It’s no secret that for most of the world (save a handful of billionaires and some crypto cowboys) 2020 was a year to forget, or at least one that won’t be looked back on fondly in years to come. This is especially true for those of us in the tourism sector. However, for a handful of destinations around the world, the global pandemic and ensuing shutdown of virtually all travel was doubly difficult. Inhabitants of cities like Tokyo, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Lisbon, Galway and Rijeka had had 2020 figuratively circled on their calendars for years, as they were all set to host major international events and/or hold annual distinctions. In hindsight, UEFA’s decision to spread the Euro 2020 hosting duties amongst 12 different countries seems even more prescient (as prescient as the failed bid to form a European Super League was foolhardy – sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves there).
While the Tokyo Olympics and Dubai’s much anticipated 2020 World Expo have been postponed by a year, Kuala Lumpur’s title as UNESCO World Book Capital, Lisbon’s reign as Europe’s Green Capital and Rijeka and Galway’s chance to be known as the European Capital of Culture have simply come and gone. (Although if it’s any consolation to Lisbon, 2020 was a great year for the environment). Meanwhile, Malaysia’s long-planned Visit Malaysia 2020 tourism campaign almost seems satirical in retrospect.
In any event, it was while considering the plight of these unfortunate places that we realised even without an unprecedented, paradigm-shifting global catastrophe, many of these cities seem to fade from the public consciousness as soon as their short time in the limelight has concluded. To take just one example, are the dozens of cities that have held the title of European Capital of Culture over the years no less interesting to visit today? We think not, and thus decided to draw our readers’ attention to this motley crew of culturally significant locales, and hopefully help inspire some of you to visit once international travel resumes in earnest.
2001: Rotterdam, Netherlands
While The Beautiful South were more than happy to make it famous as a synonym for the anonymous town, don’t make the mistake of dismissing Europe’s largest port in such a manner. Rotterdam is the cultural heart of the Netherlands and boy is it beating, with a roster of galleries and museums that rival more illustrious cities across the region. The history and development of Holland’s second city are tied to the history and development of its famous port, a de facto gateway to Europe that still buzzes with authority and excitement today, more than seven centuries after it first opened.
History is one thing, but the visitor will likely spend far more time exploring Rotterdam’s land-based attractions. The architecture of the city is more than up to the standards we expect from the Netherlands, with homely tradition and mind-bending modernity on show in equal measure. The creativity of Rotterdam’s buildings takes centre stage more often than not; this place isn’t known as the Architectural Capital of the Netherlands without good reason. The 18-metre-high Euromast Tower isn’t for the faint of heart, but those brave enough to head to the top will get a bird’s eye view of Rotterdam that makes humanity’s lack of wings an even-bigger indictment of our humble position on the planet.
Rotterdam isn’t Amsterdam, far from it. Rotterdam, truth be told, couldn’t be anywhere other than Rotterdam, a dizzying buffet of colour, culture and charm that continually moves forward no matter how middling the current state of Feyenoord, the local football team who dominated Dutch football in the ‘60s and are never far away from returning to those heady heights.
No such insecurity about Rotterdam. Few cities offer as much excitement and ambition as the one so readily dismissed by Hull’s finest back in ’96.
2001: Porto, Portugal
Move over Lisbon, it is time for Porto to take over. Portugal’s second largest city has spent way too long in the shadow of the capital, an underestimated and underrated beauty that is as much about history as it is the future, as much about faith as it is art. It isn’t a city of contradictions – no city truly is – but Porto is the kind of place that has its cake and knows full well that it can eat it.
The Douro river provides an eye-catching anchor to it all, allowing the city to rise either side of the water with elegance and confidence in equal measure. The picturesque riverbanks elicit heady sighs from early in the morning until late at night, the view sharp enough to convince visitors that they absolutely must move to Porto. That is if the train station hasn’t already done the job.
This is the sort of place that holds beauty above all else, a city that is home to Europe’s most beautiful railway station, its most graceful McDonald’s, the world’s most gorgeous bookshop and a whole host of churches that could make believers out of the hardened cynics. Don’t resist Porto, it is utterly futile. You can try, but it only takes one glance at the famous Francesinha sandwich to realise just how silly resistance is. This city’s time has come, and boy is it long overdue.
2002: Bruges, Belgium
At the risk of sounding like a stereotypically uncultured American (guilty as charged!), we were first introduced to the idyllic Belgium town of Bruges by the criminally underrated 2008 black comedy In Bruges, which not only stars Colin Ferrell and Brendan Gleeson, but also features Ralph Fiennes as a foulmouthed, short-tempered gangster in what might very well be the best singular performance of his long, storied career.
We’re not sure how Bruges’ official tourist authority feels about this connection – the underlying premise of the film was that the city is boring, and at one point Ferrell’s character even wonders out loud if Hell is an eternity in Bruges – but as they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and as various comments on the In Bruges trailer on YouTube will attest, more than a few folks have found their way to the city only after watching the movie.
So what does the real Bruges have to offer visitors? To start with canals, loads of them, which compliment the cobbled lanes that cover the rest of the historic centre. After five minutes wandering the streets here, it’s clear why Bruges was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status several years before becoming a European Capital of Culture, and is often found on listicles of the continent’s most romantic cities.
2002: Salamanca, Spain
Home to the third-oldest university in Europe, Salamanca is a city defined by that commitment to academic development. A city for thinkers, let’s put it like that. That history goes way, way back but still permeates daily life today, where conversations in cafes carry more conviction than many will be used to. The famous Spanish penchant for passion is well and truly alive in the city of teachers.
You don’t need us to wax lyrical about the aesthetic virtues of a town afforded UNESCO World Heritage status way back in 1988. Words can only do so much, after all, even in a city famous for its appetite for the things. Salamanca is a city that thrives in the brick and mortar of its society, the charismatic chatter of its historic buildings and the depth and breadth of its ideas, bubbling to the surface like a Corillo poured too quickly. That last phrase isn’t coincidental, by the way, and even the most blasé of travellers will be able to decipher that most consistent of circumstances; university town equals nightlife nirvana. Salamanca is this and more, a gorgeous town to explore and investigate by the day before partying the night (and early morning) away, getting an all-too-brief nap in before hitting the streets once more.
Salamanca doesn’t skimp on the aesthetics either, conjuring up fantastical scenes with its Renaissance facades, almost brazen in their confidence. Plaza Mayor is the nucleus that holds this most cerebral of cities together, and it just so happens to be the most beautiful main square in all of Spain. Don’t believe us? You will, you will.
The transformative characteristics of what we all want university life to be are well and truly alive in Salamanca. Bring an open mind and an eager heart and you might just fall in love with the famous city of education on the Tormes.
2003: Graz, Austria
Austria’s second-largest city may well be the country’s first most awesome, if you’ll allow the somewhat relaxed approach to grammar. Home to nearly 300,000 people and just as many stories, Graz brings together everything that makes Austria magical and presents it in its own inimitable sort of way, bridging the gap between Imperial and Republic with grace and charm. Also, Arnold Schwarzenegger was born here, and we’re yet to meet anyone who can’t bust out an Arnie impression. Now that is global appeal.
The old centre of Graz makes for an obvious starting point, with its crimson roofs offering the visitor all the historic charm that one should expect from such a city. The centre of town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, and you have to wonder what took them so long. That listing was extended to in 2010 to include Eggenberg Palace, another accolade on a shelf that includes a stint as Cultural Capital of Europe (2003), as City of Culinary Delights (2008) and its standing as a City of Design (2011)
It might be easy to list off all the things that people say about Graz, but the real value lies in what Graz knows about itself. This is an Austrian city that was a hub for Slovenes and Croats back in the Empire days, a cultural centre that inspired books, art, music and all the rest, although most visitors will be happy enough to sit on the audience side of that exchange today. Also, that Kunsthaus is some heck of a building, right?
2004: Genoa, Italy
The thrill of exploration positively seeps from the walls of Genoa’s buildings. That isn’t literally true, that would be quite bizarre, but this is a place as defined by exploration as it is anything else. Italy’s largest seaport has long been one of the Mediterranean’s most important ports, from the days of the Most Serene Republic of Venice all the way to the modern world, a chaotic blend of light and dark that is every bit as enchanting as visitors hope. Genoa was once one of the wealthiest cities in the world, but today it must make do with being one of the most beguiling.
Embracing Genoa’s storied history is integral to squeezing every drop of delight out of la Superba (The Proud One) and there are plenty of fabulously put-together museums ready to tell that tale before you animatedly discuss it over Genoese gastronomic gorgeousness. Did you know that this is where pesto comes from? You do now, and you’re welcome. No wonder people flocked here for centuries; they were looking for garlic and basil magnificence, not fame and fortune.
Genoa is as much the sum of its parts as it is a showcase for those parts, the sort of city that invigorates with its tumultuous centre while showing off the oldest state bank on the planet. You might not come to understand Genoa, but you’re almost certainly going to love it. Keep your hands inside the ride at all times and hold on tight.
2004: Lille, France
Okay, we’re not going to bite, as Lille’s standing as the so-called ‘Capital of Flanders’ should ring enough alarm bells for those with a vague awareness of Western Europe and political geography. France’s 10th most populous city is a stone’s throw (an elite level throw, admittedly) from the border with Belgium, making it the proverbial gateway between two of the most curious and fascinating countries in this little corner of the world, a gateway that comes with all the trappings of cities tied to that most-popular of terms.
Of course, by ‘trappings’ we mean ‘incredible creativity, architectural splendour, a genuinely unique atmosphere and food that positively demands a gluttonous approach to meal times’. Lille stands below Bordeaux and ahead of Rennes on the list of French cities by population, but it really is unlike anywhere else in the country. Lille is a garrison town with the history to prove it, a hub of manufacturing that grows more productive by the day, a city that remains true to its mercantile origins despite the literal destruction it has faced on so many occasions.
Lille has quite literally been destroyed more than once, and such experiences create tough people imbued with a love of life that cannot be taught. You feel that from the taverns to the high-end restaurants, where the grit of the every day rubs shoulders with the glitz of the magnificent, exchanging ideas across a threshold that most cities deem something of a forbidden door. This is Lille, where the idea of the forbidden is, well, forbidden.
To be blunt, Lille is Lille. A little French here, nods to neighbouring Belgium there, Flanders everywhere and nowhere all at once. Its cobbled streets, brick townhouses and air of historic defiance are difficult to defy. Okay, fine, the Capital of Flanders it is….
2005: Cork, Ireland
Ireland’s second largest city lies in the South West province of Munster, 250kms from Dublin, and is built on islands formed by the River Lee. Its name comes from corcach – Irish for ‘marshy place’. Originally a 6th Century monks settlement, the area became a Viking trading port in the 10th Century and was granted city status in 1185 by King John of England. In 1690, many buildings were destroyed in the Williamite Seige of Cork. Today Cork City is the bright and breezy economic and cultural capital of its eponymous county. It has good ferry, airport, rail and road links.
Corkonians revel in their independent ‘Rebel City’ reputation, with many regarding their home as Ireland’s ‘real capital’ and good-humouredly referring to it as The People’s Republic of Cork. Cork’s river and natural harbour – the world’s second largest after Sydney – has long earned the city its major seaport status, and helped define its layout and tourist appeal.
First stop for all you visitors has to be the landmark Shandon Tower for a ring on the Shandon Bells. Don your ear protectors and pull the ropes for some fine peeling action.Named after the city’s Patron Saint, the Church of Ireland St Fin Barre’s Cathedral is the seat of the Bishop of Cork. The magnificent 19th Century Gothic Revival building is made from local limestone and red marble, and its three spires rise up to form yet another distinct skyline landmark.
The city is also home to the Elysian – Ireland’s tallest building – and birthplace of Irish Revolutionary Michael Collins and international footballer Roy Keane. Perhaps the most significant product to come out of Cork, though, has to be Viagra.
2006: Patras, Greece
As the old saying goes, some things in life are simply inevitable: death, taxes and big Greek cities having centuries and centuries of history on which to amaze and astound all who are lucky enough to visit them. That’s how it goes, right? Greece’s third-largest city and its historic gateway to Europe, Patras is a top table treat that might surprise you with its invention and excitement, all while meeting the demands we put upon cities in these parts. Famous old architecture? God-like gastronomy? Stories of extremely clever men many from 2,500 years ago? Tick, tick, tick.
History abounds from every nook and cranny in Patras but that almost goes without saying; people were doing their thing here long before JC made his presence felt. That isn’t to dismiss the thrilling array of time on offer here, far from it, and even the most cynical of travellers will find themselves gawping in awe at Patras Castle, the Roman Odeon or the city’s famous lighthouse, the sort of landmark that draws proposals and lyrical lamentations of love from stones. Veterans of Greek travel will be in their element in Patras, while newcomers will find more than enough to guarantee plans for future veteran status.
Attention usually focuses on this town’s status as Greece’s entry to the west, but maybe it is more pertinent to refer to it as Europe’s entry to Greece, a newcomer-friendly city that sets the tone for what is to follow. That means industry-defining engineering and culinary miracles in equal measure, accentuated by more than 20,000 students and all the energy that such a crowd habitually musters. There’s something special about exploring archaeological remains by day and sipping Tentura (Patras’ famous brandy) by night, something we’re more than happy to enjoy time and time again.
2007: Sibiu, Romania
Located close to the geographical centre of Romania, on the northern side of the Carpathians, the city that the Saxons called Hermannstadt and the Hungarians Nagyszeben is today very much a Romanian city, which locals of all ethnic stripes call Sibiu. One of Romania’s most handsome places, modern Sibiu is a visitor’s delight, mixing the best of the medieval with a modern outlook that has convinced some of the biggest names in the hotel business (and, of course, In Your Pocket) to open up here.
With a population of just over 170,000, Sibiu is not the largest city in Transylvania, but with its international airport and recently renovated Old Town, Sibiu is now a genuine rival to better-known Brasov as Transylvania’s finest visitor destination. While much of the credit for Sibiu’s rise to superstar status must go to its mayor, a Saxon, the European Union helped out a great deal when it named the place European Capital of Culture. Although it is now almost ten years since the city held the title, the many benefits of that year in the sun remain.
The Old Town was the biggest beneficiary, with many its old houses, squares, theatres, museums and palaces all being lovingly renovated, creating a medieval ambience fit to rival anywhere in this part of Europe.
2007: Luxembourg City
You don’t need us to tell you that Luxembourg is small, that’s sort of its thing, and you don’t need to be a professor of political geography to add two and two to work out that its capital isn’t exactly a wild metropolis. But you know? Metropolises are overrated. Why squeeze into a finite space with millions of other people when you can saunter historic streets without a care in the world, stopping only to breathe deep in gorgeous cafes and sample some of the most underrated food in Europe?
If you’re given a choice between air pollution and a gorgeous capital set across deep gorges, always choose the latter. Luxembourg City boasts such a setting, sat on the confluence of the Alzette and Pétrusse rivers, and it is no great shock that around 70% of the city’s population is made up of outsiders. Who wouldn’t want to live here? Widely regarded as the safest city in the world, Luxembourg City might also be Europe’s most alluring capital.
All this comes at a price, of course, and Luxembourg City’s isn’t the most affordable city in the European Union to visit, but sometimes you’ve got to pay the price for a memorable getaway. With a vibrant nightlife, fantastic museums, an ever-developing culinary scene and the sort of centre that inspires fantastical stories, all under the grand eye of Luxembourg Castle (colloquially known as The Bock) LC is worth every single cent.
2008: Liverpool, England
There’s nowhere on Earth quite like Liverpool. Whether you land at John Lennon Airport or ride into Lime Street, this is readily apparent. Life is different here, the air is different, there is something about this place that is undeniably unique. Liverpool isn’t like Manchester, it isn’t like Birmingham, it isn’t like Edinburgh and it certainly isn’t like London — it is like Liverpool and Liverpool alone.
Only Liverpool could have produced The Beatles. This city is the home of Western music’s most influential band, a group of boys who came from these streets and went on to change the world, one of the few pieces of English culture that can legitimately make that claim. Beatles history is everywhere you look in this city, and you’ll find yourself humming those famous songs whether you want to or not.
And then there’s the football, the inescapable football. Soccer is more than a religion here, it infiltrates daily life like nowhere else in the country, and the eternal battle between blue and red (or Blue and Red) is woven into the fabric of these streets. It won’t take long to see which side of the fence you find yourself on.
But waiting in amongst all of this are some of the most incredible sights the country possesses, not to mention a roster of its most impressive museums, some seriously creative cafes and the most incredible night out in Britain. Liverpool marches to the beat of its own drum, its own pace. This is the real Marmite city of the United Kingdom – and the Scousers wouldn’t want it any other way.
2008: Stavanger, Norway
It all begins with Stavanger Cathedral. Norway’s oldest cathedral was constructed in the 12th century and is widely considered the birth date of splendid Stavanger, although you must fast-forward a few centuries to get to the time when the centre of Rogaland County really began to develop. The city’s core of 19th-century townhouses tells its own story.
But really, we’re burying the lede with this one, as no conversation about Stavanger (be it on tourism, culture or commerce) can be had without mentioning the sticky, black liquidised elephant in the room. Stavanger is Norway’s oil capital and comes with everything you’d expect of such a spot, namely dizzying wealth, glimmering buildings and prices that aren’t too far off the heights of those monoliths. Stavanger isn’t quite the most expensive city in the world, but it isn’t far off.
Truth be told, it isn’t really possible to explore Stavanger on a budget, but those with deeper pockets than most will feel lucky to enjoy its energetic waterfront and charmingly respectful awareness of its own history, best displayed in the preserved town centre and detailed museums. Of course, the two worlds collide in the form of the Norwegian Petroleum Museum, Stavanger’s most popular and one that is visited by almost 100,000 people on an annual basis.
Stavanger is a very old city with an extremely modern heart, and that juxtaposition brings its own curious charm to the intrepid explorer. The theme of Stavanger’s reign as European Capital of Culture in 2008 focused on the concept of an open heart, a clear indication of this city’s approach to art, business, culture and life. Also, there’s something about the word ‘Stavanger’ that really gets the juices flowing. Just us? Seriously, say it with us….
2009: Vilnius, Lithuania
Lithuania’s magnificent little capital has come a long way since the Soviet Army pulled their tanks out a quarter of a century or so ago. Brimming with life and looking more and more like Barcelona every day as long as you’re prepared to squint your eyes a bit, surplus to its genuinely exquisite Old Town which brings the tourists in on an increasingly busy schedule of low cost flights are bars galore, restaurants that wouldn’t look out of place in Manhattan and museums to rival any city.
Bitterly cold during the winter and surprisingly hot for a good three months of the year, Vilnius is a veritable wet dream for any historical novelist worth their salt and possesses an unexplainable magnetism that brings people for the weekend and finds them well and truly dug in with a local spouse and three children several decades later. Whatever way you like to enjoy yourself and experience a little culture along the way, Vilnius has it in spades.
2009: Linz, Austria
There’s something about Linz. The third-largest city in Austria, it is undeniably curious, tinted as it is with a baffling blend of Austrian history, globalist trends and shimmering ideas of the future. Linz is a city where grand old buildings sit next to those that are straight out of science fiction, a city where opposites attract and bed-in for more than a brief dalliance. If you want a window into a world of history straight out of the future, get yourself to Linz.
That history stretches all the way back to the Romans, while the future is found in a range of museums that will test the limits of your imagination and comprehension. Linz’s spot on the Danube made it a vital trading point during the days of the Holy Roman Empire, while that geological position continues to attract cosmopolitan and creative minds today. Every now and then the two blur, best seen in the Neo-Gothic majesty of the 19th century New Cathedral, which still looks futuristic today.
Make no mistake about it, Linz is a city with its finger on the pulse of whatever Austria might be brewing up, a city that always seems to be one step ahead of the rest. Such a city demands award-worthy sustenance and entertainment, both of which Linz has in spades. This is a city that truly does have something for everyone and plenty that people don’t realise they want until the set foot in that famous square. There’s just something about Linz.
2010: Pécs, Hungary
With a population of around 150,000, you might not expect Pécs to give Budapest a run for its money in the excitement stakes. You’d be wrong, obviously, hence the use of that set-up as an opening gambit, and this smashing city’s 20,000+ students ensure that there is never a dull moment in the town the Romans called Sopiane. Pécs (well, Sopiane) was influential as all-heck from the get-go, flourishing as an early Christian centre and cultural hotspot before Louis I decided to establish Hungary’s first university here in 1367. You can say a lot of things about Mr The Great, but his university location decision making was impeccable.
Pécs was a city of learning and ambition back when the rest of Europe was drinking beer for breakfast. Much in the same way it does today with its huge proportion of international students, people came here from all over the world to exchange ideas and desires, making for a cultural melting pot that is genuinely deserving of that somewhat tired qualifier.
While the academic side of things dominates the mood in Pécs (well, that and the extra-curricular activities that come with such things), there is plenty here for those looking to escape the rigour of learning and, you know, improving yourself. Each and every week seems to come with a different event of some kind, music, theatre and artistic endeavours that fit perfectly with the bars and venues of Hungary’s fifth-largest city.
Pécs is home to a conveyer belt of sights and attractions that cover each and every period of its long and storied history, from 4th-century tombs to 21st-century architecture via 12th-century cathedrals, 14th-century palaces and more. History, culture, sightseeing and nighttime excitement all over the joint, in short.
2010: Essen, Germany
Essen, geographical and cultural heart of the Ruhrgebiet, is the 6th largest city in Germany. Founded in 852 as a convent for noblewomen and governed by abbesses for the next thousand years, its cathedral houses priceless examples of sacred art, including the 10th-century “Child’s Crown” of Otto III and the Golden Madonna, the oldest-known icon of its kind, valued at over €100 million.
The 19th century saw Essen explode into the largest industrial centre in Europe thanks to its coal mining and steel production, spearheaded by the success of the Krupp company. But later explosions in World War II – from Allied bombs – reduced much of the city and its factories to rubble, and Essen’s city centre is a testament to German post-war reconstruction.
Like other modern post-industrial cities, Essen has gone through several rebirths: employing out-of-work coalminers to build Lake Baldeney dam and a charming recreational area south of the city; coaxing some of Germany’s largest corporations to build headquarters there; and turning its once-dead factories into vibrant cultural centres and tourist sights. Essen’s amazing renaissance, buoyed by the decision to make it European Cultural Capital for 2010, should continue its upswing for years to come.
2010: Istanbul, Turkey
While it would likely be impossible to come up with a universally accepted list of the ‘World’s Greatest Cities’, any serious attempt to do so would certainly have to include Istanbul – and in our book it would be listed as a first among equals. New York, London, Paris, perhaps Berlin and St Petersburg, then there’s Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore and Sydney in the Asia-Pacific, maybe Toronto, Los Angeles and Buenos Aires if you’re feeling generous about the ‘new world’. For our money, none of them can match the Turkish capital for the sheer scope of its history, its literal spanning of East and West, its chaotic fusion of the ancient and the modern.
This is not to say that the city (and the country) are not without their problems, especially in recent years, but while these might undoubtedly scuff the varnish on Istanbul’s bona fides, they’re hardly enough to do it any real damage. Since it was founded by the Greeks as Byzantium in 657 BC, through more than a millennium of Roman and Latin rule under the guise of Constantinople, almost five centuries as the seat of the vast Ottoman Empire and finally a century of a turbulence as a republic, the city has seen countless kings, emperors, sultans and now presidents come and go, and proudly wears this unparalleled history on its proverbial sleeve for all to see.
In the same way you can’t help but be at least vaguely jealous when someone tells you that they’ve never read one of your favourite books or seen one of your favourite films, when someone tells us that they’ve yet to step foot in Istanbul, the slightest hint of envy wells up somewhere inside of us at the thought of being able to experience this magnificent metropolis again or the first time. This is of course followed by involuntary reminiscences from the countless times we’ve visited Istanbul, or even got to call it home for short spells, over the years – the sights, sounds, smells and nostalgia-heavy memories of unforgettable experiences.