In the art capitals of the world, art is everywhere – not only in the famous galleries and churches, but even in the most unexpected places. Turn the corner in Rome to discover a shrine high in the wall, or a colourful mural under a bridge. If you’re visiting a city for the first time, however, the galleries are a good place to start. Smaller galleries offer the perfect introduction to the city’s artistic heritage, while the huge collections of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the National Gallery in London showcase the art history of the world, all under one roof.
Whether you prefer pop art or classical sculptures, you’ll find something that inspires you in all of these cities.
1. New York
The Metropolitan Museum alone makes New York unmissable for anyone remotely interested in art and culture. You could spend a lifetime exploring the galleries, which contain more than two million works of art, from Rembrandts to African masks. Then there are the unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters, old masters at the Frick Collection, surrealist sculptures at the Guggenheim, Warhol at MoMA…Once you’ve visited the main museums, there are countless smaller galleries to explore, such as the Rubin Museum, with its beautiful Tibetan Buddhist shrine room.
If you love Renaissance art, make sure you take a trip to Florence. An Uffizi walking tour will help you to make the most of your visit, as the gallery can seem overwhelming for first-time visitors. There’s so much to see, including masterpieces by Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo and Caravaggio. Visit the Accademia to see the most famous statue in the world, Michelangelo’s David, or the Bargello for its incredible collection of Renaissance sculptures.
Fortify yourself with coffee and apple strudel at a traditional Viennese café, such as the beautiful Café Sperl, and then spend a day discovering all the art Vienna has to offer. Of course you’ll need more than a day to do it justice, but you can start with the Art History Museum (Kunsthistorisches Museum), with its extensive collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman art. The Belvedere has paintings from the Art Nouveau and Fin de Siècle, with works by Egon Schiele and the world’s largest collection of Klimt paintings, including The Kiss. For more contemporary art, explore the Museumsquartier, home to the diverse collection of the Leopold Museum and the Museum of Modern Art.
The amazing thing about London’s galleries is that so many of them are completely free. You’ll find many of the most famous paintings in the world in the National Gallery, where every room is filled with masterpieces. A walk along the South Bank takes you to the Tate Modern, formerly a power station. The permanent collection is free to visit, but you’ll have to pay for the special exhibitions, which tend to focus on a particular artist (Gaugin) or movement (pop art). The Tate Britain is the place to go for pre-Raphaelite art and paintings by Turner and Constable. For French art, furniture and armour, displayed in one of the grandest houses in London, visit the Wallace Collection. And don’t miss the V&A. For sheer variety, it can’t be beaten, as you’ll find Buddhas, medieval reliquaries, Middle Eastern ceramics, Elizabeth I’s jewellery, and costumes belonging to actors and singers. The V&A café is also a work of art in itself.
When you think of Istanbul, you probably think of the Hagia Sophia, with its minarets and stunning mosaics. But as well as historic monuments, Istanbul is also home to a thriving modern art scene, with exhibition spaces located in palaces, warehouses, converted garages, power stations, and even a bank. Istanbul Modern should be first on your list if you’re interested in contemporary Turkish art, but smaller galleries like Galeri Nev and Mixer are also worth a visit.
The centre of Rome resembles an open air museum, as it’s filled with obelisks, arches, baroque fountains, and the ruins of ancient palaces and temples. The churches alone have a wealth of art, such as the Caravaggio paintings in San Luigi dei Francesi, but you won’t want to miss the main museums and galleries. Take a tour of the Vatican Museums, where highlights include famous statues like Laocoon and the Apollo Belvedere, the magnificent collection of paintings in the Pinacoteca, and, of course, the spectacular ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The Galleria Borghese is a more manageable size, and is also full of masterpieces by artists such as Bernini and Raphael. If you’re more into ancient art, visit the Capitoline Museums or the underrated Centrale Montemartini, which has a striking display of Roman sculptures in a converted power plant. Almost equally underrated is Palazzo Massimo, best known for its statues and mosaics. The highlight is a room from the villa of Livia, decorated with sublime frescoes that transform the walls into a garden.
Kyoto has the best of both traditional and contemporary art. For more traditional art, check out the special exhibitions at the Kyoto National Museum or the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art. The contemporary art scene in Japan is no longer dominated by Tokyo, and if you want to see the best of modern Japanese art in Kyoto, you’re spoilt for choice. Visit the Imura Art Gallery or En Arts, or explore the Teramichi Shopping Arcade to find smaller galleries. Comic enthusiasts also come to Kyoto for the International Manga Museum, a cross between a museum and a library.
Berlin loves the arts so much that it even has an island of museums, the Museumsinsel, where you’ll find Byzantine art, French impressionist paintings, and an impressively diverse collection of sculptures in the Bode Museum. The city is paradise for lovers of contemporary art too, with countless modern art galleries and amazing street art. Berlin has become a magnet for talented young artists, so keep your eye out for regular art fairs and festivals, and see if you can spot the next big thing.
9. Washington DC
It seems appropriate that the only painting by Leonardo Da Vinci on display in the Western hemisphere (Ginevra de’ Benci) is in Washington D.C. For art and culture, D.C. is one of the best cities in the United States, and the National Gallery of Art is a good place to start. As well as the portrait by Da Vinci, there are masterpieces by Raphael, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, and countless others. You can find amazing art from around the world in the Smithsonian Museums, while the Hirshhorn Museum has one of the best collections of modern art in the United States.
The Louvre is the second most visited art gallery in the world, and could easily keep you busy for several days. Marvel at the Mona Lisa, but make sure you look beyond Europe, as the Louvre also has an excellent collection of Egyptian and Middle Eastern art. For impressionist art, the Musée d’Orsay is unbeatable, while modern art lovers should head to the Pompidou. It’s also worth exploring the smaller galleries, such as the Musée Gustave Moreau. This gem of of a museum displays the dreamy paintings of the Symbolist painter Moreau, and also has one of the most beautiful staircases in the world.
Rosario Gorgone is Co-Founder of Through Eternity Tours.