picking up on the ECOC enthusiasm. The cities' own Capitol of Culture websites offer a strong sense of the personality, the pride, and even the quirky tussles of each place. Of course, the cities' websites are a handy index to major attractions, too: the ultimate visitors’ guide.

Surprisingly, it’s not easy to find a chronological list of all the European Capitals of Culture. Dull reports obstruct simple information on the European Commission's site. Follow this link, though, for a thorough and readable history of the program, including the survival stories by 25 organizers: European Capitals of Culture: The Road to Success 1985-2010.

Travel Past 50 is contributing to with stories about three European Capitals of Culture. Look for posts about Mons, Belgium; Wroclaw, Poland; and Riga, Latvia.

Mons, Belgium
The iconic spire of Mons, Belgium, 2015 European Capital of Culture

Here's the list.  Counting past, present, and future cities, we’ve visited 33 ECOC cities, counting several we visited before we'd ever heard of the program. By midsummer, we’ll likely have visited three or four more. These days, we go out of our way to spend time in these cultural centers.

European Capitals of Culture
1985 Athens, Greece
1986 Florence, Italy
1987 Amsterdam, The Netherlands
1988 Berlin, Germany
1989 Paris, France
1990 Glasgow, Scotland
1991 Dublin, Ireland
1992 Madrid, Spain
1993 Antwerp, Belgium
1994 Lisbon, Portugal
1995 Luxembourg
1996 Copenhagen, Denmark
1997 Thessaloniki, Greece
1998 Stockholm, Sweden
1999 Weimar, Germany

Avignon, France
Bergen, Norway
Bologna, Italy
Brussels, Belgium
Helsinki, Finland
Krakow, Poland
Prague, Czech Republic
Reykjavik, Iceland
Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Porto, Portugal
Bruges, Belgium
Salamanca, Spain
Graz, Austria
Genoa, Italy
Lille, France
2005 Cork, Ireland
2006 Patras, Greece
Sibiu, Romania
Luxembourg ‘Greater Region’
Liverpool, UK
Stavanger, Norway
Vilnius, Lithuania
Linz, Austria
Essen, Germany
Istanbul, Turkey
Pecs, Hungary
Turku, Finland
Tallinn, Estonia
Guimarães, Portugal
Maribor, Slovenia
Marseille, France
Kosice, Slovakia
Riga, Latvia
Umea, Sweden
Mons, Belgium
Pizen, Czech Republic
Wroclaw, Poland
Donostia/San Sebastian, Spain
Paphos, Cyprus
Aarhus, Denmark
Valletta, Malta
Leeuwarden, Netherlands
Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Matera, Italy
Going forward from 2020, various cities within selected countries will vie for the honors. Countries named so far include Croatia and Ireland (2020), and Romania and Greece (2021)

22 thoughts on “Discovering European Capitals of Culture”

  1. I haven’t really paid much attention to this distinction, but unknowingly have hit 45 of the cities. Now I have a reason to visit some of the others as well. Great article, Kris!

  2. My sister and I make a point of seeking out these and UNESCO World Heritage sites. I thought Lisbon was one for 2015 but apparently I was wrong about that! I’m sure it’s a pain for the residents to get it all together but I think it’s a great program and very admirable.

  3. Quite an extensive list! I did a bit of traveling throughout Europe in the 90’s but haven’t been back there in 20 years. Leaving for Norway, Sweden and Spain this month, and tentatively Iceland in October. Really looking forward to rediscovering Europe, and this post gave me a lot a new ideas!

    • Thanks, Patti, and I’m glad you are finding new ideas in through this post. Our paths will surely cross soon, as Spain, France, Norway and Iceland are coming up for us in the next couple months.

    • Thanks, Carole. That’s a good point. During the year of their title, though, we didn’t feel like the cities being recognized were overrun by people or events. In the years leading up, you may find some closures due to remodeling (the bell tower in Mons, Belgium, for example). In the year of, there is the advantage of well marked public transit and shiny new visitor information services. And yes, the benefits carry over for many years.

  4. I heard about the European Capitals of Culture while visiting Istanbul in 2009 – and I was there in 2010 briefly, while it one of the chosen capitals for that year. There is always so much going on in Istanbul I really can’t say I noticed a difference.

    • Come to think of it, I was there in 2012 (I think) and didn’t even know about the program then. Maybe the same goes for the biggest cities. It’s the “B” market towns that benefit most.

  5. Great post, I didn’t know about the European Capital of Culture program… and its surprisingly extensive and wonderful list! Would love to cross some of these off my bucket list!

  6. I have so many of these places yet to visit! But I’m happy to say that I was in Marseille in December. Wonderful experience and it was interesting to learn about how the Capital of Culture designation really jump-started all kinds of positive change in Marseille and other cities of the area.


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