European Capital of Culture 2024

Thousands of people attended the European Capital of Culture opening concert in Bad Ischl. Photo: Marc Schwarz

Each year the European Union selects cities as European Capitals of Culture. Originally only one, there are now up to three a year. Designated cities present a year-long series of events aimed at raising their visibility on a national and international scale, reaping the economic benefits from increased tourism and creating a ‘feel good’ factor with residents.

For the first time in the programme’s 39-year history, an entire alpine region consisting of 23 municipalities has been designated a European Capital of Culture: the Salzkammergut in Austria, which this year shares its title with Tartu in Estonia and Bodø in Norway.

Gmunden-born Tom Neuwirth, aka the drag queen and Eurovision Song Contest winner Conchita Wurst, performed at the opening ceremony. Photo: Marc Schwarz

The Salzkammergut (the name roughly means ‘salt domain’) used to account for up to a third of the wealth of the mighty Habsburg Empire. The region’s history of salt mining dates back 7,000 years, making it one of the oldest industrial landscapes in the world. Until the 19th century salt was the only means of preserving foods, and the “white gold” only began to lose its value with the invention of canning and refrigeration.

Bad Ischl is the ‘banner city’ for Salzkammergut 2024.

The 19th century was also when the Salzkammergut became synonymous with summer holiday-making thanks to the Viennese court and its entourage, with Kaiser Franz Josef II (1830-1916) spending 66 of his 68 summers there. Since then visitors have been lured by the extraordinary natural beauty of this mountain and lake region.

Adopting the motto ‘Culture is the new salt’, the Salzkammergut has embarked on a programme of some 300 events, many of them drawing on its popularity as a creative retreat with famous musicians and artists of the past.

Bad Ischl

The heart of the Salzkammergut and the ‘banner city’ for 2024 is Bad Ischl. (‘Bad’, or bath, denotes a spa town). Nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains,this prosperous-looking resort of some 14,000 inhabitants wears an air of respectability, a legacy of the Kaiser’s summer visits, and happily caters to tourists in its specialty shops, cafes, restaurants and hotels. The summer flower displays which decorate its streets, arcades and inner courtyards have made it a previous winner of the Entente Floriale.

The elegant Cafe Zauner is the ‘go to’ place for something sweet.

The Salzkammergut became a cultural hub in the wake of the spa industry, as visitors coming for the cures also wanted entertainment. Musicians associated with Bad Ischl include the composer Anton Bruckner, who played the organ for the Kaiser in Bad Ischl’s St Nicholas church, and operetta composers Oscar Straus and Franz Lehar (The Merry Widow), who are both buried there. Waltz-meister Johann Strauss was also a frequent visitor.

An annual festival of Lehar’s music is held in July and August, while residents and visitors can also enjoy daily concerts in the Kurpark, which is dotted with statues of musicians who visited or settled in the town. There is also a wine festival and the ‘Kaiserbummel’ (Imperial stroll) to commemorate Franz Josef’s birthday, when locals don their period finery and hit the streets.

Portraits of Kaiser Josef and his family still look down from an upper floor of the Elisabeth.

Elsewhere look out for the former Residenz Elisabeth (now apartments and a restaurant), which hosted Mark Twain and on several occasions Britain’s King Edward VII, who introduced the Kaiser to the new invention, the motor car. (His Imperial Majesty was unimpressed, preferring horses.)

Bad Ischl’s main attraction is the Kaiser Villa, painted in Imperial yellow. The rooms are still in their original condition and convey an authentic impression of the lifestyle of the Emperor and his consort Empress Elisabeth, still known affectionately by Austrians as “Sissi”. The Kaiser’s visits would prompt a killing spree of the local wildlife, as evidenced by the thousands of heads, antlers and stuffed birds and animals which festoon rooms and corridors throughout the villa.

The Kaiser Villa is resplendent in Imperial yellow.

In a corner of the Emperor’s office stands the desk at which he signed Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia following the assassination in Sarajevo of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Franz Josef’s nephew. The declaration set off a chain of events leading to World War I. Franz Josef died in 1916, when the carnage was only halfway through.

The desk at which Kaiser Franz Josef signed the declaration of war against Serbia, which sparked World War I.

The surrounding Imperial Park, with its exotic collection of tree species, includes the Cottage, designed in English Tudor style as a personal pavilion for Empress Elisabeth, who entered it in 1865 as a 22-year-old and spent every summer there until her death in 1898.

From the end of March look out for Bad Ischl AR, a free augmented reality walking tour which takes in three locations – the Pfarrkirche (parish church), the Lehar Theatre and the Residenz Elisabeth – where a scene or historical figure is projected onto each building with accompanying information and anecdotes.

Bad Goisern

To buy locally made products head for the Hand.Werk.Haus in Bad Goisern, which represents an association of local craftmakers, some from family businesses which have been around for 150 years or more.

As well as a well stocked shop of members’ work, there is a permanent exhibition of local art and crafts, including (deep breath) shirts, photography, soaps, shoes, textiles, glasswork, jewellery, mirrors, leatherwork, clocks, hats, traditional costumes, musical instruments and wallpapers. This year’s themed exhibition is dedicated to bonnets, with a procession of hatted locals marking the opening.

Photo: Wolfgang Stadler

An artist in residence programme is aimed at raising the profile of craftsmanship and manual skills as an important contributor to the local economy and making Bad Goisern a centre for art and craft education.


The former capital of the Salzkammergut and the biggest community in the region after Bad Ischl, Gmunden is a beautiful lakeside town on the Traunsee, the deepest lake in Austria at over 200 metres. Some of the buildings date back to the 16th century, while the main landmark is the gleaming white Castle Ort perched on an island just offshore and reached by a 120-metre long wooden bridge. Gmunden hosts a summer music festival, the biggest in Austria after Salzburg.

Housed in a 600-year-old building, the Kammerhof Museum, or K-Hof, tells the history of the town and the surrounding area from its geological beginnings to the present day. The oldest exhibit is an intact ceramic vessel dating back some 3,500 years, which was recovered from a Bronze Age burial site. The ceramic theme runs throughout the museum, tracing the town’s most famous product with more than 1,000 exhibits, including an extraordinary collection of commodes and bed pans, unique in the world. There is also a spacious gallery showing contemporary art and ceramics.

The K-Hof’s collection of commodes and bed pans is unique in the world.

Gmunden is also home to Gmundner Keramik. Founded in 1492, the largest ceramic factory in Europe produces a vast range of hand-made and hand-painted household items, each one unique. In the 1900s the factory produced items for the legendary Wiener Werktstätten (Vienna Workshops), while in 2021 the company’s green-flamed pattern, which can involve ribbons, loops, stripes, waves or arches against a white blazing foundation, was awarded UNESCO cultural heritage status.

Gmundner Keramik

The factory also has a contemporary art programme with a series of exhibitions. For one of these, local artists were invited to reinterpret traditional objects from the region into new designs, one of which was ‘Lederhosen’ stitching reproduced as plate decoration.


The village of Vorchdorf is notable for the Tanglberg Gallery, which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary. Housed in the 16th century Renaissance-style Schloss Hochhaus, a former ducal seat, the gallery contains a private collection of mainly drawings dating from 1520 to the present day. They include a work by Titian and a 1560 drawing by Francesco Primaticcio depicting the Greek myth in which Andromache mourns the death of Hector, the finished painting of which is in the Louvre.

The walls of the Tanglberg Gallery’s Old Masters rooms are painted in colours borrowed from the Lenbachhaus in Munich.

The collection was begun in the second half of the 16th century, when a member of the Fernberger family brought a variety of objects back from his travels, including with the Portuguese explorer Magellan. Today’s collection resembles a ‘Wunderkammer’ in the style of Fernberger.

The walls of the gallery’s spacious Old Masters rooms are painted in colours borrowed from the Lenbachhaus in Munich, while the white-painted rooms are for contemporary art exhibitions by mainly Austrian, German and US artists.


The Attersee, the largest of the region’s 76 lakes, has inspired artists and musicians alike with its beauty and tranquillity.

The Austrian artist Gustav Klimt spent his summers there from 1900 to 1916, and the coloured stone patterns he could see through the crystal clear water of the shallow lake found their way into Der Attersea, now in the Leopold Museum in Vienna.

The art critic Ludwig Hevesi called Gustav Klimt’s ‘At the Attersee’ a “frame full of lake water”.

Another work, Landhaus am Attersea, depicts a forester’s house where Klimt stayed and which still stands by the road leading into Steinbach. Confiscated by the Nazis from its original owners, the painting took a circuitous route through various owners and museums, at one time selling for $29 million at Sothebys. It is now displayed in the Upper Belvedere in Vienna.

Comparable to Claude Monet’s Giverny or Paul Cézanne’s Provence, the Attersee was a place of unique artistic activity for Klimt, who loved to lose himself in the world of flowers and plants in his “place of longing”, where he created around 40 of his 50 known landscapes.

Gustav Klimt’s ‘Poppy Field’ celebrates his love of nature.

Since 2003 the Gustav Klimt Artist Trail has offered an overview of his life and work, while there is also the Gustav Klimt Centre in Schörfling and a garden inspired by some of his paintings.

The Gustav Klimt Centre at Schörfling on the Attersee

Also inspired by the Attersea was the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, who completed his Second Symphony in a specially built one-room lakeside cabin in Seefeld, where he said the lake talked to him and compositions flowed from his head. Several movements of Mahler’s Third Symphony were also inspired by the surrounding landscape. The “composing hut” has subsequently been declared an historical monument and has a small exhibition open to visitors.

Gustav Mahler’s “composing hut” on the Attersee

In Steinbach’s Dorfzentrum (Village Centre) there is a large mosaic of Mahler in Murano glass by Christian Ludwig Attersea, while pianist Friedrich Gulda is buried in the local cemetery. Accomplished in a variety of styles, Gulda said: “Music is like a tree with many branches, but one trunk.”

Christian Ludwig Attersea’s mosaic of Gustav Mahler in Murano glass in Steinbach

European Capital of Culture 2024 Highlights

The three-day Gustav Mahler Festival in Steinbach includes the Salzburg Philharmonie performing Mahler’s Second Symphony. There is also music by Anton Bruckner.

The Journey of Pictures is a three-venue presentation of art treasures which were looted by the Nazis for Hitler’s proposed ‘Führermuseum’ in Linz. It is supplemented by an exhibition of contemporary art.

Held in a former brew house in Bad Ischl, which is due to become a cultural centre, Salt, Water, Wood & Art is the central exhibition of the European Capital of Culture programme. It features sculptures, installations, film, photo and sound works by international artists using salt, water and wood (the three key components in salt extraction) as a metaphor for the ‘salt of life’.

Salt, Water, Wood & Art is the central exhibition of the European Capital of Culture programme. Photo: Daniel Mayer

In Resurgent Echoes Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads will be displayed in the grounds of the Kaiser Villa in Bad Ischl.

In Presence in Absence Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota deals with themes of human existence in an installation made up of oversized pieces of clothing caught between red cords in the tunnels of the former salt mine by the Ebensee concentration camp, where prisoners were used as slave labour.

From Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota’s Presence in Absence, Photo: Ding Musa

Salt Lake Cities is an artists in residence scheme to revitalise 12 unused railway stations aimed at creating a dialogue with the places and their people through installations, exhibitions and pop-up projects.

Bruckner’s Salt will celebrate the 200th birthday of the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner, with the Bruckner Orchestra and 400 choir members performing in the giant production hall of the salt works in Ebensee.

Bruckner’s Salt will celebrate the Austrian composer’s 200th birthday.

City of Ceramics in Gmunden features three exhibitions celebrating its famous product.

Traditional instruments such as zither and dulcimer meet contemporary electronic music in Music Machine in the Lehar Theatre in Bad Ischl.