The European Union has come a long way since the mid-20th century. Countries that have been at war with one another repeatedly in the past have become united in one association and nations as diverse as Finland and Spain or Croatia and Belgium have come together to form a political bloc, despite the vast differences in culture and national identity.
Those differences and distinctions live on and the EU aims to foster and preserve them. To that end, the concept of the European Capital of Culture was developed. Starting with Athens in 1985, the EU has designated culture capitals each year. The idea is to open a window to the respective traditions, customs, history and culture in a year full of events such as concerts, exhibitions or art projects. Showcasing these regional or national cultural identities gives people from other parts of the EU the opportunity to learn more about them, find differences and similarities and by that, aims to strengthen the intra-european bonds between peoples and nations.
Since the 2000s, the EU has expanded the annual European Capitals of Culture concept to include at least two cities per year. Apart from EU cities, sometimes places in countries that are candidates for future EU membership are chosen, which has led to the inclusion of places in Iceland, Norway, Turkey and other countries. There is now a fixed rotation of countries that will have a Capital of Culture. All cities interested must submit an application that needs to meet certain criteria and final selections will be made several years in advance to give the cities the opportunity to prepare and set up a program. The designated cities will receive EU funds for the program and for infrastructure improvements ahead of the cultural year.
Commonly, smaller and lesser-known towns are chosen to become European Capital of Culture. This further emphasizes the idea of meeting other cultures, as these are usually not the cities that attract the main tourism streams. With the funds made available by the EU and a multi-layered cultural program, the European Capitals of Culture provide interesting access to European identities and are great places to visit.
Past European Capitals of Culture
|Santiago de Compostela
Future European Capitals of Culture
Veszprém, Hungary (2023)
Located in an area near Lake Balaton, Hungary’s most popular tourist spot, Veszprém has a notably diverse population and a multicultural heritage. An important trade hub in the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the town was rebuilt after World War II to reflect the cityscape of the Middle Ages, with small cobblestone-paved streets in the center and a charming overall appearance.
Timisoara, Romania (2023)
Located in Western Romania near the borders to Hungary and Serbia, the country’s third-largest city has always been a melting pot of various cultural influences. Timisoara, which had been a major town in the times of the Habsburg monarchy, is sometimes referred to as “Little Vienna” thanks to its architecture and cityscape. The Bega river, canalized since the 18th century, is the main water artery.
Eleusis, Greece (2023)
Eleusis, also known as Elefsina, today is an industrial town on the outskirts of the Greek capital Athens. But it also has a place in Greek mythology as the home of the Eleusinian Mysteries, an initiation rite in ancient Greece. Eleusis is also home of the annnual Aeschylia festival, dedicated to the ancient Greek writer. Visitors will be able to explore cultural developments here that span thousands of years.
Tartu, Estonia (2024)
Tartu is Estonia’s second-largest city after the capital, Tallinn and it has clearly established itself as the cultural and intellectual center of the country. Home to the country’s oldest and largest university as well as to the Ministry of Education and Research. Tartu visitors can choose between a number of museums including Estonia’s National Museum and will find a large number of statues and monuments throughout the city.
Bad Ischl, Austria (2024)
The pretty resort town in the Salzkammergut area of Austria – a region so called for an abundance of salt mines – has long ago made a name for itself as a tourist destination. This is owed in part to the picturesque scenery of the Alpine Foreland, but certainly mostly to the fact that the fairy-tale couple of Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth spent their summers in town.
Bodo, Norway (2024)
As a representative of one of the countries that are not yet members of the EU, Bodo presents a fascinating travel destination. Located north of the Arctic Circle and in the North Norwegian fjord region, the area is noted for its scenic beauty and natural habitats. In former times culturally and economically stamped by the fishing industry, the Bodo area underwent structural changes and is today an important hub for the IT and technology industries.
Gorizia, Italy and Nova Gorica, Slovenia (2025)
For decades, the town of Gorizia in Northeastern Italy, a place with a long history spanning centuries, and the neighbouring city of Nova Gorica in then-Yugoslavia, a planned community conceived in the mid-20th century, were separated not only by a border, but by political systems. Today, these dividing lines have become virtually invisible and the now united towns have a great story of changing cultures to tell.
Chemnitz, Germany (2025)
Located in the East German state of Saxony, Chemnitz and the surrounding area have been distinctly impacted by the traditions and cultural heritage of the nearby Ore mountains region that’s stretching into the neighboring Czech Republic. Formerly a rather bleak industrial town, Chemnitz has invested greatly into cultural matters in recent decades, today hosting several renowned museums as well as performing arts venues.