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European Capital of Culture: 5 amazing small cities you’ll want to visit

Europe, also commonly known as “The Old Continent”, is a region that bursts with art, history, culture and beautiful architecture. Every country, with its own customs and style, has amazing and vibrant cities, and this does not only go for the famous capital cities such as Paris, Rome, Berlin, Madrid, Lisbon or London, but also for the smaller, less known cities, which are not so popular amongst tourists and travelers.

Smaller cities tend to keep the local magic and the spirit of the country’s culture and customs in a more pure way than capital cities or big towns widely recognized and visited by a high number of tourists. This, of course, does not mean that you won’t find culture and local customs in the capital cities, because there is certainly so much to do, to see and to experience from France by going to Paris, from Italy by going to Rome, and from London by going to the United Kingdom. But giving a chance to smaller cities is also a wonderful way to get to know and experience the country, especially if that city has been or will be named European Capital of Culture.

What is the European Capital of Culture?

The European Capital of Culture is a programme established in 1985 by the European Union. It aims to designate, each year for a period of one calendar year, a city or cities to be the focus of the cultural life in the region. During that year, the city is expected to organize and host a series of cultural events and experiences to highlight the diversity of all the cultures of the European continent and express the richness of the shared history of the countries. The overall objective and reason why the programme was created was to have a way of bringing people from the whole continent closer, as a strategy to showcase how many aspects European cities have in common and how solid is the bond that unites Europe together.

When a city is designated European Capital of Culture, it has the chance to change it’s image, become more recognized, make the most out of the social, cultural and economic benefits that the designation can bring to it, and raise it’s visibility at a global scale. As you can most probably imagine, there are many cities who are interested in becoming the next European Capital of Culture. But, how does a city become one? Well, there’s a step by step. In order to become a European Capital of Culture, the city must submit an application to become one. Then, a specialized panel reviews all of the applications and selects the city or cities which will be holding the title of European Capital of Culture.

Most of the major cities in Europe have already been named European Capital of Culture since the programme was launched. In fact, at the beginning of the programme it was especially the biggest, most recognized cities the ones which were most likely to receive the title of European Capital of Culture. Cities such as Madrid, Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels, Lisbon were some of the first ones to be designated as such. Nevertheless, in the last few years it has become more and more usual to have smaller, less famous cities designated as European Capital of Culture. This gives the countries the chance to move the focus to other regions and places which are less recognized but just as amazing and rich as their main cities.

5 amazing Europe Capital of Culture small cities you’ll want to visit

Here I’m gonna tell you a bit more about 5 amazing and vibrant small European cities which have been or will be designated European Capital of Culture. There’s a chance that you might have never heard of some of these cities, but I’m sure that, after reading about them here, you’ll be adding them to your list of places to visit.

  1. Aarhus, Denmark

Aarhus is the second largest city in Denmark, and one of the oldest ones of the country. This amazing city was European Capital of Culture in 2017. It’s modern and innovative architecture, it’s canals and foodie vibes make it one of the most interesting cities in Denmark. There is a huge variety of incredible museums to visit.

  1. Matera, Italy

This unbelievable ancient city located in southern Italy received the designation of European Capital of Culture in 2019. It’s been inhabited since the Paleolithis era and is known commonly as “the city of stone”. It’s sassi, peculiar rock-based urban settlements, are something unique in the world. They build up the historical center of the city, and are dug into the stones. They were declared UNESCO World Heritage in 1993.

  1. Galway, Ireland

This Irish city, located in the west area of the country, was named European Capital of Culture in 2020, and its museums, cathedrals, churches, castles and music festivals make it worth a visit. It has a coast in the Corrib river and is quite a university city with a very active and vibrant life. It was founded about 8 centuries ago.

  1. Kaunas, Lithuania

Kaunas will be, in the future, the 2022 European Capital of Culture. Founded in 1317, it is the second largest city in Lithuania, and a very important centre of cultural, scientific, academic and economic life. The old town is situated in the confluence of the two largest Lithuanian rivers, and there are plenty of museums to visit. A curious fact: in the interwar period, Kaunas became the temporary capital city of Lithuania.

  1. Chemnitz, Germany

The city of Chemnitz has been selected as the 2025 European Capital of Culture. It is located in the German federal state of Saxony. This amazing city is surrounded by the Ore Mountains and the Central Sazon Hill Country. It’s the third biggest city of the Saxony state. The gardens and parks are something to put on your to-do list if you choose to visit this wonderful German city.

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