Europe’s Capitals of Culture go through a selection process where contenders are measured against an established criteria. Judges, all experts in their respective fields such as literature, music, architecture and art, evaluate each city on its cultural merits and declare the winners European Capitals of Culture. This moniker leads to increased tourism and a substantial elevation of a city’s brand. In Part 3 of our series of Europe’s Capitals of Culture, we focus on the following 15 cities: Lille, Cork, Patras, Sibiu, Luxembourg, Liverpool, Stavanger, Vilnius, Linz, Essen, Istanbul, Pécs, Turku, Tallinn, and Guimarães.
Europe’s Capitals of Culture: 2004 to 2012
Lille, France – 2004
Lying on the border with Belgium, Lille was named one of Europe’s Capitals of Culture in 2004. It is France’s fourth largest city, and is reminiscent in many ways of Paris. However, there is also a distinctive Flemish feel to it, thanks to Lille’s proximity to Belgium. Not to be missed are the Flemish Chamber of Commerce, Opera, and the Gothic-style Église Saint-Maurice.
Today, Lille still embraces its cultural diversity with enthusiasm and supports a vibrant arts scene. Although it didn’t happen overnight, it has managed to become an influential gastronomic destinations in France. When it was named the European Capital of Culture in 2004, it enthusiastically took on the role. Thousands of events were planned, and visitor numbers increased by a third. To build on the success of 2004, city leaders started Lille3000, an ongoing project that strives to continue the promotion of arts and culture in the city until the year 3000!
Cork, Ireland – 2005
Cork, in southern Ireland, started as a monastic settlement but its mild climate, fertile land and proximity to the ocean made it attractive to Vikings who established a trading post there.
The city prospered and grew into the beautiful town that was declared one of Europe’s Capitals of Culture in 2005 and one of Lonely Planet’s 10 Best in Travel in 2010. Those accolades are well deserved.
The city is host to the Cork School of Music and the College of Art and Design, and The Cork Academy of Dramatic Arts, institutions of international renown.
Major cultural venues in Cork include, The Corcadorca Theatre, The Institute for Choreography and Dance, The Trisdel Arts Center and Graffiti Theatre Company, to mention just a few.
Cork’s principal music venues include the Cork Opera House and many professional music groups. The musical culture of the city is evident in the abundance of all different types of music venues from opera to folk, jazz to rock and everything in between.
Cork’s Crawford Art Gallery has been nominated for various international prizes and several cultural venues are in the planning or renovation stage.
As Lonely Planet’s guide said when asked to describe Cork in one sentence, “The city is at the top of its game: sophisticated, vibrant and diverse.” Don’t you want to go to Cork now?
Talek blogs at Travels With Talek
Patras, Greece – 2006
Patras, named the European Capital of Culture in 2006, is a bustling student city, where history, entertainment, and culture combine together to make a place filled with wonderful sights to be seen and experienced.
Greece’s third largest city, Patras is home to a major port that connects the country to Italy. However, there is so much more to it that the harbor. Patras is full of ancient history, from the Medieval Castle built in the second half of the 6th century CE on the ruins of the ancient Acropolis to the Patras Roman Odeum, built before the Athens Odeum in 160 CE. From the “Áno Póli” (upper city), you can make your way to the city’s landmark, the Lighthouse and enjoy the amazing panorama of the port.
After a long day of sightseeing, you can head over to the Turkish Baths of Patras, a hammam (thermal bath) first founded in the 15th century that is open to men and women, and have yourself a relaxing bath. Or, thanks to the large student population (two universities and a technological institute) you can take advantage of all of the city’s top-notch bars, lounge, cafés, and restaurants that come alive after dusk.
From the ancient to the modern, it is certainly easy to see why Patras was named a European Capital of Culture.
Sibiu, Romania – 2007
Designated one of Europe’s Capitals of Culture for 2007, Sibiu in central Romania is one of Transylvania region’s seven medieval fortified cities. Sibiu was founded in the 12th century by German Saxon settlers—craftsmen, traders and guildsman who secured their lands with hulking walls and defensive towers. These original features can still be appreciated today, interwoven with Sibiu’s modern museums and galleries.
Most of Sibiu’s best-preserved buildings and piazzas lie in the upper Old Town area. The Turnul Sfatului (Council Tower) dominates the main square. Spectacular views from the top are only matched by the vistas seen from the summit of the nearby Gothic Evangelical Cathedral belltower.
The multitude of squares, stone bridges (the ‘Bridge of Lies’ being the most famous) and pasajuls (covered passageways) in Sibiu’s city plan have earned it the nickname ‘Little Venice’. Even the vernacular architecture is distinct: Sibiu’s houses famously appear to have ‘eyes’ because of a roof design feature that was popular in the area from the 15th century onward. Stradas Tribunei, Centumvirilor and Postei all boast splendid civic buildings and private residences, with the grandest facades reserved for the main pedestrian mall, Strada Nicolae Balcescu.
Considering its age and pedigree, it’s no surprise Sibiu is home to many acclaimed institutions. The Brukenthal National Museum is a complex of galleries housed in a former palace on Sibiu’s main square. The European Art Gallery exhibits continental classics over four levels, while the Romanian Art Gallery and Contemporary Art Gallery are also worth a visit. There’s also a Pharmacy Museum and several ethnography museums in town. On Sibiu’s outskirts, the ASTRA Museum—the second-largest open-air museum in Europe—is dedicated to Romania’s folk heritage.
As well as being declared European Capital of Culture in 2007, Sibiu was named European Region of Gastronomy for 2019—so you can be sure that the restaurant and wine scene is a match for Sibiu’s cultural attractions.
Emily Lush blogs at Wander Lush.
Luxembourg, Luxembourg – 2007
Perched over the deep narrow valleys where the Alzette and Petrusse rivers meet, Luxembourg city is one of Europe’s most scenic capitals. With its rich cultural heritage and modern cosmopolitan vibe, Luxembourg is a city of interesting contrasts. Still, it remains as one of Europe’s best-kept secrets.
If you visit, you’ll see that the most prominent parts of the city centre are the Ville Haute (“High City”), which is the medieval town core above and the Ville Basse (“Low City”), the most picturesque area, which is situated down in the gorge that cuts across the city. This is where most of Luxembourg’s historical buildings are located, including what remains of its famous fortifications, which earned the city its nickname of “Gibraltar of the North” due to its impregnability. In fact, the fortifications and environs are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Nowadays, Luxembourg is an important financial centre and home to several European Union institutions. If you venture out to the Kirchberg district, you can get a glimpse of Luxembourg’s modern architecture. Some of the must-see attractions in this area include the Philharmonie and the Museum of Modern Art Grand-Duc Jean MUDAM, which houses an impressive collection and hosts interesting exhibitions in an exceptional building.
Besides featuring a unique historical heritage and a contrasting cosmopolitan vibe, Luxembourg also has plenty of beautiful green spaces with its several parks and gardens. In fact, one of the best ways to explore the city is to follow one of the two walking itineraries (or both!) that the city has set out to guide visitors, the Vauban and the Wenzel Walk. These itineraries include most of the city’s highlights and are great to explore the local culture.
Bianca blogs at Nomad Biba.
Liverpool, United Kingdom – 2008
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how Liverpool became the European Capital of Culture for 2008. From the Liverpool poets including Roger McGough, Adrian Henri, and author Beryl Bainbridge, to the fact that Liverpool hosts more museums and galleries than any UK city outside London, you’re in for a cultural treat here. An excellent place to get a feel for the magnificence of Liverpool’s cultural scene is the Royal Albert Dock. Here you’ll find everything from the Tate Modern to the Maritime Museum and The Beatles Story.
How could we forget the music? It’s not just about The Beatles and the Cavern Club either; the legendary Eric’s also sits on Mathew Street, surrounded by the Wall of Fame showing all the acts that have played here. Want more people in your band? The Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra has a great reputation and repertoire. And if you want a sight that will stay with you for the longest time, take a quick local train out to Crosby Beach, where you’ll find Antony Gormley’s collection of a hundred life-sized iron men watching the tide; a beautiful and poignant picture of the power of the sea.
Bernadette Jackson blogs at an Unpacked Life.
Stavanger, Norway – 2008
The city of Stavanger, in southwestern Norway, was designated a European Capital of Culture in 2008. The opening ceremony at the Stavanger city center drew more than 50,000 people, and the King and Queen of Norway attended the event. The celebrations were kicked off with a parade through the city streets. Artistic performances were held at different venues around the city, and a fireworks display closed out the night.
Stavanger was already a very wealthy city at the time of the designation, and it did not really need the cultural events planned for the year to draw an influx of visitors to the city or to boost the economy. Rather, it sought the opportunity simply as a means to raise its cultural profile.
With a theme called Open Port, the city invited several international artistic groups to perform for four months each. Included were music, theater, opera, and dance groups from such diverse countries as South Africa, Lithuania, Belgium, and Israel. The goal was to have the people of the region be more open towards one another and to art and ideas from all over the world. Some local artists were opposed to the celebrations because they felt excluded, but on the whole, the city embraced the theme.
Although the year of celebrations is long over, Stavanger remains a culturally rich city. You’ll find lots of things to do in Stavanger, whether you veer towards cultural attractions or nature. For culture, you can choose from a plethora of unique museums, a symphony orchestra, and rich two-dimensional and three-dimensional street art.
Dhara blogs at It’s Not About the Miles.
Vilnius, Lithuania – 2009
Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is the city of great cultural significance. For centuries the city has been on the crossroads between Central, Eastern, and Northern Europe, absorbing influences from all of these cultures and creating a unique blend of cultures and nations. Vilnius has been home to Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, Jewish, German and more communities and all of them had a significant impact on the city. Numerous artists have created in Vilnius over the centuries, and today you can find many monuments, museums or corners dedicated to them. One of the most unique places is Literatu Street – an open-air homage to all sorts of poets and writers who were connected to the Lithuanian literature.
Vilnius is also the city of churches, many of them are of significant cultural significance. When you walk around the Old Town, you keep finding true gems around every corner. Even the opening lines of the Polish national epic poem are referring to Gate of Dawn in Vilnius.
But the most cultural place in Vilnius might be Uzupis, a neighborhood that is a self-declared republic. That’s where you will find a lot of cultural institutions and events as well as street art (Vilnius has a fantastic street art scene).
Even if Vilnius is not a big city for capital standards, it is full of attractions, cultural and not only. And with so many things to do in Vilnius you just can’t be bored!
Kami blogs at My Wanderlust.
Linz, Austria – 2009
On the surface, Linz is just another peaceful, neat and tidy city. Once you take a closer look though, you are going to discover all the little surprises it holds. The city of Linz became a “European Capital of Culture” in 2009. This was when the Upper-Austrian capital underwent big changes in terms of the whole image of the city. In just a few years it transformed from being an industrial,working-class place to a dynamic, culturally-diverse and vibrant city, providing a very high quality of life.
Linz offers a huge variety of cultural events to its residents and visitors – from numerous concerts, theatres, literature events, operas and festivals, to even having designated spots for artists and music groups to perform free-of-charge. During its time as a European Capital of Culture, Linz held over 7,000 events, exhibitions, festivals and projects which were visited by nearly 3.5 million people. This exceeded all expectations and led to a huge success in the tourist industry with an increase of 9.5%.
Linz was chosen as a Capital of Culture due to its hidden potential that was unraveled in just a few years. The project Linz turned into an even bigger success than initially expected, which only goes to show that Austria made a great choice when selecting their representative city.
Lyubpmira blogs at Bulgarian on the Go.
Essen, Germany – 2010
In 2010, this city once known more for its coal mines, steel mills, and armament factories was named one of Europe’s Capitals of Culture. Its history of being the center of industry in Germany goes back to the mid-15th century, and in the 16th century, it found its niche as an arms manufacturer. In its heyday, Essen had 22 coal mines with 60,000 workers that produced about 12,000 tons of coal per day. And with the dawn of steel manufacturing, the first factory was opened by Friedrich Krupp in 1811.
Because it was the industrial powerhouse of Germany, it was bombed heavily by Allied forces in World War II, and as a result had to undergo a painful restructuring. Today, there are no coal mines in sight, with most of Essen’s residents working in management, retail, and services rather than the harsh working conditions of coal mines and steel plants. Essen’s most famous landmark, the enormous Zollverein complex consisting of a coal mine and coking plant, is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is here that you can attend a pop or jazz concert or see art exhibits and plays as well as learn about the natural and cultural overview of the region in the Ruhr Museum. Other cultural centers of Essen include the Red Dot Museum, the Aalto Opera House, the Lichtburg Theatre, and the Grillo Theatre.
Istanbul, Turkey – 2010
There are only a few other cities in the world that can rival Istanbul for its beauty, history, and significance.
Istanbul is located at a crossroads – the city is literally build on two continents: Europe and Asia. It has been the center of several empires, including the mighty Byzantine and the Ottoman empires.
Istanbul’s history goes back thousands of years, and it is displayed throughout the city by its majestic architecture and landmarks. Today’s Istanbul offers unique culture, traditions, as a bustling, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan capital.
Two landmarks you shouldn’t miss are the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque – they are next to one another. Hagia Sophia was once a majestic cathedral that was converted into a mosque and then a museum. It is one of Istanbul’s top landmarks.
The other, the Blue Mosque, is also a unique experience. It is still an active place of worship, and visitors must adhere to several rules to enter the mosque. It is one of the most beautiful buildings in Istanbul.
Head to the Sultan Ahmed Square, a popular public square whose origin can be traced back to the year 324. It was built by one of Istanbul’s most famous residents, Emperor Constantine, as a horse racing track. Although it no longer serves as one, you’ll notice that shape and landmarks are still standing to this very date.
And to experience the great local culture, head out to the Grand Bazaar to try some of the famous Turkish coffee. Here, you can find bustling market and stalls that have been the Istanbul highlights for hundreds of years.
Halef blogs at The Round the World Guys.
Pécs, Hungary – 2010
Located in the southwestern part of Hungary near the Croatia border, Pécs. Dating back to the 2nd century CE, it later became a center for early Christianity. In fact, you can see the ruins of the 2nd century Early Christian Necropolis, a UNESCO World Heritage site, with its crypts and memorial chapels. In the Middle Ages, Pécs became a center of culture and art, with its first university founded in 1367. As it was once part of the vast Ottoman Empire, you can see the influence it had in the Turkish architecture all over the city.
When it was announced that Pécs would be one of Europe’s Capitals of Culture in 2010, it underwent an extensive renewal. As a result, most of the city’s structures, from the Middle Ages through the Art Nouveau period, were renovated, making it feel like you are traveling back in time. In the city center is Széchenyi Square, surrounded by beautiful buildings like the Town Hall, pictured below, and the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim, which now houses a Catholic Church. You can also make your way to art museums such as the Csontváry Museum for the largest collection of Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka’s works from the early 20th century and the Vasarely Museum for an Op-Art (optical art) exhibition by Victor Vasarely.
Turku, Finland – 2011
Finland in and by itself is still an underrated tourist destination. However, as annual visitor numbers to Helsinki increase, gems like Turku still fly under most peoples’ radars. But did you know that Turku, otherwise also known as Åbo in Swedish, was once Finland’s capital city? Founded as a Swedish outpost at the end of the 13th century, it is also the oldest city in Finland. Today it is the third biggest urban center in Finland and remains bilingual.
In 2011, Turku was the European Capital of Culture which led to an enormous boost in cultural activities and record numbers of visitors. The hub for all cultural activities throughout the year was Logomo, a reclaimed former engineering workshop. Throughout the year it hosted numerous exhibitions, highlighting the city’s turbulent past, as well as serving as a space for music concerts and intriguing modern art installations. As the year moved into the warmer months, the Aura river became the pulsing heart of creative projects. During the summer not a day would go by without open-air concerts or specialty markets. Many of the events drew on the city’s maritime past, such as the Tall Ship Regatta.
Today, Turku is home to numerous museums, such as the Wäinö Aaltonen Museum of Art, the Luostarinmäki Open Air Museum, the Turku Art Museum, and the Aboa Vetus museum. It hosts hundreds of events each year, including Ruisrock, one of the oldest and biggest rock music festivals in Northern Europe. Between that and an emerging culinary scene, there is plenty to see and do in Turku.
Jacky blogs at Nomad Epicureans.
Tallinn, Estonia – 2011
Tallinn is the best preserved medieval town in Northern Europe, and stepping through one of its city gates is like stepping back in time. In medieval times, though, Tallinn was actually two separate towns.
The upper town at the top of the hill was called Toompea, and its castle was the seat of the government that ruled Estonia. Down below was an autonomous trading center that was part of the Hanseatic League and was filled with German, Danish and Swedish merchants.
Toompea is connected with the lower town by two narrow, cobbled alleyways, known affectionately as the Small Leg and the Long Leg. Walk up one and down the other for a quick jaunt around this compact, very walkable city. Be sure to also wander down St. Catherine’s Passage, one of the prettiest streets in the old town.
Stunning Raekoja Plats is the main square in the old city, and there and in nearby streets you’ll see many houses built in the typical Hanseatic style. The most famous examples are the Three Sisters, a set of three 15th century houses in Tallinn’s old town.
Tallinn is surrounded by city walls that are punctuated by many circular watchtowers. Gate Tower, built in 1380, is particularly photogenic.
A visit to underground Tallinn is equally as fascinating as the city above. In the early 18th century, the Swedes built tunnels that run underneath the bastions of Tallinn. In the Soviet era, they were remodeled as bomb shelters.
Tallinn is welcoming to foreign visitors and offers a good range of accommodation and dining options. All diets are catered for, with several vegan and vegetarian restaurants scattered around the city. Vegan Restoran V and Vegan Inspiratsioon, both in the old town, are two of the city’s highest-rated plant-based restaurants.
Wendy Werneth blogs at The Nomadic Vegan.
Guimarães, Portugal – 2012
Guimarães is known as the ‘birthplace of Portugal’ – the first King of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, came from the town and the Battle of São Mamede (1128) was fought close by. After Afonso and his allies won the battle Guimarães became the capital of the County of Portugal and the words “Aqui nasceu Portugal” (Portugal was born here) are engraved in one of the old towers of the city’s old wall. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, the town centre has a range of beautifully preserved building dating back to the middle ages.
On the outskirts, the Pousada Mosteiro de Guimarães is a 12th century monastery built by the first Queen of Portugal, Dona Mafalda and is a listed building in its own right. The Castle of Guimarães in the town itself was built in the 10th century, while the nearby Palace of the Dukes of Braganza dates back to 1420 and is now restored and open to the public. Enjoy the winding narrow streets lined with artisan shops. It’s easy to imagine yourself back in time in this quirky town.
Fiona Maclean blogs at London Unattached.
Be sure to check out the other parts in this series on European Capitals of Culture:
- Exploring the European Capitals of Culture – Part 1
- Delving into the European Capitals of Culture – Part 2
Stay tuned for the last part in this series!
If you are looking for accommodations in any of these great cultural cities, consider Airbnb. Here is a $40 credit towards your first stay. If you prefer traditional hotels, check out these with great prices in prime locations.
Which of these fantastic cities do you want to spend three days in?