The newly anointed Cultural Capitals of Europe for 2009 are Linz, Austria, and Vilnius, Lithuania, both a bit off the continent's prime tourist paths.

Separated by the Czech Republic and Poland, these central and northern European cities are near enough to each other to afford travelers a double treat. Both cities make for charming discoveries, especially in a year in which they are staging exceptional events.

Nearly any day you happen into the old towns of Linz or Vilnius this year, the streets will be given over to celebrations and special events as cultural capitals. This honor has been passed from city to city across Europe each year since 1985. Last year it was Liverpool, England, and Stavanger, Norway; now it's Linz's and Vilnius' turn to show off.


West of Vienna and straddling the banks of the Danube, Linz is small enough to have retained its picturesque neighborhoods but big enough to have maintained cultural charms dating to the Middle Ages. Linz's cultural heritage once drew the likes of composer Anton Bruckner and astronomer Johannes Kepler, but today Linz is best known for its devotion to culture of a very modern bent, especially with cutting-edge electronic media. What's been dubbed the Culture Mile stretches along the Danube, linking the venerable Brucknerhaus concert hall to the flashy new Ars Electronica Center on the north bank.

Linz inaugurated its cultural reign on New Year's Eve with an explosion of fireworks on the Danube, dubbed the Rocket Symphony. Then the bars and clubs of Linz threw open their doors for an all-night party. New Year's Day then saw the official opening concert, the world premiere of Philip Glass' latest symphony in the Great Concert Hall. The next day, Jan. 2, the Lentos Kunstmuseum on the Ernst-Koref-Promenade hosted the Best of Austria, a gathering of 100 top artworks on loan from across Austria, a collection that remains on view through May 10.

Jan. 2 also marked the inauguration of new floor space to the Ars Electronic Center, which has become the mecca of electronic art and media in Europe. The Ars Electronic Center is highlighting a major theme of the Linz 2009 program: the celebration of the city's 12 neighborhoods. Throughout the year there will be a movable feast of neighborhood celebrations, each neighborhood showcasing its art, music, architecture and cuisine in monthly succession.

In May, for example, the neighborhood spotlight will be on Linz-Mitte, an immigrant section where residents of Middle Eastern, Indian, African, Turkish and Balkan origins now live. A dozen local guides will be on hand to take visitors on a walking tour.

For tourists at any time of year, the place to start is Linz's main square, the Hauptplatz, location of the Linz09 InfoCenter, which is not easy to overlook. It's the new building with the checkerboard facade. The InfoCenter is the place to reserve tours, hotels and tickets, as well as to find what's coming up next (phone 0732-7070-2009).

In the Cultural Year, there always is plenty coming up. From Feb. 6 to April 26, for example, the Nordico-Museum will be "Doing Magic." Illusionists, hypnotists, occultists, fortunetellers and magicians have played the music halls and roadsides of Linz since the 18th Century, and many of their gadgets, magical apparatuses and automatons will be on display here.

From March 2 to June 30, the Landesgalerie Linz (Art Galley of Linz) will be dedicated to the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. A more somber display is slated to occupy the Schlossmuseum (Castle Museum) through March 22. Titled "The Cultural Capital of the Fuhrer," the collection reflects on the everyday life of Linz under the Nazis, 1938-1945, and shows how German dictator Adolf Hitler dreamed of making Linz into the main cultural center of the Third Reich. It was in Linz that Hitler spent his early school days.

In the end, Linz and its Nazi steelworks were heavily bombed during World War II, and the new Cultural Capital that has risen from the ashes has an altogether different look. Even the Castle of Linz itself (Linzer Schloss) has taken wing--or rather, added a new wing that affords visitors an expansive view of the city.

Late spring brings four widely varied events to Linz. The annual Crossing Europe Film Festival will run 150 films in local theaters April 20-26, mainly flicks by young, unconventional European directors. Then comes May Day, the first of May, the streets reverberate with marching bands making a three-day procession to Postlingberg, the peak in northern Linz.

This event is called simply Parade, and the bands, whose members will pitch their tents along the way, feature not only brass instruments from Zanzibar and Iran but alphorns from Switzerland, balaphones from West Africa and duxianqins from China. For some, this long parade will be merely a warm-up for the Linz-Danube Marathon on May 17. For others, it will be a tuneup for Linzfest09, a May 30-June 9 party in the Donaupark on the Danube with music, cabaret, art and food. Artists from former European Capitals of Culture will be on hand.

Linzfest heralds summertime, as festivals come fast and furious. July 23-25 will usher in Pflasterspektakel, a no-holds-barred street art festival in the inner city with samba groups, jugglers, actors, acrobats and fire-eaters. July 27-Sept. 2 will encompass Theaterlust 2, with performances of Kuttiyatam theater from India as well as contemporary expressions from Africa, Asia and Europe. Theaterlust 2 will include performances in Linz's parks and gardens, ample stages given that 60 percent of the city consists of green space.

For special events in autumn, head indoors. The Sept. 3-8 Ars Electronica Festival, now in its 30th edition, is the fall headliner. This year's special edition will focus on the future, and it will do so with performances and workshops in its newly enlarged facility known as the Museum of the Future.

The electronic music and media festival will be followed by another keystone in the Linz cultural calendar, the annual Brucknerfest. The opening concert on Sept. 13 is Josef Haydn's "The Creation," which will be enhanced by an "open-air optical-acoustic" performance. The chief venue for Brucknerfest is Brucknerhaus, one of Europe's premier concert halls. This year's performers will include the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra and the Wiener Philharmoniker with Zubin Mehta. Linz has long been associated with Europe's supreme classical composers. Mozart's house in Linz, a stalwart tourist attraction, is where he wrote his Symphony No. 36, now known as the Linz Symphony.

A Sept. 20 concert at the Landestheater returns Linz's wide-ranging musical focus to the modern age with a piece titled "Kepler" by Philip Glass. Later events continue to stretch the acoustic spectrum. On Austria's National Day, Oct. 26, the Vienna Philharmonic pays a special call to Brucknerhaus to perform Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, while from Nov. 11-21 masters from all over Europe will play and spar as they honor an altogether different type of performance in a program titled "A Proper Punch-and-Judy Show."

On whatever date one visits Linz, there will be neighborhood celebrations and special Cultural Year events. Each and every evening at 6, Tower Music will ring out over the city as trumpets sound from parish church towers, harkening back to older traditions. Every Sunday at Stadtpfarrkirche on Pfarrplatz, music students will perform one of the clarion trumpet duets by Romanus Weichlein, Linz's best known baroque composer. On any day of the week in 2009, one can visit the Kepler Salon and converse with astronomers and physicists. This salon is in the house at 5 Rathausgasse, where Johannes Kepler resided from 1612 to 1627.