The most cultural cities in the world (including a few surprises …)

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Looking to broaden your horizons on a vacation filled with art and culture? Look no further than this list of world capitals of culture – covering the relics of ancient civilizations, the art of the movements that changed the world, and the exciting leaders of today’s cultural and culinary revivals.

Photo credit: Ali Nuredini

Cradle of the Renaissance, Florence is not only the cultural capital of Italy, but one of the great cultural destinations of the world. At every turn there is a superb 16e– century palace or world-class museum filled with sculptures by Michelangelo and paintings by Botticelli.

The Tuscan capital has a small center within walking distance, so take a walking tour. The cultural association La Bussola offers one free of charge, which covers the main points of the city’s history. Along the way, you will discover the influence of the Medici family, via the statue of David by Michelangelo and the Ponte Vecchio bridge. You’ll even get tips on where to eat and the best way to enter the Uffizi Gallery. It’s a restaurant as famous for its queues as it is for its collection of Renaissance paintings.

Spend the afternoon browsing Florence’s many boutiques. They range from the traditional – think leather goods and exquisitely marbled paper – to the new, best seen in its avant-garde fashion boutiques that rival those in Milan. Luisaviaroma and Société Anonyme are your favorite stores for carefully selected designer yarns. For vintage treasures, buy them at Epoca and Boutique Nadine, two cult spots among trendy locals. Florence also has a long tradition of goldsmiths (just take a stroll around Ponte Vecchio, where jewelers have sold their wares for around 400 years), but head to the new jewelry store, Cristian Fenzi, whose modern designs and voluminous update traditions.

To stay:

Return to c-hotels Ambasciatori, right next to the train station and elegantly decorated in monochrome tones. Rooms from £ 158 per night.

Photo credit: Juliana tr Gapop

The capital of the United Arab Emirates is one of the most exciting cultural hubs in the Middle East, home to the National Theater and the enormous white marble Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. All eyes were on the metropolis in 2017 when Louvre Abu Dhabi finally opened, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, winner of the £ 83million Pritzker Prize. The second outpost of the iconic Parisian museum houses 700 works and is the first universal museum in the Arab world. Well worth a visit, and tickets are reasonably priced. Enjoy an unforgettable experience on a kayaking excursion in the striking surroundings of Museum Island.

Then, in the evening, Abu Dhabi’s culinary scene is as diverse as its multicultural population. While hotels and chains offer pricey set menus, look for traditional places to get a taste of Emirati cuisine. Diners on a budget can taste the creamiest hummus on this side of the Persian Gulf at Zahrat Lebnan, or the most tantalizing shawarma at Shish Shawerma.

Perhaps unexpectedly, a growing interest in electronica fans has emerged in Abu Dhabi with the opening of the Onyx mega club this month, and the daily happy hours and girls’ nights at hotel bars in open skies encourage visitors and locals to get stuck in the nightlife.

To stay:

At the five-star waterfront, Khalidiya Palace Rayhaan by Rotana, which has a private beach and leafy grounds from £ 66 a night.

Photo credit: Anna Omelchenko

In North America’s most populous city, architectural remains from the pre-Hispanic era rub shoulders with Spanish colonial splendor and, far from being hampered by the earthquakes of 2017, Mexico City is shaking up its once grim reputation with art and Renaissance cuisine.

Start with the must-see cultural sites. Find Frida Kahlo’s blue house in the sleepy suburb of Coyoacán, where little-known artwork is displayed around her belongings. Then discover the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral and the Palacio Nacional, famous for its Diego Rivera murals, and the ancient temples of Teotihuacan, 40 km from the city.

Then, dive head first into the city’s thriving youth culture. Underground fashion is exploding, led by social media savvy creators interpreting traditional artisanal methods: look for Ikal, a multi-brand store that defends Mexican designers; Yakampot, where designer Francisco Cancino preserves the colors and craftsmanship of traditional clothing; and Colectivo 1050º or Onora Casa for traditional, handmade and reinterpreted household items.

Finally, there’s Mexico City’s exciting food scene, where you’ll find a lot more than tacos (although they can be pretty awesome too – indulge in the beef sirloin masterpieces at El Califa). Money to splash? Taste the artisanal offerings of Mexican farm-to-table restaurant Maximo Bistrot, or the 10-course indigenous tasting menu at the innovative Quintonil. Or head to Mercado San Genaro for budget bites, Mexico City’s largest food market. Just be prepared for the crowds.

To stay:

From just £ 13 a night, stay at the super cheap and spacious Panorama Hotel in the central Valle Gómez district.

Photo credit: Jodi Jacobson

It may be the capital of Texas, but liberal Austin couldn’t be much further from the conservative stereotype of the state. Known as the “Live Music Capital of the World”, it is not just a music mecca, but a bustling center for the creative and culinary arts.

More often than not, art in Austin can be found on the streets rather than in the galleries. First, take a look at the HOPE Outdoor Gallery, one of the largest outdoor street art galleries in the United States. Did you know that you can mark the wall yourself. Then there’s Canopy, a creative community in a renovated warehouse that’s divided into 45 art studios, three galleries, and a cafe.

Austin is also a food capital and one of the best places in the United States to sip a craft beer. Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden offers an average sausage-based brunch and has over 100 beers on tap. Once you’ve had your fill, head to Rainey Street to check out the city’s hippest bars, housed in a row of renovated bungalows. Half Step is your go-to for innovative mixology, while Craft Pride serves 51 Texan beers and at the Lucille Patio Lounge you can stretch out on hammocks while you drink.

Spend the evening watching a free theatrical performance at the Hillside Theater in Zilker Park, where Zilker Theater Productions presents The Little Mermaid this summer. So send them a donation and get donor preview night tickets or backstage passes. Then, if you have some energy left, find out why Austin is a music lover’s paradise in famed Antone’s blues hall. Or why not try the local favorite, the Mohawk.

To stay:

Rest at the Candlewood Suites AUSTIN-SOUTH, near downtown Austin and Zilker Park. Rooms from £ 69 per night.

Photo credit: Pen Ash

The capital of Japan from 794 to 1868, Kyoto is still the cultural heart of the country, with countless ancient shrines and temples scattered throughout the city. Thanks to its remarkable historical value, Kyoto was removed from the list of atomic bomb target cities during WWII, leaving it perfectly preserved today.

Among the city’s many UNESCO-protected sites is the Golden Kinkaku-ji Temple. It is an unmissable treasure of Zen Buddhism located in the Kyokochi Mirror Pond (go there early in the week to avoid the crowds). Then there are the serene waters of Ryoanji Rock Garden and the mountain-framed gardens of Tenryu-ji Temple.

Back in the center, Kyoto comes to life through its people. Geishas – female performers of traditional arts, dance and song, characterized by their wearing of kimono and oshiroi makeup – still reside in five Kyoto neighborhoods, and some provide tourists with makeovers. In Gion Aya, visitors can choose a kimono and wig of their choice. Then they can even apply the traditionally white chalk makeup, offset by bright red lip paint. Then, shop Kyoto’s kimono shops and grab a bargain at the second-hand stores on Shinkyogoku Street – after all, the traditional silk dress is from here.

But Kyoto is not resting on its old laurels. Check into the RAN Theater after dark to witness some folk music with a twist. Traditional Japanese instruments are used to perform pop culture songs over several glasses of sake.

To stay:

At the cheap, cool and clean The Millennials in Gion, Kyoto’s main geisha district. Rooms from £ 36 per night.

Ready for a cultural city break? Browse flights now and plan your next trip.

All flights and prices mentioned in this article are estimates of the cheapest prices based on Skyscanner’s flight search tools. These are subject to change and were correct at the time of writing on July 15, 2019.


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