European Capitals of Culture

European Capitals of Culture

26 February 2020

European Capitals of Culture - some of our favourites to visit by train.

European Capital of Culture is organised by the European Commission with cities from around the EU vying for their moment in the cultural spotlight. Two to three cities get to share the crown every year and the process is a long and detailed one for them to do so. For several years before they are actually chosen, citizens sweat blood and tears getting their application processes together and, if they are lucky enough to be chosen, they are then given another few years to prepare a prolific programme of cultural events to sell themselves to the world. 

Founded in 1985 it was Europe’s actual capital cities that grabbed the prizes in the early days, such as Florence, Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris. No brainers there when it comes to culture. Nowadays, it’s a bit more interesting, with lesser known cities stepping into their light, even though for years its citizens have been trying to tell the world that they too have great things to offer. Here are some of our favourites, all accessible by train. 

Galway, Ireland,  European Capital of Culture 2020

Most first-time visitors to Ireland tend to head to the actual capital of Dublin on the East coast rather than this cultural capital of the Irish language speaking, or Gaeltacht region, on its wild Atlantic coast. As co-winners for 2020, Galway’s impressive 2020 cultural programme is even planned around the traditional Celtic calendar, with seasons of Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain, instead of the usual months. Galway is also easy to access from the UK by train, with the price of the ferry to Dublin and then onwards train to Galway included in the ticket. 

Rijeka, Croatia, European Capital of Culture 2020

Rijeka, tucked up on the northern coast of Croatia, on Kvarner Bay, which is an inlet of the Adriatic Sea, has been the quiet one people in the know have been watching for years. A busy port city, it has been regenerated as a coastal arts hub making it a city that deserves to take attention and tourists away from the now overcrowded tourist hives of Split and Dubrovnik. As well as being gateway to the northern islands of Croatia’s famous archipelago, 2020 sees the city planning Rijeka 2020 celebrations, from the Film Festival in March to the opening of the renovated Baroque Palace in April. You can book international trains to Croatia on our site, to the capital of Zagreb, and then book a train to Rijeka locally. 

Leeuwarden, The Netherlands

Awarded Capital of Culture status in 2018 Leeuwarden, also capital of the northern Friesland region, is most famous for its annual flower market, or Bloemetjesmarkt. This is the Netherlands’ longest market which takes place on Ascension Day, 21 May 2020, when over 200 stalls proffer the prettiest of palettes in this northern town. Leeuwarden is also a stop-off point for many on the 5,900km North Sea Cycling Route (LF1), before heading over the border to Germany and beyond. Shoppers can also indulge in the country’s most impressive collection of artisan shops, with Klein Kerkstraat having been voted one of the best shopping streets in the country.

Marseille, France

Cultural crown holder in 2013, Marseille is one of France’s most underrated cities in terms of tourism, and also very accessible by rail, as it is just 3 hrs 15 mins on the fastest train from Paris. Between the summer months of June and mid-September, you can travel direct between London to Marseille in just 6 hrs 28 mins. Arts highlights include the Festival de Marseille, the Art Deco Opéra de Marseille and the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée at the mouth of the harbour. The multicultural magnificence of Marseille is summed up perfectly at the Five Continents Jazz Festival

San Sebastian, Spain

A Basque beauty on the Bay of Biscay, this cultural hub and Capital of Culture in 2016, still hosts an array of arts events, such as the world famous International Film Festival in September, the lesser known but growing Human Rights Film Festival in April and the Music Fortnight Festival in August. For cultural heritage, San Sebastian is also the starting point for many people undertaking the iconic Camino de Santiago long-distance walking trail. If you would rather travel along the coast by train, San Sebastian is located on one of Spain’s most ethereal train lines which also takes in Santander, Bilbao and Gijón


Capital of Austria's Styria region and Capital of Culture in 2003, Graz is known for being one of Europe's best-preserved historic cities. With its emblematic red rooftops and modern builds, like the rather alien looking Kunsthaus, Graz is a melting pot of style, architecture and culture. Only 2 hrs 35 mins from Vienna, it's easy to reach this scenic city by train. Walk around its beautiful old town crowned by Schlossberg (castle hill), proffering picturesque views from its Uhrturm (clock tower) down across the city below. One of the best things to do in Graz is rent a bike and explore the Styrian countryside. The cycle route between Graz and Leibniz takes just under 2 hrs and brings you through vineyards, pumpkin fields, and up to Schloss Seggau, a 13th century hilltop castle.

Bad Ischl, Austria

With Capitals of Culture already designated many years in advance, Bad Ischl in Austria is to carry the crown in 2024 (along with Tartu in Estonia and Bodø in Norway). Train travellers can get to know Bad Ischl ahead of the culture vultures, and well they might, as this town is picture book pretty, with cow bells on. Aristocracy from the Habsburg Empire flocked to this spa town, on the banks of the River Traun, not only for summer socialising but also because it is gateway to the lakes of the mountainous Salzkammergut region. From hiking trails to restorative thermal spas, tourism is still under the radar here, even though it is just under 2 hrs by train from Salzburg.

Image credits: Florence iStock ©borchee, Galway Harbour iStock ©Titoslack, Rijeka Croatia iStock ©majeiva, Marseille iStock ©Ivansmuk, San Sebastian iStock ©ibsky, Bad Ischl iStock ©cadligai

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