7 seriously special cities of culture

Discovering a city’s art, performance and historic treasures can really help you get under its skin and enjoy it to the max. We’ve hunted around Europe for emerging, surprising or just plain unmissable destinations for those with an eye for artistic attractions and activities.


A trip to the Hungarian capital isn’t just about steaming in its famous thermal baths — stir yourself and you’ll find artistic riches all around. Top of the list is the imposing riverside Hungarian Parliament Building, home to the Hungarian Crown Jewels. From here, cross the Danube via the iconic Chain Bridge to discover splendid Buda Castle and the surrounding Castle District, UNESCO–listed for its medieval, baroque and 19th-century buildings. For art, as well as history and archaeology, the Hungarian National Museum comes up trumps; Műcsarnok (the Hall of Art) focuses on contemporary works, as does the Várfok Gallery, and there’s the fine Museum of Applied Arts.

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Handsome, hip and oozing history, the Scottish capital is world renowned for hosting the world’s largest arts festival. But come when it’s less hectic and you’ll still find plenty to enlighten, educate and entertain, like learning about military and royal history at iconic Edinburgh Castle (home to the National War Museum) and the Palace of Holyroodhouse (the Queen’s residence when in town) or viewing the masterpieces at the National Gallery of ScotlandNational Gallery of Modern Art and National Portrait Gallery. At the Scott Monument, pay your respects to Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott — and perhaps climb its 287 steps for glorious city and countryside views.

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From world-class art venues to intimate galleries, the Spanish capital is a culture vulture’s dream. First port of call has to be the Golden Triangle of Art, home to the Prado National Museum, the Reina Sofia Museum with its modern and contemporary works (including Picasso’s “Guernica”) and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of 13th- to 20th-century art. Nearby, the CaixaForum Madridis the stunning repurposing of an old power station as a vibrant exhibition, concert and workshop space. And no visit to Madrid is complete without paying homage to one of the city’s most illustrious residents at the Goya Museum and tomb in the Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida, or to Spain’s modern royalty at the Palacio Real.

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France’s third-largest city has come into its own since the Musee des Confluences science and anthropology museum opened in 2014, while street art enlivens the historic silk-making district of Croix-Rousse. But Lyon’s charms go back much further, as a stroll in the UNESCO–listed Old Town with its cathedral and traboules (passageways) reveals. Roman history is in evidence at the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière (site of the old forum) and Musée de la Civilisation Gallo-Romaine. And there’s art aplenty at the Musée des Beaux Arts — France’s largest fine arts museum outside Paris — and Musée des Tissus et des Arts décoratifs. Browse the Sunday Marché de la Création art market for a masterpiece to bring home.

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Berlin has a lively countercultural and contemporary art scene, yet the German capital is also a place to truly immerse yourself in history, whether it be Jewish (the Jüdisches MuseumNeue Synagoge and Holocaust Memorial), royal (Charlottenburg Palace) or design (the Bauhaus Museum). Many of Berlin’s top venues are clustered on “Museum Island”: the Altes Museum of antiquitiesNeues Museum with its Egyptian, prehistory and early history collections; Nationalgalerie of 19th-century art; Pergamonmuseum of archaeology and Islamic art; and Bode Museum of antique and Byzantine art and sculpture. Similarly, the Kulturforum houses several major art museums as well as the Berliner Philharmonie concert hall. Walking the Berlin Wall is another must.

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A Tuscan treasure trove of stupendous art and architecture, Florence is a feast for the eyes. What to hit up first? The Uffizi Gallery’s collection of Renaissance art is a no-brainer; other must-sees are Michelangelo’s five-metre-tall “David” in the Gallerie dell’Accademia di Firenze; the Palazzo Strozzi with its changing art exhibitions; and the Palazzo Pitti, home to the Palatine Gallery, Royal Apartments and Gallery of Modern Art. But just strolling around the streets is a treat — admire the 14th-century Ponte Vecchio and the boat rowers on the Arno, the cathedral with its Brunelleschi-engineered DuomoGiotto’s Campanile (bell tower) and the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella.

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Saint Petersburg

Most visitors to Russia’s second city make a dash for the State Hermitage, the country’s largest art museum, founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and including the Imperial Porcelain Factory. After wearing out shoe leather in its 400-or-so exhibition rooms, you’ll need a break before tackling the Russian Museum, with the world’s largest collection of Russian art. On a smaller scale but just as compelling is the Erarta Museum and Galleries of Contemporary Art, or for performance catch some ballet and opera at the Mariinsky Theatre or Russian plays at the Alexandrinsky TheatrePeterhof Palace is Russia’s opulent answer to Versailles, while the Russian Vodka Museum does what it says on the label.

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