Sign In
Exploring Riga And Umeå, Europe's Capitals Of Culture 2014
Save to wishlist

Exploring Riga And Umeå, Europe's Capitals Of Culture 2014

Picture of Anete Jekabsone
Updated: 9 February 2017
In 2014, two cities were awarded the coveted title of European Capital of Culture — Latvian capital Riga and northern Swedish city of Umeå — so read our cultural guide to what’s on in Europe’s hottest cities this year.


Riga, the vibrant capital of Latvia, is renowned for its multicultural environment, rich cultural life and exquisite architecture, including medieval Old Riga, charming art nouveau districts and beautifully carved 19th century wooden buildings the city’s suburbs, long destroyed anywhere else in Europe. Since the city’s early days, Riga has been a multicultural melting pot of different nationalities, languages and cultures, with Latvians, Germans, Russians, Swedes, Poles and Finns leaving their imprint in the history of the capital city. Great intellectuals and artists, including German philosopher and theologian Johan Gottfried Herder, opera genius Richard Wagner, world-renowned film maker Sergei Eisenstein and philosopher Isaiah Berlin, have lived or worked in Riga, leaving a profound influence on city’s cultural heritage.

As the European Capital of Culture, Riga offers a fantastic opportunity to learn about the cultural heritage and grand personalities of the past, as well as to discover contemporary Latvian music, fine arts, cinema and pop culture. More than 200 cultural projects and events will take place throughout the year in every part of the city, including music performances by the world-renowned Latvian choirs, contemporary art festivals and exhibitions, popular music concerts, grand national celebrations of traditional Latvian festivities, splendid opera staging, theater plays and modern art performances. For the over-arching theme of the year, Riga has chosen a commonly used term in law – force majeure – to signify a mighty force of culture, both unexpected and foreseeable, which has a power to change lives of people and cities towards the better.

To kick off the European Capital of Culture Year, more than 14,000 Latvians gathered on cold winter day in January to form a human chain of book lovers to transfer books, hand to hand, from the old National Library building to the newly built ‘Castle of Light’ created by renowned Latvian-American architect Gunnar Birkerts. The following events included the multimedia performance of the opera Rienzi by Richard Wagner, the largest summer solstice celebrations in Europe, contemporary art exhibition Double Reality by renowned Latvia-born USA artist Vija Celmins, and even a parade of light figures alongside the capital’s river Daugava.

Riga continues to offer a series of spectacular and not to be missed events in the second half of the year. July surprises with two major musical events: first, a gala open-air concert of Latvian music stars, known around the world, including magnificent opera singers Inese Galante and Maija Kovalevska and spectacular musicians Gidon Kremer and Vestard Simkus among others, and, second, the World Choir Games, also known as the Olympics for choirs, gathering around 20 000 singers from almost 90 countries.

The autumn and winter will come with much awaited annual contemporary arts festival Survival Kit, with some of the art pieces also to be shown in Umeå, the largest light festival in northern Europe, Shine, Riga!, and the 27th European Film Academy Awards ceremony. Furthermore, especially for the occasion, the ghostly and feared ex-KGB headquarters, also known as the Building on the Corner, is opened for the first time to the public, showcasing five different exhibitions on Soviet repression, as well as offering an exclusive visit to the the building’s basement.

The larger events are quietly accompanied by smaller history and art exhibitions and cultural events all over the city throughout the year. Whether it be simple art exhibitions, a show on the history of the written word or the amber trade, premieres of feature films and documentaries, international festivals of military bands or Latvian poetry races, Riga offers something for every culture lover.


Umeå, the biggest city in northern Sweden and one of the last before the polar circle, shares the title of European Capital of Culture with Riga. The serene and lovely Umeå, founded in 1622 by Gustav II Adolf, has long been a home of Sweden’s only indigenous people, the Sami, yet since the establishment of Umeå University in 1965, is better known as Sweden’s centre of technical and medical research, and lately as the hometown of Stieg Larsson, the author of the bestseller The Girl with Dragon Tattoo. Whilst honouring its diverse cultural heritage and traditions, Umeå is very much a young and forward-looking university town, with vibrant and well-established art, music and culture scene, boosted by the increasing number of Umeå University students. The city offers an interesting mix of traditional cultural heritage of northern Swedish coastal town, and a trendy contemporary music and art scene, thus enhancing its dual appeal to its visitors. The city’s guests can explore the great outdoors, visit Europe’s first elk farm nearby or discover Sami cuisine, and pay a visit to Bildmuseet, a local art museum and centre for contemporary art and visual culture, or attend an opera at Norrlands Operan.

Ume river in central Umea
Ume river in central Umea | Courtesy by Umea 2014

During 2014, Umeå launched its year as the European Capital of Culture with three day long festivities at the beginning of February, when around 55,000 city residents and guests attended the high point of the celebrations – the grand opening of ‘Burning Show’, a choreographed festival of light, music, song and movement taking place alongside Umeålven River. Since then, Umeå has hosted a series of cultural events and projects, including opera performances, modern art exhibitions, outdoor theatre plays, choral singing, dance shows and a variety of grassroots music festivals, among others.

However, there’s still plenty to see and experience in the latter part of the year. Well-known as one of the Sweden’s strongest musical cities, this summer Umeå offers two major music events: first, the popular music festival UxU in July, with musicians including Phoenix, Mac Miller, Thurston More, among other local and renowned Swedish bands, and, second, the breath-taking and beautiful multi-media performance of Richard Strauss’s Elektra opera in August. Furthermore, the ten-day long Contemporary Circus Festival will take place at the end of August, with contemporary circus and street artists performing on different locations all over the Northern region.

Mechanical giants Elektra
Mechanical giants of this type will be used in Elektra | Courtesy of Umea 2014

The autumn season will kick start with Umeå Taste Festival in September, offering the best of Swedish and Sami cuisine, and continue with Umeå Fashion Week in October, when series of fashion shows, exhibitions, lectures, in-store events, showrooms and festivities will take place throughout the city. The late autumn will bring the annual Umeå Jazz Festival, the leading Scandinavia’s jazz festival, founded in 1968, and Delli Maa – Sapmi Indigenous Film and Art Festival, with a focus on works from indigenous people worldwide. At the same time, a series of smaller events will take place everywhere in the city, from art and photography exhibitions to opera performances, from lectures and discussions to storytelling and activities for children, Umeå engages every city’s resident and guest in the vast programme of this year’s cultural events.