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The world’s most cultural cities (including a few surprises…)

Looking to expand your horizons on an arts and culture-filled holiday? Look no further than this list of global capitals of culture – spanning relics of ancient civilisations, art from movements that changed the world, and the exciting leaders of today’s cultural and culinary renaissances.

1. Florence, Italy – fly from £51

Photo credit: Ali Nuredini

The birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is not only the cultural capital of Italy, but one of the world’s great cultural destinations. At every turn there’s a stunning 16th-century palace, or world-class museum brimming with Michelangelo sculptures and Botticelli canvases.

The Tuscan capital has a small, walkable centre, so get yourself on a walking tour. The cultural association, La Bussola, offers one for free, which covers the main points of the city’s history. Along the way you’ll discover the influence of the Medici family, via Michelangelo’s David statue and the Ponte Vecchio bridge. You’ll even get some inside tips on where to eat and how best to get into the Uffizi gallery. It’s a restaurant as famous for its queues as its collection of Renaissance paintings.

Spend the afternoon browsing Florence’s many boutique shops. They range from the traditional – think leather goods and exquisitely marbled paper – to the new, best seen in its avant-garde fashion shops that rival Milan’s. Luisaviaroma and Société Anonyme are your go-to shops for carefully curated designer threads. For vintage treasures, snap them up at Epoca and Boutique Nadine, both cult favourites among fashionable locals. Florence also has a long tradition of goldsmiths (just take a stroll around the Ponte Vecchio, where jewellers have sold their wares for some 400 years) but make a beeline for the new jewellery boutique, Cristian Fenzi, whose modern, chunky designs update traditions.

Stay:

Take your haul back to c-hotels Ambasciatori, right by the train station and stylishly decked out in monochrome tones. Rooms from £158 a night.

2. Abu Dhabi, UAE – fly from £256

Photo credit: Juliana tr Gapop

The capital of the United Arab Emirates is one of the Middle East’s most exciting cultural centres, home to the National Theatre and the enormous, white-marble Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. All eyes were on the metropolis in 2017 when the Louvre Abu Dhabi finally opened, designed by Pritzker-winning French architect Jean Nouvel to the tune of £83 million. The second-ever outpost of the iconic Paris museum houses 700 works and is the Arab world’s first universal museum. It’s well worth a visit, and tickets are reasonably priced. Bump it up to an experience to remember on a kayak tour around the museum’s striking island setting.

Then, come evening, Abu Dhabi’s dining scene is as diverse as its multicultural population. While hotels and chains offer pricey set menus, seek out traditional spots to get an insight into Emirati cuisine. Budget diners can taste the creamiest hummus this side of the Persian Gulf at Zahrat Lebnan, or the most mouthwatering shawarma at Shish Shawerma.

Perhaps unexpectedly, a growing interest for electronica fans has emerged in Abu Dhabi with the opening of mega club Onyx this month, and daily happy hours and ladies’ nights at sky-rise hotel bars encourage visitors and locals alike to get stuck into the nightlife.

Stay:

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

3. Mexico City, Mexico – fly from £367

Photo credit: Anna Omelchenko

In the most populous city in North America, architectural relics from the pre-Hispanic era rub shoulders with Spanish colonial splendour and, far from being set back by the earthquakes of 2017, Mexico City is shaking off its previously grubby reputation with an arts and culinary renaissance.

Start with the must-do cultural sites. Find Frida Kahlo’s Blue House in the sleepy suburb of Coyoacán, where little-known artworks are on display around her personal belongings. Next discover the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral and Palacio Nacional, famous for its Diego Rivera murals, and the ancient temples at Teotihuacan, 25 miles outside of the city.

Then, dive headfirst into the city’s thriving youth culture. Underground fashion is exploding, led by social media-savvy designers interpreting traditional artisanal methods: look out for Ikal, a multi-brand store that champions Mexican designers; Yakampot, where creator Francisco Cancino preserves the colours and craft of traditional clothing; and Colectivo 1050º or Onora Casa for handmade and reinterpreted traditional homeware.

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

Stay:

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

4. Austin, USA – fly from £310

Photo credit: Jodi Jacobson

It may be the capital of Texas, but liberal Austin couldn’t be much further removed from the state’s conservative stereotype. Known as the ‘Live Music Capital of the World’, it’s not only a music mecca but a lively hub for the creative and culinary arts.

More often than not, art in Austin is discovered in the streets rather than galleries. First of all, check out HOPE Outdoor Gallery – one of the biggest outside street art galleries in the US. Did you know you can tag the wall yourself. Then there’s Canopy, a creative community in a renovated warehouse that’s split into 45 arts studios, three galleries and a coffee shop.

Austin is a foodie capital, too, and one of the best places in the States to sip on a craft beer. Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden does a mean, sausage-based brunch and has more than 100 beers on tap. Once you’ve had your fill, head to Rainey Street for the city’s coolest stretch of bars set up in a row of renovated bungalows. Half Step is your go-to for innovative mixology, while Craft Pride serves 51 Texan beers and at Lucille Patio Lounge, you can recline on hammocks while you drink.

Spend the evening watching a free theatre performance at the Hillside Theater in Zilker Park, where Zilker Theatre Productions is putting on The Little Mermaid this summer. So send them a donation and get tickets to the donor preview party or backstage passes. Then, if you’ve got any energy left, find out why Austin is a music lover’s paradise at famous blues venue Antone’s. Or why not try the local favourite, The Mohawk.

Stay:

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

5. Kyoto, Japan – fly from £422

Photo credit: Pen Ash

The capital of Japan from 794 until 1868, Kyoto is still the country’s cultural heartland, with countless ancient shrines and temples dotted around the city. Thanks to its remarkable historic value, Kyoto was removed from the list of target cities for the atomic bomb during World War II, leaving it perfectly preserved today.

Among the city’s many UNESCO-protected sites is the gilded Kinkaku-ji temple. This is a must-see treasure of Zen Buddhism set in the Kyokochi mirror pond (go early on a weekday to avoid crowds). Next, there are the serene waters of the rock garden at Ryoanji and the mountain-framed gardens of the Tenryu-ji Temple.

Back in the centre, Kyoto comes to life through its people. Geishas – female performers of traditional arts, dance and song, characterised by their wearing of kimono and oshiroi makeup – still reside in five districts of Kyoto, and some offer tourists makeovers. At Gion Aya, female visitors can pick out a kimono and wig of their choice. Then, they can even have the traditionally chalk-white makeup applied, offset by bright-red lip paint. Afterwards, window shop around Kyoto’s kimono stores and snap up a bargain at the second-hand shops on Shinkyogoku Street – after all, the traditional silk robe originated here.

But Kyoto doesn’t rest on its ancient laurels. Hole up at RAN theatre after dark to witness folk music with a twist. Traditional Japanese instruments are used to perform pop culture songs over multiple glasses of sake.

Stay:

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

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

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All flight 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 time of writing on 15 July 2019.