To celebrate the new millennium, the European Union chose nine cities as European Capitals of Culture as a way to show the enduring heritage and contribution of European cities to world culture and civilization. And in recent years, it has also decided to have two cities per year—one for Eastern Europe and one for Western Europe. Hence, you will find that years have multiple entries each year.
European Capitals of Culture – Part 2
Avignon, France – 2000
Avignon, the honey-coloured walled city in Provence, France, was named one of the European Capitals of Culture in the year 2000. The picturesque medieval old town was home to the popes of the catholic church in the 14th century, and you can visit the incredibly grand Palais des Papes and the medieval stone Bridge of Avignon, which ends halfway across the Rhone river.
Avignon is an arty city, with a host of galleries and museums showing everything from ancient Greek and Roman artifacts to modern art. At the Palace of the Popes you can see priceless 14th-century frescoes.
A surprising number of theaters are dotted along Avignon’s tree-lined streets. The city holds annual arts, theater, dance and opera events and festivals throughout the year. Especially famous is Avignon Theatre Festival, held in July each year.
Maire Bonheim blogs at Temples and Treehouses.
Where to stay in Avignon.
Bergen, Norway – 2000
Located on the southwestern coast of Norway, and surrounded by the breathtaking views of seven hills and seven fjords, Bergen is recognized as the unofficial capital of Western Norway and was recognized as one of the nine European Capitals of Culture in the year 2000. It has an ideal combination of culture, nature, and interesting attractions that does not disappoint.
During the Middle Ages, it was one of the main seaports of Europe and a member of the Hanseatic League. It was also Norway’s capital, as evidenced by the well-preserved wooden buildings of Bryggen, now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Today, Bryggen is very much a vibrant part of the cultural heritage that is still in active use today, from the Fish Market to the Bergenhus Fortress as well as many artisanal shops, cafes, and restaurants that you can visit.
There are also a wide range of museums to see, boasting impressive collections of Norwegian and international art treasures, from the classical to the contemporary. Housed in a row of galleries lining Lille Lungegårdsvann lake in the city center, the collections feature works of art by Munch, Picasso, as well as a unique Chinese collection. Not to be left out, music is also alive and well in Bergen, as it hosts a number of festivals boasting innovative and trendy music and is home to one of Norway’s best choirs.
Bologna, Italy – 2000
Bologna, Italy, is known as the fat city, a reference to how much good food there is in the city and the surrounding region of Emilia Romagna. It’s also the Capital of Culture for the region, offering travelers a wide range of activities from museums, arts and music, and of course, food.
The city is perfect for just wandering around. The Piazza Maggiore, or main square, is the heart of the city and includes one of the most unique churches, the Basilica di San Petronio. During the summer, Piazza Maggiore transforms into an outdoor movie theater featuring Italian and English movies shown on a giant screen. If you time your journey right, you might catch a classic silent film set to the music of a live orchestra. To more of Bologna, follow one of the many portico covered walkways out from the Piazza Maggiore in search of good eats, cafes, or museums. There are over 40 kilometer of porticoes throughout the city.
When it comes to culture, though, the Bologna food culture is one of the main reasons why visitors travel to Bologna. Bologna is the home to tagliatelle al ragu and lasagne bolognese, as well as mortadella, one of the most famous meats to come out of Italy. Just outside of the city is the recently opened Eataly World, a self-proclaimed Italian food amusement park, where you can learn about food and wine from all over Italy. There are so many great things to do in Bologna to keep any traveler busy, making it a must-visit destination for 2019.
Eric Hoffman blogs at With Husband in Tow.
Brussels, Belgium – 2000
Being one of the centres of European Union, Brussels is definitely one the European Capitals of Culture with good reason. It has always been a center of art, crafts and a melting point of new ideas. With urban and public art on every corner in a city, you can definitely feel strong connection with art and culture in Brussels still today.
You can already feel that at its main square, the Grote Markt, with many Gothic buildings in it. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful squares in Europe, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998.
Another important architectural style that developed in Brussels, as well, was Art Nouveau. One of its most famous architects, Victor Horta, was from Belgium and many of his buildings could be seen in the city. They are so important, that four of them made to the UNESCO’s World Heritage list, too.
There are around 80 museums in Brussels with some of the world famous paintings in them. Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium is a home to many works created by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Close to it is Magritte Museum, dedicated to one of the most famous modern Belgian artist. Being an important comic book centre, there is a museum dedicated to it, as well – Brussels Comic Book Museum.
Atomium, located at the outskirts of Brussels, symbolizes the progress of the city in the second half of the 20th Century. And that’s absolutely something which is common for Brussels today. It’s still one of the centres of European art scene with many annual art fairs, a lot of young artists living in a city and a vibrant street art scene. Well, all of that makes Brussels one of the capitals of culture with a reason.
Tea blogs at Culture Tourist.
Helsinki, Finland – 2000
Helsinki, Finnish capital and my humble hometown, has a strong cultural heritage which has been crowned with UNESCO’s City of Design status. The Design District shows off the best of Finnish design from fashion to furniture together with art galleries, and a walk through the center astonishes with Neoclassical, Jugendstil, and modern Scandinavian architecture.
But the word culture gets many meanings in Helsinki. There’s, of course, sauna culture: strip off and mingle with locals in a sweaty steam room before plunging into the icy waters of the Baltic Sea. Formerly, there was only drinking culture, which was fortified by mass-produced beer and Finnish vodka; nowadays there are quirky wine bars, brewery pubs, excellent specialty coffee shops, and buzzing culinary scene with Michelin-starred restaurants.
In Helsinki, design means also functionality: excellent public transport whisks you anywhere in the city faster than cars, and the center is walkable or bikeable according to your preferences.
Helsinki feels fresh, and it’s not only the Northern climate. During the last years, the urban culture has developed to the level of bigger European cities. Helsinki is going through a massive transformation and renewal: new happenings, festivals, cocktail bars, and nightclubs are emerging so fast that even we residents don’t follow the pace.
Niina Lehikoinen blogs at Bizarre Globehopper.
Where to stay in Helsinki
Kraków, Poland – 2000
For as long as I can remember, my hometown Krakow has been associated with culture.
As a child, I had a traditional costume and performed the folk dance krakowiak at school. As a teenager, I started seeing theater plays every month, thanks to outings organized by our high school literature teachers. And I have always been aware of Krakow’s rich literary heritage, made famous by Nobel Prize winners Wislawa Szymborska and Czeslaw Milosz.
I wasn’t surprised when, in 2000, Krakow was named one of the European Capitals of Culture by the European Union. The city is home to some of Poland’s top artists (actors, writers, musicians), over 50 cultural festivals, and numerous museums – including the oldest one in the country.
ART & MUSEUMS
The Czartoryski Museum was founded in 1801 and features decorative objects, tapestries, and paintings by renowned artists. Among highlights of the collection are Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci and works by Rembrandt. (Note: the museum is set to reopen in 2019, da Vinci’s painting is temporarily displayed at the National Museum.)
You can also walk through royal chambers of the Wawel Castle, see a four-faced Slavonic god at the Archeology Museum, look at intricate Krakow Christmas cribs at the Historical Museum, and discover contemporary art at MOCAK.
Then there’s the Jagiellonian University, one of the oldest universities in the world (est. 1364). Its notable alumni throughout history have included kings, scientists, artists and a name you’re likely familiar with: astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. Visitors can stop by Collegium Maius, the university’s oldest structure. See the elaborate interiors, walk around the Gothic courtyard bordered by arcades, or check out exhibits in the Jagiellonian University Museum.
FESTIVALS & EVENTS
No matter when you visit during the year, you are likely to witness an event. There are Easter and Christmas markets, music concerts in the Main Square, various festivals (jazz, street theater, the Jewish culture, students’ Juwenalia). The trademark Lajkonik Parade features a dancing horse rider dressed in a colorful Tatar outfit, a nod to Poland’s victory over Tatars.
Go to Podgorze, Krakow’s up-and-coming neighborhood. Besides MOCAK and Cricoteca (an art center dedicated to the 20th century avant-garde artist Tadeusz Kantor), there are photo galleries and hip cafés. And it’s across the river from the old Jewish district Kazimierz.
Pola Henderson blogs at Jetting Around.
Where to stay in Krakow.
Prague, Czech Republic – 2000
Prague was granted the title European Capital of Culture in 2000 along with eight other European cities. That year, over 380 cultural events were held in the Czech Capital, including music, dance, theatre, film, architecture, literature and multimedia events. However, Prague was, and continues to be a very special and cultural city, long before and after the turn of the millennium.
Prague has an incredibly rich history, which you can see all around the city. The architecture in Prague withstood the wars which sadly destroyed so many beautiful buildings in other European cities, so it feels like a living museum! The Historic Centre of Prague was awarded UNESCO status in 1992, and a stroll around the area reveals some stunning examples of architecture from the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque eras.
Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, Old Town Square with the Astronomical Clock and the Jewish Quarter are all popular cultural attractions. Numerous museums, theatres, galleries and other cultural and historic exhibits fill the city. The Estates Theatre is the only surviving theatre where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart conducted, and regularly host performances of his works.
Charles Bridge is probably the most famous landmark in Prague and walking across to the castle it is easy to see how popular Prague has become with visitors from all over the world who come to enjoy Prague’s culture, history and wonderful food and drink.
Some say that Prague has become a victim of its own success, and indeed the city can get uncomfortably busy during the summer. But visit outside of peak times to get a sense of the ‘real’ Prague, and enjoy wandering the streets, soaking up all the culture in this special city.
Claire Sturzaker blogs at Tales of a Backpacker.
The best places to stay in Prague.
Reykjavík, Iceland – 2000
Reykjavik is one of the smallest capitals in Europe with about 123,000 people living in the city, and 216,000 in the capital region. It’s frequently visited though by people from all over the world.
In recent years, tourism has risen in all of the country, and Reykjavik today is a bustling capital even though its relatively small size.
It’s a great place to use as a base of exploring the most common tourists spots in Iceland, such as the Blue Lagoon, Golden circle and the waterfalls nearby. You can join guided tours or rent a car.
As for activities in the city, one shouldn’t miss the gastronomic scene of Reykjavik and performances in the well-renowned Harpa concert hall. Hallgrim’s church is another favorite, a peculiar church design and the place where you can enjoy the best views of the city.
There are plenty of interesting museums as well as art galleries in the Icelandic capital. Some of the most notable museums are the Open Air Museum, National film archive, The Icelandic Phallological Museum, Tales from Iceland, Aurora Reykjavik and the National Museum of Iceland just to mention a few.
If you want to learn more about Icelandic culture, the capital is a great place to experience the old and modern ways of Icelanders.
Alexander Waltner blogs at Destinavo.
Reykjavik hotels that won’t break the bank.
Santiago de Compostela, Spain – 2000
Tucked in green northwest Spain, Santiago de Compostela is the capital of the autonomous region of Galicia and a city full of unique history and culture.
The city is the terminus for the Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James, a historic pilgrimage route that has been traversed since medieval times. To this day, Pilgrims travel from all across Europe to reach the final resting place of St. James, who is said to be buried inside Santiago’s cathedral. Today, pilgrims travel the route for many reasons, religion being just one of them. When visiting Santiago, you can see the pilgrims arriving in the main square outside of the cathedral or attending mass inside. The cathedral’s square is undoubtedly a must-visit for any traveler to Santiago.
While the Camino and cathedral are some of the main draws of Santiago, there is much more to discover, whether you are a pilgrim or not. The entire Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with plenty of beautiful medieval buildings to admire. The city is home to the University of Santiago de Compostela, one of the oldest universities in continual operation.
Finally, Galician culture, language, and history are far from what most people think when they think of Spain. Galicians are proud of their Celtic heritage, which includes playing bagpipes through the streets at every opportunity. Don’t leave Santiago without hearing them!
Samantha Anthony blogs at Alternative Travelers.
Check out the Camino de Santiago tours.
Rotterdam, The Netherlands – 2001
Rotterdam is one of the most exciting cities in Europe. It was designated as one of the European Capitalis of Culture in 2001 and since then, it has evolved into a forward thinking place.
Traditionally Rotterdam was a port city with a strong manufacturing industry and a large proportion of low skilled workers. Having been named as City of Culture has resulted in a complete change of image through extensive urban development and it has now become a cultural destination, attracting visitors from all over the world.
I recently spent one day in Rotterdam and it was evident that it is now a vibrant city with a lot going on. Rotterdam has a very cool creative feel to it, and there are plenty of things to do. One day is nowhere near enough to get to know it properly, but if you are only visiting for one day, you will get a good taste for it.
Since 2001, Rotterdam has had a new state of the art railway station, Centraal Station, rebuilt. There is also a new covered market, Markthal, which replaced the old open air one. This new market is an innovative and very striking piece of architecture, incorporating living spaces as well as market businesses. Another great initiative has been the Luchtsingel Bridge, linking areas of the city that were previously disconnected from the city centre and felt somewhat forgotten. The cultural scene is very much alive and kicking in Rotterdam, and it’s clear that having been named European City of Culture has only had a positive impact.
Teresa Gomez blogs at Brogan Abroad.
Porto, Portugal – 2002
Porto is Portugal’s cultural capital and was named one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2002. It’s easy to see why when you visit, as since 2001 many more art galleries and museums have opened their doors to visitors.
In 2007 the artistic quarter was created around the Rua Miguel Bombarda as most of the cities art galleries are located in this area. There are 17 art galleries in just this block!! There are also many museums, and one of them helped transform the city into a centre of contemporary art and architecture—the Serralves Contemporary Art Museum. The Serralves Foundation has held an annual arts festival since 2004, with hundreds of activities taking place within the museum and around Porto attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city each year.
The museums in the city vary from history of the civil war, to the history of FC Porto, the Military Museum, Tram Museum, 17.56 Museum & Wine bar (giving the history of Port wine), and the Episcopal Palace (the former home of the Bishop of Porto).
The architecture of the city is also amazing to see, from the many bridges that span the river, the most famous being the Luis I Bridge which opened in 1886 and was conceived by the cofounder of the Eiffel Company. The Palacio da Bolsa, Porto’s old stock exchange built in 1850. There are also many old churches located around the city.
Porto is also a great city to relax along the riverside and enjoy a drink of port wine and a meal in the many riverside restaurants and bars and if you need a break from some of that culture then a short bus ride away there are some stunning beaches to soak up a few rays of sun.
Clare blogs at Travels in Peru.
Where to stay in Porto.
The best wine and food tours of Porto.
Bruges, Belgium – 2003
A stunning Medieval centre, laced with canals and waterways, the entire city of Bruges is a UNESCO Heritage Site. The location of Bruges, linking the Hanseatic ports of Northern Europe with southern Europe, helped establish the city in the 12th century. It was a cosmopolitan society, where traders from around the world were welcomed and helped build this vibrant and wealthy city. Philip the Good of Burgundy made Bruges his home, and from 1419 until his death was ruler of Burgundy, a state that at the time rivalled France. During his reign, he was the most influential man in Europe and helped to nurture what is known as the Golden Age of Bruges.
Visit Bruges today to see its wealth of museums and galleries showcasing the works of Flemish artists. Bruges also has some excellent dining, from traditional restaurants through to the ‘Shoreditch of Bruges’ in Laangestrat, where you’ll find contemporary European fine dining, bars and bistros. And there are plenty of quirky shops selling everything from handmade paper to delicious Belgian chocolate.
Beautiful buildings not to miss include the 12th-century Basilica of the Holy Blood, which houses the Relic with the Precious Blood of Jesus, brought to the city after the 12th century Second Crusade; and The Church of our Lady, where you’ll find the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo Buanarotti. If all that history is too much, make for the Concertgebouw. Located at ‘t Zand, it was completed in 2002 when Bruges was European Capital of Culture. From the roof you’ll get a panoramic view of the city and surrounding area and a chance to explore some contemporary art works.
Fiona Maclean blogs at London Unattached.
Salamanca, Spain – 2004
Salamanca, nicknamed ‘la ciudad dorada’ or the golden city, was declared one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2004. This should come as no surprise, since the city disposes of countless charming squares, buildings, palaces and museums.
Nowadays, Salamanca is predominantly aimed towards and inhabited by students. Salamanca University is the oldest university of Spain and one of the oldest of the entire world. Because of this, gorgeous university buildings are sprinkled throughout the city, such as Palacio de Anaya (where I spent time myself while I was studying in Salamanca) and Casa de las Conchas.
Salamanca is also a deeply religious city, and since it’s located in the autonomous region of Castilla y León, it’s usually seen as quite a conservative city as well. Beside the amazing educational buildings mentioned earlier, captivating religious buildings can also be found in Salamanca. Some of the most prevalent ones are the two cathedrals, Convento de San Esteban, La Clerecía and Convento de las Dueñas.
Some experiences for your Salamanca bucket list include Nochevieja Universitaria (New Year’s Eve celebrated at Plaza Mayor in the middle of December by students from all over Spain), a stroll along the Roman bridge (Puente Romano), a walk through Salamanca’s street art neighbourhood (Barrio del Oeste) and eating “churros con chocolate” in one of the city’s many quaint cobbled streets.
Sanders blogs at Ars Currendi
Best walking tours of Salamanca.
Graz, Austria – 2005
Graz is a second largest city in Austria and the Capital of Styria, however, it’s often overlooked by tourists, as it’s not as famous at Salzburg, Hallstatt or even Innsbruck. However, Graz is an amazing city that was even named one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2005.
I had an amazing opportunity to visit Graz several years ago as part of my summer school exchange, and I immediately fell in love with the city and its cheerful atmosphere. People were sitting in the parks after work enjoying warm sunny days. There was no hassle and bustle of the big city at all. However, the infrastructure and entertainment opportunities were the one of a big city in Graz. Moreover, Graz is beautiful! It combines historical buildings with the modern ones in a very nice and unique way.
So why visit Graz? First of all, Graz is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its beautiful city centre and the panorama that you can see from Schossberg. However, Graz is not your typical traditional small European city. Graz is famous for its Opera Theatre, love for the traditional and modern art and various festivals of music and art. The Kunsthaus that resembles a giant bubble or a spaceship is home to very unique modern art. The Eggenberg palace is a very traditional and well-kept palace that is a must for every history junkie. If you like nature, Graz has some really amazing opportunities for day trips to the mountains. So well, Graz is a great choice for pretty much anyone.
Leah blogs at TripsGet.
Where to stay in Graz.
Genoa, Italy – 2006
The magnificent city of Genoa is located on the Gulf of Genoa in northwestern Italy and is the busiest port in Italy. Throughout its history, Genoa has punched above its weight in Italy’s history. From the Middle Ages it was one of Italy’s great financial centers and home to one of the oldest banks in Europe, the Bank of St. George, established in 1407. The city takes credit as Christopher Columbus’ birthplace, and parts of the city have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Genoa’s remarkable cultural heritage was the reason it was declared a European Capital of Culture in 2006. A small sampling of the cities great museums includes the Palazzi Rosso, Spinola and Bianco where you can see works of art from Van Dyck, Rubens and others.
Genoa’s artistic expression is not limited to literature, music and art, it also celebrates cuisine both regional and international. Did you know that ravioli, pesto and focaccia were all invented in Genoa?
The city celebrates its past. Large swaths of the original wall are still in place. The city cemetery, Cimitero Monumentale di Stagliero, covering over one kilometer, is one of the largest and most beautiful cemeteries in the world.
Genoa is a fascinating city definitely worth the honor of being included in the long list of European Capitals of Culture.
Talek blogs at Travels with Talek.
Where to stay in Genoa.
Explore Genoa with a city tour.
If you liked this post, be sure to check out Part 1 in our series of European Capitals of Culture! Which of these European cities is your favorite?