For some people, holidays are all about rest and relaxation – for example, lazing on the beach, soaking up the sun, and people-watching by the pool. But for others, holidays are a chance to experience new cultures by exploring a destination’s fascinating history, architecture, and art.
In fact, according to research from Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), one-fifth (21%) of Brits are shunning taking pictures of their loved ones whilst on holiday in favour of iconic art or architecture. And, a quarter of people in the UK consider art and architecture to be a crucial part of their holiday itinerary.
So, if you have a passion or interest in art and architecture and are thinking about your next break, we’ve got some ideas to get you inspired.
From some of the more obvious cultural hotspots to some places you might never have heard of before, here are eight culture-packed holiday destinations to add to your travel wish list.
1. Florence, Italy
Known as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, it’s probably no surprise that Florence is one of the top destinations for art and architecture lovers.
Florence’s cultural treasures are certainly no secret so, while you’ll have to put up with crowds and queues, if you’re interested in Renaissance art and architecture, this beautiful Tuscan city is unrivalled.
Simply strolling through Florence is a feast for the eyes, and there are countless historic churches and picturesque piazzas dotted throughout the city. However, two of the most spectacular buildings include the Brunelleschi Dome and the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, where the symmetrical and geometrical design of the columns and domes are a wonder of both art and architecture.
Whether you’re into Renaissance art or more contemporary work, art lovers are spoiled for choice here too. At the Uffizi Gallery, you can admire masterpieces by Raphael, da Vinci, Giotto, Botticelli, Titian, Michelangelo, and Caravaggi – and at the Accademia Gallery, you can marvel at the marble beauty and intricate grace of Michelangelo’s David.
If you’re more into modern art, head to the Palazzo Strozzi, where you can view some of the world’s best contemporary art. Other must-visits in Florence are Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens, where you can wander through several fabulous galleries, including the Gallery of Modern Art, the Silver Museum, and the Palatine Gallery.
Discover the beauty of Florence
2. Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA
Because art and architecture are often linked to history, the USA – still a relatively ‘new’ country – is often overlooked in favour of older destinations.
But the USA is packed with culture – and if you’re into art, the New Mexican city of Sante Fe is definitely worth a visit. Founded in 1607, Santa Fe isn’t just the oldest city in the country; it’s older than the US itself.
Sprawled across a high plateau beneath the rugged Sangre de Cristo mountains, Sante Fe is still home to the baroque churches and adobe houses that were built by its founding architects. Even most modern buildings are designed to look like historic Spanish colonial palaces, making for a captivating walk through the city. You might even have to remind yourself that you’re in the USA!
Santa Fe’s glorious natural light has attracted artists for centuries, and there are so many galleries here that it’s almost difficult to know where to start.
If you’d like to learn more about indigenous art, you’ll definitely want to visit the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), where you can admire more than 9,000 pieces – as well as the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. The New Mexico landscape also famously inspired renowned Modernism artist Georgia O’Keeffe, and here you can visit a museum dedicated to her life and work.
Or, for something different, Meow Wolf is an immersive electro-pop art installation, which many say is unlike anything they’ve experienced before. Home to around 100 smaller galleries, Canyon Road is a good place to start if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
3. Paris, France
Paris is a more obvious choice on this list. But you simply can’t write an article about the best destinations for art and architecture and not include the French capital.
Long known as a hub for artists, writers, and dissidents, today the city is just as inspiring. The monument-lined boulevards and elegant bridges and buildings along the River Seine have become symbols of romance and culture.
Architecture enthusiasts will want to visit the Arc de Triomphe, which towers grandly above traffic. Commissioned by Napoleon, it wasn’t finished until 1836, and the intricate engravings are well worth a closer look.
Visiting the Eiffel Tower is a no-brainer too – although it might surprise you to learn that this now-iconic symbol of Paris was originally intended to be a temporary structure for a fair!
And then there’s the art. The world’s most visited museum, the Louvre, is famously the home of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and while it’s as crowded as you’d expect, the shady tree-lined paths of the Jardin des Tuileries outside provide some welcome respite. Here you can also visit the stately Musée de L’Orangerie, where you can admire many of Monet’s masterpieces.
The Musée Rodin is perhaps Paris’s prettiest museum, and is home to 6,600 sculptures, more than 15,000 photographs and drawings, and around 7,000 objets d’art. Or, if you’re into more modern art, the Musée d’Orsay boasts one of the world’s biggest collections of Impressionist art, while the Centre Pompidou features unique modern art, exhibitions, and performances.
Escape to Paris
4. Naoshima Island, Japan
Japan is known for its high-tech cities. These are sprawling urban jungles where soaring skyscrapers sit beside traditional pagodas, creating a unique sense of timelessness. But our next destination is about as far removed from that as you can get.
Japan’s most renowned destination for art lovers is the remote island of Naoshima; a 6,800-island archipelago, which is located in the Seto Inland Sea.
While getting to Naoshima can be tricky, it’s definitely worth it – and flying into one of Japan’s major cities means you’ll get to admire its futuristic architecture and ancient temples while you’re at it.
But once you’ve got your fill of city life, Naoshima – known as Japan’s art island – is the ideal place to unwind. If you prefer sculptures to paintings, you might feel like you’ve arrived in your own private paradise.
The island is home to a whole host of modern art museums, architectural marvels, art installations, and sculptures. Exploring the island feels like you’re wandering around an endless sculpture park, and huge sculptures including Lee Ufan’s Porte vers l’infini (2019) and Beatriz Millhaze’s Yellow Flower Dream (2018) create what feels like a fine art playground.
There are many excellent museums and galleries too. There’s the Chichu Art Museum, which houses work by Monet and James Turrell and the Benesse House Museum (that doubles up as a hotel), which is home to an impressive collection of works from David Hockney, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Basquiat.
And, at the quirky Naoshima Bath, you can enjoy a bath while admiring the work of Shinro Ohtake!
Discover the wonder of Japan
5. Barcelona, Spain
If you don’t fancy trekking all the way to Japan to get your fix of art and architecture, there are many places much closer to home. Barcelona is just a short flight from the UK, and this Spanish city – the Catalan capital – is famous all around the world for its unique art and innovative architecture.
This is a city shaped by the vision of Antoni Gaudí, a 19th-century Catalan architect who was inspired by modern Gothic techniques to create his own fantastical masterpieces. There are several must-see Gaudí attractions, though the otherworldly La Sagrada Família is his pièce de résistance. Work began on this basilica in 1882, and it’s so complex that the construction still continues today.
Park Güell is one of Gaudí’s most colourful creations and is a perfect example of the undulating stonework and vibrant mosaics that have become his signature. Casa Batllò and Casa Milà (also called ‘La Pedrera’) are other must-visits if you’re a fan of Gaudí’s style. Meanwhile, Picasso enthusiasts will want to visit the Museu Picasso, which houses one of the world’s biggest Picasso collections.
Home to an impressive collection of Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque art, the Museu Nacional d’Art is also exceptional – and if you want to learn more about Catalan art on the whole, the National Art Museum of Catalonia (MNAC) makes for a fascinating day out.
Fans of Salvador Dali may also want to head to nearby Figueres to check out the Dalí Theatre and Museum.
Immerse yourself in Catalan culture
6. Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, is famous for its mouthwatering street food and coffee shop culture – yet it’s also home to lots of elegant French Colonial architecture, as well as an exciting emerging arts scene.
Wandering around this buzzing city is a feast for all the senses, and one of the best ways to see the sights is on foot, stopping to refuel at the many exceptional food stalls.
The French Quarter is, unsurprisingly, home to the city’s best French Colonial architecture, including the Hanoi Opera House – a grand lemon-hued reminder of French rule in Vietnam – and tree-lined Parisian-style boulevards.
You can step back further in time in the maze-like streets of the Old Quarter, which are home to 15th-century merchants’ houses and sacred sites, like temples and pagodas.
Most of Hanoi’s most important buildings are located west of the Old Quarter, in the Ba Dinh District. Here you can find the splendid Presidential Palace, as well as the ancient Hanoi Citadel, which was built in 1011. Along with the Temple of Literature and the One Pillar Pagoda, it’s an incredibly rare example of well-preserved, traditional Vietnamese architecture.
Once you’ve had your fill of architecture, it’s time to turn to the arts. Hanoi’s fabulous Vietnam Fine Arts Museum gives you an excellent background to Vietnamese art, from the earliest recorded pieces to modern 20th-century movements.
Other galleries worth visiting are the Japan Foundation, French L’Espace, Nguyen Art Gallery, and the many locally-owned galleries on Hang Bong Street.
Experience the charm of Hanoi
7. Cape Town, South Africa
Spread beneath Table Mountain, Cape Town might be best known for its dramatic landscape, but it’s also the beating heart of Africa’s arts scene.
Due to the fact that this city is such a multicultural melting pot, it should be no surprise that there are many different types of African art scenes to discover here – from powerful apartheid art to fascinating contemporary art.
Cape Town’s most popular art gallery is the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA), which is situated on the bustling V&A waterfront. This tall, eye-catching building, with its abstract concrete-and-glass honeycomb facade, will quickly draw the attention of architecture enthusiasts, but it’s what is inside that’s truly intriguing.
Though it only opened in 2017, Zeitz MOCAA has fast become one of the most important galleries on the continent. Here you can admire the works of Africa’s most celebrated artists, including South Africa’s Mary Sibande and Athi-Patra Ruga, Egypt’s Ghada Amer, Nigeria’s Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and Swaziland’s Nandipha Mntambo – as well as works from the African Diaspora.
If you’re interested in apartheid art, head to the South African National, which was founded back in 1871. There’s also plenty of beautiful public art, from the Zoetrope installation at the Waterfront to the woven wooden structure Arch for Arch, which honours Desmond Tutu.
Afterwards, you can also stroll around the Woodstock neighbourhood to admire the many colourful wall murals and independent galleries.
Have an African adventure in Cape Town
8. New York City, USA
New York is another extraordinarily diverse city, and it’s famous around the world for its world-class art and inimitable architecture.
From the elegant Art Deco Chrysler Building to the impossibly narrow Flatiron, and the iconic Empire State Building and legendary Brooklyn Bridge, this is a city where architectural enthusiasts can’t help but feel overwhelmed.
The skyscraper-adorned Manhattan skyline, which is now dominated by the towering One World Trade Center, is home to more unique landmarks than you can possibly visit in one trip – but other parts of the city are just as fascinating. Take Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park, for example, where you can admire hundreds of Victorian mansions with pretty wrap-around porches and manicured gardens.
The arts scene is also unrivalled. The best place to begin is Manhattan’s Museum Mile, which is home to the city’s most famous galleries.
But you can also check out the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to see some of the world’s most esteemed paintings; the Museum of Modern Art, to admire Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Monet’s Waterlilies; and the unique Guggenheim, which is packed with modern art treasures.
The Whitney Museum of American Art in Chelsea is one for your list too, and focuses on the best of 20th- and 21st-century American art. Afterwards, you can admire outdoor art and sensational city views during a stroll along the skyline.
Street art fans won’t be disappointed either, as NYC is home to works from Banksy and Keith Haring, as well as countless colourful and inspirational murals.
Get lost in the Big Apple
Whether you want to stroll through the historic streets of Paris or Florence and marvel at their ancient architecture, or discover fascinating contemporary art in Japan, Cape Town, or New York, we hope these destinations have inspired you.
The beauty of all these destinations is that apart from their unique architecture and exceptional arts scene, they have plenty more to offer tourists too.
If you’re a foodie, the culinary scene in Hanoi and Barcelona will have you feeling spoiled for choice – and if you’re looking to explore buzzing urban jungles, then Japan and New York City are obvious choices.
If you’re looking for a side of outdoor adventure, Cape Town’s rugged landscape and Santa Fe’s desert wilderness provide the perfect playground – and if it’s history you’re after, Florence and Paris can’t be beaten.
For more inspiration, why not check out our article; 13 of the best art hotels around the world?