Last Updated on November 20, 2023 by Soumya
Europe is full of beautiful cities throbbing with culture. So much so that the European Union (EU) started designating specific cities as European Capitals of Culture, starting in 1985.
Every year, the EU selects 1-2 (the millennium year of 2000 had 9!) cities rich in culture and assigns them the European cultural capital badge.
The European Capitals of Culture badge provides these cities with an opportunity to showcase their history, culture, and heritage in that year. And, in the process, drives tourism to the area.
The capitals of culture are some of the most beautiful cities in Europe and absolute must-haves on your European itinerary.
However, there are more than 60 European cities of culture. Deciding on which ones to visit can be tough.
To make your decision easier, here’s my pick of the Top 10 European capitals of culture that you must have in your Europe bucket list.
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Top 10 European Capitals of Culture
Here’s an exclusive list of the Top 10 European cultural cities that you need to visit at least once in your lifetime. These are the creme
If you are not able to travel here in person right now, you can take a virtual trip too. I have some amazing virtual tours listed down there for every single cultural capital of Europe here. So that you can enjoy visiting Europe from home as much as you can in person.
So, let’s get going and explore these beautiful European cities of culture.
Lisbon – European Capital of Culture 1994
Lisbon, the city of seven hills, is a beautiful historical town located at the mouth of River Tagus.
Cobblestone streets, red roof homes, blue-tiled walls, and striking street art – Lisbon is filled with colors and energy.
There are so many interesting things to do in Lisbon like walking down the narrow streets of Alfama, taking a ride on the famous (and crowded) Tram #28, visiting the age-old Sao Jorge castle, or just twirling in the middle of Praca do Comercio surrounded by bright yellow Pombaline buildings.
And, if you love music, I am sure you will enjoy this engaging tour of Fado music in its birthplace, Alfama.
Lisbon is steeped in history. Only a stone’s throw away from Lisbon’s center is the historical district of Belem that houses the famous Jeronimos Monastery.
You can also do a day trip to Sintra, the city of magical castles. Or simply amble through the cool corridors of the National Tile Museum. Don’t leave without biting into a few of the delicious Pasteis de Nata!
See Also: 15 Top attractions to visit in Lisbon
Recommended Cultural Tours in Lisbon
- Interested in a guided tour that takes you through the history, culture, and traditions of the city? Check out this highly-rated, 3-hour, heritage walking tour of Lisbon.
- Learn more about Fado music and visit traditional fado houses with a fado singer in this exceptionally-rated Fado tour.
- My friend, Pats Madeira from Lisbon, runs the tour company Lisbon with Pats and organizes amazing tours to cater to every possible interest. And, she has great reviews. Check out her website for more details.
How to travel to Lisbon from home?
If you are unable to make a trip to Lisbon right now, I highly recommend watching my favorite video by Rick Steves where he takes you through Lisbon’s numerous attractions, walks you through Belem, and ends at the magical castles of Sintra. This endearing video is enough to inspire wanderlust from home.
- You can take an exciting tour of the National Archaeology Museum in Belem Lisbon from your Google Arts and Culture App here.
- And do have a look at this impressive tiled wall at the National Tile Museum that depicts a grand panorama of Lisbon before the 1755 earthquake. Click to get closer to some of the panels and identify important buildings.
- I also love this online exhibit of Portuguese Azulejos at the National Tile Museum in Lisbon. Enough to fuel your cultural wanderlust.
Florence – Capital of Culture in Europe 1986
Florence is one of my favorite cities in Italy and in the whole of Europe. That is because it is home to so much history.
Florence was one of the major centers during the Renaissance. And the artists and writers of the city became really famous during this time. Whatever they created was emulated (or sought after) everywhere else in the world.
There are so many beautiful sights in Florence. It is hard to see them all in one lifetime.
The churches are exquisite. In the picture above, you can see the most beautiful church I have ever known – The Florence Cathedral.
In Florence, you will also find some of the most coveted art pieces in the world – Michaelangelo’s David, Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and more.
And there are the must-visit museums in Florence. The Uffizi is one of the top art museums in the world. Then you have the Accademia which is home to Michelangelo’s David. I am telling you, you need at least a week in Florence to see it all.
Recommended cultural tours in Florence, Italy
- This semi-private tour for Uffizi has earned rave reviews because of its focus on masterpieces as well as lesser-known gems from the Renaissance period.
- Looking for a tete-a-tete with David? Try this popular Accademia Gallery tour.
- If you wish to wander the streets of Florence while learning about its history, art, and architecture, try this highly-rated walking tour of Florence.
How to travel to Florence from home?
I know how difficult it can be to be dreaming about a destination and not being able to travel there. I usually seek refuge in virtual tours during those times. And it seems Florence has a few popular ones that you can check out.
- Explore Florence’s Uffizi Gallery on a virtual reality tour on Google Arts & Culture App. The section on the Italian Renaissance is mindblowing. You can also check out the Digital Archives of the Uffizi Gallery for further inspiration.
- Also, visit Palazzo Vecchio, the resplendent residence of the Medici Family from your armchair. Here is the virtual tour of the Palazzo Vecchio Museum.
- MiBACT (Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities) has been passionately organizing virtual tours. I especially loved this tour of the Uffizi Gallery.
Athens – Europe’s Capital of Culture 1985
Athens is Europe’s oldest capital. That is why it was the first city nominated to be a European Capital of Culture.
History is as old as 4000 years in Athens. The world’s first known democracy was established in this city around 500 BC.
Greece and, most particularly, Athens have given the modern world tonnes of interesting things – democracy, science, astronomy, philosophy, and much more.
Athens is home to the Parthenon, the famous temple of Athena and the ancient citadel of Acropolis.
If there is any place in the world where you can drown in history, it is here in Athens.
Apart from being home to multiple architectural styles spanning over centuries, Athens also boasts of some great museums that showcase Greek art and culture.
Recommended Cultural Tours in Athens
- I feel that small-group, guided tours are always the best to learn about any historical destination. That is why I like this short, small-group tour of the Acropolis filled with history and mythology.
- If you are looking forward to trying the delights of Greek cuisine, try this authentic street food tour in Athens.
How to visit Athens from home?
If you are not able to travel to Athens at the moment, I highly recommend taking one or more of these virtual tours to satiate your wanderlust.
- Get Your Guide now has an online virtual tour of the Acropolis in Athens that you can enjoy from home. You can book the virtual tour here.
- I love this YouTube channel called Ancient Athens 3D. You can simply subscribe and watch their videos as they take you back eons ago.
- You can take a free virtual tour of the Acropolis Museum on Google Art and Culture app.
- Here’s a tour of another interesting museum in Athens – the Museum of Cycladic Art that focuses on promoting cultures of the Aegean and Cyprus.
Paris – European Capital of Culture 1989
When we talk about culture, well how can we forget Paris!
A center of art, architecture, gastronomy, and fashion – Paris probably has it all. It is one of the most visited cultural destinations in the whole world.
In Paris, you can see some of the most famous cultural icons of the world – the Eiffel Tower and the Notre Dame Cathedral (temporarily closed due to restoration work).
Paris is also home to some fascinating museums. For example, you cannot miss the Louvre when you are here.
Musee d’Orsay, the Rodin Museum, and Paris’ Museum of Modern Art are some of the other impressive ones.
Let’s not forget the exquisite French food culture that France gave us. Of which Paris was an integral part!
Recommended Cultural Tours in Paris
- Explore Paris with this authentic French experience including architecture, fashion, and traditional markets with a local tour guide.
- Try your hand at creating classic French pastries at this 3-hour chocolate éclair and choux pastry baking class.
- Or simply, take this fast-track guided tour of the Louvre peppered with historical stories with an opportunity to get close to Venus de Milo. Learn lots about Mona Lisa too.
How to visit Paris from home?
If you have been longing to be in Paris and cannot travel there right now, you can travel to Paris virtually. Here are some really good virtual tours that will enable you to explore Paris from home.
- Visit Paris virtually and explore the Louvre, Notre-Dame, Arc de Triomphe, and many other iconic monuments.
- Join the Louvre for some interesting online tours.
Amsterdam – Europe’s Capital of Culture 1987
Amsterdam is a charming European city that was selected to be the European Capital of Culture in 1987.
Visitors claim that Amsterdam is one of the liveliest and most delightful cities to ever visit in Europe.
Out of all the must-visit attractions in Amsterdam, the ones that a culture addict should absolutely visit are the Anne Frank House, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Rijksmuseum.
While the latter two are splendid examples of world-class art galleries, the former is a chilling reminder of the Holocaust and its consequences.
Recommended Cultural Tours in Amsterdam
- I am really keen on this highly-rated, value-for-money, walking tour on Anne Frank’s life led by an expert guide.
- You can do a guided Zaanse Schans & Cheese Tasting Tour that includes learning all about cheese making and visiting the windmill village of Zaanse Schans.
- Or try an authentic Amsterdam tour with a local guide who will show you the highlights as well as the hidden gems.
How to visit Amsterdam from home?
I found some really gripping virtual tours for Amsterdam. I have listed them below.
- Anne Frank House has created this riveting series called Anne Frank Video Diary where you can see how Anne lived in the Secret Annex and what she went through. It is as if she speaks to her camera to chronicle her experiences. One of my favorite online tours so far!
- You can also explore Anne Frank’s home on Google Arts and Culture App.
- Get amazed by the creations of Vincent van Gogh at the Van Gogh Museum.
- Explore the three floors of beautiful art at the Rijksmuseum.
Berlin – Europe’s Capital of Culture 1988
Berlin, the capital of Germany, was the Nazi seat of power during World War II.
Goes without saying that Berlin saw a tumultuous period in its history during this time. It was bombed multiple times. Divided into West and East Berlin by the Berlin Wall. And finally reunited in 1989.
All of this has kind of shaped the city of Berlin that we see today. Full of tenacity!
In Berlin, you can head to the Brandenburg Gate – a poignant reminder of Berlin’s reunification.
Or take a walk by the remnants of the Berlin Wall. Maybe head to Museum Island which houses some of the most famous museums in the world.
Later, visit the opulent Sanssouci Palace of Potsdam. Or take a tour of the million graffiti walls that give Berlin its edgy appeal. Berlin is vibrant and lively with tonnes of things to do.
Of all the cities that I have visited in Europe, Berlin was definitely the most open and candid.
You can really be you in Berlin than anywhere else in the world. That is why Berlin will always hold a special place in my heart.
Recommended Cultural Tours in Berlin
- Learn about Berlin’s turbulent history with this unique, guided tour of Berlin during the Third Reich and Cold War.
- Explore Berlin’s creative street art in a lesser-known neighborhood.
How to visit Berlin from home?
Here are some really great virtual tours that will enable you to travel to Berlin from the comfort of your armchair.
- Embark on a virtual tour of the city with Embark Berlin. They have everything out there – the East Side Gallery, the Charlottenburg Palace, Alexanderplatz, and the Reichstag Glass Dome. Even some of Berlin’s magical Christmas markets!
- Berlin’s Museum Island (a UNESCO Heritage Site) has 5 museums – Altes, Neues, Bode, Pergamon, and Alte Nationalgalerie. You can take virtual tours of all 5 on Google Arts and Culture.
- Tour the opulent Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam from home.
Madrid – European Capital of Culture 1992
Madrid is not the usual contender on a European cultural cities list. But lo and behold! Here, it is!
Madrid was the European Capital of Culture for the year 1992. And it definitely deserves the spot with its vibrant art scene, stunning monuments, and eclectic cuisine.
Among the best things to do in Madrid, taking a tour of the city’s impressive museums is a must-do.
The Prado houses Renaissance masterpieces and is one of the most popular art museums in the whole world. Reina Sofia is another excellent museum with a splendid collection of Spanish art.
Once you have ticked off those museums, head to the stunning Royal Palace, spend some time at the Plaza Mayor, and shop at Mercado San Miguel.
End your day with a Flamenco performance at one of the many tablaos in the city.
Recommended Cultural Tours for Madrid
- Explore the city on a Culture and History Tour of Madrid. See the Royal Palace, the monastery of San Gines, the historic square of Plaza de la Paja and learn lots about them from your local guide.
- Enjoy a Flamenco show of music and dance at a famous flamenco theater in Madrid.
- Explore the Royal Palace of Madrid on a 2-hour skip-the-line tour led by a local tour guide. Enjoy local anecdotes and intriguing folklore as you visit the Throne Room, the Banquet Hall, and the Private Royal Apartments.
How to visit Madrid from home?
Can’t travel at the moment? No worries. You can always embark on a virtual tour to see the best of Madrid. Here are some of my favorite ones.
- The Prado hosts live tours regularly. They are short and focused. You can check them out on their Facebook page.
Bologna – Europe’s Capital of Culture 2000
Bologna in Italy has a long history (from the time of Etruscans) and a vibrant cultural scene.
Apart from housing the oldest university in the world and being declared an European Capital of Culture in 2000, Bologna was inscribed as a UNESCO Music City in 2006.
The city has over 50 museums. The Academy of Fine Arts, Palazzo Pepoli, Palazzo Poggi, and the Civic and Archaeological Museum are some of the finest ones.
One of the most noticeable attractions in Bologna is its huge collection of covered porticoes. You can find them everywhere in the city. They were built between the 11th and the 20th centuries. And are now on the tentative list for UNESCO.
Bologna is the Gastronomic Capital of Italy. It was here that the famous Ragu (Bolognese) sauce was invented. And so was the cooked cured pork sausage known as Mortadella.
Do not forget to sample some authentic Italian Parmesan which you will find in tonnes here.
Read Next: 10 Best things to do in Bologna Italy
Recommended Cultural Tours in Bologna
- This 3-hour Secret Food Tour in Bologna has some great reviews online. Apparently, the local guides are extremely knowledgeable and know exactly where to take you for a delicious taste of Bologna. I am definitely doing this the next time I am in the city.
- You can also try this fully-customizable Bologna city tour with a local tour guide. Pick what you like – the highlights, offbeat attractions, or a mix of both.
How to visit Bologna from home?
I know how it can feel when you really want to travel but cannot. Virtual tours always help in such situations. Here are a few good ones for Bologna.
- You can virtually explore several sites of the University of Bologna, the oldest university in the western world.
- You can find an extensive collection of online exhibits, art pieces, and virtual tours of the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna on Google Arts and Culture app.
Prague – European Capital of Culture 2000
Prague is well known for its culture, music, and architecture.
You can find museums, concert halls, theaters, and cinemas dotting each and every inch of the city.
If you fancy operas and ballets, make sure you head to the State Opera House which has been around since 1888.
If you are keen on an orchestra, head to Rudolfinum – a neo-Renaissance building that is home to the Czech Philharmonic. Further, you can catch up on several open-air events in the city if you are here in spring or summer.
One of the main reasons why I would love to explore Prague is its unique combination of architectural styles.
Here, you can find Gothic cathedrals, Romanesque chapels, Baroque palaces, and Cubist buildings.
It would be a crime to leave without seeing the Prague Castle, the Church of Our Lady before Týn, the Municipal House, or the Wallenstein Palace. Even the famous Dancing House is one of the most fascinating pieces of modern architecture.
Once you are done with the city’s music and architecture, immerse yourself in Prague’s café culture – another one of its specialties.
With some picturesque views of the River Vlata, a day in Prague is nothing less than magical.
Recommended Cultural Tours for Prague
- Discover the grandeur of Prague Castle on this highly-recommended, small-group tour with a local guide.
- Take an offbeat food and culture tour of Prague with two local foodies. Includes Czech wines, craft beers, cheeses, and charcuterie.
How to visit Prague from home?
I would highly recommend the following virtual tours for Prague just in case you are craving for some travel inspiration.
- I loved this virtual tour of the Prague Castle. It takes you to some of the prettiest viewpoints and the most extraordinary monuments.
Brussels – European Capital of Culture 2000
Brussels, the capital city of Belgium, has always been at the crossroads of many different cultures.
Apart from being home to both French and Dutch-speaking people, Brussels has historically been the melting pot of people from all over the world. That means Brussels is a beautiful assault on the senses of every culture enthusiast.
The city of Brussels has close to 80 museums of all kinds and types.
One of the most interesting varieties is that of comic strips. In Brussels, you can visit comic strip museums, attend comic strip festivals, and take comic strip tours. Interesting, isn’t it?
Then, you can check out the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Musee BELvue for the history of Belgium, and the Royal Theater La Monnaie.
Of course, visit the Grand Palace located at the Historic Center of Brussels, window shop at Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, take a picture with the famous peeing statues, or explore Villa Empain – an art deco masterpiece.
Recommended Cultural Tours for Brussels
- Explore the historic center of Brussels on this 3-hour Brussels sightseeing tour with a private guide.
- Learn how to make real Belgian pralines and indulge in some authentic chocolate tasting in this Brussels Chocolate Workshop and Guided Walking Tour.
How to visit Brussels from home?
Here are my choices for virtual tours that will take you straight to the beautiful city of Brussels.
- Google Arts and Culture App features some of the best virtual tours of Brussels. For example, the ones at the Royal Theater and the Museum of Fine Arts are simply amazing.
- You can also try this virtual tour of the Brussels Historic Center on You Visit. However, I was not very happy with this one. Most are pictures and there are very few panoramas.
These are our top choices for the Best European Capitals of Culture that you should visit at least once in your lifetime. Which ones are you traveling to next? From home or otherwise! Do let us know in the comments below.