Discover the surprising drawcards of Europe’s 2024 Capitals of Culture

By dpa via Reuters Connect

The summer solstice is also honoured as "Midsummer Madness" in Norway. image / dpa Reuters
The summer solstice is also honoured as "Midsummer Madness" in Norway. image / dpa Reuters
Europe's so-called Capital of Culture title, once awarded mostly to capital cities, is now being used to bring attention to lesser-known parts of the EU.

The title “European Capital of Culture” is about casting the old in a new light. Intended to showcase a cross-section of the EU’s diverse cultures, it puts a spotlight on places that are normally outshone by bigger metropolises.

In this respect, the title, which is awarded by the EU on a regular basis, makes the cities interesting even after the cultural year is over. To date, around 70 cities have received the designation, with Athens being the first title-holder in 1985.

In 2024, the capitals are the Austrian salt mining region of Bad Ischl Salzkammergut, Tartu in southern Estonia and Bodø in Norway, north of the Arctic Circle.

Austria’s idyllic village on Lake Hallstatt is a tourist magnet. Image dpa /Reuters

Coffee, art and ceramics: Bad Ischl Salzkammergut, Austria

“Culture is the new salt” is the slogan of the old salt mining region for the Capital of Culture period, with the year set to deliver over 500 cultural events. Spread across 23 municipalities, the festivities are not taking place in one single ‘capital’. The nearby tourist magnet of Hallstatt, which is already visited by thousands of visitors a day, doesn’t need a publicity boost.

But in many places, initiatives have emerged that add something to a trip through the region around Bad Ischl, which is characterised by mountains, lakes and idyllic villages.

Local chef Christoph Held is the coach for the Tavern Lab project, in which the abandoned train station restaurant in Bad Ischl is being brought back to life by students from the local tourism school.

“We are aiming to be open for at least 40 days this year, plus a similar number of days with pop-up restaurants,” explains Held. According to the 39-year-old, the aim is to set an example against the decline of pubs and taverns in rural areas and to demonstrate what young people can achieve in times of a shortage of skilled labour.

The spa town of Bad Ischl is used to the limelight. The town’s Kaiservilla preserves the memories of Franz Joseph und Empress Sisi and Viennese high society once gathered in hotels and coffee houses. The main exhibition “Art with Salt and Water”, which features sculptures, installations and video art, is on display at the former brewhouse. Curator Gottfried Hattinger has compiled works by artists from 12 countries.

Between April and November, the ceramics city of Gmunden will be showing three top-class ceramic art exhibitions in the new Stadtgarten arts quarter. Eva Fürtbauer, the city’s project manager for ceramics is hoping for a range of impulses. “It would be nice to have a place for young talent to go to and a meeting point for artists beyond 2024.”

They also want to boost culture-oriented tourism: “A cultural tourist is a good tourist.”

Tartu in Estonia is among Europe’s cities making lots of noise to celebrate its year of being a Capital of Culture. Image / dpa Reuters

The gateway to the south: Tartu, Estonia

Tartu will probably never emerge from the shadow of the Estonian capital Tallinn, but it’s now at least bringing more international attention to the southern part of the Baltic country. The area around the city has been incorporated into the Capital of Culture celebrations, which include over a thousand events.

“We are the gateway to the south, which covers a quarter of Estonia, where a unique culture remains alive to this day,” explains communications expert Kaidi-Lisa Kivisalu, citing five local languages as an example.

Tartu itself is home to the oldest university in the Baltics. The dynamic university city of 100,000 inhabitants is famous for both its historic old town and its numerous start-ups.

According to Kivisalu, a million visitors are expected, with seven to 10% coming from abroad. The main theme is “Arts of Survival” and is linked to the “knowledge, skills and values that will help us lead a good life in the future,” according to the organisers.

That may sound rather vague, but there are definitely highlights planned throughout the year. These include an exhibition by the contemporary porcelain and textile artist Kris Lemsalu from March 16 to July 21 at the Tartu Art Museum, the Viljandi Dance Days from April 25 to 29 (“Arts of survival – ecological footprint in dance and performing arts”) and a concert by singer Sting on June 10.

Bodø, the cultural capital north of the Arctic Circle has 54,000 inhabitants. Image / dpa Reuters

Arctic and slightly crazy: Bodø, Norway

“The first European Capital of Culture north of the Arctic Circle” – this is how people are celebrating in Bodø, which is located in the Salten region in northern Norway and has a population of just 54,000. The Vestfjorden leaves its mark on the area. The people of Bodø and the surrounding region are determined to make the most of this unique opportunity to present themselves to the world.

“The real superstar of the program is the wide variety,” says marketing director Helge Grønmo.”With over a thousand events to choose from, there’s something for everyone. And many of the events will be free.” It’s the biggest cultural happening to take place in Norway in over a decade, with events also planned for the surrounding area and further afield.

The Sámi people and their traditions will be celebrated in the programme of events. Image / dpa Reuters

The Sami people and their traditions and folklore will play a part in the celebrations. On a number of dates between February 15 and April 21 visitors will have the chance to meet the Sami and their culture in Bodø, in an event titled “Visit reindeer”.

The Sami New Year celebrations are at the beginning of May, followed by “Sami Language Days” at the end of September and a food market on December 7 and 8; the venue is the Sami Cultural Centre in Bodø.

Additional highlights include the “Marcialonga Arctic Ski Race” on March 9 and what is affectionately labelled as “Midsummer Madness”. Visitors will get to experience the craziness of the summer solstice with fires, music, dance and theatre.

Grønmo promises: “It will be a feast for the senses.”


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