Lonely Planet Writer

European Capital of Culture: cities face-off

Europe’s Capital of Culture selections are nothing if not eclectic. The idea behind designating cities with this honour is to highlight the cultural life and development of a place. Usually, it gives the place in question a few extra visitors, too. Maybe you're one of them?

In some cases being Capital of Culture takes somewhere well-known and gives it a bit of oomph for a year Liverpool, the arts hotspot of north-west England saw visitor numbers double in 2008 when it took its turn.

In others, light gets shone on a smaller, under-appreciated and under-visited spots who pull out all the stops for the year. Graz in Austria (2003), Cork, Ireland (2005) and Genoa, Italy (2004) fit in here.

Then there are the seemingly unlikely nominations which plump not for a particular city but identify an area which may or may not have existed before, which remains obscure for a year, then fades rapidly from memory. And here we must single out for special praise the Greater Region. No, I hadn’t heard of it either and you won’t find it in an atlas. It covers the German-speaking areas between the Rhine, Mosellle, Saar and Meuse rivers. It was bursting with culture in 2007. I’m not too sure about now.

This year’s picks tick all the above boxes. For 2010, step forward İstanbul, Pécs in Hungary and Essen, representing the whole of Germany’s Ruhr Valley. Let's have a closer look.

More culture in one building than in some entire countries: Aya Sofya, Istanbul
More culture in one building than in some entire countries: Aya Sofya, Istanbul

İstanbul, Turkey’s biggest city, needs little introduction. In fact, it’s tempting to wonder why one of the world’s greatest cities, high on most observer’s hot lists for the past few years needs another leg-up, but you can’t argue with the art, architecture and history found in what was once Constantinople. Even if you get no further than the historic core of Sultanahmet, home to Aya Sofya, you’ll feel the tag is justified. But there’s more, lots more to reward visitors this year.

Verdict: Turkish Delight

Pecs: hardly a tourist in sight
Pécs: hardly a tourist in sight

Pécs (pronounced Peej) may be a harder sell, but only due to it being less well-known, which should arguably be the point of making somewhere a Capital of Culture in the first place. Probably justifying the whole point of the project, it’s rocketed to the top of my must-see list. Lonely Planet Hungary author Steve Fallon describes it as ‘the jewel of provincial Hungary’ and as a ‘town of art’ with handsome churches and an excellent modern art museum. There’s also a marzipan museum, as sweet-toothed as it sounds. Click here for full details of events.

Verdict: Pécs you don’t need months in the gym to find perfect

Essen's central library: very funky

There’s post-industrial fun by the bucketload in Essen and the Ruhr Valley, which as this excellent Thorntree post notes merits only a measly nine pages in Lonely Planet Germany. So we’re under the radar here, with 52 communities in the Ruhr holding the torch for a week with Essen nominally the cultural HQ for the year. Expert traveller and Essen-fan Nautiker notes that it’s not all re-imagining coal-pit towers (though that sounds pretty amazing) and that you’ll find ‘castles and parks, half-timbered houses and old churches, cobbled streets and panoramic views’ scattered throughout the region. Here’s a complete listing of what’s going on as part of the celebrations.

Verdict: Essen-tial

Visit all three capitals and you’ll have a pretty fine year of European travel Or you could save your pennies and keep your fingers crossed that Urban South Hampshire, better known as Portsmouth and Southampton, England, get the gig in 2013.

While I’m here, a mention for Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, and Doha, Qatar – American and Arab cities of culture respectively. What no Australasian Capital of Culture? Join the fun, non-represented continents!

~ Tom Hall