Vacations aren’t always about getting some R&R. In fact, visiting a city with a vibrant arts scene can be just as rejuvenating. Our top cities for art lovers are bound to stimulate even the most blasé of world travelers, as they're home to dozens of world-class institutions with influential collections of old and new masters. That said, our list also pays homage to a charming colonial town known for teaching people how to create their own works of art – we figure that, after seeing everything else on our list, you'll be ready to make your own artistic statement.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the German capital has reinvented itself as a leading European arts venue, with superlative new architecture, cutting-edge exhibits, and high-end art galleries. That said, it’s not all about the new here. One of the many shining examples of Berlin’s fervent dedication to the arts is Museumsinsel (Museum Island; www.smb.museum), a complex of five museums on the site of an original city settlement. This UNESCO World Heritage arts center features the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery; www.smb.museum), celebrated for its German and French Impressionist paintings, plus works by celebrated German artists like Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Caspar David Friedrich, Max Lieberman, and Berlin’s own Adolph von Menzel. The island plays host, as well, to the Altes Museum (Old Museum; www.smb.museum), dedicated to antiquities from Rome and Greece, and the Pergamonmuseumm (www.smb.museum), named after the fascinating 180 BC Greek temple it houses. If that hasn’t quenched your art thirst, another cluster of four museums is found at the Dahlem Museum (www.smb.museum), where exotic art and artifacts from India, Asia, Africa, and the South Seas, as well Native American and Early European cultures, are showcased (note that the JuniorMuseum and the Museum of European Culture are closed here for renovation through 2010 and 2011, respectively). While visiting one of Europe's top cities for art lovers, you should also see the phenomenal Gemäldegalerie (Picture Gallery; www.smb.museum), featuring paintings by many great European masters, from Botticelli to Rembrandt, and the Neue Nationalgalerie, highlighting more recent works by artists like Max Beckmann, Munch, Picasso, Ernst, and Klee.
They might call it the Second City, but Chicago is second to none when it comes to its lively arts scene. The Art Institute of Chicago (www.artic.edu) in itself is reason enough for art enthusiasts to let the winds blow them towards the Windy City – this phenomenal museum, flanked by its two iconic lion statues, hosts one of the world’s finest collection of Impressionist paintings, as well as some fantastic works from more recent art icons including Picasso, Dali, Pollock, and Warhol. Don't miss its much-buzzed-about, Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing, which debuted in May 2009, making the museum the second-largest in the U.S. Another noteworthy Chicago draw is the Museum of Contemporary Art (www.mcachicago.org), where a broad spectrum of contemporary arts, from painting, sculpture, and photography, to film, dance, and music, can be enjoyed. There are a few very good special interest museums, as well – try the stirring National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum (www.nvvam.org), the rich National Museum of Mexican Art (www.nationalmuseumofmexicanart.org), or the exotic Oriental Institute Museum (oi.uchicago.edu/museum). And don’t forget to keep your eyes open for all of that outdoor public art that you’ll pass in transit – The Loop area alone could earn Chicago a ranking among the top cities for art lovers, as it includes an untitled Picasso (known locally as "The Picasso"), Miro’s Chicago, Chagall’s Four Seasons, and Calder’s Flamingo.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all of the art in Florence – frescoes, paintings, sculpture, altar pieces, you name it, abound in Michelangelo’s hometown – and no self-respecting art lover would miss a visit to the birthplace of the Renaissance art movement. Our favorite stops in this charming red-bricked town include the Galleria dell’ Accademia (Academy Gallery; www.polomuseale.venezia.beniculturali.it), home to Michelangelo’s David (arguably the world’s best-known sculpture); the Duomo (www.operaduomo.firenze.it), where you need to look wayyyyyy up to see its marvelous dome: and, of course, the Galleria degli Uffizi (Uffizi Galleries; www.uffizi.firenze.it/english), the first modern museum in all of Europe and modern-day showcase for paintings by Botticelli, Raphael, Rembrandt, and Michelangelo. A few piazzas away, the Palazzo Strozzi positioned itself as an “anti-Uffizi” of contemporary art when it opened its Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina (Center for Contemporary Culture; www.strozzina.org) in November 2007, housing unique video installations in its historic courtyard (known as “the Strozzina”), exhibitions of Chinese modern art, and state-of-the-art updates like audio guides for cell phones – giving us even more reason to rank Florence among the best cities for art lovers.
The London art scene is a lot like the city itself: a hodgepodge of traditional and modern, majesty and tawdry. This fascinating mix is bound to tantalize with over 200 art venues offering something for every taste. Of course, if it’s your first visit, you’ve got to start with the staples: the British Museum (www.britishmuseum.org), the National Gallery (www.nationalgallery.org.uk), and the Tate museums (www.tate.org.uk). Whether wandering through the vast antiquity-filled halls of the British Museum, gazing at awe-inspiring paintings by da Vinci and Van Gogh at the National Gallery, observing the evolution of Turner, Constable, and other British notables at the Tate Britain, or marveling at video installations and big-name contemporary art exhibits at the Tate Modern, you’ll get your fill of the phenomenal assortment of art the city has to offer. And, if you can’t resist a bit of scandal, the controversial Saatchi Gallery (www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk) showcases a shocking (to some of the upper crust) spectacle of outrageous contemporary art. A more low-key (but equally satisfying) stop in one of Europe's best cities for art lovers is the decadent Apsley House (www.english-heritage.org.uk), the onetime mansion of the Duke of Wellington; it’s packed with Velázquez paintings, military memorabilia, and priceless silver and porcelain. The Museum of Everything (www.museumofeverything.com) debuted in October 2009 as the scene’s newest boundary-pusher, displaying an oddball collection of notoriously indefinable “outsider art” in a variety of surprising, unconventional manners (like requiring binoculars for viewing).
New York City
In a city where everything is larger than life, one shouldn’t expect anything less from its art collections. Numerous museums bring their own distinct flavor to the cosmopolitan New York art scene, several of which are grouped together in the “Museum Mile” area bordering Central Park, along Fifth Avenue. Here, you can visit the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (www.guggenheim.org) – which turned 50 in 2009 – with its ever-changing and much-anticipated exhibitions, as well as a permanent collection that includes Picasso, Kandinsky, and an array of French Impressionists; the innovative Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building is itself a big draw. Nearby, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metmuseum.org), or simply, “The Met,” is the star of the New York museum scene, rivaled perhaps only by Paris’ Louvre in the sheer size and quality of its collection, which spans ancient to 20th-century works; don’t expect to visit it all in one day. The refurbished (as of 2004) Museum of Modern Art (www.moma.org), or MoMA, boasts a fantastic exhibition space that provides a proper forum for its vast collection of art ranging from Monet’s Water Lilies to Rodins sculptures – the institution was approved for an 82-story extension as of October 2009. Other notable museums include the Whitney Museum of American Art (www.whitney.org), the Frick Collection (www.frick.org), and the New Museum of Contemporary Art (www.newmuseum.org), which opened its aluminum mesh doors in the Lower East Side in December 2007. New York's gallery scene is unsurpassed as well; head to Chelsea for a one-stop quick fix in one of the world's top cities for art lovers.
Where to begin in a city that is a work of art in itself? An art-lover’s dream come true, Paris’s many museums house some of the world’s most coveted works of art, ranging from fine antiquities to cutting-edge contemporary creations, with a magnificent mix of masterpieces from every century in between. Undoubtedly, the immense Louvre (www.louvre.fr) will initially command your attention – once a lavish royal palace, the extravagant building now serves as the site of perhaps the world’s most famous museum. Showcasing some 35,000 works of art, highlights include such renowned treasures as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and the legendary Venus de Milo sculpture. Bordering the Left Bank of the Seine, another must is the neo-classical rail station-turned-exhibition-space Musée d'Orsay (www.musee-orsay.fr), which hosts a phenomenal collection of late 19th- to early 20th-century pieces. Fans of Impressionism will be bowled over by the mesmerizing works of Cézanne, Renoir, Manet, Monet, and Van Gogh, to name just a few. The Centre Pompidou (www.centrepompidou.fr), known to Parisians as “Beaubourg,” is a temple to modern art, its very building the subject of longstanding controversy – some Parisians hate it, while others deem it the epitome of modern architecture. There are also some delightful smaller museums dedicated to works of individual artists to round out the selection in one of the premier cities for art lovers; two of our favorites are the Musée Picasso (www.musee-picasso.fr) and Musée Marmottan Monet (www.marmottan.com).
Rome wasn’t built in a day – and neither was its stellar art collection, which features works spanning more than two millennia, from ancient BC sculptures to more abstract modern installations. In fact, all roads in Rome lead to treasure troves of one sort or another for the art enthusiast, as artistic works spill out over designated galleries and museums and into the city’s numerous basilicas, villas, gardens, piazzas, and in the elaborate architecture itself. There is no single more important collection in Rome, however, than the one housed in the Musei Vaticani (Vatican Museums; www.vatican.va), where the Sistine Chapel is found. A rich compilation of works from antiquity and the Renaissance line the elaborate papal palaces and apartments of the Vatican complex; there’s even a collection of modern religious art including spiritually-themed works by Picasso, Gauguin, and Chagall, among others. The coup de grace though, is, unquestionably, the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo’s legendary ceiling frescoes form perhaps the world’s most elaborate and renowned masterpiece. While numerous Roman basilicas dot the streets, none is as magnificent as Basilica di San Pietro (St. Peter’s Basilica); exquisite works from Raphael, Bramante, and Maderno can be admired under a grand dome designed by Michelangelo. Other don’t-miss collections in one of Europe's most renowned cities for art lovers include the Galleria Borghese (Borghese Gallery; www.galleriaborghese.it), the Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia (National Etruscan Museum), the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna (National Gallery of Modern Art; www.gnam.beniculturali.it), and the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica (National Gallery of Ancient Art; www.galleriaborghese.it).
San Miguel de Allende
Unlike the other cities on this list, San Miguel de Allende, a beautiful colonial town set in the mountains outside of Mexico City, isn’t renowned for its art collections per se, but rather, as a stellar place to create art itself. In fact, New York magazine described it as "the closest thing Mexico has to Florence" – an apt comparison, as the town’s unusual light has helped transform it from a colonial backwater into an upscale, world-renowned art colony. The place is particularly popular with North Americans, many of whom visit for the art classes alone (many of which are downright inexpensive or even free). Indeed, painting, jewelry-making, sculpture, and ceramics, among various others crafts, are taught at terrific schools here; one of the most reputable is the Instituto Allende (www.instituto-allende.edu.mx), which occupies an atmospheric cloister loaded with murals and stone work. When you’re not in your studio, spend time browsing the dozen-plus galleries that line the compact town’s colorful streets.
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Vienna is one of the great art capitals of Europe, thanks, in large part, to the mighty Habsburgs, Austria’s ruling family from 1282 to 1918, whose members invariably controlled extensive lands – and amassed their artistic bounties. Much of the art they collected is on display at the excellent Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Fine Arts; www.khm.at/en/kunsthistorisches-museum); don’t miss the ancient Greek and Egyptian art; the works by 16th-century Flemish master Pieter Brueghel the Elder; the masterpieces from Van Dyck and Rembrandt; or the many works by European Old Masters, including Velásquez, Raphael, and Titian. Another important art address is the MuseumsQuartier Wien (Museum Quarter; www.mqw.at), where the Leopold Museum (www.mqw.at) boasts an extensive display of Austrian art, with works by Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, next door to the 20th-century MUMOK (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien; www.mqw.at). Other museums of interest in one of the premier cities for art lovers include the Kunsthalle Wien, which showcases modern and contemporary art from Klee, Kandinsky, Picasso, and Pollock, and the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, dedicated to Medieval and Baroque arts, but also noteworthy for its impressive Klimt collection.
It’s not all about politics in the U.S. capital: Venerable art institutions like the National Gallery of Art (www.nga.gov), Smithsonian Museums (www.si.edu/museums), Corcoran Gallery of Art (www.corcoran.org), and Phillips Collection (www.phillipscollection.org) go toe to toe with national sights like the Lincoln Memorial, Reflecting Pool, and White House. It helps that the city is home to the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in the Western hemisphere – a 15th century oil portrait of Ginevra de' Benci – at the National; an original Louis XVI salon doré, in the elegant Corcoran (the city’s first art museum); and Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, at the first-rate Phillips. Halfway along the Mall is another great art treasure: the Smithsonian’s stunning Sculpture Garden, containing dozens of outdoor works by the likes of Calder, Miro, Lichtenstein, and more. And, when you’ve had your fill of great masters in one of the country's most top cities for art lovers, head to the National Museum of American History (www.americanhistory.si.edu), which houses some of the country’s most prized artifacts: the original Star-Spangled Banner, Lincoln’s signature top hat, and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, among them. Best of all, much of the city’s art is free to see – few museums here charge entrance fees.