One of the least-known cities to ever get the accolade, Košice, Slovakia, is capitalising on its extensive artistic and architectural legacy for its 2013 calendar of events.

Most foreigners have not heard of it. Many Slovaks would not think of traipsing across the country to check it out. But Košice, Slovakia’s second city and one of 2013’s European Capitals of Culture, is set to surprise everyone.

One of the least-known cities to ever get the accolade (previous winners include Athens, Madrid and Liverpool), this city, located 400km east of Bratislava and 250km northeast of Budapest, is a Renaissance-Baroque architectural jewel. It has a fantastic glut of historical buildings around its central namestie (square), including a treasure chest of palatial mansions in the Old Town and the country’s most impressive cathedral, St Elizabeth’s. Underneath this veneer a cultural energy pulsates. Košice is home to the Slovak State Philharmonic as well as a fantastic contemporary art scene with a heavyweight pedigree, including Slovakia’s famous son, Andy Warhol.

With an understated quality that is typical of the nation in which in sits, Košice is quietly capitalising on its extensive artistic and architectural legacy for 2013. In a Glasgow-style revamp of existing buildings, visitors will see the city enlivened by exciting citywide renovations hosting a variety of innovative performances and exhibitions.

Artistic and literary draws
Not content with just one major arts hub, Košice is preparing three. The biggest project, to the tune of around 30 million euros, is the reconstruction of the abandoned 19th-century military base south of the Old Town into a 21st-century cultural platform. The Kulturpark, whose high walls protect a vast tranquil tract of green in the heart of the city, will be an oasis of budding creativity, with workshops for artisans and interchanging exhibitions when it opens in June. A permanent onsite interactive exhibition, Steel My Heart, will celebrate the historic link between the city and its main employer, US Steel Košice, transporting visitors into a factory world where they can operate an electromagnetic crane or help manufacture cars on a production line.

The Kunsthalle, opening on 3 July, will rise from the ruins of the city’s famed Art Nouveau swimming pool in Metský Park, the city’s main green space, which was abandoned after the Hornád River was diverted from the city centre during the Communist 1970s for appearing too bourgeois. This new international exhibition and performance venue will have a water and light theme running throughout to maintain links to the days when people flocked here to take the waters.

The opening exhibition will feature the work of Guyula Kosice, a Košice-born artist living in Argentina who has become one of Latin America’s chief exponents of artes plasticos (modern art) and one of the world pioneers of hydrokinetic art (art using moving water). The exhibition, The Hydrospatial City, follows a month of citywide exhibits around the theme of “returning water to the city”, and, while the real River Hornád is unlikely ever to return, its essence is brought to life through a series of innovative installations.

The third arts hub is the Ampitheatre. Built in 1954 and once the largest open-air cinema in then Czechoslovakia, its reconstruction will pave the way for hosting such festivals as Cassovia, an annual international folkloric extravaganza running from 26 to 30 June 2013, which offers visitors the opportunity to learn traditional folk dancing, make typical Slovakian handicrafts and participate in a torchlight parade.

Košice’s literary heritage will be also celebrated, courtesy of the city’s famous writer, Sándor Márai, who wrote in Hungarian while the city was under the Austro-Hungarian empire’s influence, becoming a key figure in 20th-century Hungarian literature. But Košice was his home and many city landmarks can be found in his books. Head to his newly renovated former house (Mäsiarska 35; open 1 pm to 3 pm daily), to learn about his life and works, or contact the Košice Information Centre (Hlavná 59; 55-625-8888) for their daily Sándor Márai tours, which explore his city haunts.

A year of festivals, from Warhol to wine
Košice will sparkle in 2013 as it brings its art and music scene to its streets. The Use the City festival from 22 to 26 May will spruce up the city’s Communist-built neighbourhoods with art, theatre and dance performances as well as outdoor film screenings.

In August, Pop Art Party celebrates Košice’s ties to Andy Warhol – even if the artist himself was not keen to. Warhol’s parents grew up in eastern Slovakia near the town of Medzilaborce, 115km northeast of Košice, and Košice’s Muza Hotel has one of the best private collections of Warhol originals in the world. The city streets will reverberate with artwork, film screenings and artsy workshops throughout his birth month; fans should not miss his artworks  projected onto city buildings on 2 August, when the Muza Hotel’s usually private Mihal Gallery will be open for public viewings.

Košice is also making use of the six Unesco World Heritage Sites that lie within an easy day trip. These include the national parks of Slovak Karst (comprising some of Central Europe’s most extensive and impressive cave systems) and Slovensk Raj (a vast mountainous, forested wilderness filled with exhilarating hiking through waterfall-splashed gorges), as well as the idyllic low hills of the Tokaj wine region to the south of the city. Toast one of Eastern Europe’s best-regarded drops at September’s annual Wine Festival (12 to 14 September 2013), and learn more about the amber-hued nectar through guided tasting sessions, lectures and workshops.

Those partial to a tipple should also give a hearty na zdravie (cheers) to Košice Gold, a cocktail (recipe strictly secret) on offer at many venues around town to pay homage to Europe’s biggest hoard of gold treasure, discovered underneath the city in 1935. The treasure is making a much-heralded return to the East Slovak Museum on 24 August following a tour around Europe.

Košice’s take on 2013 seems primarily about concentrating on the small things that officials believe will make big differences, ensuring its arts scene thrives for years to come. The city with the oldest coat of arms in Europe looks as though it is coming of age. At least, it is glimmering with far more than just steel this year.