European Capital of Culture: celebrating a continent’s culture

large group of people sitting watching a performance

For the past 35 years, more than 60 cities and regions across Europe – from Paphos to Porto, Rekjavik to Riga – have been named the European Capital of Culture.

The title celebrates a city’s heritage and its contribution to European culture. Each year is marked with exhibitions, artistic programmes, theatre shows, dance, opera, music and other projects specific to individual cities.

EXPLORE MORE: View a gallery of all European Capitals of Culture

In 1985, Athens in Greece was chosen as the first European City of Culture.

The initiative was launched by then European Community based on an idea from Greece’s Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri and her French counterpart Jack Lang, to highlight and celebrate the richness of European culture in an annual programme.

Initially known as European City of Culture, from 1999, the title European Capitals of Culture has been used.

The idea was to highlight the role of cultural connections and the importance of culture in European integration, which had previously largely been focused around economics and financial benefits.

At the end of the 1980s, Florence, Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris followed Athens as European Cities of Culture.

black and white photograph of Lisbon panorama
Lisbon was European Capital of Culture in 1994.
Lisbon, Leon & Levy, Parisienne de Photographie, Public Domain

EXPLORE MORE: Views of Lisbon in our gallery

In 2000, to celebrate the millennium in a special way, nine cities – Avignon in France, Bergen in Norway, Bologna in Italy, Brussels in Belgium, Helsinki in Finland, Kraków in Poland, Prague in Czech Republic, Reykjavík in Iceland and Santiago de Compostela in Spain – were chosen to hold the title, including two in states that were to join the European Union in 2004.

Since the beginning, cities in every EU member have held the title.

EXPLORE MORE: Read our blogs about Marseille and Košice which held the title in 2013

In 2004, a rotation system was introduced to ensure that each EU member state holds the title. From 2007 to 2020, two cities in different countries have held the title. From 2021 onwards, a third city will be added every third year from a country that is not an EU member.

black and white photograph of boats in a city centre canal
Leeuwarden was a European Capital of Culture in 2018.
Boats and bystanders on a canal in Leeuwarden, Rijksmuseum, Public Domain

EXPLORE MORE: Views of Leeuwarden in our gallery

Cities are chosen through a bidding process, in a similar way to how sport competitions and other cultural programmes are selected. An international panel of cultural experts assess individual cities’ proposals according to criteria, and choose a winner.

Competition for the title is now strong. In 2016, 16 cities applied when Spain was due to hold the title. 15 Italian cities competed to host the event in 2019 (with Matera winning).

In 2020, the title is held by Galway in Ireland and Rijeka in Croatia.

two side by side images showing buildings in a city
View of Rijeka, C. v. Mayr, Gradska knjižnica Rijeka, Public Domain + Lynch’s Castle, Severin Worm-Petersen, Norsk Teknisk Museum, CC BY

EXPLORE MORE: Take a city trip to Galway and Rijeka, European Capitals of Culture 2020

Holding the title can bring tourism and media attention, as well as funding to create or consolidate cultural networks and advocacy within a city.

Some cities have seen great, long-lasting benefits from holding the title – local pride, increased investment in the arts, increased tourism – while others have been criticised due to lack of local involvement, inclusion and long-term impact.

EXPLORE MORE: View media reports about European Capitals of Culture:

Dublin 1991 | Weimar 1999 | Porto 2001 | Salamanca 2002 | Lille 2004 | Sibiu 2007 | Pécs 2010 | Marseille 2013 | Riga 2014 | Umeå 2014 | Wrocław 2016

The idea has also inspired other regions of the world – since the 1990s, the Arab League of UNESCO have chosen an Arab Capital of Culture, with an American Capital of Culture initiative beginning in 1997. Similarly, the European Union have chosen a European Youth Capital title since 2009. Several nations – including Italy, Lithuania and the United Kingdom – now also hold national ‘Capital of Culture’ initiatives.


Have you visited a European Capital of Culture? We’d love to hear your impressions in the comments below.

By Adrian Murphy, Europeana Foundation

This blog is part of Europeana’s Discovering Europe season featuring cultural jewels and hidden gems from across the continent.

This blog post is a part of the Europeana Common Culture project, which explores varied aspects of our shared cultural heritage across Europe.

Feature image: Event held during Maribor’s time as European Capital of Culture in 2012, Rock Otočec via Culture.si Photo Library, CC BY-ND

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